The First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42) saw forces of the British Army and East India Company support former ruler Shah Shuja Durrani, in the hopes of curbing Russian expansion towards India. Whilst they had successfully completed their objectives and reached Kabul by 1840, constant rebellions forced them and their camp followers to retreat from Kabul to the safety of a British garrison at Jalalabad.
The above picture depicts the British Army’s 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot near the village of Gandamak during the retreat. Immortalised in a 1898 painting by William Barnes Wollen, the weary survivors form a last stand against attacks from Afghan tribesmen, despite the fierce cold weather and hard ground. Captain Thomas Souter, with the regimental ‘colours’ wrapped around him beneath a locally-made coat, tries to rally his bedraggled men against a band of tribesmen charging towards them. During the retreat, these guerrilla warriors ambushed the retreating British using distinctive long-barrelled jezail muskets from long ranges, but for close-quarter combat they are mainly armed with swords, daggers and shields. Despite the heavy losses sustained, there were a handful of survivors, including Captain Souter. Noticing the conspicuous ‘colours’ on him, the Afghans mistook the captain for a high-ranking official and spared him.
By Ibrahim Zamir