On to Kabul
The advance on Kabul eventually began on 22nd August 1842 through mountainous, desolate country devoid of grass and trees. John Greenwood of the 31st later described the scene. He wrote - “It was necessary to carry every ounce of food for eight days consumption. It may be readily conceived what a train of baggage we had to protect, although everything was reduced as much as possible. Eight days food for sixty thousand men, and for about fourteen thousand baggage animals, besides that for the horses for the artillery, must be carried, or the army would be starved on the road. When it is considered that in many places one camel only could go at a time the difficulty and delay in getting through these marches may be imagined. For hours and hours sometimes would the baggage animals be jammed together in some of the narrow gorges without progressing an inch on the way. A march here of ten miles generally took us twelve or fourteen hours in performing the distance.”
There was persistent harassment of the columns by Afghan tribesmen and Greenwood was astonished at the great distance at which the fire from their long, heavy rifles was effective. He wrote “Our men were continually struck with the Afghan bullets when we could reach them with nothing under a six-pounder. Our muskets were useless when playing at long bowls. The fact is, our muskets are about as bad specimens of fire-arms as can be manufactured. The triggers are so stiff, that pulling them completely destroys any aim the soldier may take, and, when the machine does go off, the recoil is almost enough to knock a man backwards. Again, the ball is so much smaller than the bore of the barrel that accuracy in flight at any considerable distance is impossible. The clumsy flint locks, also, are constantly missing fire!” Greenwood recognised, however, that the Afghans pressed four or five times as much powder into the charge as was safely contained in his soldiers’ cartridges. The standard British issue up to 1838 was the flint lock Baker rifle which was sighted up to 300 yards. It was succeeded by the percussion Brunswick rifle sighted up to 500 yards and had a large calibre (0.704 inches) and improved rifling. It was easier to handle and more accurate, but its range was still no greater than that contrived by the Afghans.
The only major battle was at the Tezeen Pass. The column had halted the previous day to recover from forced marches which had exhausted the baggage animals as well as the troops. One elephant, sixty five camels and fifty four bullocks collapsed from exhaustion. They had to be despatched and their loads destroyed. The Afghan commander, Akbar Khan, misinterpreted the pause as a sign of weakness and mounted a massive attack, rashly moving out from his immensely strong position on the dominating hills. Greenwood recorded that “the bayonet in the hands of the British soldier once again proved to be a formidable weapon. The Afghans would stand like statues against firing but the sight of bristling lines of cold steel they could not endure.”
Repeated Afghan attacks on the length of the column were beaten off. Akbar Khan’s army dispersed by various mountain tracks. Soldiers of the 31st came upon his state tent and were delighted to find great quantities of beef and bread stored in preparation for a victory feast. Greenwood watched small parties of diminutive Gurkhas driving bulky Afghans before them. He saw “one of the little Nepalese run forward and, taking a long aim at an Afghan chief who was galloping full speed at least a hundred yards distance from him, fired and tumbled horse and man over each other until they reached the bottom of the hill. The Afghans immediately commenced a furious fire from above to prevent the body of their chief being despoiled, but the little Gurkha, caring no more for their bullets than if they had been so many snowballs, ran to the spot and, coolly taking out his knife, very deliberately hacked the fellow’s head off, bringing that, his sword and his horse away in triumph.”
There were 185 British casualties in the Tezeen battle. The Afghans lost some 700 men and were completely defeated. The British advance continued without further opposition and Kabul was reached on 15th September. The Kandahar column arrived the next day having re-taken Ghuznee on its way. The hostages, mainly women and children, were released and preparations began for the return to India. Meanwhile the Grand Bazaar, and other areas where atrocities against the former British garrisons had been perpetrated, were destroyed by fire. The 31st Regiment then assisted in the protection of the huge column of survivors which set out to return to India in mid-October. It suffered a number of casualties from sickness on the return journey and eventually arrived back at Ferozepore on 19th December 1842.
An army of observation had been formed at Ferozepore to keep an eye on the Sikhs across the river in the Punjab and to welcome Sir George Pollock and his army from Kabul. It was now joined by the Governor-General and the Commander-in-Chief. A large triumphal arch was erected and the army of observation formed a street for the Kabul veterans to pass through, which they did with colours flying, bands playing, and cheers and counter-cheers from the regiments of the two armies. The plain around was covered by tents laid out in precise lines, and Sergeant Major Bancroft of the Bengal Horse Artillery recalled that the British soldiery passed and repassed his camp on their way to the town and bazaars of Ferozepore buying up all the brandy available.