Located just inside the gates of the Dum Dum Ordnance Factory, situated on the Jessore Road, Dum Dum, the Afghan War Memorial was dedicated to the memory of the soldiers, who unfortunately lost their lives during the first Anglo-Afghan war between the British East India Company and the Emirate of Afghanistan from 1839 to 1842.The war is also known in history as the ‘Disaster in Afghanistan’.
During the 19th century, the Russian Empire was steadily extending its growth in the Central Asia, which was looked by the East India Company as a possible threat to their interests in India. Therefore, they sent an envoy to Kabul to form an alliance with Dost Mohammad, the Amir of Afghanistan, against Russia. During those days of 1937, the political situation of Afghanistan was not very steady, as they lost their second capital of Peshawar to the Sikh Empire and Dost Mohammad wanted British support to get it back. However, the British were very much reluctant about it, as they preferred an alliance with the Punjab over an alliance with Afghanistan. In fact, they were more apprehensive about the French-trained ‘Dal Khalsa’, who were properly equipped with modern weapons and was widely considered as one of the most powerful armies on the entire Indian subcontinent. In the mean time, when Lord Auckland, the Governor General of India, heard about the arrival of Russian envoy Count Jan Prosper Witkiewiczt in Kabul, he became traumatized and thought that Dost Mohammad might turn to Russia for support. However, Dost Mohammad did not have any intention to make any alliance with Russia. He invited Count Witkiewicz to Kabul to make it a show to frighten the British and compel them to make an alliance with him against his arch enemy Ranjit Singh, the Maharaja of the Punjab. He knew it well that, only the British have the power to compel Singh to return the former Afghan territories he had conquered, which the Russians cannot do.
British apprehension of a Russian invasion of India took one step closer, when negotiations between the Afghans and Russians broke down in 1838 and with Russian help and support the Qajar Dynasty of Persia unsuccessfully attempted the siege of Heart, which had territorial disputes with Afghanistan.
In view of the above circumstances, Lord Auckland issued a declaration on 1 October 1838, attacking Dost Mohammad for his unprovoked attack on the empire of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, an old ally of the British and replacing him with Shuja Shah Durrani, because he was the rightful Emir. This Shuja Shah Durrani was once the ruler of Afghanistan and was pro British. Though Lord Auckland explained that, he only wanted to extend help and support to the legitimate Shuja government against foreign intervention and a sectarian opposition, his actual intention was to put the fate of Afghanistan under the British sphere of influence. Later, the Duke of Wellington speaking in the House of Lords condemned the Afghan invasion and denounced it as Auckland’s folly and crime.
Under the command of Sir John Keane the huge ‘Army of the Indus’, comprising of 21,000 British and Indian troops, with 38000 camp followers, 30000 camels and a large herd of cattle, started to march from Punjab, in December 1938. They crossed the Bolan Pass and camped in Kandahar on 25 April 1839. After capturing the fortress of Ghazni on 22 July in a surprise attack, they also achieved a decisive victory over the troops of Dost Mohammad, led by one of his sons. Ultimately, Dost Mohammad fled to Bukhara and Shuja Shah was enthroned again in August 1838, after thirty years. However, the Afghans were not at all happy with Shuja as their ruler and they hated the presence of the British in their country.
In fact, the amoral conduct of the British troops offended the Afghan men who had always disapproved premarital sex and were enraged to see the British infidels take their womenfolk to their beds. The beautiful Afghan girls, on the other hand, found it difficult to resist temptation and were not actually unwilling to sleep with the unknown Christian strangers. Very often these temporary relations ended in marriage. Lieutenant Lynch married the sister of a Ghilzai chief and even a niece of Dost Mohammad, Jahan Begum married Captain Robert Warburton. This added to the humiliation of the Afghan men who did not like to see their women fall in love with infidels.
The situation was quickly going out of the grip of the British, when the people started to flock and support Akbar Khan, the son of Dost Mohammad and under the fiery situation, a senior British officer and his aides were killed brutally in Kabul on 2 November 1841. The position of the British army in Kabul under the leadership of the not-so-young General William Elphistone was almost like the position of a ship in the turbulent ocean without a proper helmsman.
The British eventually found their position indefensible, as the outbreaks did not stop there and continued throughout the country. During this time, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, the British political adviser, tried to play a trick. He secretly offered to make Akbar Afghanistan's wazir, a high-ranking political advisor or minister, in exchange for allowing the British to stay in the country and at the same time, he disbursed a huge sum of money to have him assassinated. However, the plot was reported to Akbar Khan. At the arranged meeting, held near the cantonment on 23 December, Akbar Khan killed Sir William by placing a Pistol in his mouth, along with the other three officers accompanying him. Their bodies were dragged through the streets of Kabul and displayed in public.
Under the above circumstances, the British found no other way but to negotiate with Akbar Khan about the terms and conditions of their withdrawal from Afghanistan. Ultimately, an agreement was reached on 1 January 1842, for the safe retreat of the British garrison and its dependant from Afghanistan.
The number of the departing British contingent was around 16,500, of which about 4,500 were military personnel, and over 12,000 were the camp followers, including the wives of the British officers and the soldiers. While the withdrawal began after five days, the retreat ended tragically. Most of them were massacred by the Afghans and those who were captured, were stripped of all their clothing and left to freeze to death in the snow. Many captured women were forced to marry their captors, one such lady was the wife of Captain Warburton. Lady Sale had 40 servants with her, none of whom she named in her diary. She wrote in her diary that, as she was taken back to Kabul, the road was covered with awful mangled bodies, all naked. A female Afghan servant, saved the life of Lieutenant Eyre's son, who rode through an ambush with the boy on her back, but he never gave her name. It is said that the only soldier to reach Jalalabad was Dr. William Brydon and several other sepoys.
Dedicated to the memory of the fallen soldiers of the first Anglo-Afghan war, the Afghan War Memorial was possibly constructed in 1842. Though it is located just inside the gates of the Dum Dum Ordnance Factory, the factory was set later in 1846. Probably, the East India Company realized the necessity of having an ammunition factory in India, only after their defeat in the Afghan war. The Afghan Memorial almost looks like a mini Ochterlony Monument alias Shahid Minar of Calcutta Maidan. But, unlike the monument, it does neither have any balcony nor any staircase leading to the top. However, like its big brother, it is also crowned with an intricately designed lightning arrester. The plaque on the front side of the base enlisted the names of the commissioned officers, while the plaque on the rear side listed those of the non-commissioned officers. All the enlisted persons were of British origin and the list is devoid of any dead Indian soldier. There is another plaque on the right, indicating the details of the restoration of the Afghan War Memorial in 1980.