[January 13, 2019] The famous leadership expert, John C. Maxwell, once said that “You are the only person who can label what you do a failure. Failure is subjective.” I’m sure that if Mr. Maxwell had been a part of British General W.G.K. Elphinstone’s army in retreat and its subsequent massacre in the narrow Khyber Pass, Afghanistan, Mr. Maxwell would disagree with his own words.
Of the British expeditionary force of approximately 16,000, one lone soldier Dr. William Brydon straggled to the gates of Jalalabad and survived. When asked where the army was at the time, Dr. Brydon replied, “I am the army.” Dr. Brydon’s arrival occurred on this date January 13, 1842.
The significant errors in judgment and poor decision-making by General Elphinstone lead to the greatest defeat of a British Army in the Empire’s history. Some have argued that Elphinstone was inexperienced and old; these being justifications for his inability to defeat a tactically and technologically inferior opponent. This may be true but the character of Elphinstone traits tell a different story.
British Major General William George Keith Elphinstone, known as “Elphy Bey,” was a leader that failed in his most important duty; to protect those under his command. His leadership traits were:
- Indecisiveness (especially under critical conditions)
- Inability to make sound tactical decisions
- Unpreparedness and unwillingness to plan ahead
- Suspiciousness of junior officers
- Gullible (relied on negotiations from a position of weakness)
- Failure to translate information into intelligence
“I still state unhesitatingly, that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgment, … Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.” – George MacDonald Fraser, Scottish author and historian
It is clear that even the British intellectuals of Elphinstone’s time didn’t think much of him. However, he was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars and successfully commanded a regiment at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. This was no trivial matter and his success here and elsewhere propelled him into the inner circles of the British Empire.
How are we to explain the difference in performance of Elphinstone at the Battle of Waterloo and at the Khyber Pass may never be explained. What we do know is that his failure to provide good leadership directly resulted in the death, torture, and enslavement of thousands.
[Update: In my original article, I wrote the date of the Battle of Waterloo was 1813. That is incorrect. The actual year was 1815. Thanks to reader William Scott Johnson for pointing this out.]
“I still state unhesitatingly, that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgment, … Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.”
This is a quote from the ‘Flashman Papers’ it’s historical fiction written by George MacDonald Fraser.
Although Elphy Bay was real, this quote is from a fictional character. This is like taking dialogue from Stephen King novel and treating as the opinions of Stephen King.
The Battle of Waterloo was 1815, not 1813.
Thank you William for catching my error. I have made the correction.
It is extraordinary that officers, particularly senior officers like Elphinstone and Shelton, felt able to surrender themselves as hostages, thereby ensuring their survival, while their soldiers struggled on, to be massacred by the Afghans.
The War provides a fascinating illustration of how the character and determination of its leaders can be decisive in determining the morale and success of a military expedition.
Thanks Max. This remains one of the clearest leadership lessons.
Here is another important lesson that keeps getting re-learned over time. The British Army learnt a number of lessons from this sorry episode. One was that the political officers must not be permitted to predominate over military judgments.
The British did learn a hard LESSON and that was that, while it may be relatively straightforward to invade Afghanistan, it is wholly impracticable to occupy the country or attempt to impose a government not welcomed by the inhabitants. The only result will be failure and great expense in treasure and lives.
Incompetence is just sad when only the incompetent’s life is at stake. When it affects so many other people it becomes outrageous.
Well said. The one thing we should all do, however to make this useful, is to study the failures of our leaders (past and present) to understand what they were thinking, the conditions under which they failed, and why. Only in that manner can we avoid the same pitfalls that trapped them.
Good point and here is an analysis of it that is somewhat helpful.
Casualties at the Battle of Kabul and the Retreat to Gandamak: The entire force of 690 British soldiers, 2,840 Indian soldiers and 12,000 followers were killed, or, in a few cases, taken prisoner. The 44th Foot lost 22 officers and 645 soldiers, mostly killed. Afghan casualties, largely Ghilzai tribesmen, are unknown.
In one list of the 10 worst generals in British history, Elphinstone ranks #1.
Regardless of whether the story surrounding William Brydon is true, it is undeniable that the British army contingent was decimated. It was probably the single worst British military disaster of the 19th century.
From “Today in British History”:
The Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army is Concluded – 13 January 1842
In the immediate aftermath of the Afghanistan disaster Elphinstone was much blamed, but the true blame lay with Lord Auckland and his adviser Sir William Macnaghten for undertaking the invasion of Afghanistan and for choosing a sick, disabled, and prematurely aged general, who had not served in battle since Waterloo, to command in Kabul.
This is a key point and often overlooked when it is easy to just blame a single man. Failures in leadership often involve a more complex leadership failure than that of one person; especially in large organizations.
Elphinstone was utterly unfitted to cope with the increasingly grave situation following the Kabul insurrection of 2 November and the assassination of Sir William Macnaghten by Akbar Khan, a son of Dost Muhammad, on 23 December 1841. The Afghans closed communication with Kabul and besieged the cantonment. Against his better judgement Major Eldred Pottinger, himself wounded, as the senior remaining political officer, was ordered to negotiate with Akbar Khan for the safe return of the Kabul garrison to India at the height of the Afghan winter. The terms were humiliating, the Afghan guarantees worthless, and subsequently almost the entire garrison was destroyed in the passes between 6 and 13 January 1842.
This is also known as the “First Afghan War.”
When senior leaders fail, the consequences can be breathtaking.