[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.]