In the First Afghan war (1839-42) British India sought to extend its influence by displacing the ruler of Kabul, Dost Mohammed, and replacing him with a puppet ruler, Shah Shujah, who had been deposed by Dost Mohammed in a lengthy civil war some thirty years previously. Both were Dourrani chiefs.
The British also wished to extend their rule by enforcing the sovereignty of Shah Shujah over bits of the old Dourrani Empire that had not been subject to Kabul for many years. To this end they deposed and killed the Khan of Kelat, Mehrab Khan. Here again there was a puppet ruler in our baggage, Nawaz Khan, whose line of the Kelat royal family had been deposed four generations previously.
But Nawaz Khan was soon driven out by popular insurrection led by Mehrab Khan’s 14 year old son, Nusseer Khan. He fought a guerilla campaign in the hills against British occupation for over a year. Finally the British, having spent a huge amount of money on pouring in reinforcements, cornered young Nusseer Khan and about 1200 followers at the head of the valley of Kotra. Colonel Marshall’s Brigade consisted of the 25th N.I> with detachments of the 21st N.I. and second grenadier regiment, plus horse artillery and irregular cavalry.
On 26 November 1840 Marshall caught up with Nusseer Khan and gave him one hour to surrender. Just as the hour elapsed an envoy appeared under a flag of truce and terms were agreed. Nusseer Khan was given three days to disperse his forces, and would then travel to Quetta to submit to Captain Bean, the political officer. As Nusseer Khan was broke, Colonel Marshall advanced him £200 to pay off his men and travel to Quetta. Marshall then retired back down to the mouth of the valley.
The next day, Marshall received this order from his superior, General Brooks:
Sir,—I am directed by Major-General Brooks, commanding the Field Army, to acquaint you that, by information received from Sehun Lal, the native agent at Kotria, it appears that a body of insurgent Brahoes, amounting to about 1200 men, located at the entrance of this Pass not more than 8 miles from your post, have been lulled into fancied security by our apparent inactivity.
2. This state of affairs leads the Major-General, in communication with the Political Agent, to consider that an attack judiciously planned, and with the utmost secresy and caution, will enable you, without fail, to cut up and destroy this body ; and with this view I am to give you the following information.
3. The enclosed Persian letter from Mr. Ross Bell to Sehun Lal, contains that gentleman’s instructions to him to place himself under your orders, for the purpose above mentioned, to furnish you with guides, to accompany you in person, and to procure and furnish you the most specific information as to the position occupied by the Brahoes,—whether on the height, in the hollow, or in the defile, and their state and numbers ; in order to enable you to concoct your plans for surprising them.
4. You will send for Sehun Lal, and deliver the enclosed letter to him—no other person being present, directing him, after he has read and made known its contents to you, to deliver it into your keeping : you will then arrange your plans with him—placing the most implicit reliance on his good faith.
5. You are not to communicate the subject of this letter to any one, as the whole success of the plan depends on the most profound secresy being observed ; and you will endeavour, in preparing your troops, to do so in such manner as to give rise to no suspicions of your objects.
6. You will leave 200 men, under the command of a steady intelligent officer, in your camp ; and you will take with you the remainder of your infantry, and all your cavalry ; and so arrange your march as to fall on the enemy at day-break.
7. You will take no tentt or baggage of any kind : the men to carry one meal in their havresacks, and to fill their canteens ; their pouches are to be well supplied with cartridges.
8. You are on no account to advance more than one day’s march from your camp : you will pay particular attention to the guides ; they are to be well treated, but closely watched, and in case of treachery put to death on the spot ; and you will take care that, if there is the least cause for suspicion, they shall not escape you.
9. In conclusion, I am directed to repeat, that nothing but the most complete secresy, as to your plans and intentions, can give you success,—and the Major General enjoins this above all things: even your officers should not know your intentions till you are close to the Pass. You will, of course, grant quarter to those who surrender.
(Signed) James Holland, Major,
Dep. Qr.-Mr. Genl. of the Army
On the morning of 29 November 1840 Colonel Marshall’s force, quietly and under cover of darkness, surrounded Nusseer Khan’s camp, sleeping peacefully under truce. At daybreak they opened fire. About 500 were killed in the massacre, and many more wounded. Young Nusseer Khan remarkably managed to escape over the mountain with a handful of supporters.
General Brooks argued later that he did not know the terms of the truce when he wrote his order. Nonetheless the massacre took place under truce. It is a breach of faith to rank with Glencoe, and a much bigger massacre, and 150 years more recent. These things help explain why our troops now are so resented in Afghanistan.