Elphinstone, William George Keith (DNB00)

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ELPHINSTONE, WILLIAM GEORGE KEITH (1782–1842), major-general, was the elder son of the Hon, William Fullarton Elphinstone, a director of the East India Company, and formerly captain of one of the company's ships, who was himself third son of John, tenth lord Elphinstone, and elder brother of Admiral Lord Keith. He entered the army as an ensign in the 41st regiment on 24 March 1804, was promoted lieutenant on 4 Aug. 1804, and captain into the 93rd regiment on 18 June 1806. He exchanged into the 1st, or Grenadier guards, on 6 Aug. 1807, and into the 15th light dragoons on 18 Jan. 1810, and was promoted major into the 8th West India regiment on 2 May 1811.

On 30 Sept. 1813 he purchased the lieutenant-colonelcy of the 33rd regiment, with which he served under Sir Thomas Graham in Holland, and which he commanded with such credit at Waterloo that he was made a C.B., a knight of the order of William of Holland, and of the order of St. Anne of Russia. He continued to command this regiment during the occupation of French territory from 1815 to 1818, and in England until 25 April 1822, when he went upon half-pay. On 27 May 1825 Elphinstone was promoted colonel, and appointed aide-de-camp to the king, and on 10 Jan. 1837 he was promoted major-general. In 1839 he was appointed to the command of the Benares division of the Bengal army, and proceeded to India to take up his command. From this peaceful position he was unfortunately selected at the close of 1841 to take command of the British army at Cabul, in succession to Sir Willoughby Cotton. The first part of the first Afghan war of 1839 and 1840 was over; Dost Muhammad was removed from the throne of Afganistan, and the English nominee, Shah Shujá, was believed to be safely established; the greater part of the army which had accomplished these services was withdrawn from Afghanistan, and only a single division left there to support Shah Shujá and the English resident, Sir William Macnaghten. When Elphinstone took command of the division at Cabul all appeared quiet, and the troops there amused themselves with pony-racing and theatricals, just as if they were in a friendly country. Elphinstone took no trouble to keep his division cantoned in a position of defence, and misled by the political officers, Burnes and Macnaghten, seemed to forget the peril of his position and his distance from any succour from India. His health was also very bad indeed, and he left all matters of military routine to his subordinates. He was utterly unfitted from his age and health to cope with the grave portion of affairs which ensued at Cabul on the assassination of Sir William Macnaghten by Akbar Khán on Christmas day, 1841. The Afghans promptly closed all communications between India and Cabul, and even between Jellalabad, where Sale and his gallant brigade had established themselves, and Cabul. The English troops were surrounded and practically besieged. Elphinstone had little todo in this posture of affairs; he was crippled by gout, and left everything to Brigadier-general Shelton to manage. At last, on 23 April 1842, before the final catastrophe, the old general died of dysentery, and his coffin was floated down to Jellalabad, where it was buried. By many he was blamed for incapacity, but it is rather the government of India, which selected him for so important a command in full knowledge of his age, infirmaties, and long absence from actual warfare, which deserves the blame.

[Hart's Army List, 1841; Royal Military Calendar; Kayes War in Afghanistan; Gleig's Sale's Brigade in Afghanistan, Gent. Mag. September 1842.]

H. M. S.