In January 1842 the British Army began its retreat from Kabul, following the killing of the two British representatives there. The nearest British garrison was in Jalalabad, 90 miles away, and the army would need to go through mountain passes with the January snow hindering them. Under the command of Major-General William George Keith Elphinstone, 4,500 British and Indian soldiers plus 12,000 civilian camp followers including wives and children set out for Jalalabad on 6 January 1842, on the understanding that they had been offered safe passage. Afghan tribesmen intercepted them and proceeded to massacre them during the next seven days. Click on each picture to enlarge.Last stand of the 44th at Gandamak, painted by William Barnes Wollen The final stand took place at Gandamak on the morning of 13 January 1842 in the snow. Twenty officers and forty-five British soldiers, mostly of the 44th Foot, found themselves surrounded on a hillock. The Afghans attempted to persuade the soldiers that they intended them no harm. Then the sniping began, followed by a series of rushes. Captain Souter wrapped the regimental colours around his body and was dragged into captivity, the Afghans thought he was a high-ranking officer mistakenly taking the yellow colours as general’s yellow waistcoat. The remainder were shot or cut down. Only six mounted officers escaped, of whom five were killed along the road. On the afternoon of 13 January 1842 the British troops in Jalalabad, watching for their comrades of the Kabul garrison, saw a single figure ride up to the town walls…‘The remnants of an Army.’ An oil-on-canvas painting by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler. It depicts William Brydon, Assistant Surgeon in the Bengal Army, arriving at the gates of Jalalabad in January 1842. The walls of Jalalabad loom over a desolate plain and riders from the garrison gallop from the gate to reach the solitary figure bringing the first word of the fate of the “Army of Afghanistan.” Supposedly Brydon was the last survivor of the approximately 16,000 soldiers and camp followers from the 1842 retreat from Kabul in the First Anglo-Afghan War, and is shown toiling the last few miles to safety on an exhausted and dying horse. In fact a few other stragglers from the Army eventually arrived, and larger numbers were eventually released or rescued after spending time as captives of Afghan forces.
William Brydon, was asked upon arrival what happened to the army, to which he answered “I am the army”. Although part of his skull had been sheared off by a sword, he ultimately survived because he had insulated his hat against the cold with a periodical magazine, which deflected the blow. Brydon later published a memoir of the death march. The pony he rode was said to have lain down in a stable and never got up.
Brydon became widely, if inaccurately, famous for being the only survivor of the entire army. In fact, he was not the only European to survive the retreat; about 115 British officers, soldiers, wives and children were captured or taken as hostages and survived to be subsequently released. Nor was Brydon the only European to survive the trek from Kabul to Jalalabad without spending time in captivity; by Brydon’s own account a “Greek merchant”, a Mr Baness, also made it to Jalalabad, arriving two days after Brydon but surviving for only one day. In addition a small number of Indian sepoys reached Jalalabad on foot over the subsequent weeks. ‘Surgeon Major’ William Brydon CB, Circa 1864
There is obviously a lot more to the First and Second British Afghan Wars that provides a staggering and lengthy read; a wealth of information taken from intelligence and political reports, as well as daily military reports running into their hundreds of thousands.
Sadly such information is rendered useless when stored away by Government scribes, and ignored by arrogant ‘past their sell by date’ Generals. In this case the leadership of Major-General William Elphinstone (right) is seen as a notorious example of how the ineptitude and indecisiveness of a senior officer could compromise the morale and effectiveness of a whole army (though already much depleted). Elphinstone completely failed to lead his soldiers, but fatally exerted enough authority to prevent any of his officers from exercising proper command in his place. My main reason for posting was to place the print images of the paintings relating to the monumental cock-up, with a simple brief to follow on. Yours Aye.
‘When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your ‘Gawd’ like a soldier.’