This Week in Military History: January 12th – 18th
January 13th: Doctor William Brydon Reaches Jalalabad
Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler, 1879.
Upon the conclusion of a deployment to Afghanistan, most of us who’ve had the ignominious pleasure likely had a host of identical thoughts. Undoubtedly prominent among them, no matter how badly each individual tour went, is, “Well, that sucked.” And while that feeling of relief is never unjustified, it’s probably never been felt so keenly by anyone at any time as Assistant Surgeon William Brydon of the British East India Company’s private army felt it on January 13th, 1842. A week earlier, he and roughly 16,000 soldiers and civilians had begun a retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad. When he reached the latter’s city on that freezing cold afternoon, he was pretty much the only one left. And his horse died shortly after.
Letts’s bird’s eye view of the approaches to India by W.H. Payne, Published by Letts, Son & Co. depicting the arena where much of the Great Game played out.
The grisly disaster that left Brydon by his lonesome, often called the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army, was part of the First Anglo-Afghan War and the overall struggle for influence in the region between Russia and England commonly known as the “Great Game” (though the Russians called it the “Tournament of Shadows” which is just awesome). The East India Company (EIC) counted on its influence in the regions and nations north of India, to include Afghanistan, to protect its massive financial interests in the country it took its name from. So when Dost Mohammad Barakzai deposed the British-friendly puppet ruler Shah Shujah Durrani as Emir of Afghanistan in 1834, the company (as well as the British government who were deeply involved with them and their profits) began to worry that the new ruler would side with Russia. For his part, Dost Mohammad had no interest in working with the Russians. That is, of course, until the Governor-General of India (George Eden, 1st Earl of Auckland) tried to meddle in Afghan foreign affairs. Only then did Dost Mohammad start talking to the Russians. So that backfired.
Dost Mohammad Khan.
In response, the British in India assembled an army of professional EIC troops and government units under the command of General Sir Willoughby Cotton numbering roughly 20,000 soldiers and nearly 40,000 civilian camp followers (artisans, craftsmen, families, etc). Among them was Assistant Surgeon Brydon. Cotton marched into Afghanistan through the Bolan Pass in modern day Pakistan in March of 1839. By August 6th his forces had taken Kabul. Shah Shujah was returned to power with Auckland’s adviser Sir William Hay Macnaghten at his side to tell him exactly what to do. Dost Mohammad was exiled to India. It seemed like a quick win for the British but, as usually happens after invading Afghanistan, things took a bloody turn before long.
The Battle of Ghazni, one of the key British victories of their 1839 invasion Afghanistan.
For a brief time the British in Kabul lived it up, putting on Shakespeare plays and hosting fancy dinner parties. You know, doing British stuff. And despite a guerilla campaign organized by Dost Mohammad’s son Wazir Akbar Khan, the British assumed they’d only need a minimal contingent to hold the country and sent many of their troops back to India. To further lessen the cost of the expedition, the British stopped paying the large bribes they’d doled out for years to mollify the local tribes around the vital Khyber Pass. This, understandably, did not make them any new friends among the Afghans. Nor did the return to rule of the widely disliked Shah Shujah. By the summer of 1841, the British at Kabul were increasingly penned in and under regular guerilla attack.
Wazir Akbar Khan.
Compounding the situation was the replacement of General Cotton with General Sir William Elphinstone who compatriot once described as “the most incompetent soldier who ever became general.” The forces at Kabul were further depleted when a brigade was sent to Jalalabad in order to reinforce the communication lines between Kabul and the Khyber Pass. So by the fall of 1841, the British in Afghanistan were thinly spread and poorly led.
Major General William George Keith Elphinstone, CB.
When Akbar Khan declared a full revolt on November 2nd, the citizens of Kabul showed their support for it by killing one of the senior British political officers in the city, Sir Alexander Burnes, and his entire staff. Elphinstone did not to respond, and by the 23rd the emboldened Afghans occupied a hill overlooking the British garrison and bombarded them with a pair of cannons. An attempt to push back the Afghans failed after taking heavy casualties and a large contingent of East Indian troops deserted. The troops who had left for Jalalabad tried to return to Kabul but were turned back by impassable snows. Macnaghten attempted to negotiate with Akbar Khan to allow the roughly 12,000 civilians in Kabul to evacuate, but when he showed up at the meeting the Afghan leaders killed him and dragged his mutilated corpse through the city.
The murder of Sir William Macnaughten.
On January 1st, 1842 Elphinstone and Akbar Khan finally came to terms for allowing the British to retreat from Kabul. Elphinstone agreed to leave five days later on the 90 mile trek to Jalalabad through the Hindu Kush in brutal winter conditions. He also conceded to leave behind all the gunpowder, a large number of muskets and cannons, and hostages, including those too sick or injured to make the journey. In return, Khan agreed to escort them to safety. The retreat began as scheduled; 700 British troops, 3,800 Indian troops, and roughly 14,000 civilians headed east at dawn on the 6th.
Map of the retreat.
As soon as the last British personnel departed their garrison, Afghans began killing those left behind and burned the place to the ground. Akbar Khan’s promised escort never arrived to meet the retreating column. Realizing they were now at the mercy of the locals and brutal weather, Elphinstone made the decision to press on. On the afternoon of the second day Khan met up with Elphinstone and flatly denied any knowledge of the initial atrocity and the continuous sniping and raiding attacks being carried out against the British column. Their conversation ended with Elphinstone handing over three more hostages in exchange for the already promised protection. Still no escort appeared and attacks by local Afghans continued. Historians still debate whether Khan ordered the ongoing massacre, refused to stop it, or knew he could not prevent it. Regardless, people died in the thousands from skirmishes, sniping, the cold, hunger, and suicide as the increasingly bedraggled column moved north. Some were captured, but many of those were executed, died in captivity, or, in the case of many Indian troops, sold into slavery. Soldiers made stands and fought back when they could, but they were hampered by the need to keep moving and protect the civilians.
A 1909 illustration by Arthur David McCormick of retreating British troops being massacred.
By day four Elphinstone had stopped issuing any orders at all and rode in a daze. The next day Khan offered to negotiate with him once again and Elphinstone accepted, but it was merely a ruse to capture him and his second-in-command, Brigadier General John Shelton. On the 12th the remaining soldiers and civilians found their path through a valley blocked by an Afghan-built barrier and hostile forces on all sides. Panic set in as the final slaughter began. Only one contingent, about 60 men of the 44th Regiment of Foot, put up any kind of organized defence but they were quickly defeated.
The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck by William Branes Wollen.
The next afternoon a British officer in Jalalabad spotted a lone rider approaching the city and sent soldiers out to meet him. It was Doctor Brydon, riding a horse that a mortally wounded fellow officer gave him to keep it out of enemy hands. Both the assistant surgeon and his mount were wounded in numerous places, including a chunk of Brydon’s skull that had been hacked off in an Afghan cavalry attack. The blow likely would have killed him, but a magazine he’d stuffed in his hat for insulation from the cold (Blackwood’s Magazine, to be exact) partially deflected it. Brydon was brought inside the city and asked what happened to the army. His answer: “I am the army.” Several Indian infantrymen (called sepoys) who survived the deadly march also trickled back to Jalalabad over the next few weeks, but Brydon’s answer was pretty damn accurate. Elphinstone’s army was gone.
Another painting of Brydon’s arrival at Jalalabad.
The British were humiliated and enraged. News of the disaster shocked Auckland so violently that he suffered a stroke. Elphinstone would likely have faced a great deal of public blame and hatred but he died in captivity that April. Around the same time Shuja Shah was assasinated and Dost Mohammad, who the Britihs had released in 1841, re-assumed power. In the fall an aptly named “Army of Retribution” led by Field Marshal Sir George Pollock returned to Kabul and destroyed much of the city. They also recovered many of the surviving prisoners, over 100 Europeans and at least 2,000 sepoys and camp followers. Sick of meddling in the infamous Graveyard of Empires, the British decided to never again interfere in Afghan affairs. And if you think they stuck to that, then you’re forgetting the part up top that referred to this as the First Anglo-Afghan War.
Painting of the Battle of Maiwand during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. Out of four. So far.
Brydon recovered from his injuries and continued his service as a military doctor. He served in several more conflicts and received an appointment as a Companion of the Order of Bath in 1858. He died peacefully at his home in Scotland at age 61 on March 20th, 1873. And while he probably never specifically said “Well, that sucked” of his time in Afghanistan, we firmly believe he would find it an apt description.
Doctor William Brydon, CB.