January 13, 1842: Only One Survivor of a British Army in Afghanistan!

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A Brief History

On January 13, 1842, the lone survivor of a British army in Afghanistan staggered into Jalalabad!

Digging Deeper

Digging deeper, we find Dr. William Brydon along with a British army consisting of 4,500 soldiers and about 12,000 tag along civilians (family and camp followers) leaving Kabul under pressure for the safety of another British stronghold in Jalalabad on January 6, 1842.

Afghan forces attacking retreating British-Indian troops

One week later, only Dr. Brydon was spotted by lookouts at Jalalabad, and he did not look so good!  A portion of his skull had been lopped off by an Afghan with a sword and he had a tale of hell to tell of sniping and harassment by Afghan tribesmen until a final battle earlier on the 13th.  The most wacky part of his story was that he only lost a bit of his skull because he had a copy of a magazine crammed into his hat for warmth!  (Namely, Blackwood’s Magazine, a periodical published from 1817 until 1980.)

It appeared that Dr. Brydon was the only survivor out of 16,500 people that had begun the trek.  This distinction earned Dr. Brydon much fame and notoriety, but it turned out that he was not the sole survivor.  The facts later revealed that about 115 soldiers and civilians had survived and been captured, later to be turned over to the British alive, but of course Brydon was the only one to complete the journey on his own.  Just barely!

Dr. Brydon reaches Jellalabad alone

Afghanistan is not a large country, only about the size of Texas, and is not densely populated, but both the terrain and people can be quite ferocious.  Mountainous and rocky, Afghanistan has foiled many invaders over the years, from the British in the 19th century to the Russians (Soviets) in the 20th century and to the Americans in the 21st century.

Situated on the route from India and Pakistan to the west, Afghanistan has been lusted after but never tamed.  The Soviet Army’s defeat after 10 years of failure was a major factor in the break up of the Soviet Union.  The United States has fared little better after nearly two decades of trying.

A U.S. Army soldier from 10th Mountain Division, patrols Aranas, Afghanistan

British frustration was depicted in the movie The Man Who Would Be King (1975 with Sean Connery and Michael Caine) based on a tale by Rudyard Kipling.  The lesson taught by the story is that it is unwise to try to subdue any part of Afghanistan, something history just does not seem to get across to super-powers!

Question for students (and subscribers): Should the United States of America have maintained its military presence in Afghanistan?  If so, for how much longer?  If not, why not?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

Coalition fatalities per month since the war began in October 2001 as U.S. “Operation Enduring Freedom”.  Graph by Nigelj.

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Historical Evidence

For more on the history of Britain’s battle for Afghanistan, including information on Brydon, see:

Dalrymple, William.  Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-42.  Knopf, 2013.

For the 1975 movie, please see:

Huston, John, dir.  The Man Who Would Be King.  WarnerBrothers, 2010.  DVD.

The featured image in this article, Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler portraying William Brydon arriving at the gates of Jalalabad as the only survivor of a 16,500 strong evacuation from Kabul in January 1842, is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 70 years or less.

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About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.