Little Bits of History

Safe Return

Posted in History by patriciahysell on January 13, 2013
William Brydon painting by Lady Elizabeth Butler The Remnant of an Army

William Brydon painting by Lady Elizabeth Butler    The Remnant of an Army

January 13, 1842: Dr. William Brydon reaches safety at the Jalalabad garrison during the First Anglo-Afghan War. The war was fought from 1839 to 1842 and was the first major conflict in an era called The Great Game. The mid-19th century saw the British Empire and the Russian Empire in a heated battle for the control of Central Asia. Afghanistan lay between British controlled India and outposts of Tsarist Russia. While occupied by indigenous peoples, the lands reaching nearly 2,000 miles across were essentially unmapped by Western cartographers.

George Eden, first and last Lord Auckland, issued a manifesto in 1838 stating Afghanistan needed to be a trustworthy ally to the British to protect India. The engagement is also called Auckland’s Folly and was a disaster by all accounts. While ostensibly supporting Shah Shuja in the pursuit of regaining his throne, all knew it was simply a need for a buffer zone for the protection of India against the Russian threat.

With successively more incompetent leadership, troops were sent toward Kabul to replace the Shah. While they managed to successfully seat Shuja in 1839, he could not maintain power without a strong British presence. The Afghans were not amused by the British and eventually a mob killed a senior British officer during a riot. Authorities were negotiating with Mohammad Akbar Khan who had the citizens’ support. Akbar condemned the negotiator to prison, but on the way to incarceration, a mob struck and killed the British official.

William Elphinstone, Major-General and commander of the British Army, reached an agreement with Akbar for safe passage out of Afghanistan for his troops. There were 4,500 military personnel and about 10,000 civilian camp followers. As they struggled through snowy passes, they were attacked by Ghilzai warriors. The army’s retreat hastened toward the Kabul River where the British were massacred at the Gandamark Pass. Near the end, about 40 survivors were running through two feet of snow toward safety. Most were killed, some were captured, and only Dr. Brydon made it to the garrison, injured but alive.

“The ability to delude yourself may be an important survival tool.” – Jane Wagner

“Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival.” – W. Edwards Deming

“On a long enough timeline. The survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” – Chuck Palahniuk

“Conflict is going to happen whether you want it or not. People will butt heads. Sometimes when you least expect it.” – Jimmy Bise, Jr.

This article first appeared at in 2010. Editor’s update: William Brydon was an assistant surgeon in the British East India Company. He was born in London and was of Scottish descent. He studied at both the University College London and the University of Edinburgh. While escaping this ambush, only six mounted officers managed to escape the final assault. Of these six, five were killed along the escape route. Brydon had stuffed a copy of Blackwood’s Magazine in his hat to help insulate against the bitter cold and it deflected a slashing sword so that only part of his skull shaved off. He went on to serve in the Second Anglo-Burmese War and was again wounded. He finally made his way back home and died there in 1873 at the age of 61.

Also on this day: Sitting on the Throne – In 1863, Thomas Crapper pioneered his pedestal toilet.
Greece – In1822, the First National Assembly of Epidaurus adopts a new Greek flag.
Prison Blues – In 1968, Johnny Cash performed at Folsom Prison.


One Response

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  1. Bobby Dias said, on January 13, 2013 at 10:18 am

    More important was the land route from most of Europe to India and China. Great Britain traveled mostly by sea but had competition overland. Controling the land route would make the British much more money by eliminating that competition.

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