On Jan. 13, 1842, a lone figure appeared on the outskirts of Jalalabad, slowly riding an exhausted pony across Afghanistan’s desolate lowland plains. A young officer on the walls of the British fort dispatched a rescue party. When they reached the man, they found a shell of a human being. He appeared lifeless and had a gash to his head that drained down onto his blood-soaked uniform.
The rescue party shook the man awake and asked, “Where is the Army?”
“I am the Army,” assistant surgeon William Brydon replied.
The 30-year-old Scot was the lone survivor of a 90-mile, weeklong escape from the capital city of Kabul. The survivor’s tale, however, was only the beginning of the end of the First Anglo-Afghan War, which lasted from 1839 to 1842.
At the time, the British Empire was a global superpower and the East India Company maintained economic and military prowess over much of the South Asia region. The major threat to British interests was Russian expansionism. Regional competition between the two superpowers in the 19th century was called “the Great Game” in Britain and the “Tournament of Shadows” in Russia. Fearing that Dost Mohammad Khan, the emir of Afghanistan, would ally with the Russians, the British chose to replace him with a deposed leader named Shah Shuja.
“Despite the apparent grandeur of the invading British army, from the outset, the British were ill-prepared for their ‘Afghan War,’” Arwin Rahi, a former adviser to the governor of Parwan province, writes in The Diplomat. “The British officials in charge of the Afghan policy in India neither had a good understanding of Afghanistan and its people, nor bothered to educate themselves about it. The British thought that, like India, they could easily conquer Afghanistan, and bring it under their influence.”
According to an 1839 account by Sita Ram, an Indian army infantryman: “The truth began to dawn on us that despite all the assurances Shah Shuja had given us in Hindustan that the Afghans were longing for his return, in reality they did not want him as their ruler.”
Without securing the local population’s support of their new Afghan leader, the British committed a near fatal miscalculation. In 1840, Pashtun tribes launched attacks across the southern, eastern, and central parts of the country. With the rebellion in full force, Sir William Hay Macnaghten, Britain’s chief representative to Kabul, and Maj. Gen. William Elphinstone, the commander of the British Army in Afghanistan, struck a deal with insurgent leader and son of Dost Mohammad Khan, Mohammad Akbar Khan, to leave the capital city of Kabul.
On Jan. 6, 1842, a British army contingent of 4,500 troops and 12,000 camp followers left for Jalalabad. For his part, Khan failed to maintain his end of the bargain. While the British moved through deep snow and subzero temperatures in the Khyber Pass, thousands of Afghan tribesmen descended from the high mountaintops to ambush them.
By the night of the sixth day of the disastrous retreat, only 80 British men remained alive, including Brydon. “The confusion was terrible,” Brydon later recalled, according to the Daily Mail. “I was pulled off my horse and knocked down by a blow on the head from an Afghan knife, which must have killed me had I not placed a portion of Blackwood’s Magazine in my forage cap. As it was, a piece of bone was cut from my skull.”
As the Afghan swung for a second blow, Brydon struck him with the edge of his sword first, lopping off the assailant’s fingers. While his attacker scrambled away, Brydon rejoined the remainder of the surviving British troops hunkering down behind a barricade. He then took the horse from a dying cavalryman and rode off alone into the dark night. When dawn arrived, a last stand was fought on a hilltop at Gandamak, during which 20 British officers and 45 privates of the 44th Foot Regiment were surrounded and outgunned.
On his lonesome journey to Jalalabad, Brydon got into frequent scrapes with the Afghans he crossed. He was attacked with stones and knives, but managed to ride on. One Afghan fired a shot that damaged Brydon’s sword and wounded his pony.
“On examination, I had a sword wound on my left knee, besides my head and left hand, and a ball had gone through my trousers, grazing the skin,” Brydon later recalled, according to the Daily Mail.
Brydon survived and later served in the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852. He barely escaped the famous siege of Lucknow in 1857. After living the remainder of his life in peacetime, the lucky doctor died in 1873.
The British army retook Kabul in September 1842.