On 6 January 1842, a British army under the command of General William Elphinstone began a retreat from the Afghan city of Kabul. Within a week the infamous “Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army” would be complete, and out of the entire British force only William Brydon would stagger on his dying horse to safety at Jalalabad.
In a scenario that feels somewhat familiar, the British had been present in Afghanistan since at least 1838. Mainly, they vied with Russia for control of the region and for influence over the Afghani rulers. The British gained the upper hand and decided to establish military garrisons around the city of Kabul, as opposed to occupying the city outright. For several years their occupation was quite luxurious and they had little to do other than relax. Their luxury, however, was subsidized by their counterpart occupiers of India who decided to recall a large portion of the soldiers back to India, leaving Kabul in the hands of a 4,500-man army.
As would be expected, a large section of the Afghan population resented the foreign occupation. Trouble began to simmer. When a figurehead arose to lead the resistance (Akbar Khan, son of deposed Afghan leader, Dost Mohammad Khan), the Afghans grew bolder and began a guerrilla war against the British occupiers. William Elphinstone was brought in to become the new commander of the army in Afghanistan, in spite of the fact that a contemporary had called him “the most incompetent soldier who ever became general.”
By late 1841, the Afghans had begun a full-scale revolt. Their newfound boldness was partly due to their discovery that General Elphinstone was a coward. Several British military officers who met with the Afghans under the pretext of negotiation had been murdered. Elphinstone did nothing and the Afghans realized they were fighting an inferior opponent. Somehow Elphinstone managed to organize a retreat, and on 6 January 1842 the 4,500-man force along with 12,000 camp followers set out from Kabul.
Their goal was the British garrison at Jalalabad, over 90-miles away. They left Kabul under the impression that Akbar Khan had guaranteed them safety and a food supply during their retreat, but the reality of the situation was soon apparent. Afghan forces quickly set about launching more guerrilla attacks. The mountainous country between Kabul and Jalalabad, the Hindu Kush region, was peopled by numerous tribes who were happy to contribute to the massacre of the retreating army. Difficult conditions, the size of the civilian contingent, and the inept command of Elphinstone all contributed to the army’s struggle. The Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army had begun. After three days, the column had advanced a mere 25 miles, and over 3,000 of their number had been killed.
By the fifth day (11 January) Elphinstone had ceased even attempting to lead the army. A contingent of men deserted in an attempt to go back to Kabul. They were slaughtered easily. Later that day, Elphinstone himself and his second-in-command surrendered to Akbar Khan. They both later died in captivity. The next day the army, reduced to 200 soldiers and 2,000 camp followers, made its final stand at Gandamak. The tribesman had ambushed them again, and the remaining British were easily overcome. According to the stories that have survived, on 13 January 1842 the lone European survivor of the retreat rode into Jalalabad on a wounded horse. When that man, William Brydon, was asked what had happened to the army, he is said to have replied, “I am the army.” His arrival at the gates of Jalalabad is depicted in a famous painting entitled Remnants of an Army.
In reality, many soldiers had been captured by the Afghan tribes and some of them were eventually released. In addition, a small number of civilians and sepoys from the army’s camp followers had managed to hide out in the hills. They trickled into the safety of Jalalabad over the following weeks. Regardless of whether the story surrounding William Brydon is true, it is undeniable that the British army contingent was decimated. It was probably the single worst British military disaster of the 19th century.