17,000 Massacred in the Worst British Military Disaster Ever

Better death than surrender was the motto of the foolish

Reuben Salsa
Nov 11, 2020 · 5 min read
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Painting : The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck, 1842 by William Barnes Wollen (1898)

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains,
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier
- Rudyard Kipling

A cry went up on the watchtower. The guard had spotted somebody approaching the town of Jalalabad on horseback. In the distance he could see he was an officer. The man was clutching the back of his head and barely holding onto the horse.

As he drew nearer, the alarm went up and the soldiers rushed outside to help the wounded the officer. Eased down from his horse and barely alive, Dr. William Brydon was the sole survivor of 17,000 men, women and children massacred by Afghan tribesmen.

It’s early January, 1842. The bitter cold howled through the Khyber Pass high up in the mountains of Afghanistan. In Kabul, the British and Indian garrison of 16,500 soldiers and civilians were preparing to march onto India. The first stage was a 90 mile trek through the snow covered pass and onto the British base at Jalalabad.

The British, forever looking over their shoulder with a fervent distrust of ‘Johnny Foreigner’, had concerns over Russian influence. To that extent, they helped prop up a puppet regime in Afghanistan. This only enraged the local Ghilzai tribesmen. They were the largest group of Pashtuns, Islamic fundamentalists, in the country. The puppet ruler sparked a violent revolt.

There were warnings. Early signs that the Afghans wouldn’t take to being controlled by the British or any other foreign ruler. The previous October, tribesmen ambushed an Anglo-Indian brigade on route to Peshawar. Heavy losses occurred as they fought their way through to the garrison. Then in November, an Afghan mob butchered a British officer and his staff in Kabul.

More was to come.

December brought another violent death as a British officer was lured into peace talks with local chieftains. It wasn’t peace they were after.

There weren’t many enemies that the British feared, but the Afghans scared the pants of them. In Kabul, they began making plans to high-tail it back to India and the safety of larger numbers. In charge was the bumbling, elderly and indecisive major general William Elphinstone. The mildly crippled officer had finally made up his mind to leave Afghanistan. Too afraid to act for fear of reprisals, Willy wanted out. You could sense he relief when the local tribesmen agreed and offered safe conduct to him and his men.

On the 6th January, with the reassurance of the local ameers (chieftains), the British began their perilous hike from Kabul to Jalalabad. Leading the march were 400 soldiers of the 44th Regiment of Foot, 100 cavalrymen, 3800 Indian sepoys, 200 British wives and children and a massive 12,000 assorted servants, cooks, grooms, blacksmiths, water-carriers, sepoy family members and other camp followers. All content in the knowledge that their passage was guaranteed.

Of course the ameers weren’t stupid. There were conditions to their safe passage. On their insistence, the British abandoned all their heavy guns bar one. Armed with muskets while the officers kept hold of their pistols and swords, they were still on the wrong side of confidence.

It didn’t take long before the British realized the ameers weren’t to be trusted. Despite the agreement, some 30,000 Ghilzai tribesmen began molesting the convey. Armed with swords and jezail (long-barreled muskets), they continued to harass the column all through the first day’s trek. Struggling against the high-winter snow with two-foot snowdrifts, the column managed six miles before setting up camp. Many died overnight from hypothermia sleeping in the open without tents.

The next morning, in strolled the ameer of Kabul. A man who could spot an opportunity, he wasted no time in making demands. A promise of safe passage was on offer in exchange for hostages and money. General Willy was aghast. He had already been offered reassurance but somehow kowtowed to the ameer. Naturally, it didn’t take too long before that promise was broken too.

A narrow, five-mile-long pass known as the Khoord Cabul pass was set up as a trap. From teh surrounding heights, the Ghilzai fired on the slow-moving targets. It was day three and the British had left a further 3,000 bodies behind in the snowy gorge.

Day five saw the ameer of Kabul take General Willy hostage. He would remain a captive for three months before dying.

That same day, the column were halted once more by a thorn barricade manned by riflemen. The horse artillery cleared the passage but that resulted in even more deaths. Thousands perished in the attempt to clear the obstruction. The survivors pushed on. Behind them, the tribesmen swooped on the stragglers, slaughtering anyone too feeble to keep up. Their bodies were stripped and mutilated. Abandoned baggage carts were looted.

By the eighth day, virtually the entire force had met a grisly end. Soldiers and civilians all had been massacred leaving a handful of the original 16,500. A mere 20 officers were left standing alongside roughly 50 British soldiers. Among them, only 12 working muskets remained.

The arrogant officers, with nothing to lose, reached a hill near Gandamak. There, the Afghanistan tribesmen attempted to convince them to surrender. The British, already double-crossed on several occasions since leaving Kabul, had little faith they would keep their word. A British sergeant was heard to yell ‘Not bloody likely!’. In a series of charges, the tribesmen attacked again and again, overwhelming the last of the garrison.

Seven men, all officers, remained. One of the seven chose to wrap himself in the regiments colors and fight to the death. The other six all fled on horseback. Five were cut down on the road. The man (Captain Souter) draped in the finest, bloodiest cloth, was mistaken for somebody important and taken away as hostage. The sixth horseman was Dr. William Brydon, an assistant surgeon in the British East India Company.

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‘Remnants of an Army’ 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

Part of his skull had been sheared off by an Afghan sword thrust to the back of the head. Thanks to the severe cold, Brydon had survived because he had stuffed a magazine into his hat, cushioning the blow. The Afghans had let him live to serve as a warning. A final message to the British to abandon Afghanistan.

For three days, the garrison at Jalalabad sounded the bugle in the desperate hope that somebody else would stagger home. Of the 16,500 who had marched from Kabul, the good doctor was the only survivor*.

In 2013, a writer for The Economist called the retreat “the worst British military disaster until the fall of Singapore exactly a century later.

*It’s a tall tale. Brydon became known as the only survivor when in fact he was not the only European to survive the retreat; about 115 British officers, soldiers, wives and children were captured or taken as hostages and survived to be subsequently released.

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Reuben Salsa

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Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

Reuben Salsa

Written by


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Lessons from History is a platform for writers who share ideas and inspirational stories from world history. The objective is to promote history on Medium and demonstrate the value of historical writing.

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