The 13th is considered unlucky by some, but it was on 13th January 1842 that the first survivor of the retreat arrived before Jalalabad, “ I was on sentry duty on the walls over the Cabul Gate, anxiously looking forward in the direction in which any movement of troops might be visible, when suddenly I decried a dark speck moving in that direction. I never took my eyes from it; as it moved I found it could not be an Afghan, for his dress was dark – the Afghan uniform being a dirty white! I watched him come to about 200 yards of the walls, when he dismounted and knelt down behind a bit of garden wall, whence he carefully scanned the city, to see who might be in possession of it.
Then I gave the alarm. The wall was covered with officers, who made signs to him to advance. He got up from his kneeling position, took his horse’s bridle, and came leisurely along towards us; we opened the gate, and he slowly crossed the drawbridge over the trench.
The officers ran out to meet him, and not a moment too soon, for he was ready to fall with fatigue. They caught him in their arms and carried him into Jellalabad. This man was an English Army Surgeon by name Dr Brydon – the sole survivor of 16,000 souls! So all hope of relief in that quarter was gone!”
“When Dr Brydon came round he told us that three other officers started out with him from Sarkhab, but that he had parted company with them about eight miles from Jellalabad. Had they not been encumbered with Cabul women that they intended to bring to Jellalabad, they might have reached us, as well as the Doctor. But they fell a prey to their own weakness.”
The garrison at Jellalabad knew by 4 January that Elphinstones’ force was going to evacuate Kabul but bizarrely General Sale did not take the trouble to send out reconnaissance parties to the outlying countryside and bring in the troops safely. However, it was only on 14th January that Sale bothered to send out patrols to bring in survivors, “The next morning a party of cavalry was sent out some distance on the Kabul road and discovered the bodies of Doctor Harpur and Captain Collyer of the 5th Cavalry and Captain Hopkins of the Shah’s who had reached within three miles of the fort when they were murdered”.
According to Edward Teer only two bodies were discovered and brought back to Jalalabad for burial. At least one of these officers’ girlfriends was taken prisoner, “The cavalry … were ordered out, and the trumpets sounded, hoping that they might attract the attention of the stragglers. Nothing, however, was to be seen but some Affghans, leading away a woman on horseback, who it was thought, belonged to an officer of the 57th, who started with Brydon from Jugdulluk”.
Keane’s prediction of a “signal catastrophe” had borne fruit. The Afghan forces had achieved a remarkable victory. This war provided a rich source of literary efforts. Afghanistan’s renowned twentieth century poet Khalil Allah Khalili wrote about the obliteration of an entire retreating regiment of Europeans during the retreat of Elphinstone’s army. The poem depicts the British general sorrowfully awaiting the arrival of the sole survivor of the “signal catastrophe” – yet movingly the general acknowledges the Afghan resistance holding the “moral” high ground. What distinguishes the poem is that, it is the General, the enemy “other” who in the moving voice of the defeated, concedes the bravery of the brave lion hearted Afghans.
There are of course other legacies of this conflict. Two British women became Muslim and married the Jubbarkhel Ghilzai men who rescued them from the retreat. The memory of these women was kept alive by Ghilzai storytellers. Additionally, the writer of Siraj ul Tawarikj wrote that century would follow century, but the remains of the foolish invaders would still be present to provide a feast for the birds of Paradise.
Brydon meanwhile recounted tales of heroism and detailed the death of Captain Sturt, son in law of General Sale. Sturt had gone to save a British child, which was lying besides its deceased mother. “As he picked it up, he fell dead, shot through the heart! Poor Sturt was only married to Miss Sale, in Cabul, just before the ill-fated march.” Brydon could have advanced faster to Jellalabad, but “A man of the 13th Caff by name, held on (to his horses tail) till he had reached Gundamuk – a distance of eight miles.
The Doctor said he had not the heart to tell him to desist, as their lives were at stake, though it retarded his own progress. Caff let go at Gandamuk and survived as a prisoner of war. As he afterwards told us, he began to act like a lunatic, and so saved his life, for the Afghans never harm those of any nationality who are not in their right minds! Caff was a great wrestler, and the Afghans used to pit their best wrestlers against him.”
Others would survive to follow in Brydon’s illustrious footsteps to Jalalabad. On 19th January 1842 “a servant of Captain Bazette came in, and on the 30th a Goorkha, one of Shah Soojah’s late force”. The Gurkha “was a Mussulman, and spoke Persian fluently. Dressed as a Fakeer, he marched parallel to the fugitives, at some distance from the road”. He was stopped by Afghans at Gandamuck but “he completely deceived the enemy by proposing to stop and see the end of the Feringhees.
Looking on him as a very holy man, they listened with respect to all he said”. On 29th January a Greek merchant named Mr Baness was brought into Jellalabad by a friendly Afghan but tragically died the next day.
Source – Afghanistan In The Age Of Empires By Farrukh Husain.