The painting above immortalised the moment, on the afternoon of Jan 13th, 1842, when Dr. William Brydon reached the British outpost at Jellalabad, 140 km east of Kabul.
He was the first survivor of an army of 4,500 troops and 12,000 civilians who left Kabul on January 6th under a promise of safe passage out of Afghanistan. For seven days they were set upon by Afghan tribesmen as they tried to struggle through snowbound mountain passes. Their column was broken up, groups became separated, snipers fired constantly and they were subjected to massed attacks when the terrain permitted.
Brydon arrived at Jellalabad on a horse which collapsed and died when it was stabled. He had a sword cut on his scalp and was saved more serious injury because his hat was stuffed with pages of a magazine in an attempt to keep him warm. The paper absorbed much of the sword cut. He became famous as the “only” survivor, although others subsequently made it back to safety.
The subsequent defence of the fort at Jellalabad became the stuff of legend in the British Army and was celebrated in boys story books for the next century. The 2,000 men of the 13th foot (Somerset light infantry) held the fort for five months until a relief force reached them. Under the command of General Robert Sale the troops turned an old ruined fort into a defensible position. Instead of sitting behind the walls they sortied out to raid the Afghans. On one occassion they stole a herd of sheep to keep themselves suppllied. Then they raided the Afghan camp and stole all the supplies. So successful were they in this that the Afghans gave up and returned to Kabul. Sale also personally freed his own wife and daughter from captivity.
When the 13th returned to India every garrison on their path celebrated them with a 10 gun salute. Queen Victoria had them designated as a Light infantry and they were called “Prince Albert’s Own”.
From “The Young British Soldier” ; by Rudyard Kipling
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.