The Myth of the Last Man 53

As the UK completes another military and political retreat from Afghanistan, it is time to revisit one of the most potent myths of the British Empire: the arrival at Jalalabad of Surgeon Brydon, wounded and on a shot-up dying nag, as the sole survivor of the Army of the Indus. It is a romantic scene that has been lovingly painted by scores of historians – and of course in a famous painting by Lady Butler.

The Remnants of an Army 1879 by Elizabeth Butler (Lady Butler) 1846-1933

But behind the myth, and never properly recorded by historians, is a disgraceful story of British officers leaving their men to die.

It is now generally understood and widely recorded that the army was not wiped out as completely as myth represents. So the retreat from Kabul saw the destruction of the Kabul force, not the Army of the Indus. One third of even the Kabul force survived, including at least 118 Europeans (Allen’s 117 plus Dr Brydon). In addition to this at least two European survivors of the Kabul force were to be killed by the British, fighting on the Sikh side in the British annexation of the Punjab. Their stories are not known. The high casualties of the Kabul force were not the result of a deliberate policy of extermination by Akbar Khan, but of vicious cold and the attacks of local tribesmen. The massacre was not a complete extermination for precisely that reason; undisciplined forces rarely kill everyone on a battlefield left hors de combat; it is hard physical work. Really thorough massacres of survivors are carried out by forces with a very disciplined command structure, like Henry V at Agincourt in 1415, like the Hanoverians at Culloden in 1746, or the Uzbek army at Andijan in 2005.

But if we dig deeper into the confusion and squalor of the retreat from Kabul, we find a very dark episode indeed. The escape of Dr Brydon was the result of a considered decision on the evening of 12 December of the mounted officers to desert their infantrymen – who were still fighting – leaving them to die while they made a break for Jallalabad on horseback. That is not to say the group of mounted men who abandoned the rest were exclusively infantry officers – some were cavalry, including sowars, horse artillery or staff officers – but many were infantry officers. The eyewitness accounts of this make it plain that the mounted men rode off despite specific pleas from the infantry not to desert them.

This can be discerned from the account of Dr Brydon himself:

“The confusion now was terrible; all discipline was now at an end, and the shouts of “Halt!” and “Keep back the cavalry!” incessant. The only cavalry were the officers who were mounted, and a few sowars…Just getting clear of the pass, I with great difficulty made my way to the front, where I found a large body of men and officers who, finding it perfectly hopeless to remain with the men in such a state, had gone ahead to form a kind of advance guard; but was we moved steadily on, whilst the main body was halting every second, by the time that day dawned, we had lost all traces of those in our rear.”

Even Brydon’s rather self-serving account states that there were calls for the horsemen to halt. This is much more graphic in the account of Sergeant-Major Lissant of the 237th Native Infantry, who was of course one of those abandoned on foot.

“The rear kept calling on the men in front to halt, while the officers were urging the expediency of pushing on and losing no time, as they said could we reach Gandamack by daylight we should be safe.

This continued for some time, some of the men halting, others pushing on as requested, till the cries from the rear became more loud and frequent to halt in front. The men in front then said, “The officers seem to care but for themselves, let them push on if they like, we will halt till our comrades in the rear catch up.

From this point, some of the officers went on, as all regularity seemed at an end; every man determined to act for himself”

This puts a very different complexion indeed on Dr Brydon’s “heroic” ride to Jallalabad. The fact that the officers who tried to save their lives by abandoning their men mostly failed, does not make this any less a stain in the records of the British army.

It is a fascinating fact that the abandonment of their men by the mounted officers was observed by the Afghans, and the knowledge has survived down to modern times, forming part of the underlying Afghan tribal dislike for the British which caused so many difficulties in the current long occupation. In 1973, collecting folklore stories of the First Afghan War, the ethnographer Louis Dupree was told near Gandamack: “But they did not all die on the hill, because many of the officers on horseback rode away from their men.”

It is also worth noting that, despite his being adopted as a hero by Victorian politicians and media seeking to spin a glorious national myth, a pall of suspicion hung around Brydon in India for decades. His biographer John Cunnignham records that but fails to give the full facts as to why.

The Kabul retreat was not in reality unprecedented. Monson’s repeat before Holkar in 1804, with Brown’s related retreat to Agra, caused about the same number of casualties among British troops. In that retreat too the mounted British officers simply deserted their men. As James Skinner recorded:

“I saw about 1,500 men march into camp with colours flying under the command of a British sergeant, with a great number of soobhadars and jemadars of native corps. These heroes had kept their ground after all their officers had left them. The poor sergeant was never noticed.”

[I am currently going through the heartbreaking process of reducing Sikunder Burnes from 260,000 to 180,000 words for publication. I am posting some of the more interesting bits that have to be shed on to this blog. Skinner, Like Burnes, was from Montrose. William Brydon was from Fortrose].

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53 thoughts on “The Myth of the Last Man

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  • Herbie

    “our double-dealing with the Afghan rulers was a disgrace”

    In what way is that a disgrace?

    That’s been standard operating procedure forever, so far as empires are concerned.

    Anyway, why do you think that this “poorly led”, “poorly thought out” fiasco wouldn’t end in the manner Sergeant-Major Lissant described?

    Why do you prefer to believe that such a nonsense would end in the valour and gallantry of your Boys’ Own nationalistic fantasies?

  • Ba'al Zevul

    A fellow-spirit, Craig!

    On December 18, 1898 — that is, shortly before the outbreak of the Boer War — one Lieutenant-General Sir William Butler wrote as follows from Cape Town to the Secretary for the Colonies: “All the political questions in South Africa and nearly all the information sent from Cape Town are being worked by what I have already described as a colossal syndicate for the spread of false information.” /3

    No one was in a better position to know the truth, for General Butler was then Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in South Africa and Acting High Commissioner during the absence in England of Sir Alfred Milner (later Lord Milner), one of the principal architects and instigators of the war that was soon to follow.

    Immediately after Milner’s return to Cape Town, General Butler resigned and returned to England; and successive historians have found it expedient to exclude from their writings any reference to his despatches.

    From ‘The Siege of South Africa’, by Ivor Benson, here:–5_Benson.html

    (citing Lt. General Sir William Butler, An Autobiography (Constable, 1911).

  • Ishmael

    I seem to remember this story, from art history perhaps. Can’t remember what version. Makes Oral/folk/ traditions seem important, no reason to lie.

    So the country/culture we’ve been attacking (again) gives us wider historical wealth…

    I was randomly invited to “come to Afghanistan” while in Deli, someone I knew did. But even in India I remember having to ignore the press, there was some random stuff going on but they always make it into more. Great training in that way.

    Upon conception of attaching another country all involved should immediately be sent to live among the people for 3 mount’s. On a tight budget.

    Must study more history.

  • Tim

    Fascinating references to Sir William Butler. He was, of course, getting in the way of the war which Britain started to defend the rights of the ” oppressed ” British minorities in the Boer Republics. In the modern world would you find such examples of a large power asserting the right to intervene militarily in support of minorities of its nationals in neighboring countries?

  • Anon

    Ba’al Zevul

    Lieutenant-General, I believe. He probably would have gone all the way had he not been quite so supportive of Irish home rule and vocally opposed to several colonial campaigns. His writing is fascinating, given the prevailing opinions of the time, and he often saw things from the perspective of the natives. I have most of his books, some correspondence, and several pictures by his wife, though nothing on anything like the scale of ‘Remnants of an Army’ above. He really did an awful lot, from taking part in the Red River expedition to putting together the first plans for a Channel tunnel.

    I admire Butler a lot. You’ve never really worked out what does attract my derision, Ba’al.

  • Ishmael

    It says a lot about the army doesn’t it, Not individuals, but generally the capacity to go from war to war, blatantly not being able to think of any good reasons why.

    I’v a good use for the army. We need to build a solar power sharing infrastructure across the uk. Free ourselves from massive pars of the centralised substructures that keep us enslaved. Then we will smash the plutocratic class system.

    Home for tea and biscuits…

  • Anon

    “I’v a good use for the army. We need to build a solar power sharing infrastructure across the uk. Free ourselves from massive pars of the centralised substructures that keep us enslaved. Then we will smash the plutocratic class system.”

    While the sun’s out…

    Which reminds me, as some of you are supporting the Greens. How would the elderly be faring in minus-8 degrees?

    Which also reminds me, the Green Party leader (I can’t recall her name) has just said that being on benefits in Britain is worse than being in poverty in India! Priceless.

  • Ishmael

    Ps, the smash bit was for effect.

    Obviously after the solar power, and perhaps a few other bits, Job done. People would then form community groups seeing the communal interest highlighted, and could “smash” it….democratically.

    I’m not a ‘radical’ or anything.

    “While the sun’s out…”

    Most people sleep at night. It would still be significant. That’s why thoes that can afford it have them.

  • bevin

    “…Now, the US equipment from Afghanistan is to be handed to the Ukrainians..”
    No doubt the Russians will be supportive as this equipment is transported through Russia to be used, by Nazis, for genocidal campaigns in the Donbass.

  • Ba'al Zevul

    Apologies for underpromoting your ancestor, Anon. Lieut-Gen it is. Found his bio on the web, and fascinating it is. Have you anything of his on his service in SA? If he’s to be believed, and I’m sure he is, the Boer War was as usual started by vested interests and criminally mismanaged by politicians. Plus ca change, eh?
    As to the targets of your derision, I speak as I find.

  • Anon

    Bookshelves of it, Ba’al. Try Far Out: Rovings Re-told to get a measure of the man. There are plenty of military accounts, his autobiography, and a good modern biography by Martin Ryan.

  • Mary

    Not our own CCGS Houghton this time but a US military type, Lt Gen Hodges.

    US General ‘Concerned’ Over UK Military Spending
    The commander of the US Army Europe says he worries British military funding will fall further after the General Election.

    Earlier Houghton has queried the UK’s military capability.
    Top general warns over ‘hollowed-out’ armed forces

    Are they all in it together?

  • Rehmat

    Kia Makarechi commented at Jewish Vanity Fair magazine on December 29, 2014: “It’s true that the president has drawn down troop levels dramatically after taking office and completing his “surge” between late 2009 and 2012. But leaving thousands of U.S. soldiers in a country and tasking them with carrying out combat missions is not ending a war. Branding it as the conclusion of a war may be politically expedient, but it’s also disingenuous. Operation Resolute Support is a new mission, but it is war, with a new name.”

  • Pat

    The British were out to conquer the Afghans. It was WAR!
    What did you expect? Do you think the “natives” wee going to sit there twiddling their thumbs?

    Meanwhile, the Brits in India did the massacring there….not only of “native” soldiers and male civilians but women and kiddies, too. The Brits put down any one that said “no” to them. The Brits. caused a widespread starvation in India, famines, causing the deaths of Indians,by the millions, by taking the wheat harvests for the use of themselves, the Brits. The Brits wanted to corner the market in cheap cloth, to to prevent the Indians from producing the splendid cloths for their own market, the English rounded up the great Master weavers, the skilled weavers and cut off their thumbs. So! No more weaving.

    Even up to the time of WWII, when the Brits were fighting Hitler for the cause of freedom and “democracy,” they were putting down freedom, torturing and killing the Hindus in India. What a joke, eh?

    And you should read about what the Engl. did to the conquered Germans after WWII! The outright pillage, killings and rapings of women and girls, not only in Germany, but in France and Italy. This from the Americans, also, not to mention the savages of the Soviets.

    So, the Brits were NOT examples of ethics or mercy or compassion, either.

  • Jason

    Dr Brydon was a remarkable man, serving also through the Siege of Lucknow with his wife and two of his children.
    His wife has remarkable military ties, being married to the so called “Last survivor” of the retreat to Jallalabad. She was named Colina Maxwell Macintyre after her uncles Colin and Maxwell Mackenzie who both died in the Peninsula wars, serving with the 71st foot during the Napoleonic wars. Her brother Donald Macintyre and her brother in law were both also recipients of the Victoria cross.

  • antony goddard

    Linda Colley treated this Afghan war in her book “Hostages”.
    Personally I am fascinated that the Afghan venture of the time
    involved Rawlinson, famous for decoding the Taq-e-Bistun rock face
    inscriptions. The British seemed to find a way of fouling things
    up despite expert advice.

  • Steve

    Yes absolutely brilliant – and what first led me to start researching Burnes.”

    A great and worthy plug for the brilliant Macdonald-Fraser. His Flashman series was fantastic but he did a lot of other good stuff that was unrelated to this genre. One that stands out for me was ‘Black Ajax’, a true account of bare-knuckle boxing back in olden times. Brilliant writing. If anyone is particularly interested in the Afghan/High Asia genre I would recommend they also look into Peter Hopkirk who sadly passed away in August. ‘The Great Game’ is a great primer to the whole genre. I look forward to your own book being published.

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