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].

53 thoughts on “The Myth of the Last Man

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  • Mary

    Good one Craig.

    Does anyone know that Obomber has renamed Operation Enduring Freedom? Another YCNMIU.

    It is now called Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.

    Renaming Afghan War, Renaming Murder
    by David Swanson / December 29th, 2014

    ‘The U.S. government has spent nearly a trillion dollars on this war, plus roughly 13 trillion dollars in standard military spending over 13 years, a rate of spending radically increased by using this war and related wars as the justification. Tens of billions of dollars could end starvation on earth, provide the globe with clean water, etc. We could have saved millions of lives and chose to kill thousands instead. The war has been a leading destroyer of the natural environment. We’ve tossed our civil liberties out the window in the name of “freedom.” We’ve produced so many weapons they’ve had to be shuffled off to local police departments, with predictable results. A claim that something good has come and is coming and will continue to come for many future years from this war is worth looking into.’

    David Swanson is an anti-war activist and blogger at War Is a Crime.

  • BrianPowell

    I’ve read accounts of the retreat from Kabul from different sources, looking forward to this. It’s often difficult to make out the reality of what happened, and I often felt something didn’t make sense.

  • Resident Dissident

    A certain Charles Edward Stuart managed to get away from Culloden leaving his troops behind for the ensuing massacre. His escape has also been the subject of not a little eulogy even to the present day.

  • Geoffrey Miller

    Don’t you think the sneering tone a little overdone? Sergeant-Major Lissant’s account is hardly conclusive and, as even that repository of not-always-factual information, Wikpedia, makes clear:

    “Brydon became widely, if inaccurately, known as being the only survivor of the entire army. 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. These included Sir Robert Sale’s wife Lady Sale, though not Elphinstone who died in captivity. Nor was Brydon the only European to survive the trek from Kabul to Jalalabad without spending time in captivity; by Brydon’s own account a “Greek merchant”, a Mr Baness, also made it to Jalalabad, arriving two days after Brydon but surviving for only one day. In addition a small number of Indian sepoys reached Jalabad on foot over the subsequent weeks.”

  • craig Post author

    Geoffrey Miller,

    I stated that it was now generally accepted that Brydon was not the sole survivor. What is not generally understood is the abandonment of the troops by their mounted officers. If you read Lissom’s account together with Brydon’s account, in the context that they and particularly Lissom were still both constrained as serving in the army when they gave these statements, it is very plain indeed what happened. The Afghan folklore account recorded by Dupree is 100% consistent with Lissom.

  • Abe Rene

    Why not take the stuff that you can’t put into your historical work (like this) and make a novel of it, which intends to tell the truth through fiction? Then it won’t be lost.

  • craig Post author

    Ba’al Zevul. I accept that with no offence taken at all. I am outstandingly brilliant at politics. But still much better at historical research!! 🙂

  • Peacewisher

    @Mary: Obama seems to have completely lost it. Reminder that as recently as November he was being warned by Kissinger that his actions were creating a new cold war…

    But he seems to have taken no notice. Now, the US equipment from Afghanistan is to be handed to the Ukrainians… presumably for a madcap attack on Crimea, which some of their own crazy leaders are screaming to launch:

    Oh, how history repeats itself.

  • Abe Rene

    @ Craig “I am outstandingly brilliant at politics.”
    Unless you’re joking, that could be potentially a damaging admission. 🙂

  • Frazer

    I have travelled that same road twice by car, once in winter. It is still daunting and brutal even now.

  • lysias

    One learns from Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal that the suppression of the Great Mutiny in 1859 was so brutal that, if it does not deserve to be called genocide, it certainly deserves to be called mass murder. (Of course, the same can be said of the suppression of the Irish rebellion in 1798 and no doubt many other less famous atrocities of the British Empire.)

  • HarryLaw

    In that post you took down recently, I speculated that in the event you failed in your attempt to get into Westminster you should audition to be the next James Bond [or M] since you are both younger, better looking and probably have more money than Connery [He has his offshore]he being a mere actor, whereas you were the real thing [involved with MI5 and MI6] and have all the ladies swooning over you,on this blog at least, they think you are a legend on your own webpage. I was wrong, you should be a standup comedian, with this line to close your act “I am outstandingly brilliant at politics” that should bring the house down. Seriously, I do think you are very good at politics and share your opinions on many matters,you have so much more to offer to UK politics as a whole, I hope this little setback, bad as it must be personally to you, does not stop you speaking out on all the other important political issues we face. Your line at 12-20 proves you have not lost your sense of humour.

  • Anon

    So your sources for this “stain in the records of the British army” are a single Sargeant-Major and an Afghan folklore account. It looks like you have set out to stain them. You would have been on much firmer ground concentrating on the appalling indecision and faltering leadership behind this episode, for which there is ample source material, but instead and on flimsy evidence you have tried to show that the army officers were cowards who deserted their men.

  • farrukh

    Many men simply switched sides, including elements of the Gurkhas and other Indian troops. This was in large part due to the lack of professional decision making over the speed of the retreat and procrastination. It is clear from Brydon’s account that desertion occurred. The officers including Brydon who was a Doctor simply abandoned the other ranks. Brydon had nothing to gain by detailing this. Brydon does mention during the retreat that he was slowed down by a soldier holding onto his horse’s tail and surfing along. Some officers did however remain with the

  • Ba'al Zevul

    So your sources for this “stain in the records of the British army” are a single Sargeant- (sic -BZ) Major and an Afghan folklore account. It looks like you have set out to stain them. You would have been on much firmer ground concentrating on the appalling indecision and faltering leadership behind this episode, for which there is ample source material, but instead and on flimsy evidence you have tried to show that the army officers were cowards who deserted their men.

    Sergeant-Major Lissant’s account can be found here:

    Generally speaking, Army NCO’s, even up to the present day, have ‘got their knees brown’ and have a much better idea of what is actually going on, as opposed to what HQ would like to be going on, than either the officers or the other ranks. That is, after all, their function. Lissant’s account looks like the truth as he saw it. It also looks like a complete clusterfuck, during which routine defensive measures were not taken, and ‘sauve qui peut’ became the order of the day, by default. I think any serving officer would agree that this indicates gross dereliction of duty by the officers of the time.

    I grant you, the traditional Afghan accounts are likely to be no more accurate than those of the patriotic PR machine- but no less, given the oral tradition in Afghanistan, and the motivation for the officers responsible to cover their arses.

  • craig Post author


    That really is a pathetic reaction to the revelation that it all didn’t happen like you read in the Boys’ Own Paper. Sergeant Major Lissant is an excellent source and absolutely consistent with Brydon; the Afghan folk memory is entirely consistent with both. There is no original evidence in contradiction of these accounts.

  • jo

    The British army was always portrayed better than they actually are In reality the British Soldiery is a loud rabble of drunken ignorami led by incompetent university prigs.

  • Calgacus

    On a more serious note Craig, I have just received a copy of “The Blood Never Dried” concerning the atrocities of the British Empire. At first glance it seems that your experiences in Uzbekistan were just the old ways outsourced.

  • Luis

    History as recorded is always a collection of feel good stories dictated by the state to mentally condition (brainwash) the masses.

  • CanSpeccy

    The army was in a rout. Those with horses retreated with the greatest speed. Had the mounted officers stayed with their men, what difference would it have made? If they had rallied the men to stand and fight, would it have lessened the casualties? These are questions men had to decide for themselves in the heat of the moment. Under such circumstances, who can honestly claim to know what they would have done had they been in the same predicament? Peter the Great abandoned his army at the battle of Mollwitz — a battle that the Prussians won despite the doubtful prospect in the early going.

  • Anon


    The revelation? I don’t doubt that Sargeant-Major Pissant is an excellent source but he is one source and as much as I don’t have a source to counter him (why should there be one?), you do not have anything else excepting your Afghan folk memory stuff. Brydon does not corroborate what you claim.

    “that it all didn’t happen like you read in the Boys’ Own Paper”

    Craig, I’ve already said it was a disaster and if you want more of my opinion then it broadly corresponds with that of my great-great uncle, General Sir William Butler, that our double-dealing with the Afghan rulers was a disgrace and that the whole campaign was a criminal waste of money and lives, poorly led, poorly thought out and revoltingly arrogant in its presumptions.

    Your bias however is evident. You start off from a standpoint of dislike for the British and seek to make the research fit that grudge you have allowed to pervade all your work. This is Delhi University PhD material, I’m afraid, so well done for cutting it.

  • Ba'al Zevul

    Would that be Maj-Gen Sir William Francis Butler, Anon? Born 1838? Strange resonance in the Wikipedia biog –

    n 1898 he succeeded General William Howley Goodenough as commander-in-chief in South Africa, with the local rank of lieutenant-general. For a short period (December 1898 – February 1899), during the absence of Sir Alfred Milner in England, he acted as high commissioner, and as such, and subsequently in his military capacity, he expressed views on the subject of the probabilities of war which were not approved by the home government; he was consequently ordered home to command the western district, and held this post until 1905.

    I imagine someone who was four years old at the time of the retreat, and doesn’t seem to have been much concerned with Afghanistan, would attract your derision if he were posting today. And a maverick whistleblower, too!

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