On this day January 13, 1842

When he reached the safety of a garrison in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, William Brydon, an assistant surgeon in the British Army during the First Anglo-Afghan War, became the sole European survivor of a party of over 4,500 military personnel and over 10,000 civilian camp followers retreating from Kabul, excluding a few prisoners released later.

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Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Butler

The British Army began its retreat from Kabul in January 1842 following the killing of the two British representatives there.

The nearest British garrison was in Jalalabad, 90 miles (140 km) away, and the army would need to go through mountain passes with the January snow hindering them.

4,500 military personnel under the command of Major-General William George Keith Elphinstone, and over 10,000 civilian camp followers, including wives and children, set out for Jalalabad on 6 January with the understanding that they had been offered safe passage.

Afghan tribesmen intercepted them and proceeded to massacre them during the next seven days. A small number of prisoners were taken; these were freed by the British at a later date. Many of the Indian soldiers and camp followers captured were enslaved and only few found their way home again.

On 13 January, Dr. Brydon rode, alone, up to the gates of Jalalabad. He became famous for being the only European survivor of the entire contingent to have escaped the Afghan guerrillas.

Part of his skull had been sheared off by an Afghan sword. In fact, he survived only because he had stuffed a copy of Blackwood’s Magazine into his hat to fight the intense cold weather. The magazine took most of the blow, saving the doctor’s life.

The episode was made the subject of a famous painting by the Victorian artist, Lady Butler, who portrayed Dr. Brydon hobbling to the gates of the Jalalabad fort perched on his dying horse (which dropped dead upon arrival in the city). The painting is titled Remnants of an Army.

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