Dr. William Brydon and the massacre of the British force in Afghanistan in 1842

The Military Collection recently acquired a fine colored photogravure after Lady Elizabeth Butler’s well-known 1879 Royal Academy painting, The Remnants of the Army. This depicts the ‘sole survivor’ of a British force of 16,000 soldiers and civilians that was attacked and destroyed near Gandamak, Afghanistan in January 1842 during the First Afghan War. The picture represents the thirty-year old Scottish assistant surgeon, Dr. William Brydon, wounded and exhausted, riding his worn-out and wounded pony, approaching the fortified city of Jalalabad. His approach has been spotted by the garrison of the fort and troopers ride out to meet him.

Butler Remnants


As the subtitle of the print incorrectly suggests, the doctor was the only one to survive the massacre. However this has been debated by various authors including William Dalrymple in his recent book Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, 1839-1842. Following his arrival at Jalalabad, Brydon gave a full report of the events and this has been analyzed in a 1983 article by William Trousdale. It now appears that others survived and made it back to Jalalabad.

During the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880, the Peshawar Field Force camped at Jalalabad for several months, and William Simpson, the artist of the Illustrated London News who was embedded with the column investigated the site of the 1842 massacre, the former British encampment, and the accounts of Dr. Brydon’s arrival at Jalalabad. With the same field force was Major John James Bailey, Paymaster of the 4th Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. According to a note in Simpson’s album, ‘Major Bailey was in the 13th Reg. and served under [General Sir Robert] Sale in the illustrious defence of Jellalabad. He received his commission and returned again in 1878 with the Rifles, and was the only man who could point out to us the various spots connected with the first war’. Simpson’s autobiography repeated this: ‘One day he took us to the spots that were connected with events in the siege. First we went to the Kabul gate and he pointed out the spot where Dr. Bryden [sic], the solitary survivor of the of an army, was first seen approaching Jellalabad…Bailey described to me the costume worn by Dr. Bryden on his coming in, and I made one or two sketches till I satisfied him of the likeness’.

Simpson Dr Brydon


Mounted in Simpson’s Afghan album is Bailey’s letter to him dated ‘Camp Jellalabad, December 29, 1878’:

Dear Mr. Simpson:

Have seen your sketch of Dr. Brydon as he rode into Jallalabad on the 13th January 1842. And as well as I can remember after a lapse of thirty seven years I consider it a very fine representation of both man and pony. Dr. Brydon and three other officers made a dash to ride to Jallalabad but unfortunately the other three entered a village not many miles from here and were killed by an Afghan Piquet. Dr. Brydon was then pursued and received a cut on his right arm which fell over the front of his saddle and his assailants believing he was drawing a pistol rode away from him. In the meantime he had been seen by the Officer on duty at the Cabool Gate of Jallalabad who reported that a soldier of the 44th just was riding towards the fort, the doctor having a 44th soldier’s forage cap caused him to be mistaken at first for a soldier of that Regt. Our cavalry immediately got ready and dashed across the plain and brought the doctor in. I believe the pony he rode died the same night from the effects of the long ride he had to handle. I am not entirely certain where those officers commenced their ride from, but I fancy it must have been from the Jugdullick Pass, as had they been with the small party that reached, and was cut up at Gundamuck they would not be able to escape the large force of Afghans that had assembled there, and where the last stand was made.

I remain

Respectfully Yours

J.J. Bailey, Major

Paymaster 4th Bn. Rifle Brigade

Simpson exhibited a water-color of ‘The Sole Survivor’ at the exhibition of the Institute of Painters in Water-Colour, London, in December 1879, and the reviewer in the Illustrated London News noted that the picture was “painted from sketches on the spot and descriptions lately furnished to the artist by Major Bailey, an eye-witness of Dr. Brydon’s arrival – the subject treated so pathetically also by Miss Thompson [Lady Butler].”

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