The original Lone Survivor, Dr. William Brydon was the only member of an army of 4,500 men to survive Afghan tribal fighters and reach safety today in 1842. Now WE know em


William Brydon was born October 10, 1811 in London.

He studied medicine at University College London and at the University of Edinburgh.

First Anglo-Afghan War

In 1838, Dr. William Brydon became an assistant surgeon in the British East India Company Army during the First Anglo-Afghan War.

The war was one of the first major conflicts during the Great Game, the 19th century competition for power and influence in Asia between the United Kingdom and Russia.

In December of 1838, Dr. Brydon and an army of 21,000 British and Indian troops under the command of John Keane, 1st Baron Keane set out from Punjab in December of 1838.

By late March 1839 the British forces had crossed the Bolan Pass, reached the Afghan city of Quetta, and begun their march to Kabul.

They advanced through rough terrain, across deserts and 4,000-metre-high mountain passes, but made good progress and finally set up camp at Kandahar on April 25, 1839.

On July 22, 1839, in a surprise attack, the British-led forces captured the fortress of Ghazni, which overlooks a plain leading eastward into the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Following this, the British achieved a decisive victory over Dost Mohammad’s troops. Dost Mohammad fled with his loyal followers across the passes to Bamyan, and ultimately to Bukhara.

The majority of the British troops returned to India, leaving 8,000 including Dr. Brydon in Afghanistan.

The Afghans resented the British presence and the rule of Shah Shuja. As the occupation dragged on, William Hay Macnaghten allowed his soldiers to bring their families to Afghanistan to improve morale; this further infuriated the Afghans, as it appeared the British were setting up a permanent occupation.

Dost Mohammad unsuccessfully attacked the British and their Afghan protégé, and subsequently surrendered and was exiled to India in late in 1840.

By this time, the British had vacated the fortress of Bala Hissar and relocated to a cantonment built to the northeast of Kabul. The chosen location was indefensible, being low and swampy with hills on every side. To make matters worse, the cantonment was too large for the number of troops camped in it and had a defensive perimeter almost two miles long. In addition, the stores and supplies were in a separate fort, 300 yards from the main cantonment.

Between April and October 1841, disaffected Afghan tribes were flocking to support Dost Mohammad’s son, Akbar Khan, in Bamiyan and other areas north of the Hindu Kush mountains, organised into an effective resistance by chiefs such as Mir Masjidi Khan and others.

In November 1841, a senior British officer, Sir Alexander ‘Sekundar’ Burnes, and his aides were killed by a mob in Kabul. The British forces took no action in response, which encouraged further revolt.

The British situation soon deteriorated when Afghans stormed the poorly defended supply fort inside Kabul on November 9.

In the following weeks the British commanders tried to negotiate with Akbar Khan.

Macnaghten secretly offered to make Akbar Afghanistan’s vizier in exchange for allowing the British to stay, while simultaneously disbursing large sums of money to have him assassinated, which was reported to Akbar Khan.

A meeting for direct negotiations between Macnaghten and Akbar was held near the cantonment on December 23rd, but Macnaghten and the three officers accompanying him were seized and slain by Akbar Khan.

Macnaghten’s body was dragged through the streets of Kabul and displayed in the bazaar.

Elphinstone had partly lost command of his troops and his authority was badly damaged.

Then on January 1, 1842, following some unusual thinking by Elphinstone, which may have had something to do with the poor defensibility of the cantonment, an agreement was reached that provided for the safe exodus of the British garrison and its dependants from Afghanistan.

Five days later, the British withdrawal from Kabul began.

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

Under the command of Major-General William George Keith Elphinstone, the departing British contingent numbered around 16,500 including Dr. Brydon, of which about 4,500 were military personnel, and over 12,000 were camp followers.

They set out for Jalalabad on January 6, 1842, with the understanding that they had been offered safe passage.

However, they were continually attacked by Ghilzai warriors as they struggled through the snowbound passes.


Afghan forces attacking retreating troops

Afghan forces attacking retreating troops

The evacuees were killed in huge numbers as they made their way down the 30 miles of treacherous gorges and passes lying along the Kabul River between Kabul and Gandamak.


Final Stand

The final stand took place at Gandamak on the morning of January 13, 1842 in the snow.

Twenty officers, forty-five British soldiers as well as Dr. Brydon, found themselves surrounded on a hillock.


Last stand of the 44th at Gandamak, painted by William Barnes Wollen

Last stand of the 44th at Gandamak, painted by William Barnes Wollen

The Afghans attempted to persuade the soldiers that they intended them no harm.

Towards the end, a running battle through two feet of snow, the ground was frozen, the men had no shelter and had little food for weeks.

Of the weapons remaining to the survivors, there were approximately a dozen working muskets, the officers’ pistols and a few swords.

At the Gandamak pass, all were killed by Afghan tribal fighters except Dr. William Brydon, Captain James Souter, Sergeant Fair and seven soldiers.

Captain Souter, Sgt. Fair and the other soldiers were captured and taken prisoner.


Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Butler depicting the arrival of assistant surgeon, William Brydon, at Jalalabad on January 13, 1842.

Remnants of an Army by Elizabeth Butler depicting the arrival of assistant surgeon, William Brydon, at Jalalabad on January 13, 1842.

On the afternoon of January 13, 1842 the British troops in Jalalabad, watching for their comrades of the Kabul garrison, saw a single figure ride up to the town walls.

It was Dr. William Brydon perched on his dying horse.

The horse reportedly died upon arrival in the city.

Part of Dr. Brydon’s skull had been sheared off by an Afghan sword and 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.

Brydon became widely, if inaccurately, famous for 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.

A “Greek merchant”, a Mr Baness, also made it to Jalalabad, arriving two days after Dr. Brydon but survived for only one day.

Dr. William Brydon went to fight in the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852, when Rangoon was taken.

In the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, Dr. Brydon was a regimental doctor at Lucknow and, along with his wife and children, survived his second siege, that of the Lucknow residency, in which he was badly wounded in the thigh.

In November of 1858, Dr. Brydon was appointed a Companion of the Order of the Bath.

His wife, Colina Maxwell Brydon, went on to publish a memoir of this siege.

Dr. William Brydon died at his home Westfield near Nigg in Ross-shire] on March 20, 1873, and is buried in Rosemarkie churchyard alongside his brother-in-law Donald MacIntyre VC.

Now WE know em



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