Despite the murder of the last representative to meet with Akbar, Elphinstone met with Akbar and an agreement was made for safe passage through the Khyber passes to Jalalabad in the east, in exchange for all cannons and many of the newer muskets.
Safety being guaranteed to the sick and wounded, Elphinstone left them behind and set out to the pass. Soon the British looked back and saw smoke from their camp and it was all but a certainty that those left behind were killed, especially when there was no sign of Akbar’s promised troops to escort the troops through the pass. With limited food and their best weapons handed to the enemy, the British struggled forward towards the pass and the ninety-mile road to safety.
The British had a little less than 5,000 soldiers, with most being Indian infantry, but the number of family and other camp followers brought the number up to around 16,000. Afghan numbers a difficult to tell with the rebellious and tribal organization, but the rebellion had a great deal of support, so numbers between 20-30,000 are possible. The first day the group got only five miles and had to survive the freezing night temperatures keeping in mind that any fires would give snipers a good view of potential victims.
Once again Akbar sent a message to Elphinstone to exchange British hostages for ceasing hostilities and allowing for safe passage, and again Elphinstone complied only to lose men and have hostilities continue. The delay of negotiations simply allowed Akbar to set an even better trap further up the road where the mountain pass narrowed. Entrenched snipers shot from the safety of cliffs as the British struggled to the top of a pass only to face a raging blizzard. This day likely caused the most casualties and the next day Elphinstone voluntarily surrendered the civilians thinking they would have better chances at survival as prisoners than they would subjected to the elements.
After another meeting request, Elphinstone went himself, and Akbar simply captured him and his officers leaving the 1,000 or so remaining soldiers leaderless with roughly seventy miles to go. The remaining troops attempted a night march but ran into a wall of wood and formidable thorn bushes. A majority of the 1,000 soldiers were killed trying to scale this wall or dispatched by soldiers on the other side. The survivors who somehow made it past numbered in the dozens.
These survivors gathered the horses they could and galloped as fast as they could but met multiple pockets of resistance. A group of twenty made a last stand on a hill refusing to surrender and put up a fierce fight before falling. A few made it to a small town and sought safety, but most were killed on arrival and the rest were shot as they attempted to flee on their horses.
A week after the British set off on their journey to Jalalabad, one lone soldier, Dr. William Brydon rode to the gates of the city with near fatal wounds and a soon dead horse. Brydon had several slash and stab wounds and had part of his skull sheared off by a sword blow. His last battle with the Afghans occurred within sight of the city, and a rescue party had to be sent out to save him. When asked where the army was, Brydon replied, “I am the army.”
Ultimately several hundred, likely thousands of civilians and officers survived as captives, but Dr. Brydon was the only active soldier to complete the ninety-mile march.
The entire campaign, starting from the deposition of Dost Mohammed was a series of terrible planning and horrible decisions, or no decisions at all. Dost Mohammed had some issues with the British, but after regaining his rule, he would eventually be a solid ally of the British. The modest garrison and poor camp design forced a desperate escape. Deep in foreign territory, the retreat was hopeless, and the gullible Elphinstone grasped at every hope of negotiation rather than accept the hard road and pushing with purpose.
The British eventually led a successful punitive campaign, and many prisoners were regained. Dr. Brydon continued to serve with distinction and lived a long life after the incident, and died peacefully in his home at 61.
By William McLaughlin for War History Online