Dr. Brydon's Report of the Kabul Disaster and Documentation of History, William Trousdale
Published in Khyber.ORG on Thursday, September 9 2004 (http://www.khyber.org)
Publishing Date: Thursday, September 9 2004
Rendered From: Remnants of an Army; by Lady Elizabeth Butler at the Tate Gallery in London (Dr. Brydon's arrival at Jalalabad on 13th of January 1842)
The single most important event of the first Afghan War (1838-42) is the virtual destruction of the British Army in the wintry mountainous terrain between Kabul and Jalalabad in 1842. Only one man survived to write an account of this terrible ordeal, and all subsequent retellings are based upon this report. Yet the document itself remains unknown, and the possibility exists that it may have been destroyed by the officer at whose command it was written.
In 1874 Sir George Lawrence published as an appendix to his Reminiscences of Forty-Three Years in India a "Copy of William Brydon's Account from memory, and Memoranda made on Arrival at Jalalabad, of the Retreat from Cabool in 1842."  For nearly a century this was thought to be the only authentic document providing details of that famed tragedy. It was a tale Dr. Brydon was doubtless often called upon to repeat in succeeding years and one which remained an account of astonishing personal endurance. Yet it remains a modest and straightforward recollection, recording not only the destruction of an encumbered force of some 16,500 souls in disarray and panic, but strictly personal and irrelevant details of the sort one who has passed through an ordeal of this magnitude would remember still years after the event. This final version of Dr. Brydon's account is, as one would expect, much expanded from the report he made to General Sale at Jalalabad. My concern is with that first report and the manner in which the documentation of actual events may be affected by timely imperatives.
In 1967 Louis and Nancy Hatch Dupree published a transcript, together with two indistinct facsimile pages, of the report as given by Assistant Surgeon William Brydon to General Robert Sale at Jalalabad.  This was the first written account of the disaster, composed by the sole European to reach that town, wounded, exhausted, and alone, thereafter to be popularly, though erroneously, cited as the only survivor of those harrowing days.
The events in general of those eight terrible days have long been known, and Dr. Brydon's report, as the Dupree's observe, adds no new information. Its significance is that of a valuable corroborative historical document.
The report is alleged by the Dupree's to be in Dr. Brydon's own handwriting. It bears his signature at the end and is countersigned by Lieut. H. Wade. At the heading "Jalalabad Jany. 19th 1842" is recorded. The report is written in General Sale's Letter Book, but is clearly not by his hand.  According to the Dupree's, General Sale kept his brigade records in strict, almost obsessive privacy until his death at Mudki in 1845 during the First Sikh War, and Dr. Brydon's report was evidently not seen by contemporary historians writing on the First Afghan War. There is some evidence that Sale may have tried, unsuccessfully, to sequester the papers of other officers with his brigade in Jalalabad during the Winter of 1841-42. 
This report was thus composed at the request of General Sale six days after Brydon's celebrated arrival before Jalalabad just after noon on 13 January, an event witnessed with considerable emotion by many among the beleaguered defenders of this town and commemorated in the renowned romantic painting by Lady Butler. Among those present in Jalalabad on this day was Captain Julius Brockman Backhouse who kept, in a somewhat desultory fashion, a diary during the protracted siege of the town.  Backhouse does not claim to have seen personally the exhausted Brydon approach Jalalabad; in fact, he was apparently too busy to compose an entry for 13 January.  But on the following day he described the event:
Yesterday it had been impossible to write the horrible news of the day, and my soul is now filled with anguish at the melancholy catastrophe which has overtaken the Cabool Force ---- all are lost ---- the force is annihilated to a man. ---- Yesterday, about 1 P.M., Brydon, an Assistant Surgeon, of the Shah's Service, reached this place, (on a horse scarcely able to move another yard) wounded and bruised from head to foot with stones, and he, alone, has arrived to tell the fearful tale.
Written with evident emotion, this report of the disaster was soon proven to be not strictly accurate, and in the following days Backhouse records the appearance at Jalalabad of several other survivors in no less distressed condition.
Backhouse's next entry in his diary, and the one which is of primary concern here, was written on Thursday, 20 January, and it is here transcribed in full. I have retained the line length of the MS. diary since some eccentricities of capitalization and punctuation may prove to be related as much to the copying as to the original text. Deleted words are shown with a single line drawn through them.
"Doctor Brydon having sufficiently recovered to give, to General Sale a written account, in a brief general statement of the disastrous Retreat of the Cabool Force, I shall record the same in this Book. ----
5 An account from memory of the March of the Troops
It was given out to the Troops, on the 5th Instant, that, the
arrangements had been completed for our retreat to Hindustan. Such of
the sick and wounded as were unable to march
were left under the medical charge of Doctors Berwick
10 and Campbell, and Lieut.. Evans of HM.: 44th in Command.
Capt. Drummond; Capt. Walsh; Lieut.. J. Conolly;
Lt. Webb, Warburton & Airey, were placed, as Hostages,
in the hands of Mohamed Zaman Khan The sick were
lodged in Taimur Shah's fort; the Hostages with the new King.
15 We marched from Cantonments about 9 A.M. on the
6th of January; The 5th NI. formed the Advanced Guard
with a hundred Sappers and the Guns of the Mountain Train,
under Brigadier Anquetil next came the main body, under
Brigadier Shelton, followed by the Baggage, to rear of which
20 came the 6th. Regiment SSF. Lastly, the Rear Guard,
composed of the 5th Light Cavalry and the 54th NI. with two
H: A: Guns and the remainder of the Sappers all the
Guns, excepting those of the HA: and MT: were left
in the Cantonments, together with a large quantity of
25 Magazine Stores. The Rear Guard had no sooner
marched out of the Cantonments (which they did not effect
until dusk) than they were fired upon from the Ramparts; Lieut..
Hardyman 5th L.C. was Killed at this time, and
the place set on fire. A great quantity of property,
30 Public and private, was carried off between the Cantonments and Seea
Sung hill, at which place the two Guns-ef.
with the Rear Guard were abandoned The Rear
Guard arrived at its ground across the Loghar river
about midnight Though this March was not more than
35 5. miles, a great number of women and children perished
in the snow, which was about 6. Inches deep. -----------
We marched, on the Morning of the 7th (Advance Guard
the 54th NI. Rear Guard the 44th Foot and Mountain-Train)
to Boot-Khak, a distance of about 5. Miles the whole
40 Road from Cabool, at this time, being one dense mass of
people In this march, as in the former, the loss of
property was immense and towards the end of it
there was some sharp fighting, in which Lieut.. Shaw, of
the 54th NI. had his thigh fractured by a shot The
45 Guns of the Mountain-Train were carried off by the
Enemy, and either two or three of those of the Horse Artillery were
spiked and abandoned. ----------------
On the following Morning, the 8th, we moved through the Khoord
Cabool Pass (our troops did not attempt to crown the
50 heights) with considerable loss of life and property the heights
were in possession of the Enemy who poured down an incessant
fire upon our Column Lieut.. Sturt, of the Engineers, was
Killed by a shot in the groin, and Captain Anderson's eldest
child was missing when we arrived, at our ground, at Khoord
55 Cabool Captain Troup was also wounded. ------------
The next day, the 9th all the Baggage which remained to us
was loaded and off the ground by about 9. o'clock, when it was
recalled and orders given for a halt which, owing to the intense
cold at this elevated spot, proved exceedingly destructive of the
60 Sepoy's and Camp followers at this place the married officers,
with their wives and families, and also the wounded officers,
were delivered over to Mohamed Akbar for safe convoy to
Jalalabad, much difficulty being expected on the road for the
65 On the Morning of the 10th we resumed our March
over the Huft Kotal towards Tezeen So terrible had
been the effects of the cold and exposure upon the
Native Troops that they were unable to resist the
attacks of the Enemy, who pressed on our flanks
70 and Rear and upon arriving at the Valley of Tezeen,
towards Evening, a mere handful remained of the
Native Regiments which had left Cabool. -------------
We halted a few hours at Tezeen and found that five
officers of the 5th NI.; one of the 37th NI.; one of the 54th, and
75 four Doctors, were Killed or missing and three European
women, and one or two Soldiers of the 44th were carried
off by the Enemy; after a rest of a few hours, and
when it was quite dark, our diminished party again
moved on leaving the last of the Horse Artillery Guns
80 on the ground: the Cavalry being the advanced Guard.
We marched all night and arrived in the Morning at
Kutta Sung [eight words deleted (see below)]
having sustained some loss from the Enemy, who fired upon
us from the heights during the whole time We remained
85 about an hour at Kutta Sung, where, from the nature
of the ground, it was not deemed advisable to halt; ----
We again pushed on towards Jigdalak, where we
arrived about noon; still hard pressed by the
enemy from the hills; Lieut.. Fortye of HM.: 44th
90 was killed close to our ground; shortly after arriving at
which, General Elphinstone; Brigadier Shelton; and
Captain Johnson, went over to Akbar Khan as Hostages
for the March of the Troops from Jalalabad; Here
we halted the next day, but were greatly annoyed
95 by the constant fire of the Enemy who had possession
of all the surrounding hills many officers and men
were wounded, and Captain Skinner, of the Commissariat,
Killed by this fire; About an hour after dark an
order was given to march, owing (I believe) to a note being received
100 from General Elphinstone telling us to
push on at all hazards, as treachery was suspected: ----owing to this
unexpected move on our part, we found
the abattis, and other impediments which had been
thrown across the Jigdalak Pass, undefended by the Enemy, who,
105 nevertheless, pressed upon our Rear, and
cut up great numbers The confusion now was
terrible all discipline was at an end, and the
shouts of "Halt," and, "Keep back the Cavalry" were
incessant The only Cavalry were the officers who were
110 the officers who weremounted and a few Sowars (the
Cavalry were at Jigdalak, but, I do not remember
them afterwards) Just after 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,
115 finding it was perfectly hopeless to remain with men in such
a state, had gone ahead to form a kind of advanced
Guard But, as 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. ---
120 Our Party became broken up as we proceeded, till, on
arriving at Fatehabad, it consisted of Captains Bellew,
andHopkins, and Collyer; Lt. Bird, Steer, & Gray;
Doctor Harper; Sergeant Freil, and about five other
Europeans Captain Bellew & Lieut.. Bird were cut
125 down near Fatehabad, and also Lieut.. Gray and the
Europeans --- Captains Hopkins & Collyer and Dr. Harper,
being well mounted, soon left Lieut.. Steer and myself
far behind About three miles from Jalalabad, Lieut..
Steer told me he would hide till night, and left the
road to do so I pushed on alone, and, with great
difficulty reached this place about 1 P.M. on the 13th ----
Time will, doubtless, reveal the true History of all that took place at Cabool at present, we, at least, know, for certain, that, a most blind confidence, totally unwarranted, brought about the danger, and, that, imbecility, unprecedented, completed the catastrophe.
Captain Julius Brockman Backhouse
Portrait presumed painted upon his being graduated from Addiscombe, 1821
(Courtesy Mr. Thomas H. Backhouse)
Nothing in more than a century has emerged to invalidate Backhouse's early assessment of this tragedy.
IF we disregard in the Dupree transcription what are obvious typesetter's errors, the points of difference between the two versions are still so numerous that they cannot be accounted for by a supposed failure of Backhouse to make a correct copy. There is, to begin with, no introductory sentence of address to General Sale. This might, of course, have been omitted by Backhouse. But it is hardly credible that he would have supplied a title (Line-1)  where none existed, at least one which contains some resemblance to the sentence of address in the Sale MS.
Differences in the body of the report begin with the opening line (Line-2) which in the Sale MS. is transcribed: "It had been announced to the troops on the 5th Jany ..." Doctors (Line-5) become in Sale "Asst. Surgeons." The sick were lodged (Line-9-10) becomes "The hospital was established ..." Lines 4-6 may serve to illustrate the kind of restructuring and rephrasing encountered throughout; in the Sale MS. they read: "Lieut.. Evans of H. M. 44th Foot was left in command of such of the sick & wounded, as were unable to march, with Asstt. Surgeons Berwick and Campbell in medical charge." The punctuation of the two MSS. is quite different.
There is a formal literary quality to the Sale MS which is absent from the Backhouse. Fired upon from the Ramparts (Line-23) becomes "saluted with a volley from the ramparts." The Back-house MS exhibits the kind of spontaneity we should expect of difficult and painful recollection (Line-21-32, 33-34, 44-51), requiring awkwardly introduced parenthetical supplements which appear to be incorporated with great polish into the Sale MS.
The differences between the two MSS. are not, however, confined to what might be considered editorial ones; the actual information supplied is in places altered or expanded in the Sale MS. Lieut.. Shaw (Line-39) becomes Capt. Shaw; in place of mere numbers of officers and doctors killed or missing on 10 January (Line-69-71), the name of each is supplied. Where the Backhouse MS. cites the name of a single slain officer (Line-93), the Sale MS. provides an additional six. In the months that followed, Brydon would naturally recollect additional details, perhaps at times combining memory with subsequently known facts. But such differences should not appear in two copies of a supposed discrete document made within 24 hours of each other.
Belonging to a distinctly separate category are several differences which transform the character of the information supplied. Lines 45-46 in Backhouse, a parenthetical thought which might be construed as reflecting unfavourably upon the officers commanding, are deleted from the Sale MS. Likewise, lines 105-108, which must be viewed as a desertion of the troops by the cavalry, do not appear in the Sale MS. "Suspected" treachery (Line-97) is converted to "intended," as if a higher degree of certainty regarding the future actions of the Afghans was desired as justification for the precipitate movement onward. Where in the Backhouse MS. Dr. Brydon recalls that the officers found it (Line-111) "perfectly hopeless to remain with men, "in Sale it has become "useless"; hence what might have been considered as failure to perform duty through despair has been rendered more acceptable by the implication of its impossibility. These are discrepancies which could hardly result from absent minded copying.
The authenticity of neither MS. can be in question; they both exist and are both acknowledged copies. But the fact that two such divergent transcripts exist, both telling essentially the same story, does raise certain questions about the original document. If it is true, as the Dupree's assert, that General Sale so jealously guarded his brigade records during his lifetime that the Brydon report was unknown to contemporary writers, it is hardly credible that he would have lent it for copying to Captain Backhouse, whose frequent criticism of his command could not have escaped his attention. It is likewise improbable that Backhouse had surreptitious access to the book. If we take into consideration the two transcripts which differ in so many details, the conclusion must be that one more than the other represents the greater deviation from the original.
It may logically be asked, then, just what Lieut. Hamlet Wade was witness to the veracity of the report? the accuracy of the copy? the true signature of Dr. Brydon? an administrative procedure of having had copied, or himself copying, an edited and emended version of the report into Sale's Letter Book? Some of these questions can be answered. Since the handwriting of the text of the report and that of both signatures appears to be the same, it follows that the copy in the Letter Book is no more than it claims to be. It informs us only that the signatures of both men were appended to the official version of the report, presumably that forwarded by Sale to the Commander in Chief in India. Since this hand appears elsewhere in the Letter Book, on entries dated before Brydon's arrival at Jalalabad, it is impossible that it be Brydon's. Whether it is Wade's is more difficult to determine since, as acting Brigade Major, his name appears frequently in the Letter Book. Backhouse does not seem to have been on good terms with Wade, so we cannot expect this officer to have provided him with access to the Letter Book. Wade's "signature," in several hands, is appended to many letters in the book, including the sternest letter of reprimand contained therein, addressed to Captain Backhouse.  The signature on this letter is quite different from that on the Brydon report.
Some certainty on the matter of the script might be obtained from a comparison of the report in the Sale MS. with any indisputable example of Dr. Brydon's writing. Especially pertinent would be the letter written by Brydon at Jalalabad on 20 January 1842, to his brother.  The transcript of this letter reveals punctuation more nearly like that of the Backhouse MS. than of the Sale, especially in the use of the colon. This letter, briefer and more personal than the report, informs us that Brydon was still not well and that he "can write no more at present, it being awkward holding my paper. . . ." While this temporary debility may not have excused him from the necessity to compose his report for General Sale, it might easily have provided the excuse for another to have altered and emended it before copying it into the Letter Book.
The Letter Book was often used for composition as well as for copying. The letter of reprimand addressed to Backhouse, clearly composed in the heat of anger, contains several cross outs, rephrasing, and two discarded concluding constructions. It is obviously not a copy. The Letter Book version of the communication addressed by General Sale to Sir Jasper Nicolls on 31 December 1841, on the subject of the murder of Sir William Mc Naghten at Kabul, differs in several minor respects (word substitutions, grammar) from this unpublished letter in the Nicolls papers. The letter received by Nicolls is also in a different hand. Such obvious mistakes as the omission of the word "place," causing the last line of the Sale transcript to be incomplete make it virtually certain that the report was copied into, rather than composed in, the Letter Book. That what was being copied was also being (or already had been) restructured is suggested by such oversights as the failure to correct subject and verb agreement: "A great quantity. . . was carried off" (Line-25-26) in Backhouse appears in Sale as "Great quantities. . . was carried off. . . ."
A final observation on the Backhouse transcript must be made, though it complicates rather than clarifies its relationship to the original of the report. Line 78 contains only two words; the remainder of the line has been crossed out. The late Brigadier E. H. W. Backhouse, in writing of his grandfather's diary in 1959, states, "Unfortunately, he went through it in later years and with indian-ink deleted many adjectives and comments about senior officers." This does not appear to be strictly true. There are actually surprisingly few such instances of crossing out, and while some may reflect subsequent prudence on the part of the writer, the majority are simply mistakes in writing or copying such as one would expect to see in any diary kept in the field and written in ink. All seem to have been done at the time of writing, or very soon thereafter. There are a few such mistakes in the Brydon transcript. At the end of line 27, the word "of" has been crossed out; at the beginning of line 106 "the officers who were" was accidentally recopied from the end of the preceding line and was accordingly struck out; "and" at the beginning of line 118 has been deleted. But line 78 presents a somewhat different problem. The deleted text appears to be: "where, [one word] the nature of the ground, it". While it is impossible for the single illegible word to be "from," these crossed out words reappear in lines 81-82. What is curious about this, is that with the substitution of "incline" for "nature," Backhouse's first transcription harmonizes with the Sale MS. As it stands, the inserted material of lines 79-81 preceding the recopying of these words is, in the Sale MS. composed quite differently: where from the incline of the ground, it was not deemed advisable to halt more than an hour or two for necessary rest. During all this march, we had been fired upon by the Enemy from the heights; and as we moved on to Jigdalak, they pressed still harder upon us, and Lt. Fortye HM. 44th was Killed close to our ground.
Once again, the difference between the two texts suggests the necessity to postulate an as yet unknown original draft text for the report. But the nature of the corrections, or possible changes, in the Backhouse transcript permits us to speculate only on the actual wording of the original document. It may be that an original draft by Brydon was disorganized to a degree that both Backhouse and the copyist of the Sale MS. felt the need to restructure here and there for the sake of clarity. Brydon's letter to his brother on 20 January is, however, a perfectly coherent document. We can say only that the addition of so many personal identifications in the Sale MS., as well as seemingly careful rephrasing and considered deletions, suggest reflection at a somewhat later stage than that represented by the Backhouse MS.
On the basis of the data at hand, we may postulate four, probably five, versions of the Brydon report, all done within a 36-hour period: (I) an original draft, written or dictated, by Brydon (unknown), from which the (II) Backhouse copy was made the following day; (III) a second draft (unknown), of uncertain authorship, restructuring sentences, deleting some information, adding other, specifically names; (IV) a copy (unknown) of this edited draft signed by both Wade and Brydon and forwarded to the Commander-in-Chief in India; and finally (V) a copy, either of the edited draft (III), or of the dispatch (IV), inserted into the Letter Book, both signatures there being written by the copyist whose identity remains uncertain. It was fast work. Versions I, III, and IV were completed on 19 January; II, and perhaps V could have been copied at leisure the following day. There is a possibility that versions I and IV still exist. The version published by Lawrence may be based on the original MS. retained by Dr. Brydon since it preserves words and structures altered or deleted in the Letter Book copy. Version III would almost certainly have been discarded after copying into the Letter Book. It could not have been the one used by Backhouse. Thus what appears at first glance to be eyewitness history shows itself on close examination to be already organized with a view to future interpretation.
Such speculation on the nature of Dr. Brydon's original report is pertinent simply because the report is, as the Dupree's recognized, an important historical document. Unfortunately, it is still an unknown document, but one that is almost certainly more accurately reflected by the Backhouse transcript than by that appearing in the Letter Book of General Sale. The record of critical moments in history is composed not only of the documents which by chance and design are preserved, but by the imperatives of the participants and survivors into whose hands these documents must inevitably fall. Alteration of those basic sources, whenever done for whatever purpose, cannot fail to deprive us of the means to interpret accurately our past.
William Trousdale has been a Curator in the Department of Anthropology, Smithsonian Institution, since 1962. A graduate of the University of Michigan, he received his Ph.D. from the same institution. He is the author of The Long Sword and Scabbard Slide in Asia which deals with the origin, development and diffusion of the long equestrian sword and its distinctive suspension device. This article was accepted for publication in January 1982 in the journal of Military Affairs, Vol. 47, No.1 & was consequently published in February 1983.
Dr. Brydon's Report of the Kabul Disaster and Documentation of History, William Trousdale
Published in Khyber.ORG on Thursday, September 9 2004 (http://www.khyber.org)