The sentinels on the ramparts of Jelalabad, a fortified post held by the British in Afghanistan, looking out over the plain that extended northward and westward from the town, saw a singular-looking person approaching. He rode a pony that seemed so jaded with travel that it could scarcely lift a foot to continue, its head drooping low as it dragged slowly onward. The traveller seemed in as evil plight as his horse. His head was bent forward upon his breast, the rein had fallen from his nerveless grasp, and he swayed in the saddle as if he could barely retain his seat. As he came nearer, and lifted his face for a moment, he was seen to be frightfully pale and haggard, with the horror of an untold tragedy in his bloodshot eyes. Who was he? An Englishman, evidently, perhaps a messenger from the army at Cabul. The officers of the fort, notified of his approach, ordered that the gates should be opened. In a short time man and horse were within the walls of the town.
So pitiable and woe-begone a spectacle none there had ever beheld. The man seemed almost a corpse on horseback. He had fairly to be lifted from his saddle, and borne inward to a place of shelter and repose, while the animal was scarcely able to make its way to the stable to which it was led. As the traveller rested, eager questions ran through the garrison. Who was he? How came he in such a condition? What had he to tell of the army in the field? Did his coming in this sad plight portend some dark disaster?
This curiosity was shared by the officer in command of the fort. Giving his worn-out guest no long time to recover, he plied him with inquiries.
"You are exhausted," he said. "I dislike to disturb you, but I beg leave to ask you a few questions."
"Go on sir; I can answer," said the traveller, in a weary tone.
"Do you bring a message from General Elphinstone,—from the army?"
"I bring no message. There is no army,—or, rather, I am the army," was the enigmatical reply.
"You the army? I do not understand you."
"I represent the army. The others are gone,—dead, massacred, prisoners,—man, woman, and child. I, Doctor Brydon, am the army,—all that remains of it."
The commander heard him in astonishment and horror. General Elphinstone had seventeen thousand soldiers and camp-followers in his camp at Cabul. "Did Dr. Brydon mean to say—"
"They are all gone," was the feeble reply. "I am left; all the others are slain. You may well look frightened, sir; you would be heart-sick with horror had you gone through my experience. I have seen an army slaughtered before my eyes, and am here alone to tell it."
It was true; the army had vanished; an event had happened almost without precedent in the history of the world, unless we instance the burying of the army of Cambyses in the African desert. When Dr. Brydon was sufficiently rested and refreshed he told his story. It is the story we have here to repeat.
In the summer of 1841 the British army under General Elphinstone lay in cantonments near the city of Cabul, the capital of Afghanistan, in a position far from safe or well chosen. They were a mile and a half from the citadel,—the Bala Hissar,—with a river between. Every corner of their cantonments was commanded by hills or Afghan forts. Even their provisions were beyond their reach, in case of attack, being stored in a fort at some distance from the cantonments. They were in the heart of a hostile population. General Elphinstone, trusting too fully in the puppet of a khan who had been set up by British bayonets, had carelessly kept his command in a weak and untenable position.
The general was old and in bad health; by no means the man for the emergency. He was controlled by bad advisers, who thought only of returning to India, and discouraged the strengthening of the fortress. The officers lost heart on seeing the supineness of their leader. The men were weary of incessant watching, annoyed by the insults of the natives, discouraged by frequent reports of the death of comrades, who had been picked off by roving enemies. The ladies alone retained confidence, occupying themselves in the culture of their gardens, which, in the delightful summer climate of that situation, rewarded their labors with an abundance of flowers.
As time went on the situation grew rapidly worse. Akbar Khan, the leading spirit among the hostile Afghans, came down from the north and occupied the Khoord Cabul Pass, the only way back to Hindustan. Ammunition was failing, food was decreasing, the enemy were growing daily stronger and more aggressive. Affairs had come to such a pass that but one of two things remained to do,—to leave the cantonments and seek shelter in the citadel till help should arrive, or to endeavor to march back to India.
On the 23rd of December the garrison was alarmed by a frightful example of boldness and ferocity in the enemy. Sir William Macnaughten, the English envoy, who had left the works to treat with the Afghan chiefs, was seized by Akbar Khan and murdered on the spot, his head, with its green spectacles, being held up in derision to the soldiers within the works.
The British were now "advised" by the Afghans to go back to India. There was, in truth, nothing else to do. They were starving where they were. If they should fight their way to the citadel, they would be besieged there without food. They must go, whatever the risk or hardships. On the 6th of January the fatal march began,—a march of four thousand five hundred soldiers and twelve thousand camp-followers, besides women and children, through a mountainous country, filled with savage foes, and in severe winter weather.
The first day's march took them but five miles from the works, the evacuation taking place so slowly that it was two o'clock in the morning before the last of the force came up. It had been a march of frightful conditions. Attacked by the Afghans on every side, hundreds of the fugitives perished in those first five dreadful miles. As the advance body waited in the snow for those in the rear to join them, the glare of flames from the burning cantonments told that the evacuation had been completed, and that the whole multitude was now at the mercy of its savage foes. It was evident that they had a frightful gantlet to run through the fire of the enemy and the winters chilling winds. The snow through which they had slowly toiled was reddened with blood all the way back to Cabul. Baggage was abandoned, and men and women alike pushed forward for their lives, some of them, in the haste of flight, but half-clad, few sufficiently protected from the severe cold.
The succeeding days were days of massacre and horror. The fierce hill-tribes swarmed around the troops, attacking them in front, flank, and rear, pouring in their fire from every point of vantage, slaying them in hundreds, in thousands, as they moved hopelessly on. The despairing men fought bravely. Many of the foe suffered for their temerity. But they were like prairie-wolves around the dying bison; the retreating force lay helpless in their hands; two new foes took the place of every one that fell.
Each day's horrors surpassed those of the last. The camp-followers died in hundreds from cold and starvation, their frost-bitten feet refusing to support them. Crawling in among the rugged rocks that bordered the road, they lay there helplessly awaiting death. The soldiers fell in hundreds. It grew worse as they entered the contracted mountain-pass through which their road led. Here the ferocious foe swarmed among the rocks, and poured death from the heights upon the helpless fugitives. It was impossible to dislodge them. Natural breastworks commanded every foot of that terrible road. The hardy Afghan mountaineers climbed with the agility of goats over the hill-sides, occupying hundreds of points which the soldiers could not reach. It was a carnival of slaughter. Nothing remained for the helpless fugitives but to push forward with all speed through that frightful mountain-pass and gain as soon as possible the open ground beyond.
Few gained it. On the fourth day from Cabul there were but two hundred and seventy soldiers left. The fifth day found the seventeen thousand fugitives reduced to five thousand. A day more, and these five thousand were nearly all slain. Only twenty men remained of the great body of fugitives which had left Cabul less than a week before. This handful of survivors was still relentlessly pursued. A barrier detained them for a deadly interval under the fire of the foe, and eight of the twenty died in seeking to cross it. The pass was traversed, but the army was gone. A dozen worn-out fugitives were all that remained alive.
On they struggled towards Jelalabad, death following them still. They reached the last town on their road; but six of them had fallen. These six were starving. They had not tasted food for days. Some peasants offered them bread. They devoured it like famished wolves. But as they did so the inhabitants of the town seized their arms and assailed them. Two of them were cut down. The others fled, but were hotly pursued. Three of the four were overtaken and slain within four miles of Jelalabad. Dr. Brydon alone remained, and gained the fort alone, the sole survivor, as he believed and reported, of the seventeen thousand fugitives. The Afghan chiefs had boasted that they would allow only one man to live, to warn the British to meddle no more with Afghanistan. Their boast seemed literally fulfilled. Only one man had traversed in safety that "valley of the shadow of death."
Fortunately, there were more living than Dr. Brydon was aware of. Akbar Khan had offered to save the ladies and children if the married and wounded officers were delivered into his hands. This was done. General Elphinstone was among the prisoners, and died in captivity, a relief to himself and his friends from the severe account to which the government would have been obliged to call him. Now for the sequel to this story of suffering and slaughter. The invasion of Afghanistan by the English had been for the purpose of protecting the Indian frontier. A prince, Shah Soojah, friendly to England, was placed on the throne. This prince was repudiated by the Afghan tribes, and to their bitter and savage hostility was due the result which we have briefly described. It was a result with which the British authorities were not likely to remain satisfied. The news of the massacre sent a thrill of horror through the civilized world. Retribution was the sole thought in British circles in India. A strong force was at once collected to punish the Afghans and rescue the prisoners. Under General Pollock it fought its way through the Khyber Pass and reached Jelalabad. Thence it advanced to Cabul, the soldiers, infuriated by the sight of the bleaching skeletons that thickly lined the roadway, assailing the Afghans with a ferocity equal to their own. Wherever armed Afghans were met death was their portion. Nowhere could they stand against the maddened English troops. Filled with terror, they fled for safety to the mountains, the invading force having terribly revenged their slaughtered countrymen.
It next remained to rescue the prisoners. They had been carried about from fort to fort, suffering many hardships and discomforts, but not being otherwise maltreated. They were given up to the British, after the recapture of Cabul, with the hope that this would satisfy these terrible avengers. It did so. The fortifications of Cabul were destroyed, and the British army was withdrawn from the country. England had paid bitterly for the mistake of occupying it. The bones of a slaughtered army paved the road that led to the Afghan capital.