The Last Stand of the 44th Regiment at Gundamuck 1842
by William Barnes Woolen
Wollen was one of the most prolific painters of the late Victorian and early Edwardian period. This is his most famous painting, which depicts the retreat from Kabul following the British occupation of Kabul in the First Afghanistan War.
Following the deaths of Barnes and Macnaughten, an agreement had been signed with Akbar on 1 January to allow the British to leave Kabul and so it was that on 6 January, leaving the British ally, Shah Shujah and his followers to fend for themselves, the army of the Indus made an inglorious exit from Kabul. Leading the column was an advance guard of 600 redcoats of the 44th Regiment and 100 cavalry. Next wee the British wives and children, and sick and pregnant women carried by Indian servants. Then came the main body of infantry, cavalry and artillery, and then the rearguard, also of infantry, cavalry and artillery. Behind the army column were several thousand camp followers.
In total there we 16,000 people hoping to get away from Afghanistan and back into India as the Afghan people retook possession of the land the British had invaded in 1839. The first thing to go wrong was that Akbar’s promised escort did not turn up, nor did the supplies of food and equipment they were expecting. Over the next week the column was attacked and harried as it tried to move through the various passes on the way back to Jalalabad. The march would normally have taken five days, but after seven days only one rider emerged from the mountains and the passes to safety – Dr William Brydon, a physician who had been in Shah Shujah’s service, the man who had been put on the throne by the British to replace Dost Mohammed who was thought not to be reliable enough.
Akbar despite the treaty he had signed proved treacherous and as soon as the British left their cantonment outside Kabul, Afghans swarmed on to the walls and began firing at the rearguard of the British column. Afghan horsemen soon began riding amongst the British soldiers and civilians, killing whoever they could and driving off the baggage animals. This harrying of the column continued for he next seven days, leaving a trail of dead and wounded. On the first day only five miles were covered s the column was slowed down by the camp followers. Tents were lost meaning that officers and wives had to sleep on the snow in falling temperatures as the column moved into the mountain passes. Brydon managed to wrap himself in his sheepskin coat and keep himself warm but others were not so lucky. On the second morning dozens of the Indian troops and camp followers were found frozen to death.
Continual sniping and attacks by horsemen took their toll and the only thing that mattered was to get through the Khyber Pass. One morning Akbar made an appearance, and blamed the British for their plight saying they had left without permission. He demanded three hostages in return for a safe passage and three men were handed over but the attacks continued.
After five days with the women and children handed over to Akbar in another hope that the remainder would be given a free passage to Jalalabad, there were just 750 troops left with Akbar claiming he was doing everything to restrain the local tribesmen from attacking. By 12 January the force was down to fewer than 200 troops plus 2,000 camp followers. When General Elphinstone sought out Akbar to negotiate another treaty, the general was taken prisoner.
The handful of officers and men who had fought their way out of the gorge now found themselves divided into two groups. One group including Brydon tried to ride for Jalalabad, leaving in the middle of the night but were discovered and attacked from the rear.
It was everyman for himself and Brydon found himself surrounded and was struck by a blow to his head from an Afghan knife. He managed to get to his knees, parry another blow and despite his head wound clambered over the barricade the soldiers had constructed, found a wounded cavalryman who had been shot through his chest, and took his pony and rode to the safety of Jalalabad fort.
Another group of soldiers, consisting of twenty officers and forty-five other ranks, fought their way to reach the village of Gundamuck but found their way blocked by Afghans. The Afghans tried to negotiate and then tried to disarm the British. Immediately hand-to-hand fighting broke out. With their ammunition exhausted, the soldiers fought with bayonet and sword. Only four prisoners were taken, the rest of the group were all killed. One of the survivors was Lt Thomas Souter. The dead were eventually collected and interred in 1879 by the 17th Leicestershire Regiment, the year that Elizabeth Butler exhibited The Remnants of the Army.
Meanwhile, twelve miles to the east the remainder of the other group, just a dozen men remained. The soldiers reached a village and were offered food but it was a ploy to delay them. A secret signal was given to tribesmen in the hills who attacked the party. Only five escaped and soon the pursuing Afghans had caught up with all but Brydon who escaped. He had another fifteen miles to negotiate during which he ran in to more tribesmen. He managed to evade three further parties of tribesmen, the last of whom he took to be British soldiers. Brydon managed to fight off his attackers but lost his pistol but now totally defenceless and wounded in the groin and head his pony managed to carry him in sight of the British fort of Jalalabad.
Dr Brydon was the only one of the 16,000 column to complete the journey to safety. There were others who escaped captivity and who were subsequently released. Sadly Brydon’s pony died from its wounds. There was no news of the soldiers who had did at Gundamuck and a large fire was kept burning at the fort as well as lights on the ramparts, and bugles to guide stragglers in but Brydon was the last to enter Jalalabad.
In Wollen’s painting, Souter can be seen standing on the right clasping the regiment’s colours. The desperation of the men’s position is shown by the scattered weapons and bodies. The painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1898 where it was regarded as an image of gallantry, courage and fortitude. The painting was subsequently bought by the officers of the 44th Regiment in 1911 and was taken wherever the regiment was based. It is now regarded as symbolic of the numerous attempts to occupy Afghanistan by foreign powers and in Afghanistan has the status of a national icon.
In 1979, almost a century after the events a British anthropologist, Dr Andre Singer, returned to spot and found bones.