The Remnants of an Army
by Elizabeth Butler
Lady Elizabeth was the famous battle artist of the c19th. She was born into family whose fortune had been made in the West Indian sugar trade and this gave her the means and the confidence to embark on a career as a painter. Her second painting, The Roll Call, exhibited in 1874, established her reputation and over the next eight years she produced paintings which together recorded the lives of ordinary soldiers fighting to establish and maintain the British Empire in different parts of the world. She did not attempt to glorify what soldiers did but to elicit pity and sympathy for their plight. It was said that by focusing on the individual, she did in painting what Kipling did in words.
A major influence on the work of Butler was her husband, Major William Butler, a member of Wolseley’s close circle -the so-called Wolseley ring- who had served in Burma, India, Canada and West Africa alongside Wolseley. Butler was brought up in Ireland and became a supporter of Irish Home Rule, and had sympathy for the position of native peoples around the British Empire. He opposed imperial expansion, claiming it was a ‘a mania for acquisition’ driven by the ambitions of ‘sordid Stock Exchange ambitions’. Elizabet though focused on the position of ordinary soldiers and she dis not get drawn into the politics of imperialism.
Remnants of an Army was typical of her work. It was painted during the Second Afghan War when a British force invaded Afghanistan just as had happened in 1839. The painting depicts the lone soldier, Dr William Brydon, reaching the safety of Jalalabad fort, held by the British. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1879 and was eventually bought by Sir Henry Tate and later presented by him to the National Gallery. After the Second World War when paintings depicting battle scenes were thought to be bettre off in military establishments, to was placed on loan with the Somerset Military Museum Trust
Brydon , the subject of the painting, was the only one out of a force of 16,000 to complete the journey from Kabul to Jalalabad, following the expulsion of the British force that was camped just outside of Kabul. Afghan resistance to the British supported Shar Shujah had resulted in the British being forces to conclude a treaty with Akbar Khan, the son of Dost Mohammed, the former ruler, which resulted in the British force of over 16,000 leaving their cantonment outside Kabul and making a journey fop 60 miles through mountain passes held by Afghan tribesmen in freezing conditions. The arrangement made between the Afghan leader, Akbar and the British General Elphinstone was in return for the British agreeing to leave Kabul, they be provide with a safe passage and sufficient food and equipment for the journey of five days.
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 rear-guard 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 the next seven days, leaving a trail of dead and wounded. On the first day only five miles were covered as 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, who was in this group, found himself surrounded. He 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 a barrier the Afghan tribesmen 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.