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How accurate is Victoria’s depiction of the Khyber Pass incident?

The ITV drama delves into real military history for the opening episode of series two
By Huw Fullerton

The start of ITV period drama Victoria season two delves straight into a genuine military incident, depicting the retreat and massacre of many British soldiers in Afghanistan at an area known as the Khyber Pass (a mountain pass near the Afghanistan/Pakistan border) in an event that shakes Victoria’s court.

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And in real life the events were similarly momentous, described in 2013 as "the worst British military disaster until the fall of Singapore exactly a century later” – but how accurate was the rest of the depiction?

The 1842 Kabul Retreat (as the series of events is now known) really began when an Afghan uprising in Kabul forced the British Army to retreat from the area, with Major General Sir William Elphinstone cutting a deal to allow the troops to return to the British garrison at Jalalabad.

More than 90 miles away, the garrison is now noted for being poorly situated, and in the long journey back the 2,500 British and Indian forces (as well as their 12,000 dependents and camp followers, such as craftsmen and cooks) found themselves without the military escort, food or supplies promised by Afghan Prince Wazir Khan, and made slow progress through the winter snows of the Hindu Kush (a mountain range near the Afghan-Pakistan border).

Withdrawal of British troops from Kabul, January 6, 1842, lithograph. Source: Getty

Many of the assembled soldiers and dependents would go on to die from exposure, starvation or frostbite – but the worst was still to come, with the 16,000-strong column frequently attacked by Afghan tribes under Khan’s orders and taking significant losses.

After several attacks and acts of subterfuge from the Afghan forces, the British had suffered over 12,000 casualties, with remaining small groups of soldiers still attacked and killed as they made their way towards Jalalabad. The last stand in the calamitous retreat took place on a snowy hillock close to the village of Gandamak, with the small group of around 65 soldiers refusing to surrender and subsequently killed or taken captive.

The majority of these events are simplified and condensed for Victoria’s depiction, though one detail – the escape of one soldier, Assistant Surgeon William Brydon – is accurate, with the 30-year-old making it to Jalalabad where he informed the officers there asking about the location of the army “I am the army.”

As seen in Victoria, Brydon survived a sword attack because he had stuck a copy of Blackwood’s Magazine in his hat (part of his skull was still sheared off), though the series’ depiction of him as the massacre’s “sole survivor” isn’t strictly accurate.

A 1900 depiction of William Brydon's arrival at Jalalabad. Source: Getty

Around 115 British officers, soldiers and family members who had been taken captive survived to be later released, while a Greek Merchant named Baness arrived at Jalalabad a couple of days after Brydon only to die soon afterwards. Many Indian troops who fought for the British also survived and made it back to the garrison, while a much larger number (around 2,000) returned to Kabul where they were forced to become beggars or were sold into slavery.

Brydon also probably didn’t meet Queen Victoria upon his return to Great Britain, though the horrified and humiliated reaction of the British Establishment to the annihilation depicted in the ITV series is accurate. Lord Auckland, the Governor-General of India at the time, actually suffered a stroke when he heard the news.

So overall, Victoria tells this monumental story of British defeat fairly accurately – just with a few understandable dramatic embellishments.

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Victoria season two airs on Sundays, 9/8c, PBS Masterpiece

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