Saturday, 4 December 2021

Catching Up On My Reading 8


Back in 1978  I did a small demo wargame on the First Afghan War  based loosely upon the Battle of Beymaroo.. I have maintained an interest in this conflict ever since, just another facet of my continuing interest in the Indian Armyand Indian Military History.  So a new book on the war is very welcome indeed.

 Published by Helion 'Dust of Glory' by Bill Whitburn  is a meaty tome  of over 400 pages, not one of which is wasted.



It is well known that the First Afghan War was not the East India Company's- or indeed Britain's finest hour of the first half of the nineteenth century, with hindsight one can see that interreference in Afghanistan never seems to end well- not that politicians  ever seem to learn from History. The war inspired at least 2 major paintings - a print of Woolen's @Last Stand of the 44th at Gandamack' adorns my sitting room wall and of course Lady Elizabeth Butler's 'Remnants of  an Army' will be familiar to many.

 The basic story of the First Afghan War has been told many times. George Bruce has done it Peter Macrory has done it and more recently , this century, William Dalrymple has told the tale each in their own way. How the British  invaded Afghanistan to replace its ruler with one more controllable and how, due to treachery, mismanagement and sheer incompetence they were hounded out of the country by the Afghans loyal to their rule Dost Mohammed.

 Mr Whitburn's book treads this travelled path  with significantly  more military knowledge than most. Not only that, the book is by no means as narrow in concentrating on the occupation of Kabul and the fallout from the disastrous mismanagement political, military and fiscal as some of the others of the genre.

 We get to know what was happening in other parts of the country- in Kandahar for example and other outlying garrisons. There are many other battles and actions outlined often in detail and orders of battle for the British and sometimes the Sikh forces and numbers for the Afghans  and sometimes with maps than one usually sees. This is well done and very useful indeed.

Equally this book is by no means as 'Anglo-centric' as some earlier narratives, we learn about  the Sikh state's involvement in the debacle- they were Britain's ally in the enterprise-and about the small army known as 'Shah Shuja's Contingent' which was supposed to be the military force of the replacement ruler but was in fact a small carbon copy of the East India Company's army which formed the bulk of the invading forces. Some of these units would continue in EIC service after the war was over.

This book is full of fascinating detail and anecdote and will repay careful study.. It is well illustrated in both colour and black and white and included a good few illustration I was unfamiliar with  or in some cases had seen previously only in black and white in older volumes. George Anderson's maps are up to his usual fine standard.

Niggles? Well one or two. At least one of the illustrations is miscaptioned- page 37  has a full page plate captioned 'Afghan Warriors'. when they are, by their dress and weaponry clearly Sikhs- possibly Akalis or Nihungs  and are clearly differently dressed from those figures in other plates who ARE Afghans.

 It might also be said that some of Mr Whitburn's frequent digressions can get just a little tortuous. I'm still unsure for example what Peterloo and the Bristol Riots have to do with the First Afghan War. Yes other such digressions are both interesting of themselves as well as instructive. I know more about how the East India Company was governed  than I did before  and some of my own misconceptions have been washed away.

 I liked the book and over time will study it with more care and I'd recommend it to anyone who has even a passing interest in the military of India or in the  campaigns of the British Army. 

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