Lost Lessons of Truth Stranger than Fiction

This is my review of Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple.

Fearing Russian designs on India in "The Great Game", the British tried to gain influence in the potential Achilles' heel of Afghanistan. Ignoring expert advice, they chose the wrong side in reinstating the honourable but hidebound Shah Shuja whom they imagined would be more malleable than the shrewd reigning monarch Dost Mohammed.

If this regime change reminds you of more recent events, there are also parallels in the lack of strategic planning and a "longer view", and neglect of the topography, climate and culture of the area. In breathtaking arrogance admittedly combined with crazy courage, the first 1839 British invasion of Afghanistan set off in winter, ignoring the several feet of snow in the mountains, omitting to clear rough terrain for gun carriages or to protect themselves against ambush and constant sniping once they entered the narrow mountain passes. The problem was compounded by the thousands of camp followers, women and children with presumably no means of support if they stayed behind.

If the detail is often overwhelming, the quirky truth which is stranger than fiction grips one's attention: three hundred camels needed to carry the military wine cellar whilst elsewhere troops could not advance owing to lack of camels to transport vital supplies. One regiment even brought its own foxhounds, which somehow survived to hunt jackals later!

It is all the more poignant that, having reached Kabul after suffering terrible privations yet still gaining the upper hand, the army squandered its advantage under dithering leadership so that in the ill-advised, typically chaotic eventual retreat only one man made it back to Jalalabad, not counting the thousands left behind as captives.

In what resembles an epic novel, Dalrymple describes how the British sent an Army of Retribution to salvage a little honour by taking brutal reprisals which would now be regarded as the most vicious war crimes, but in the end the government wrote off the vast sums spent on the unsuccessful regime change.

Apart from the numerous astonishing anecdotes and vivid character studies, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the extensive quoting from the colourful prose of the historians of the day: "Abdullah Khan Achakzsi…..launched an attack like a fierce lion or the serpent that inhabits the scented grass".

Although Dalrymple supplies a list of all the main characters with accompanying explanations, I found this too indigestible as an opener, and recommend keeping your own notes of "who's who".

My only criticism is the inadequate maps. Also, apart from the reduced weight, this is less suitable for a Kindle in that maps and family trees are illegible on the small screen, plus it's too fiddly checking out details from previous pages as is often necessary in this type of book. It's also harder to appreciate on the Kindle that the main text is shorter than it seems, the last 30 per cent of the book being notes.

This is a fascinating account, although it focuses narrowly on 1839-42. For a wider sweep, try "Butcher and Bolt" by David Loyn.

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ 5 Stars

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