Kabul Catastrophe • by Patrick Macrory (Oxford University Press, £6.95).
SIR Patrick Macrory's account of the disastrous retreat of the British Army of the Indus from Afghanistan in January 1842 is a brilliantly told tale of high drama and military defeat. His historic narrative roars along like a mountain stream in full torrent, taking with it a pell-mell of every type of military adventurer whose incompetence permitted the slaughter by the Afghans of 16,000 soldiers, camp-followers, women and children.
The sole British survivor of the retreat from Kabul, through the snowbound mountains to Jalalabad, was the wounded and exhausted Surgeon Brydon. He rode into Jalalabad on a horse given to him by a veteran subador who was dying of his wounds. Some 4,000 British troops died, and 12,000 of their followers, in the height of the Afghan winter of 1842.
This brilliantly written and entertaining piece of history is well illustrated by four excellent maps. Because the Soviet Army occupies Afghanistan today, we are all too familiar with Central Asia and such names in these pages as Kabul, Teheran, Kandahar, the Khyber Pass, Baluchastan, Peshawar, Lahore and Delhi. History is nothing if it is not about people, both the humble and the exalted, and Patrick Macrory fills his pages with rich accounts of the deeds of many of the most fascinating men and women of the British Raj of 145 years ago.
Among my favourites is the one armed Brigadier Shelton (he lost his right arm in the Peninsular War), who commanded the 44th Regiment in 1845, when it was stationed in Dublin. He was thrown from his horse and died in agony after three days. He was so hated by his men that whey they learnt of their Colonel's death, they paraded spontaneously on the parade ground and gave three hearty cheers.
Brigadier Robert Sale was a similar character, larger than life. He had commanded the mutinous Queen's 13th Light Infantry, who had a habit of murdering their officers and NCOs. Each time Sale was threatened, he paraded his troops, gave the order to load with blank cartridges, taunted any man to slip one live round up the barrel of his gun, and sitting astride his charger, in front of the mutinous battalion, gave t e order to resent fire"! His bluff was never called.
There is a strong Irish connection throughout the book as Ulster families featured largely and heroically in the history of the British Raj and Afghanistan, men like, MacNaughten, the Lawrences and the Potingers. Sir William MacNaughten, envoy in Kabul, met a hideous death, betrayed and dismembered by the rebellious Afghans.
It was another Irishman, General Sir John Keane, who occupied Afghanistan for the British in 1839, and set up headquarters in Kabul. It was he who prophesied, before he retired to become Baron Keane of Cappoquin in Co Waterford, that he was quitting a countrywhere it would not be long before there was some "signal catastrophe."
This extraordinary story of the British Raj in Afghanistan of 1842 is exciting reading and particularly appropriate in view of the fact that the Soviet Army of occupation in that country may be heading for a "signal catastrophe" in 1987.