McMurdo’s Camp

Reminiscences of Maiwand

Reminiscences of Maiwand

By M. Vernet

In August of 1880, the British Whaling ship “Hope” was sailing the Arctic waters around Greenland and the Shetland Islands. If you happened to fall in, you had to be hauled out immediately. A dip in the icy waters could kill you in three minutes and the pieces of ice, if they came together could basically cut you in half.

Arthur Conan Doyle, turning 21 near the North Pole, knew this from experience. He had joined the crew for a six month voyage as the ship’s surgeon and had fallen into the Arctic waters so many times his Captain had nicknamed him “The Great Northern Diver.”

But today was different. Today Arthur wasn’t thinking of floating icebergs and the freezing current. Today as he leaned on the deck rail gazing at the lighthouse at Lerwick, Arthur felt the heat of the desert, the terrible thirst in his throat and saw the blood on the sand.

The lighthouse keeper had showed him last week’s “Weekly Scotsman,” an Edinburgh newspaper. It had told of the defeat of a force of 3000 British soldiers in Afghanistan at the battle of Maiwand. That evening Arthur made a note of it in his journal.

War is evil, but sometimes we can stand back and admire the courage and bravery of men and women caught up in such evil times. The British defeat at Maiwand has inspired artwork, poems, (like Kipling’s “That Day,”) Memorials dedicated to the heroic on both sides, and literature. (Maiwand was the Battle were John H. Watson M.D. received the notorious wounds that invalided him home and led to his meeting with one Sherlock Holmes and one Arthur Conan Doyle.)

In the mid 19th Century, the sun never set on the British Empire. And “The Great Game ” was afoot. Russia and England were in competition and “The Great Game” was the term used to describe the Russian encroachment in Afghanistan. England was afraid that Russia had plans to move southward and seize Britain’s prize possession, India, and England invaded Afghanistan twice in the 1800’s to prevent Russian encroachment into Afghanistan and any threat to British dominance in the region.

The First Anglo-Afghan War was fought in 1841 and 1842, and ended with the disastrous retreat from Kapal in 1842 in which only one British soldier survived.

The Second Anglo- Afghan War was fought in 1878-1880. At first things went well. The British/Indian Army defeated the Afghans and a treaty was signed granting the British the right to trade with them and to send an envoy to Kapal.

At this time, back in England, John H. Watson had made his decision to join the Army Medical Department. In his own words:

“In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for Surgeons in the Army. Having completed my studies there, I was duly attached to The Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as Assistant Surgeon…”

The Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley, located near Southampton, was dedicated by Queen Victoria in 1856. She lay a Metal, a Victoria Cross in the foundation. One of the few metals won by Medical Staff of the time, not for any lack of bravery, but because of the set up of the Army Medical Department. Doctors were not considered official officers and held no rank. They had some privileges of officers, but not all, and their pay was very low. They also held extremely long terms, 6 years in some cases without hope of promotion. The only reason to join was a deep sense of duty toward your fellow man, love of Queen and Country, and maybe a sense of adventure.

We know our Watson to be such a man, A man that would see where he was needed most and grab the opportunity to serve. Some have wondered why Watson never “distinguished ” himself. Without a rank he would not have been able to rise, honors and awards were almost non-existent for Medical staff, this doesn’t mean he wasn’t a hero. Although he would never think of himself in such terms. After completing his studies (physiology, surgery medicine, zoology, botany, physical geography, meteorology, midwifery, and have dissected a human body at least twice,) he was an Assistant Surgeon. He may have had the title Warrant Officer at this point, because each regiment had a Medical Officer who was allowed a Warrant Officer or an Assistant Surgeon for his Assistant. He was probably called Assistant Surgeon Watson or just plain Watson, since “Doctor ” was not an Army term. Watson’s uniform would have been of the new Khaki colors, better fitted to desert terrain, but still uncomfortably hot, Black boots, cotton wraps for his legs (puttees,) pants, shirt, jacket and an oval white sun helmet covered in khaki. He may have been given a Martini-Henry rifle, if he was lucky, but no combat training, Little did he know what was in store for him in Afghanistan.

In September of 1879 a mob of Afghans attacked the envoy’s house and he and his small military escort were massacred.

British retribution was swift. General Frederick ‘Bobs’ Roberts marched on Kapal and hung the leaders of the massacre. A new Amir was installed in Kapal and a British friendly Governor in Kandahar.

The Berkshire Regiment (The 66th Foot) arrived in Kandahar at the beginning of 1880 with their Medical Officer (Surgeon-Major Preston.)

And back to Watson’s words:

“The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, The Second Afghan War had broken out. On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy’s country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself, and succeeded in reaching Candahar (Kandahar) in safety, were I found my Regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.”

Watson’s duties at this time would have been dealing with typhoid, dysentery, and heat exhaustion.(The temperatures could reach 140 degrees F at worst and tents were like ovens. At night temperatures would plummet to near freezing. Water was scarce, but not impossible to find, although many streams and ravines were bone dry by July.) He would also be attending the wounded from Kapal and unlucky soldiers hit by the Jezail bullets of snipers. Jezail rifles were handmade and Jezail bullets were sometimes made from rocks, nails and other scrap metal. They caused a jagged wound that was very likely to become infected. Rudyard Kipling wrote:

A scrimmage in a border station

A canter down some dark defile

Two thousand pounds of education

Drops to a ten-rupee Jezail.

 Kapal or Kabol is in northeastern Afghanistan across from Peshawar in Pakistan. Maiwand is a tiny village to the west of Kandahar, Kandahar is in southeastern Afghanistan. Afghanistan is slightly northwest of Pakistan, and Pakistan is the northern part of India.

The terrain around Maiwand was mountainous and rocky, dry and barren on the plains with many ravines and dun-colored hills. Were there was water there were green gardens with an abundance of fruit. But water sources mostly dried up in the intense summer heat.

In early July 1880, news came that Ayub Khan, the ruler of Herat in the West was heading East. He was leading an Army of 8000, vowing to expel the hated British, depose the ruler of Kandahar and install himself as Amir of Afghanistan. Thousands of Tribesmen and Ghazis (Holy Warriors) marched with him towards Kandahar.

Because of this report Brigadier General George Burrows was sent to stop the uprising. He was given permission to take as many men as he needed from Kandahar, and he did so.On July 14th he reached Helmund (about 30 miles north of Kandahar) and among his forces were British/ Indian troops, native troops, the Berkshires 66th foot Regiment and others. This first skirmish was against the mutineers of the Wali (the name given the British appointed leader). It was looked at as a minor victory, since they were able to capture 6 of the smooth-bore gun battery, even though many of the native Afghan troops deserted to join Ayub Khan’s forces and four British soldiers were wounded.

On July 16th,General Burrows moved to Kushki Nakud to gain more supplies and strengthen his troops with more men and horses. There was an enclosure in which a field hospital and stores were placed and by the 21st; all was in readiness.

It was at this time Watson would have been “attached to the Berkshires.” He said:

” The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster. I was removed from my brigade and attached to the Berkshires, with whom I served at the fatal Battle of Maiwand.”

The chief Medical Officer (MO) of the Berkshires (66th Foot) was Surgeon-Major Alexander Francis Preston. He must have noticed the dedicated, skilled young surgeon of the Fusiliers, who may have already been serving at the field hospital. A Doctor with several years experience at busy St. Bart’s in London would not have gone unnoticed by Preston who was a graduate of Trinity College, 1863. He would have recognized his abilities and his calm, intelligent demeanor and surely would have wanted to work beside him fighting to save the lives of his men. Any idea that Watson was “removed” for a negative reason is absurd. On the brink of battle you would want to surround yourself with the best and bravest, like our Watson. Surgeon-Major Preston planned to stay at the front lines during the battle. Assistant Surgeon Watson would have been assigned to running the field hospital at the rear.

On the 26th of July General Burrows was informed that Ayub Khan’s Army was advancing to Maiwand, 10 miles north of Kushki Nakud. General Burrows had about 2500 men and 12 guns.

Battle of MaiwandOn the morning of July 27th,1880, the Battle of Maiwand began. Of the many accounts I read of this battle, the best and most moving, were the actual letters written afterwards by the officers who survived. Here to tell their own story are the officers of The 66th Berkshires.

Extracts from the letter of Lieutenant O’Donnell:

“On the 26th of July, Colonel St. John informed General Burrowes, who was encamped with his force at Kushki Nakud, that a Ghazi advanced-guard of Ayoub’s Army had got to Maiwand, some ten miles to the north. The next morning Burrowes marched off his force, with bands playing and everyone rejoiced at the thought of having to turn the Ghazis out of the Maiwand fort. He had an effective fighting force… 1600 infantry, 500 cavalry and 12 guns.

This force when nearing the village of Maiwand, about 10 am, came upon- not a few hundred Ghazis, but- the whole of Ayoub’s Army, also on the march, and stretching for miles across the plain- ahorse and foot- as far as eye could reach. The bands stopped playing, and the General formed a line of battle, having, I believe orders to stop Ayoub at all hazards.”

Burrows started the assault with his artillery lined up in a sheltered ravine, he lined his infantry in two lines,66th on the right, First Grenadiers on the left, Jacob’s Rifles (an Indian troop) in the middle, with the 12 guns scattered along the lines. The Calvary was on the far left. But 12 British guns were not enough to fight off the constant firing of Ayub’s 36 guns.

Lieutenant O’Donnell continues:

“Then there was a great advance along the whole line, swarms of the white-coated Ghazis came on followed by the regular Regiment in red and blue and to meet them, the whole of our infantry was allowed to open fire. Among the Ghazis almost every man seemed to be carrying a standard of some description. At the beginning of their advance they made no rushes but came quietly on a few paces at a time, then halting they would plant the flags in the ground, fire and again move on.’

At one point the British front line thought they had achieved victory because there were no more troops advancing on them. But actually Ayub Khan had used a second hidden ravine to advance to the left and right and almost had the British encircled.

Lieutenant O’Donnell:

“Up to that time ,(except Surgeon-Major Preston who was wounded while tending the first man hit among the 66th) not an officer had been touched.”

Preston was shot in the back near his spine. He was abandoned on a stretcher until Captain Slade took notice of him and put him on a gun carriage and sent him to the rear. The gun eventually got stuck in a small village when the horses were too exhausted to pull them. ” I lay helpless on the wagon for a couple of hours,” Preston recalls,”the villagers continually firing at us.’ Preston’s story is very like Watson’s.

Watson was new to the Regiment, he would not have had time to get to know his colleagues or make friends that might care or even notice if he were missing, wounded or killed, he probably was working along side people who didn’t even know his name. But from morning till he finally fell with a bullet to the shoulder, he would have been working to save his patients lives, while trying to keep his staff out of the line of fire. In the afternoon, about 2 pm, the field hospital was heavily fired upon, and Watson would have been right in the middle of it all. It would have been amazing if he made it through with only one wound. And although he didn’t like to talk about what happened, he surely received a wound to his leg sometime in the afternoon, a handmade bullet from a rifle made of found parts, causing him pain, but not keeping him from his duty. He would have bandaged the wound, perhaps used his own puttees as a tight bandage as some did, and kept on working. Just as many of the wounded men were helping those who were in worse condition than themselves. Just as later in Kandahar, Surgeon Major Preston was praised for continuing to help the wounded even with a wound of his own.

Back to the Battle and Lieutenant O’Donnell’s words:

“Then came the crash. As the Ghazis rushed on they were still met by the same steady volleys from our men- still the heavy fire of the Grenadiers, and by case from the artillery. But the Jacob’s Rifles wavered and when the enemy were within fifty yards the two companies broke and ran, not straight back, but behind the 66th- who were still standing firm-as if seeking safety there.”

” Then from somewhere or other the Retire was sounded, but even after that, there is evidence that a portion at least of the Regiment made a move not away from but towards the enemy. However the Colonel ordered those about him to retire to the gardens.”

The garden at Khig was the last stand of The 66th Berkshires. After a grueling battle, with guns so hot the men had to wrap them with cloth to fire them, and no water to drink since morning, only 11 men and a little dog named Bobbie were left holding the Colours high and facing the enemy in a tight circle. ( The Colours are two flags, The Queen’s Colours- a Union Jack with a small crown in the middle bearing the name of the Regiment, and The Regimental Colours, the flag of the Regiment.) The 11 fought so fiercely and so boldly that even the enemy held back in admiration of their courage. But finally all were killed, even the little dog was injured, though it survived. A memorial of a large cast iron Lion stands in Forbury Garden, Reading, Berkshires and is called “The Maiwand Lion.”

Queen Victoria gave out two Victoria Crosses and Bobbie the dog received a metal and was the official mascot of the 66th.

In Kabul today there is also a Maiwand victory memorial inscribed with the words of a young woman named Malalai. Malalai, a native of Khig, and daughter of a shepard was present at the Battle of Maiwand. She was tending to the wounded when she noticed the morale of the soldiers was failing. Her Father and her betrothed were fighting in the battle. She took off her veil and shouted ” Young love if you do not fall in the Battle of Maiwand, by God, someone is saving you as a symbol of shame!” These words are inscribed on the memorial because she heartened the soldiers which led them to victory. She picked up a fallen flag and sang,

“With a drop of my sweetheart’s blood,

Shed in defense of the Motherland

Will I put a beauty spot on my forehead

Such as would put to shame the rose in the garden.”

She was struck down, but her legend is still alive.

 Lieutenant O’Donnell’s closing words were:

“Many a V.C. was gained that day by those who are beyond the reach of reward!

I need not speak of what I feel for the loss of all those fine fellows. Except two or three, all my closest friends in the Regiment have been swept away. The Colonel [Colonel James Galbraith] was a fine, honest, straightforward a gentleman as ever commanded a Regiment. McMath, Cullen, Roberts, and Bayer were as fine fellows as there are in the Army. Honeywood, Olivey and Barr, were, I believe, as promising young fellows as one could wish for in one’s Regiment, and they all died nobly and as soldiers ought to die.”

Rudyard Kipling in “The Ballad of East and West” sums up the feelings of the time:

Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the two shall meet,

Till earth and sky stand presently at God’s great judgment seat;

But their is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,

When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth.”

Extracts from the report of Major Ready: ( The Major is describing the battle from the point of view of the baggage-guard and the field hospital at the rear.)

” Marching from the camp near Kuski Nakud on route for Maiwand,we proceeded about 8 miles, when we halted for about an hour near a village, I described the enemy, away to our left front, marching on a line converging towards our route to Maiwand, there was a good deal of Mirage and it was difficult to see clearly, but at the time, I estimated their strength at about 15,000 men.

Our force changed direction towards the left, apparently to attack the enemy, I wheeled the baggage column to the left and followed on, until I reached a wide nullah; [an intermittent watercourse, or ravine] which I entered, halting the baggage on it’s sheltered slope. In this nullah the field hospital was placed.

At about 11 am, a number of the enemy, horsemen, Ghazis, and villagers, making repeated attempts to push down the nullah, I found it necessary to call Captain Quarry for 20 men…and thus prevented any of the enemy getting round to our rear. As some of the enemy’s shells fell among the baggage Colonel Malcolmson…requested me to withdraw the camels a little distance, this was done but the baggage guard continued to hold their position.

2nd-Lieutenant Melliss, 66th Regiment, joined the baggage guard during the action and assisted Captain Quarry and 2nd-Lieutenant Bray. These three officers showed great coolness and judgment and did excellent service. As we retired from the field, I saw Lieutenant Melliss and Bray carrying a box of ammunition, the contents of which they served out to all who had space for more.

The men were greatly exhausted from want of food as well as from the intense heat; and we were obliged to mount them (after providing for the sick and wounded) on baggage animals. As our field hospital was for a time exposed to heavy fire, I fear many of our sick and wounded perished. Towards the evening a squadron fell back and covered the retreat. About 9:00 pm, I rode along the line of retreat and endeavored to restore some sort of order collecting men and baggage animals in parties as far as was possible.”

Watson had little to say about his part in the battle. But just imagine what it would have been like for an Assistant Surgeon at Maiwand. Surgeon Major Preston had been wounded early on, leaving his assistants in charge of the field hospital and all the hundreds of wounded trying to make their way to the rear. It would have been impossible to treat all those men. The most you could do is bandage the wounds and try to move them out in any way you could, wagons, artillery guns, camels and pack-horses. If they even had pain killers, like laudanum or morphine it would soon run out, and most brave soldiers would rather see it go to wounded mate than themselves. If you were wounded and could walk, you would take your rifle and head out on the road to Kandahar, always just a sniper bullet away from death.

Watson would have been overwhelmed by the carnage around him. To be in charge in the midst of chaos, to watch good men die in your arms, to watch patients you just saved being killed while they rested, would have broken a lesser man. He must have wondered why Death had spared him even while he was looking Death right in the eye and doing all he could to snatch back at least some of his men from Death’s grasp.

Even though Watson could never talk about this battle, or his wounds, perhaps he felt guilty he even survived, there was one man who knew the truth. Watson tells us:

“There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery. I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly, who threw me across a pack-horse, and succeeded in bringing me safely to the British lines.”

Murray may not have known Watson’s character as we do, but he fought beside him all day and knew the Hero he was. I’m sure Murray would claim it didn’t take courage to save a man who had just saved more men than you could count, and probably saved Murray as well. Watson’s continued silence on the subject, throughout his life with Sherlock Holmes, speaks volumes of his humble ways, that hide a Hero’s heart. Murray’s actions speak volumes about how Watson conducted himself at Maiwand.

After reaching Kandahar, Watson tells us:

“Worn with pain, and weak from the prolonged hardships which I had undergone, I was removed with a great train of wounded sufferers, to the base hospital at Peshiwar. Here I rallied, and had already improved so far as to be able to walk around the wards, and even to bask a little on the veranda, when I was struck down with enteric fever, that curse of our Indian possessions. For months my life was despaired of, and when at last I came to myself and became convalescent, I was so weak and emancipated that a medical board determined that not a day should be lost in sending me back to England. I was despatched, accordingly, in the troopship Orontes, and landed a month later on Portsmouth jetty, with my health irretrievably ruined, but with permission from a paternal government to spend the next nine months in attempting to improve it.”

The Orontes arrived in November at Portsmouth’s troop jetty. Portsmouth, located on an island about 60 miles south of London, was full of jetties, piers and slips as it was a booming harbor town and home to the Navy. The troop jetty was easy to use for invalided soldiers and very close to the train to London, also for the convenience of the Army and Navy.

When the troops from Maiwand arrived at Troopship Jetty, Portsmouth, Those in need of hospital care were sent to Netley in Southampton. But Portsmouth was home to many Army Barracks for officers and men. Some were in lovely old homes with dining halls, gymnasiums and pleasant gardens. Watson, tired and worn, would have spent at least two or three months of the nine he mentions regaining his strength in Portsmouth and vicinity. Close by was Southsea, a beach resort, and New Forest which is now a National Park. (Watson mentions a longing on a hot August day at Baker Street to visit these places again. CARD.) When he felt stronger, he could easily have travelled to London by train, and in March of 1881 he met Sherlock Holmes and made 221b Baker Street his home.

Surgeon-Major Preston remained in the Army and after the Medical Department was reformed, and Army Medical staff were given their long overdue privileges, he was promoted to Surgeon-General and made Honorary Physician to Queen Victoria and King Edward Vll. It was said about Preston that, “His great abilities were hidden by his geniality. He was fond of golf, travel and sport.” Some say Arthur Conan Doyle based Watson on Preston, But they have forgotten that Watson wrote his own reminiscences. Doyle only helped his literary friend reprint and publish them. Easy mistake to make.

Doctor Conan Doyle knew Portsmouth well. He stayed there after his two voyages to Greenland, and eventually set up practice there. But he also gravitated to London. He says,” My pleasant recollection of those days from 1880 – 1893 lay in my first introduction, as a more or less rising author, to the literary life of London. Rudyard Kipling, James Stephenson Phillips, Watson…”

Surgeon- Major Preston, Assistant Surgeon Watson and Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle were likely in Portsmouth at the same time. It seems that these three Doctors were destined to meet. Doyle was very likely to have met Preston in Portsmouth, at some medical function or lecture. Perhaps Preston introduced Watson and Doyle over a friendly game of golf. Doyle could have invited Rudyard Kipling, a friend and fellow golf enthusiast, to make a foursome. Where they regaled each other with harrowing tales of Arctic waters and desert Battles.

“That Day”

By Rudyard Kipling ( A Poem about The Battle of Maiwand )

It got beyond all orders an’ it got beyond all ‘ope;

It got to shammin’ wounded an’ retirn’ from the ‘alt.

‘ole companies was lookin’ for the nearest road to slope;

It were just a bloomin’ knock-out–and our fault!

Now there ain’t no chorus ‘ere to give,

Nor there ain’t no band to play;

An’ I wish I was dead ‘fore I done what I did.

Or seen what I seed that day!

We was sick o’ bein’ punished. an’ we let ’em know it, too;

An’ a company commander up an’ ‘it us with a sword,

An’ some one shouted “Ook it!” an’ it come to soveki-poo, *

An’ we chucked our rifles from us–O my Gawd!

There were thirty dead an’ wounded on the ground we wouldn’t keep–

No, there wasn’t more than twenty when the front begun to go,

But, Christ! Along the line o’ fight they cut us up like sheep

An’ that was all we gained by doin’ so.

I ‘eard the knives be’ind me, but I dursn’t face my man,

Nor I don’t know where I went to ’cause I didn’t ‘alt to see,

Till I ‘eard a begger squealin’ out for quarter** as ‘e ran;

An’ I thought I knew the voice an’ –it was me!

We was ‘idin’ under bedsteads more than ‘alf a march away;

We was lyin’ up like rabbits all about the countryside;

An’ the major cursed ‘is maker ’cause ‘e lived to see that day,

An’ the colonel broke ‘is sword acrost and cried.

We was rotten ‘fore we started– we were never disciplined,

We made it out a favour if an order was obeyed,

Yes, every little drummer ‘ad ‘is rights an’ wrongs to mind,

So we had to pay for teachin’–an’ we paid!

The papers ‘id it ‘andsome, but you know the Army knows;

We was put to groomin’ camels till the regiments withdrew,

An’ they gave us each a metal for subduin’ England’s foes,

An’ I ope’ you like my song– because it’s true!

Now there ain’t no chorus ‘ere to give,

Nor there ain’t no band to play;

An’ I wish I was dead ‘fore I done what I did,

Or seen what I seed that day!

*soveki-poo…sauve qui pent…save yourselves who can

** quarter…to surrender… to ask to be taken prisoner


” Dangerous Works” Arthur Conan Doyle/Jon Lellenberg/Daniel Stashower

“The 66th Berkshire Regiment, a brief history of its service at home and abroad from 1758 to 1881” J. Percy Groves, Reserve of Officers

“The Annotated Sherlock Holmes” William S. Baring -Gould

“The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes” Leslie S. Klinger


MalalaiGaren Ewin


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