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Doctor Watson in Afghanistan

It’s said that there is nothing like being hung in the morning to focus the mind. An oncoming war in Afghanistan serves the same function. Doing research on the country, I came across a literary curiosity. It is central to the creation of two of literature’s most famous names, Sherlock Holmes & John H Watson, MD.

The details are in Thaddeus Holts ”’You have been in Afghanistan,’ I perceive,” in the Military History Quarterly, W 94.

Doctor Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, is supposed to be a reprint from the Reminiscences of John H. Watson, MD, late of the Army medical Department. Watson tells us how,

“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 5th Northumberland Fusiliers as assistant surgeon. The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the 2nd 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 Kandahar in safety, where I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.

“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. 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.”

Conan Doyle tells us that Watson, in England on convalescent leave, was introduced by a medical friend to Holmes (according to “Consulting Detective,” by Wendell Scherer. Holmes comes from Holmes Row, near Waterloo Rd in London.) and they shared lodgings at 221B Baker St. Recall Watson’s introduction to his friend & hero:

“‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive,’ said Holmes. ‘How on earth did you know that?’ asked Watson in astonishment. ‘Never mind,’ Holmes replied, chuckling to himself.”

Holt, who serves on the advisory board of the excellent scholarly journal, traces both Watson & Holmes to 2nd Afghan war vets, and their disaster at Maiwand in July of 1880. Watson was Surgeon-Major A F Preston, wounded there. Holmes was based on a gunner an artillery man, named Sherlock, in the retinue of a Veterinary-Major with the Royal Artillery, who escaped from the slaughter.

In A Study in Scarlet, it is only Watson who is an old Afghan hand. Via literary & military detective work, worthy of Holmes himself, Holt found that Sherlock had his Afghan tale to tell. This being the case, we will allow ourselves to call on the twosome, so knowledgeable on the ground, to lead the investigation into the whodunits, the guilty American politicians and military who turned Afghan fundamentalism, a declining force, into a world power, in their zeal to defeat the Soviet regime in Afghanistan, 1979-89.

Equally crucial, we must remember that, as with the Vietnam war, we have a message for today’s gunner Sherlocks. The pols are leading them into wars and politics they know nothing about. They more those American grunts learn about how they got into this ultimate far off war, the more they will say to their misleaders, “you got us into this horror. You have no right to send us off to our deaths, trying to put out fires you started. US out of Afghanistan. Politicians out of Washington.” CP

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