This is a book which can provide an insight into Afghanistan and local attitudes to life, death and foreign interventions through source material which is over 150 years old. In creating this book Margaret Kekewich has taken two diaries from 1842 and used them as the basis of the story of the disastrous military adventures into Afghanistan by the British army from Northern India.
The first half of the book deals with the story from the perspective of Lady Hale’s diary covering her capture and imprisonment along with around 100 women and children who had travelled with the initial invading army. Her observations on the character of the local tribes and the various warring factions within Afghanistan ring true to this day with the disjointed lack of local governmental structure in the tribal areas. The second half of the book is drawn from the diary of Reverend Isaac Allen, a young Church of England clergyman who has been sent to India to minister to the British army. Rev. Allen accompanies the second army to enter Afghanistan, this time with the intention of releasing the known surviving captives which includes Lady Sale’s group of women and children. The additional intention is to provide a bit of Victorian “gun boat diplomacy” and strike back at the local tribes to avenge the ill fated first army.
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As becomes clear during the latter half of the book the second expedition fared a little better than the first in achieving many of its aims but the book recounts the soldiers retreating past the decaying corpses of survivors of the earlier venture as they eventually leave Afghanistan with the recovered prisoners; whilst this was a victory in the technical sense no lasting effects were really achieved in the tribal areas.
Another fact that is clear in the book, one that still applies to the region today, is that the most reliable way to stop the locals shooting at you is to buy their loyalty with hard currency. It seems that whenever the expedition runs into significant hostility it is because someone has not been paid off whilst their neighbour has.
The conclusion of the book links the defeat of the British in Afghanistan in 1842 to the seeds of the Indian Mutiny in 1857. Much is made of the distress caused in India to the abandonment of Indian soldiers by the British army in the mountains and the limited effort to rescue their accompanying families from being sold into slavery.
Considering the dry nature of the subject the author has produced an interesting and readable book, the style is accessible and seems to deal fairly with the subject matter. The final conclusion to the book compares the desire to withdraw from Afghanistan now with the same desire in 1842. In 1842 the Army and politicians were not prepared to venture any more lives on a political situation which did not materialise. Now the NATO forces are trapped in Afghanistan whilst waiting for the emergence of a strong government able to control the country, a political situation that may not materialise.
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