When Arthur Conan Doyle introduced his famous narrator of the Sherlock Holmes tales in 'A Study In Scarlet' (1887) he also introduced into Doctor John H. Watson's background a history serving in the Afghan theatre of war from 1878 to 1880, the tale of his wounding at the Battle of Maiwand, and his return home on the troopship Orontes, before he met up with Holmes in a chemical lab in London. Here the burgeoning detective uttered one of the most famous introductory lines in literature, "How are you? You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive"*.
For many modern readers this may well be the first time they have heard of Maiwand, or even the Second Afghan War, and it's quite possible they could consider it all part of the fiction - if they consider it at all. For a very few others it actually sparks an interest in this distant Victorian campaign, such as for Brian Robson, who's re-reading of Doyle's book led him to researching and writing 'The Road to Kabul'.
Watson's participation in the war follows his being attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as an Assistant Surgeon and finding, by the time he landed at Bombay, the regiment had already been sent to Afghanistan at the outbreak of war. He was packed off to join them at Kandahar and afterwards attached to the Berkshires, accompanying them into the chaos of Maiwand and being wounded there by the bullet from a jezail. Watson's orderly, 'Murray', managed to pull him out of danger to join the retreat, and he was soon recovering at Peshawar before he was able to get home and up to London, looking for lodgings and employment of some kind.
Just for fun, let's explore the facts of this history, and the real-life echos that the fiction provides.
Surgeon George Watson of the 13th Bengal Lancers - he died 2 days before Maiwand.
Unfortunately, the story falls short of the facts fairly quickly. Watson would not have joined the 5th Fusiliers at Kandahar because that regiment was never stationed there. They were part of the Peshawar Valley Field Force and were employed in the Khyber Pass, the Bazar Valley, Landi Kotal and Jalalabad - all in the northern territories. It is more feasable for him to have joined up with the 66th (Berkshire) Regiment while at Bombay, though, staying with them, he would not have made it into Afghanistan until over a year later as they marched into the southern city of Kandahar early in 1880.
Perhaps unsurprisingly there is no 'Murray' attached to the Royal Berkshire Regiment, though we can mention a close match with Private Henry Murrell, sadly killed in action at Maiwand on 27 July 1880. Of course, Murray was Watson's orderly and not necessarily a soldier, but let's continue the name game with the 5th Fusiliers where we do find a Private J. Murray as well as four Private Watsons. The surgeon attached to the Fusiliers was W. L. Gubbins, who also held the post of sanitary officer in the Khyber Line, while the medical officers of the 66th included Hospital Sergeant Latimer Warren, with Surgeon Major Alexander F. Preston in charge, wounded at Maiwand, also a Private Mark Watson and two Private Holmes.
Were there any actual army surgeons called Watson? There was Brigadier Surgeon G. A. Watson, in medical charge of the 19th Bengal Lancers. He survived the war, but Surgeon George Watson (pictured above), initially attached to the Royal Artillery as part of the attack on Ali Musjid, wasn't so lucky. In the second campaign he joined with the 13th Bengal Lancers where a series of fevers got the better of him and he died on July 25th at Peiwar Kotal, two days before the disaster at Maiwand.
I may be taking things a little too far if I were to tell you that there was a Lieutenant Colonel M. P. Moriarty who advanced on Kabul with General Roberts and was in charge of the treasury there, and even further still when you hear about Captain G. J. Rathbone, later of the Berkshire Regiment, a transport officer with the Kuram Valley Field Force and Lieutenant in the 6th Foot.
Watson, as we have heard, returned to Portsmouth, aboard the Orontes, weakened from his experience at Maiwand as well as a severe bout of enteric fever caught while at Peshawar. The Orontes did indeed bring back injured soldiers from the Afghan war, and some of these men actually ended up in Conan Doyle's surgery in Elm Grove, where he practiced from 1882-1890.
* How did Sherlock Holmes know Dr. Watson had been in Afghanistan? Later on in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes says:
"I knew you came from Afghanistan. From long habit the train of thoughts ran so swiftly through my mind that I arrived at the conclusion without being conscious of intermediate steps. There were such steps, however. The train of reasoning ran: "Here is a gentleman of a medical type, but with the air of a military man. Clearly an army doctor then. He has just come from the tropics, for his face is dark, and that is not the natural tint of his skin, for his wrists are fair. He has undergone hardships and sickness, as his haggard face says clearly. His left arm has been injured. He holds it in a stiff and unnatural manner. Where in the tropics could an English army doctor have seen much hardship and got his arm wounded? Clearly in Afghanistan." The whole train of thought did not occupy a second. I then remarked that you came from Afghanistan, and you were astonished."
We'll forgive him the fact that Afghanistan is not actually tropical, and the Zulu War could have been, perhaps, a stronger contender for Dr. Watson's recent adventures!