Friday, July 01, 2011

I Read Books: Signal Catastrophe

Signal Catastrophe: The British Retreat From Kabul, 1842 by Patrick Macrory, 1966

1. This is the 1967 History Book Club edition. The same book was published in the United States under the title Retreat from Kabul: The Catastrophic British Defeat in Afghanistan, 1842. Due to some confusion on this issue, my brother managed to order both the edition I'm reviewing and the 2002 American edition. As the newer one is smaller and lighter being in paperback, that's the one he took with him, leaving this one to me.

2. This was sent by Rothwell and Dunworth Ltd, Antiquarian Booksellers. I can say that these people know how to pack books. No shove it in a jiffy bag for them. The book was placed in a paper bag which was folded tightly around it and taped shut. Then a well fitting cardboard form was folded around it and again taped. Finally it was wrapped and sealed. The old fashioned compliments slip was a nice touch, and is currently holding out well as a bookmark.

3. George MacDonald Fraser referenced this in his novel Flashman which covered most of the events of this history. He was very complimentary. However I can't find the wording as someone has half-inched my copy.

4. Written in 1966, it's in clear modern language and is easy to follow. However it feels very old school as a history. We're well into Great Man theory of history (or, in this case, Great Pillock) territory. Concentrating almost entirely on written sources we get a good view of the upper ranks of the Army of the Indus, but the view from ground level is minimal. It's also anglocentric as most of the records consulted were in English.

This is not entirely a bad thing - it's about the British Retreat From Kabul rather than a broader history, so it should emphasise the British point of view. Some Afghan sources are referenced, and, indeed, Macrory notes that historians asking Afghans about the war got stories that matched up well with the historical record. However there was the interesting tendency to mix up incidents from the First Anglo-Afghan War with events from the Second and even the Third. A little more documentation from the Afghan point of view would not have hurt the book.

5. Who is to blame? Like everyone else, this book blames Elphinstone. He was too old, too tired and too ill and so made bad decisions, no decisions and changed his decisions from bad to appalling depending on whoever spoke to him last. Elphinstone apparently tried to refuse the command, but not hard enough. 19th century ideas of honour, reputation and patronage did not allow him to resign because to do so would have marked him as a coward and simultaneously destroyed any influence he might have had.

That said, a 21st century professional army would probably have retired Elphinstone rather than send him to Kabul. If by some mischance he did end up in command there, he would have been relieved before the disaster was complete. Of course part of that is because of modern communications. Until reliable telegraphy became widespread commanders in the field had an immense amount of authority and discretion. For this reason it was impossible for officers junior to Elphinstone to alleviate the situation and, as he had been appointed by the Governor-General, he was independent of the civilian authority of Macnaghten.

Several factors leading to the British position becoming untenable came into being before Elphinstone took over; the decision to garrison the army outside the city in cantonment; the poor positioning and design of the cantonments; the storage of supplies and ammunition outside the cantonments. Nevertheless Elphinstone made no attempt to improve the situation. His second-in-command Brigadier Shelton was unhelpful and uninterested in Elphinstone's problems; his aggressive and straightforward suggestions would probably not have improved the situation, but frankly any decision would have been better than Elphinstone's dithering.

6. The British response to the massacre was pretty brutal, but in the end they retreated from Afghanistan. By this time, it had become clear that the country was not about to become a Russian puppet state, so there was no longer any reason to remain. This happy state of affairs continued until the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War.

7. I enjoyed it. It is, of course, a tragedy, although not a classical one. Elphinstone is not brought down by his pride or his strengths, but by his illness, his lack of grasp on the situation, his indecisiveness and his appalling choices of who to put his trust in. And he brings down the whole army with him, which brings down vengeance onto the whole Afghan nation. The worst of it is that, as Pollock proved when he forced the Khyber pass in the aftermath, even after the decision to leave the cantonments is made, a swift and decisive march to Jallabad might just have made it. Instead they started late, stopped early, waited for escorts from the Afghans - the list of errors goes on and on.

8. Read this book: If you want to know about the British retreat from Kabul in a light and, if you'll forgive the word, entertaining manner.
Don't read this book: If you have no interest in the topic or prefer your history to concentrate on ground level foot soldiers.
Note: In Signal Catastrophe, the name of the book, signal is not a verb, but an adjective, meaning serious or extraordinary.
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