Masterclass on Afghanistan: Return of a King – The Battle for Afghanistan
Review: William Dalrymple paints so vivid a picture of his subject that it’s like watching a documentary
Barmy: British experts in Afghanistan, such as Alexander Burnes (centre), were overruled by superiors in London. Photograph: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty
Return of a King
It’s difficult to think of a more perfect combination of writer and subject than William Dalyrmple and Afghanistan. I had been told he was researching a book about the “first Afghan war”, as it has become known, three years ago. When I finally got my hands on a copy it felt as if I had a ticket to the first Ali-Frazier fight.
Return of a King, now available in paperback, is Dalrymple’s eighth book – and it is, of course, marvellous. Like the first Ali-Frazier fight, it’s a full 15 rounds of breathtaking drama and bloody struggle, told by a writer whose combinations and footwork would make the Greatest himself start reciting poetry. Even before I opened it I was smiling; the synopsis on the back cover is a single sentence: “In the spring of 1839 British forces invaded Afghanistan for the first time.” Given the subject, and Dalyrmple’s record, nothing more is needed.
This is perhaps Dalrymple’s most ambitious book so far – it took him five years to complete – and he pulls it off with style. He’s clearly a master storyteller and historian at the peak of his powers, and he balances these two skills perfectly.
Every time I think he might be enjoying himself too much, given the horrors of the campaign, particularly the hellish first retreat from Kabul, he switches smoothly from humour to compassion, always getting the tone just right and often letting the facts and the recollections of the participants speak for themselves. And what recollections he has discovered.
He has unearthed piles of previously unused sources from all sides, including diaries, letters, epic poems and memoirs, some bought from second-hand booksellers on the streets of Kabul. He has brilliantly edited these sources to paint such a vivid picture that I often felt as though I was watching a documentary.
I thought I knew the story of this war well – I’ve read many great books that cover the same events – but none of them brings to life the horrendous suffering, the impossible conditions and the catastrophic mix of ignorance and arrogance displayed by many of the war’s architects as well as Return of a King.
The British army entered Kabul in 1839 and ejected the ruler, Dhost Mohammad Khan, replacing him with Shah Shuja, in order to remove a perceived threat to British India – a Russian and Persian encroachment into Afghanistan that no longer existed. This had been done with such ease that Britain soon launched another war (the Opium war) hundreds of kilometres away.
The troops who remained didn’t feel at all vulnerable and underestimated the hostility their presence created to such an extent that they didn’t bother to build defences, stored their weapons outside of their base and even began openly having affairs with Afghan women (in one case with the mistress of a tribal leader). Womanising was just one of many incredible offenses committed, and within a year there was a popular uprising that the British couldn’t suppress. They were forced to leave, and on the way out almost every man, woman and child was either slaughtered or captured.