Fictional Account of British Massacre in 19th-Century Afghanistan.(BOOKS)

Article excerpt


Great powers spawn great debacles, even at the height of their power. It is the price of doing business. The Romans lost three legions, the equivalent of one-tenth of their standing army, to the Germans in the battle of the Teutoberg Forest in 9 A.D. Nonetheless, the Roman Empire stood for nearly 500 years following that event, although the emperor Augustus never forgave the luckless and dead general Varus for his failure.

Few great empires have suffered as many catastrophic losses as the British and remained great. Isandhlwana, Khartoum, and Saratoga are notable examples. However, for sheer military and diplomatic incompetence, the ill-fated British withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1842 remains a masterpiece of ineptitude. It makes the Little Big Horn appear to be the equivalent of the amateur hour military defeats.

In three days, the British lost an army of nearly 5,000 soldiers and 10,000 camp followers to a rag tag army of Afghan militia who fought an ad-hoc, but brilliant campaign. In "The Mulberry Empire," Philip Hensher gives a fictional, but historically grounded account of the massacre and the events leading up to it.

To summarize the plot, the British Empire early in the reign of Queen Victoria had become the "world's sole surviving superpower." Having secured India, the British gazed west to mysterious Afghanistan. Goaded by the accounts of the adventurer-writer Alexander Burns, the British governor-general of India hastily formed the Army of the Indus to oust the supposedly unstable Emir Of Afghanistan, Dost Mohammad, intending to replace him with a more British-friendly rival. The ill-trained and largely mercenary British-led force was initially successful, but eventually got forced out of Kabul by the emir's wily son Akbar Khan and his Afghan followers in a brilliant piece of insurgency.

Akbar used a combination of ruse, psychological warfare, and guerilla operations to bottle up the British forces in the Khyber Pass in the mountains of the Hindu Kush (Death to Hindus in the local language) and destroyed them almost to the last man. The defeat was abetted by the death by ruse of the two leaders of the expedition Gens. Mcnaghten and Burnes, whereupon command passed to the lethargic and incompetent Gen. Elpinstone.

The mulberries of the title refer to branches left at the quarters of the British leaders before the revolt in an unread signal of intention by the Afghans. Mr. Hensher is a British author and journalist, who evidently studied the history of the region and has several previous books to his credit. …