Sue Cook presents the series that examines listeners' historical queries, exploring avenues of research and uncovering mysteries.
The March to Kandahar, 1880
"My grandfather, who died in 1982 aged 102, left papers in which he gives an account of his early days working as a Salvation Army cadet. One of the men he attended and who turned back from drink was a former senior medical officer on the march to Kandahar. What was the march to Kandahar all about and is there any way of identifying this man who was nicknamed 'The Surgeon General'?"
During August 1880, General Frederick Roberts ("Bobs" as he became known) led 10,000 men, with more than 7,000 camp followers and 18 guns, from Kabul to Kandahar. The mission was to relieve the British garrison at Kandahar, then the capital of Afghanistan, which was under siege by an Afghan warlord, Ayub Khan, who was trying to claim the throne.
This was the order given by General Roberts on 8th August 1880:
"It has been decided by the Government of India that a force shall proceed with all possible despatch from Cabul towards Khelat-i-Ghilzai and Candahar for the relief of the British garrison in those places, now threatened by a large Afghan army under the leadership of Sirdar Mahomed Ayub Khan."
Before Roberts arrived, Ayub raised the siege and prepared for battle with 13,000 men and 32 guns a short way west of Kandahar. There, Roberts, with reinforcements from Kandahar, attacked and defeated Ayub, winning the Battle of Kandahar on 1 September. This campaign captured the hearts and minds of the British people - the march was heroic stuff, especially since it came after defeat at Waiwand. Covering more than 300 miles in 22 days meant that the men were travelling 16 miles a day, often in very difficult conditions. Roberts was eventually to become Lord Roberts of Kandahar. He was Britain's greatest military commander of the late 19th century and the last Commander-in-Chief of the British army.
Arthur Conan Doyle used the setting of the Afghan war for one of his best known characters, Dr Watson, who, in the Sherlock Holmes novels, was said to have been at the Battle of Waiwand.
Making History consulted Garen Ewing who is compiling a web-based information project on the war. One of the features of the project is the setting up of a biographical database of people who took part in the march from Kabul to Kandahar. The plan is to gather all the information gleaned into a printed volume and a CD-Rom.
The doctor mentioned in the listener's grandfather memoirs - if the old doctor's account of himself is true - could probably eventually be narrowed down to 20 or so men, though he was certainly not the surgeon general.
Brian Robson, The Road to Kabul: The Second Afghan War 1878-1881 (Spellmount Publishers, 2003)
W.H. Hannah, Bobs: Kipling's General: Life of Field-marshal Earl Roberts of Kandahar, VC (Leo Cooper, 1972)
Vanessa has presented science and current affairs programmes for BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Discovery and has presented for BBC Radio 4 & Five Live and a regular contributor to the Daily Telegraph and the Mail on Sunday, Scotsman and Sunday Herald.
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