Watson’s War

(Bec Simpson)

Our dear narrator Dr Watson mentions very little of his own short career in the army throughout the accounts of his adventures with Sherlock Holmes. Most of the time he’s far too caught up in the wonders of Holmes’ deductions to worry about telling us about himself. The stories are about Holmes, after all, not Watson.

Aside from the occasional reference to Jezial bullets in either the shoulder or the leg, quite possibly both, the most detailed account is of course at the beginning of A Study In Scarlet, and this is what I’m going to be looking at today.

Army Medical Department

The account opens up with stating that John H Watson MD is ‘late of the Army Medical Department’. This is in the days before the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC), which was formed in 1898.

Contrary to popular belief, in Watson’s days, the Army Medical Department did not have a formal rank structure like the RAMC does now. They had what was known as ‘advantages corresponding to relative military rank’, and Watson’s relative military rank was Lieutenant. This doesn’t mean he was ACTUALLY a Lieutenant and this is probably why he never referred to himself as such. They would simply have been known by their official medical title of Doctor. That’s why, in the modern day adaptation, we have Captain Watson of the RAMC, whereas in the canon, he was simply Dr Watson of the Army Medical Department.

In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Medicine of the University of London, and proceeded to Netley to go through the course prescribed for surgeons in the army.

Although the language here is a little shady – it says ‘I took’ my degree, rather than ‘I started’ or ‘I completed’ my degree – it’s safe to assume that Watson finished his studies in 1878, due to the fact that he met Holmes in 1881. He really wasn’t in the army for very long then, all things considered, especially when you take into account that the famous St Bart’s introduction happened at the very beginning of 1881, and that he probably finished his degree in the middle of 1878 then had to go on to complete his army training for a few more months before joining his troops some time in 1880 – maybe nine to ten months of actual time serving.

When Watson arrived at Netley’s Army Medical School to train to become an army surgeon, it was a relatively new establishment, having only been in existence since 1863. They had two courses that each lasted five months – one beginning in April and the other beginning in October.

If Watson finished his University of London degree in 1878, he would have then gone on to do his one year stint as house surgeon at St Bart’s immediately after, so he probably would have been accepted onto the Netley course in October 1879.

Prospective army surgeons would have learnt such fascinating and cheerful skills as burial of the dead, hygiene, pathology, military surgery, and choosing the most appropriate sites to house temporary latrines, kitchens and dressing stations. They also would have had to dissected the entire body at least once and attended twelve midwifery classes. I’m not exactly sure why on that last one. Maybe so they could assist random civilians who might suddenly give birth.

Having completed my studies there, I was duly attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as Assistant Surgeon.

The Northumberland Fusiliers have had many names over the years since their formation in 1674. They began as the Fifth Regiment of Foot, then the Fifth Northumberland Regiment of Foot, then the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers Regiment of Foot from 1838 to 1881, which was the version Dr Watson served with. After 1881 they were renamed the Northumberland Fusiliers and then, in 1935, the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.

He would have been attached to the regiment AS A SURGEON, not as a fighting soldier, although he would have been trained how to use weapons for emergency situations. For the most part, his job would have involved rushing onto the field in the aftermath of a battle, or in the small lulls in between waves of attacks, to collect injured soldiers and then carry them back to the nearest camp to treat them. It would have involved a lot of WATCHING battles, rather than actually taking part, but it’s easy to see how he could have been shot whilst running into the line of fire.

Canon Watson’s job was actually much more dangerous and daring than the equivalent modern Watson’s job would have been. These days, medical officers in Afghanistan don’t even go anywhere near the line of fire. They don’t leave the main base at all, so it’s quite the mystery how John Watson ended up getting shot in modern Sherlock, and it’s been the source of many an essay from modern Sherlockians, all of which debate some very interesting theories.

As an assistant surgeon, which was the official job title he gave himself, Watson would have observed or helped out during the more serious operations, and led the minor ones himself. He would have had an orderly to help him collect the injured soldiers and in this case, we all know it was a chap named Bill Murray…who ended up being quite the hero.

The regiment was stationed in India at the time, and before I could join it, the second Afghan war had broken out.

There are some very specific – and very real – battles referred to in Watson’s short account. The main one is the Second Afghan War or, to refer to it by its full name, the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

The actual reason for the conflict in the first place was, as most wars are, a little silly and inconsequential sounding. This was, of course, in the days of the British Empire, and a perceived threat from Russia’s expanding borders led Britain to believe that gaining control over Afghanistan would be the safest way to protect our current territories from invasion. Afghanistan, however, weren’t so keen to just lie down and accept British influence and when a Russian envoy was accepted into Kabul, but a British one turned away at the borders, the British decided to step up and invade the country. Naturally, the Afghans defended, and war broke out.

The first phase of 40,000 British troops were dispatched into Afghanistan in September 1878 and the war lasted for approximately two years, with the British winning a final victory at the Battle of Kandahar in 1880.

On landing at Bombay, I learned that my corps had advanced through the passes, and was already deep in the enemy’s country. I followed, however, with many other officers who were in the same situation as myself, and succeeded in reaching Candahar in safety, where I found my regiment, and at once entered upon my new duties.

Sadly, Watson would not have been able to meet up with them upon his arrival in Kandahar because they didn’t actually have a base there. Once the war broke out, the 5th Fusiliers were part of the Peshawar Valley Field Force and were employed in the Khyber Pass, the Bazar Valley, Landi Kotal and Jalalabad. These are all Northern regions of Afghanistan compared with the Southern province of Kandahar.

Perhaps Watson arrived in Kandahar and then travelled North to find his regiment and just failed to mention that not very important detail in the story. After all, he just wants to leave in the exciting parts, not the part where he had to travel through a desert for five days or however long it would have taken to find his troops because he’d foolishly gone to the wrong place.

The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster. I was removed from my brigade and attached to the Berkshires, with whom I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand.

By that time the war ended in 1880, Watson was already injured and out of the conflict, having received a bullet – in the shoulder and/or leg – at the Battle of Maiwand.

This was a genuine battle that took place on 27th July 1880 and resulted in an Afghan victory. 969 British troops were killed, and 177 wounded, including our hero Watson. By that time, he was, by his own account, no longer with the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers and had been instead ‘attached to the Berkshires’. While it doesn’t specify the exact regiment of Berkshires, the only one that actually served in the Battle of Maiwand were the 66th Berkshire Regiment of Foot. Of this regiment, 286 were killed and 32 wounded.

I’ve read some people claiming that Watson was transferred to the Berkshires BEFORE he left Bombay, which would explain why he travelled to Kandahar rather than further north, but that’s not exactly made clear from Watson’s description and certainly, the way it reads, it appears as if the transfer happened after he arrived in Afghanistan.

There is also the question of WHY he was transferred from the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers to the Berkshire Regiment. The most likely and feasible explanation for this is that they had the Berkshires had a shortage of medical officers and Watson was sent in to make up the numbers.

There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery.

A Jezail is a type of gun – a jezail musket – and they were the primary weapons used by the Afghanis during the Anglo-Afghan War, therefore it’s entirely likely that Watson was hit by a bullet from one of these guns.

The subclavian artery is situated just below the collar bone. There’s two of them, one on either side, and although Watson, in this case, didn’t specify whether it was the right or the left, Holmes later deduces that it was on the left. It’s a good job it only grazed the artery, however, as a major bleed there could have proved to be fatal.

I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray, my orderly, who threw me across a packhorse, and succeeded in bringing me safely to the British lines.
Worn with pain, and weak from the prolonged hardships which I had undergone I was removed, with a great train of wounded sufferers, to the base hospital at Peshawur. Here I rallied, and had already improved so far as to be able to walk about the wards, and even to bask a little upon the verandah,

There was indeed a British Army base hospital at Peshawar which treated injured soldiers, although I’m not sure whether it had a verandah or not. It’s nice to think that it did though, and to imagine Watson perhaps enjoying a smoke out there as the sun went down, looking out over the city.

when I was struck down by enteric fever, that curse of our Indian possessions.

Enteric fever is just another name for typhoid fever. It’s a bacterial infection which can cause high fever, extreme exhaustion, headache, loss of appetite, stomach pains and, if untreated, can lead to pneumonia, thrombosis and even death.

For months my life was despaired of, and when at last I came to myself and became convalescent, I was so weak and emaciated that a medical board determined that not a day should be lost in sending me back to England.

He didn’t have very much luck in the army, did he, dear old Watson…although apparently typhoid fever only usually lasts around five weeks (not months as he described it) and it’s rarely fatal when being treated – which he was being – so it’s likely he was being a touch overdramatic here.

In order to be put before a medical board and evaluated, he would have had to travel back from Peshawur to the main base in Bombay.

I was despatched, accordingly, in the troopship Orontes, and landed a month later on Portsmouth Jetty, with my health irretrievably ruined, but with permission from a paternal government to spend the next nine months in attempting to improve it.

The Orontes was a genuine troopship that fits in perfectly with Watson’s account, as shipping records have it down as having set sail from Bombay on the 31st October 1880. It docked in Portsmouth on Friday 26th November 1880 and was carrying a total of eighteen invalids sent home from Afghanistan amongst other fit and healthy troops who had been sent back as a result of the diminishing conflict. The eighteen invalids were then all sent to the Victoria Hospital at Netley and we can presume this was where Watson ended up too, before he was eventually given permission to ‘spend the next nine months’ improving his health.

This suggests that Watson was actually given leave from the army and that, if his health had improved in that time, he might have been eligible to go back and serve some more. Thankfully for us, Sherlock Holmes came along and Watson’s life took a turn in an altogether different direction. I wonder whether the army ever got in touch with him after his invalidation, to inquire about his health, see how he was doing and ask whether he was going back, and if they did, I wonder what he told them…

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