Friday, December 2, 2011

Flashman - Chapter 7

Chapter 7 of Flashman is where things really started to go pear shaped for the British army in Afghanistan. When an officer gives the below assessment of a commander it's really not that surprising.

This is how Harry Flashman looking back on his 60 plus years of experience on the battlefields of the world saw General Elphinstone, commonly known as Elphy Bey.

Let me say that when I talk of disasters I speak with authority. I have served at Balaclava (Flashman at the Charge), Cawnpore (Flashman in the Great Game) and Little Big Horn (Flashman and the Redskins). Name the biggest born fools who wore uniform in the 19th century - Cardigan, Sale, Custer, Raglan, Lucan - I knew them all. Think of the conceivable misfortunes that can arise from combinations of folly, cowardice, and sheer bad luck, and I'll give chapter and verse. But I still state unhesitatingly, that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgement - in short, for the true talent for catastrophe - Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our questions, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.

Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War and let it develop to such a ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganised enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision, and out of order wrought complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.

That is one of the best and biggest serves I've ever seen delivered up to any military commander and George MacDonald Fraser let Flashman have some beauties, but that one pretty much stands alone as true brilliance. With people like Elphy Bey in charge, and as asserted above he wasn't totally alone in his incompetence, it's a wonder that the British Empire lasted as long as it did. However using Afghanistan as an example may be unfair. Since the time Flashman was set, this small, but strategically important country has also managed to outlast the Soviet Union at it's height and they will also defeat the mighty USA military machine currently struggling there. So that Elphy Bey failed there is not really all that surprising, although from what is written in Flashman he was probably one of the worst people for the job.

With Elphy Bey and McNaghten running the show things quickly went from bad to worse in Afghanistan, and even making a quick getaway from Kabul was going to be a problem if it came to that because 'Fighting Bob' Sale was having trouble clearing the passes of rebellious tribesmen. When he wasn't being bullied into running messages to Sale, Flashman stayed bunkered down with the politicals (the 'politicals', of which Flashman was one, were diplomats, foreign agents and even spies, long before MI6 or even it's predecessor the Home Office). The pugnacious, and occasionally brilliant, Scotsman Alexander 'Sekundar' Burnes was talking about taking desperate measures and becoming far too cocky and confident that reinforcements would reach them before the situation became inescapable.

Eventually they were attacked and had to make a run for it, but for Burnes' over confidence they may have gotten out in one piece, but Burnes' actions got them noticed, and he and his younger brother Charlie were both killed. Jim Broadfoot (brother of George) also died. At the end of the chapter Flashman has seen the Burnes brothers killed, and has been knocked unconscious in a mob, believing it is also the end for him.

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