The March to Kandahar: Roberts in Afghanistan

Author: Rodney Atwood
Publisher: Pen and Sword Military (2008)
ISBN-10: 1844158489

Roberts'luck was proverbial. He repeatedly escaped death in battle and from disease, and rose, partly by being in the right place at the right time, from obscurity to the most famous and most honoured soldier in the Empire: later he was in the Guinness Book of Records for the most post-nominal letters, beating even Mountbatten. Yet after his death the luck changed. He had accumulated a huge personal archive, on which he drew for his Forty-one Years in India, and presumably intended should be the basis of a major, multi-volume biography. He died in 1914 and not until after the Second World War did Countess Roberts initiate a biography. For it she chose not a historian but, manifesting the Roberts snobbery, an Etonian and Conservative politician, 'never one to miss a book opportunity', David James. His Lord Roberts (1954) was, as befits a politician, a work of outstanding mediocrity. This would not have mattered, but he destroyed a crucial part of the Roberts archive; he claimed he burned everything Roberts ever wrote to his wife. James's vandalism can never be undone, but since then historians, including Ian Beckett and the late Brian Robson, have published data which should have been in the biography. The latest to do so is Rodney Atwood, with his The March to Kandahar: Roberts in Afghanistan. Dr Atwood, a McMaster and Cambridge graduate, was formerly headmaster of an unusual independent school and is the author of a book on the Hessians in the American War of Independence. He has set himself the Herculean task of writing a biography of Roberts, and has already published articles on him, including one in this journal.

Researched from the Roberts and other papers in the National Army Museum, India Office Library and elsewhere, The March to Kandahar is an attractively-produced book with maps, monochrome illustrations, endnotes, and a select bibliography. It covers Roberts's background and career to 1878, then focuses on his role in the Second Afghan War and his famous August 1880 march from Kabul to Kandahar, and ends with a brief epilogue on his subsequent career. In outline the story is well known, but the book adds significant data and some perceptive comment. There are some unanswered questions: for example, whether Roberts's maternal grandmother was Indian. This reviewer has already been castigated for concern with 'minor details' and 'displaying his own knowledge', but will risk mentioning that the book is erroneous on Enfield and Lee-Enfield rifles. Opinions differ on some episodes of Roberts's career. The book is arguably roo critical of his punishment of Afghan criminals. The book states that he was 'tough on those two idols of the enlisted man, drink and sex'. This is questionable. On drink his approach was apparently more 'carrot' than 'stick', and he supported the Army Temperance Association and its institutes. Yet when C-in-C in India he continued the system of regimental brothels and, according to Benjamin Scott, an official circular issued under Roberts's authority stated that 'it is necessary to have a sufficient number of women; to take care that they are sufficiently attractive'. Also the book arguably understates Roberts's achievement when British C-in-C.

Nevertheless, any limitations of the book are outweighed by its merits. Interesting and informative, The March to Kandahar: Roberts in Afghanistan is a treat in store for readers. We look forward to reading more by Dr Atwood on his hero.

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