Authorial notes that you may find interesting but are certainly under no obligation to read:
The following story has been rattling around in my brain for years. What exactly happened to Watson in Afghanistan and India? Carole Nelson Douglas in Irene At Large (later republished as A Soul of Steel) James Lowder in "The Weeping Masks" from Shadows Over Baker Street, and Protector of the Gray Fortress on (Ch. 3 of "Drifting Sands") have all probed this idea. GM, at her site "www-solosojourn-dot-com" has given hints. But no one has sat down to tell an exact, canonical (and historically accurate) account of what happened. Bowing to the slight masochistic streak that all writers have, I decided to take it upon myself to write that account, even though I had essentially no knowledge of the "old" British military, 1880s battlefield medicine, and Afghanistan in general.
I've done my best to keep everything canonical and historically accurate. Most details are based on real life; a few are not. (The title comes from a line in Kiplin's "The Young British Soldier.") Genuine constructive criticism is more than welcome and will be seriously considered; flamers will be ignored or publically mocked. Reviews in general tend to make this author really, really happy. Anyone interested in researching Watson's military career/Afghanistan is invited to contact me. I saved all my sources but won't let me post website addies -- grr.
Thank you for your patience, and please enjoy the story. Oh yeah: I don't own Watson or Murray; they are the property of the estate of Sir ACD.
JULY 27, 1880: KHIG, AFGHANISTAN (3 miles southwest of Maiwand)
That which was to be named the Battle of Maiwand was a catastrophe for the British. Out-manned, out-gunned, out-maneuvered, and half-smothered by wool uniforms in 120 degree heat, an ignoble and chaotic retreat began an hour ago. Between the billows of yellow dust, the gunpowder from the guns and cannons, and the shimmer in the air from the ungodly heat, the men of the 66th Berkshires could scarce see their hands in front of their faces. Nevertheless, they made their final stand against Ayub Khan's troops in a walled garden in Khik. Though the 66th had begun the day with 2734 souls, only about one hundred remained as a rear guard, to be cut down by Afghans in a show of fortitude so impressive even the enemy was touched.
Meanwhile, survivors pressed onward. Behind them lay the bodies of their fellow soldiers and comrades, mutilated horribly by the Afghans, who even now were pursuing them. The retreat was anything but orderly, and the peppering of enemy fire was no help. The wounded capable of walking pushed themselves to their limits. Those worse off were crowded into the overflowing gun carriages. Others found themselves at the mercy of their litter-bearers. Too often, these poor wretches were left in the dust as the bearers fled. A few doctors attached to the regiments, however, did what they could to help.
An orderly, his olive complexion sunburnt nearly to black, helped one man with a badly broken foot stagger up. "Any time now, sir, we'll be seeing a sign that says 'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,' " he muttered to a surgeon working next to him.
The surgeon, all of twenty-seven years of age (1), knotted a tourniquet around the arm of a half-fainting man and guided him onto a camel. "I certainly hope not," he replied grimly. Hippocrates said, 'who would become a surgeon should join an army and follow it' but I'd rather not follow this one into Hell. Provided, of course, we're not already there." He moved on to another fallen soldier, only to find help was too late. He cursed bitterly, and scanned the horizon with fearful eyes. Desperate cries for water rose with the billows of yellow dust. "So many more," he rasped.
"Any regrets, joining the Army?"
The surgeon glanced at him with a look that was nearly unreadable from the mixed emotions. "Ask me that after we get out of this alive."
Both men ducked and dropped to their knees as enemy fire rang out over their heads. How unfair that the Afghans' jezail rifles – cobbled-together weapons firing bullets comprised of scrap metal and effective at only eighty yards – were decimating an army equipped with Brown Besses, effective at 150, and Martini-Henry rifles that were effective at 500. More worrying was the knowledge that the enemy was within eighty yards of them. The orderly grunted in surprise as one jezail bullet buried itself in the sand perilously close to his foot.
Misconstruing the sound, the surgeon leaned right, towards the orderly. "Murray, are you – " He broke off with a gasp. His left shoulder had gone quite numb. He gingerly touched the area where collarbone met shoulder joint. Intense agony and heat erupted forth and his fingers came away wet and crimson. Apparently one of the bullets had hit home. Gritting his teeth, he fumbled at his medical kit.
"My God," Murray whispered. "Dr. Watson!" He ripped his handkerchief out from his sleeve and pressed it over the wound. There was a hiss of pain, which he ignored. "I don't see an exit wound."
"No." Watson had found a bandage in his kit and stiffly held it up. "I'm sorry, would you be so kind?"
Murray complied, awkwardly. Orderlies, also known as batmen, were more servants than medics, though Dr. Watson had gently insisted that any orderly of his would learn basic first aid procedures. "I suppose you can count yourself lucky, sir. A few more inches to the right and you'd have taken it in the jugular. Can you walk?"
"I don't have much of a choice, though I would appreciate a little assistance." The surgeon held out his right hand. Reluctantly Murray seized it and pulled him to his feet. Watson swayed for a moment, eyes closed, then straightened with more determination than physical strength.
"Physician, heal thyself," he quoted ironically. Stiffly, he caught up his medical kit and gave Murray a tight smile. "Were you shot? I heard you say something before."
"No, I wasn't touched, just taken by surprise."
"Good. If you wish to stay and help any wounded I'll stay as well."
"With all due respect, Doctor, I believe you qualify as wounded and I'd be of assistance seeing you to safety."
Watson consented and the two men continued the forty-five mile journey to Kandahar. All around them, pairs and trios of men trudged. Now and then, carts of wounded passed them and frightened, riderless animals raced by. The smell of blood and gunpowder, baked earth and hot metal, hung in the air. Pleas for water came intermittently. Soldiers who were still hale were pressed into forming a makeshift rearguard, as Ayub Khan's men were pursuing them.
Not long into the trek, however, Murray realized the first compress was not sufficient. Blood had soaked through already and was coursing down the front of the doctor's uniform. Either the wound had been improperly bandaged or a major vessel had been hit. Jezail bullets were notorious for splintering into shrapnel upon impact.
"Dr. Watson, the blood –"
"I know," Watson replied grimly, "but it can't be helped. You can't tourniquet a wound to the trunk of the body." His face, beneath its sun tan, had gone rather gray and his lips were pale. "We will walk until I can't continue and then you are to go on."
"Doctor . . ."
"That's a direct order, Murray."
He sighed. "Yes, sir, but all the same I'd like to apply a second compress. With your permission, sir."
Watson heaved a sigh of his own and passed Murray his medical kit. Murray found enough material left to form an adequate compress and bound it over his original dressing. He took advantage of his close contact with the doctor-turned-patient to note the skin had gone cool and quite pale while respiration was quicker and rather shallow.
Onward they went, step after step, across the Afghan desert while the sun sunk lower and enemy fire grew closer. Watson stumbled more often, reeling slightly. Suddenly he slipped to his knees, panting, right hand pressed to the second blood-soaked compress while his left arm hung limply.
"Sir?" Murray didn't know much about taking pulses, but he doubted what he felt when he grasped the doctor's wrist was healthy or normal.
"Go on," Watson whispered through parched lips. When the batman made no move or sound, he added, "Orders, Murray. Go on."
Murray wavered. To leave the doctor now was to sentence him to death. The physical trauma and blood loss were the least of it. Both he and the doctor had seen with their own eyes how brutally the Ghazis killed any European unlucky enough to fall into their hands. No, he couldn't leave Watson behind. But Murray knew he hadn't the strength or the stamina to carry him through the night to Kandahar. He looked out across the hellish landscape for guidance and beheld a small miracle.
"Very well, sir," he said quietly. He briefly touched Watson's shoulder and ran to catch the lone, trembling pack horse a few yards away. The skittish horse took a little convincing but at last Murray gained its trust, and it followed him back to Watson as meekly as a lamb.
"Up you come, doctor," he said as cheerfully as he could under the circumstances.
Watson blinked up at him, gaze unfocused. "Orders," he murmured again.
"Yes, sir. I will go on but you're coming with me." He reached down and pulled the surgeon to his feet, taking care to jostle the left shoulder as little as possible. "I'll give you a leg up and let you take it from there."
"There are others wounded . . . " Watson protested weakly.
"You are the only wounded nearby," was Murray's answer, his voice brusque to avoid any further arguments. Watson could not use his left arm but with Murray's assistance he was able to get astride the horse. Murray took the bridle in hand and their journey resumed as they rejoined the retreat. Behind them, the sun bled into twilight and darkness and still the Afghans continued their inexorable pursuit.
(1) Many Sherlockians have concluded that Watson was born in August 7, 1852, which would have made him just shy of 28 at the Battle of Maiwand. However, Watson states that he took his degree of Doctor of Medicine in 1878 (STUDY IN SCARLET). Working backwards, if you estimate 4 years of work for the doctorate and 4 more years for the pre-requisite Bachelor of Medicine (the same amount of time it took Doyle to achieve these degrees), Watson began college in 1870. Many young men at the time began collegiate work at 16 or 17 (Doyle was 17 himself.) Therefore, if Watson began his medical training at age 17, in 1870, he was born in 1853.
As much as I'd like to say Watson's birthday is August 7, I'm in favor of Brad Keefauver's date of March 31 ( A roommate of mine was BIG into astrology and she determined that Watson's personality was most similar to that of an Aries. (Approximately March 22 – April 22). Keefauver's March 31 falls into this time range, although I don't necessarily agree with his reasoning. So while I'd like to celebrate Watson's birthday in this story, it ain't gonna happen.