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110 of 114 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The ghosts of the present haunt this book about the past.
The ghosts of the present haunt this book about the past. William Dalrymple is far too an intelligent and subtle a writer to make too many overt references to the currennt War in Aghanistan but The Return of A King cannot help but resonate in light of our recent invasion of Afghanistan.

The book is grand in scope, encompassing court life, the Great Game and...
Published 21 months ago by Nelson

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21 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Detailed but flawed
Similar to another reviewer, I regrettably didn't find much new in this work on the First Anglo-Afghan War. Perhaps I was hoping for too much. However its a systematic and comprehensive narration of the events and as such does the job well.

What gives the book it's bulk, and which I found a tad annoying, is the never ending quotes that fill almost every page...
Published 20 months ago by Romulus


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110 of 114 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The ghosts of the present haunt this book about the past., 28 Jan 2013
The ghosts of the present haunt this book about the past. William Dalrymple is far too an intelligent and subtle a writer to make too many overt references to the currennt War in Aghanistan but The Return of A King cannot help but resonate in light of our recent invasion of Afghanistan.

The book is grand in scope, encompassing court life, the Great Game and military history. Dalrymple's thumbnail biographies and marshalling of his material (which balances pace with detail) are excellent. Unlike most accounts of the retreat from Afghanistan the author gives due weight to the stories of Shah Shuja and Dost Mohammed. It seems that the author has uncovered some new sources to do so too.

Although I'm a fan of reading books on kindle, I would recommend you buy print copy of this book. The plates are superb and numerous.

A tremendous book. If just half a dozen History books come along this year which are the equal of this we'll be fortunate.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What we forgot, 10 Mar 2013
By 
David (Dublin Ireland) - See all my reviews
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If you start at the end, you will see how William Dalrymple assembled a prodigious mass of documentation (listed in the bulky bibliography that follows) including not only English (-language — for many of the protagonists were Scots or Irish) printed and manuscript sources, but a plethora of hitherto neglected Persian (-language — Farsi was the language of the Kabul court) documents culled from Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.

If you start at the beginning, you will see this drama contains a formidable dramatis personæ ranging from Lord Auckland and Shah Shujah to Lady Sale’s cat. Their actions and interactions are recounted in a masterly and authoritative style.

It is not, in some senses, a satisfactory drama; as in proper tragedies, the characters have flaws; they have also remarkable qualities, and the cross-cultural communication in a colonial situation, though marred by many misunderstandings, does reveal substantial skills in the British — ranging from a good knowledge of Persian (Farsi/Dari), an interest in archaeology and history, and a genuine ability to know and appreciate the new cultures they encountered …

The first Afghan war was based on a mistaken belief that British (actually, East India Company) interests in India were about to be undermined by a Russian invasion of Afghanistan, so it was determined to replace the acting ruler Dost Mohammed by deposed Shah Shujah. The Shah’s very legitimate claim to power was, for his countrymen, undermined by his association with unbelievers, and the British underestimated both their and his unpopularity, and failed to support him.

So it was that the British deserted him in his hour of need, and were thoroughly routed in an ignominious retreat. Nearly all the interesting and worthy characters die a miserable death.

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ (Santayana?) — this dictum is sadly applicable to the Afghan case, where the British have now waged four unsuccessful wars. Dalrymple is keenly aware of the ironies of history, and notes that Hamid Karzai is of the same clan as Shah Sujah. It is said he has read Dalrymple’s book, and it would be fascinating to know his comments.
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15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars superb, 11 May 2013
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My book of the year so far, superbly-written history with lots of new information (it baffles me how other reviewers can say there is nothing new here, when Dalrymple has tracked down a number of important but previously unexamined primary sources). The story is given equally from both sides, a welcome change from some previous histories. The level of balance is admirable. A fabulous amount of information is given in a fast-paced narrative, I enjoyed it enormously. There is some confusion about some of the dates - for example, we are told in several places that Shah Shuja was born in 1786, but he is described as being both a "sexagenarian" and "in his late 50s" in 1838. But that's a minor quibble, this is a remarkable and superb retelling of this ill-fated expedition. Given the huge number of similarities to Russia's experiences in Afghanistan the 1980s and the UN's currently, I think Dalrymple is remarkably restrained in his use of analogies.

Incidentally, I think the review of this book in "History Today" is perhaps one of the worst, most biased and deliberately misleading I have ever read.
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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good read, 3 Mar 2013
By 
Gavin Mcewen - See all my reviews
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I am not a reader of academic history books. I ordered this because of good reviews and a general interest in Afghanistan. When 576 pages of hardback arrived with dramatis personae, notes, bibliography, glossary and index, I though I had maybe bitten off more than I could chew. Not at all. It reads well and I found it difficult to put down.
One eye opener for me was to find out how literate 19th century Afghanistan was. Dalrymple looks to sources on both sides of the conflict. So often accounts of British colonization are based on British documents with an occasional dash of oral history from the other side. In this book, we learn just how our forebears appeared to those they attempted to colonize.
In this account, two cultures comprehensively misunderstand one another leading to tragic consequences. There are a lot of lessons in it for today. We assume that other cultures have the same goals and attitudes because they share our technologies and trade with us or, if they don't, it's because of a lack of development. The Afghans mistakenly believed that the adventurers and civil servant they dealt with were princes whose word could be trusted and who could deliver on promises of support. The British saw the Afghans as a mix of gentlemen and brigands only to discover that the gentlemen were in no sense gentle and that the brigands were not outcasts from society but a proud people living a traditional way of life with a strong sense of honour and fair play.
My only quibble with this book is that I would like better maps. I frequently turned to the three small maps provided to help understand the text only to find the places were not on the map.
I recommend this book.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant !, 21 Feb 2013
By 
sgeoff (North Wales) - See all my reviews
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I've read many accounts of the first Afghan War - this is the best, and possible the history book of the year. It's always readable, and full of interest from first to last, bringing out the full complexity and tragedy of the events of 1839-1842. The variety of sources, and words of those involved, make the action and people very real. The sheer stupidity of the British leadership in engaging in a totally unnecessary invasion, against the advice of those who best knew Aghanistan and its people, ended up being costly in lives and money and as a humiliating failure. The British army of retribution, which brought such death and destruction in response to the earlier loss, did nothing to restore Britain's reputation. Shar Shuja is convincingly portrayed, despite failings, as a more effective character than often thought, and far more loyal to the British than they were to him. Sadly, the many parallels with today's western involvement in Afghanistan are unavoidable and reading the book reminded me that political leaders should be compelled to read good and relevant history before embarking on lengthy foreign adventures. This excellent book should be necessary reading for those already interested in the topic, but could be enjoyed by anyone who likes good narrative history brought to life.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Plus Ca Change..., 20 Feb 2013
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A very exciting account of the political and military blunders and miscalculations that got Britain ("England" in the terms of those days) involved in this ill-starred invasion of Afghanistan in 1840. Not only are the characters well drawn but their various motivations and ambitions are also convincingly described. The Afghans themselves, whilst often courageous, are as untrustworthy and treacherous then as they often appear to be today. Loyalties are bought or coerced freely; torture and cruel forms of execution and punishment commonplace. Hatreds between tribes, clans and families are as intense as a universal hatred of all foreigners,especially infidels. Religion and calls for Jihad were used then as now to stir resistance against the invaders.
The incompetence and vacillation of the enfeebled General Elphinstone and his deputy, not to mention the fatal miscalcalculation of MacNaughton, are only too redolent of some of the miscalculations and tactical blunders that have been made in Afghanistan over the last several years.The horrors of the retreat through the snows of a bitter winter, continuously harassed and ambushed by savage and well armed tribesmen, are vividly described.
The Afghans continue to hate both each other and all foreigners and we have no business being there, any more than we had in 1840.
A great read; and hopefully a salutary reminder to leave this country well alone in future!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Treasury of Pain, 8 Aug 2014
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This review is from: Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (Paperback)
This is a phenomenally well researched and well written book but the temptation to compare the modern intervention in Afghanistan with that of the First Afghan War is too much. I do see some parallels but think that it is a bit callous to equate our recent casualties fighting a very real threat to those who died fighting a phantom menace for the East India Company 170 years ago.
My motivation for reading this was my annoyance at the legion of bar-room philosophers who tritely say that Afghanistan cannot be conquered. This book dispels that myth twice over - firstly with the conquest and secondly with the Army of Retribution. The issue seems to be not that Afghanistan can't be conquered but who can afford to hold on to it? The tax revenues of Afghanistan and India are mentioned and the expenses the Company was also expending fighting the Opium Wars and appeasing the Sikh Kingdom which lay between India and Afghanistan.
The subject of honour seems to be pivotal to this story. The poorly-led British betrayed an ally to save their skins but in so doing revealed their lack of honour which led to their demise. But, I see the Afghan's sense of honour as merely a matter of business and greed. Mr D clearly knows and sympathises with the Afghans but I still see them as bigoted, untrustworthy zealouts who will flock to the highest bidder (for a while).
This is a brilliant book which tells a balanced story and builds foundations around the causes of the Indian Mutiny, the Crimean War and the Sikh Wars. Mr D has discovered Afghan histories of the war which shed new light, for us, on their perspective about major British players and their unity. I can wholeheartedly commend this book and would strongly recommend the hardback edition.
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25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars We have Been Here Before, 2 Feb 2013
By 
Dr Barry Clayton (United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
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The author has a deep knowledge of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. His latest book is very well written, pacy and informative. There are numerous books available about the Anglo-Afghan Wars. These are wars that writers about the current misguided Fourth War in Afghanistan find it very hard not to refer to even if many of the analogies with today are invalid.

I am pleased to see that the author in an after-note concedes that the First Afghan War was not futile. Many writers have made the error of saying it had no military or political benefit. The reforms we introduced proved in fact to be very valuable.

Of course, it is very easy to find resonances with the current war. Several people who fought in the First War on returning home wrote about, for example, the lack of purpose, the incompetence of senior military, and stated that our evacuation in fact resembled a retreat. 89% of the last 55 books on the present conflict (written by retired military, retired diplomats, journalists and academics) have been scathing about the conduct of the war.

The withdrawal of Soviet troops after the Soviet invasion failed to achieve its objectives is frequently and wrongly viewed as a disaster. Recently released documents show it was not. It was in fact an orderly withdrawal decided upon by the Politburo after much analysis. It is a pity NATO forces have not carried out a similar exercise.

It is interesting that Dalrymple shows how the Pashtuns (then known as Pathans)of Kandahar and Helmund were, as now, at the heart of the mid-19th century war. As now, assassination, ambush, and superb Afghan marksmanship were commonplace.
While it is wrong to draw too many similarities from that war with the insurgency today,it would undoubtedly have been beneficial if today's military leaders had spent a little more time studying the history of this war-torn, poverty-stricken land. But then, sadly, history has never been a popular study for the military hierarchy.

This is a book well worth reading. I have not given it 5 stars because there is very little in it that is new about the First Afghan War. Read with 'Flashman' it will pass the winter nights rather well.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An excellent read, 8 Jan 2014
By 
David Steele (United Kingdon) - See all my reviews
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A wonderfully sourced and written story of a tragic political and military blunder. The main characters, in this retelling, are all fully described with attributes and failings detailed as is the impact of their decisions and actions on the outcome of this misadventure.

All through the story is the backdrop of Afghanistan with wonderful descriptions of its beautiful yet harsh geography.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A political must read, 3 Oct 2013
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AP Grant Peterkin (London UK) - See all my reviews
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Do not be put off by the first 50 pages which are setting the scene. Thereafter I found it difficult to put this book down. It should become mandatory reading for any politician seeking to influence our foreign and defence policy.
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Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan
Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple (Paperback - 30 Jan 2014)
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