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on 29 May 2017
This W. Dalrymple's book is magnificent, cruel story of the First Afghan war, where British army suffered the great looses. Moreover, this is not only a war story, it perfect explains how Afghanistan become such country as we know now; author precisely decribes customs, landscape and diversity of nation. it's story about British and Russian objectives to rule Asia; like a XIX a. Cold war. For me, this books was important, because W. Dalrymple mentioned young Lithuanian soldier Yan Vitkevich, who worked as a Russian spy in Asia. Frankly, author did some mistakes in book. He wrote, that Vikevich was a Polish and was born in Vilnius (which was Poland city). In fact, Vitkevich (Lithuanian, Jonas Prosperas Vitkevičius) was a Lithuanian nationality and was born in Lithuania village (untill now you could see his manor house in Lithuania), studied in Lithuanian Vilnius University and belonged to Lithuanian (Samogitian) nobility. Moreover, Vilnius, never been Poland city, it was created by Grand Duke of Lithuania, Gediminas and till now is capital of Lithuania. However, this book is fantastic.
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on 16 January 2018
Having read a few other books about the Great Game I have long wanted to read more about Afghanistan, but there is little available. And when I have read of the first British invasion of that country it has had a British centric and largely scathing view of events. What Dalrymple does so masterfully here is explore the events and personalities is great detail seriously lacking from other works, and very importantly he uses Afghan sources as well, something I noted was lacking from Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game.

Instead of the boys own adventure of that latter book what we get here instead is a description of a completely unnecessary war, an unprovoked invasion, a clearer portrait of Afghan characters and culture, misrule by the arrogant British and a portrate of the British envoy and other leading figures as racist, arrogant and duplicitous incompetents. Mcnaghten, the envoy in charge of British rule in the country, even wrote that the Afghans were children and should be treated as such.

And I cannot stress enough the double dealing nature of British involvement who often said one thing but did another, sought to play one tribe or leader off against another, attempted to have leaders killed, and ignore the British or Indian officers who actually understood the Afghan way of life. The author paints excellent pictures of all the major characters involved and does not shy away from their failings nor from the savagery of both sides, including British brutality, destruction of historic buidlings, towns and villages, murder and rape.

A timely book that will help us understand Afghan tenacity, and help us to remember an atrocity which they still talk about but which the British choose to largely forget.
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on 8 September 2016
An excellent detailed account of the Afghan war- we really should know our history before embarking upon half baked schemes in foreign lands
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 8 April 2013
Fearing Russian designs on India in "The Great Game", the British tried to gain influence in the potential Achilles' heel of Afghanistan. Ignoring expert advice, they chose the wrong side in reinstating the honourable but hidebound Shah Shuja whom they imagined would be more malleable than the shrewd reigning monarch Dost Mohammed.

If this regime change reminds you of more recent events, there are also parallels in the lack of strategic planning and a "longer view", and neglect of the topography, climate and culture of the area. In breathtaking arrogance admittedly combined with crazy courage, the first 1839 British invasion of Afghanistan set off in winter, ignoring the several feet of snow in the mountains, omitting to clear rough terrain for gun carriages or to protect themselves against ambush and constant sniping once they entered the narrow mountain passes. The problem was compounded by the thousands of camp followers, women and children with presumably no means of support if they stayed behind.

If the detail is often overwhelming, the quirky truth which is stranger than fiction grips one's attention: three hundred camels needed to carry the military wine cellar whilst elsewhere troops could not advance owing to lack of camels to transport vital supplies. One regiment even brought its own foxhounds, which somehow survived to hunt jackals later!

It is all the more poignant that, having reached Kabul after suffering terrible privations yet still gaining the upper hand, the army squandered its advantage under dithering leadership so that in the ill-advised, typically chaotic eventual retreat only one man made it back to Jalalabad, not counting the thousands left behind as captives.

In what resembles an epic novel, Dalrymple describes how the British sent an Army of Retribution to salvage a little honour by taking brutal reprisals which would now be regarded as the most vicious war crimes, but in the end the government wrote off the vast sums spent on the unsuccessful regime change.

Apart from the numerous astonishing anecdotes and vivid character studies, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is the extensive quoting from the colourful prose of the historians of the day: "Abdullah Khan Achakzsi.....launched an attack like a fierce lion or the serpent that inhabits the scented grass".

Although Dalrymple supplies a list of all the main characters with accompanying explanations, I found this too indigestible as an opener, and recommend keeping your own notes of "who's who".

My only criticism is the inadequate maps. Also, apart from the reduced weight, this is less suitable for a Kindle in that maps and family trees are illegible on the small screen, plus it's too fiddly checking out details from previous pages as is often necessary in this type of book. It's also harder to appreciate on the Kindle that the main text is shorter than it seems, the last 30 per cent of the book being notes.

This is a fascinating account, although it focuses narrowly on 1839-42. For a wider sweep, try "Butcher and Bolt" by David Loyn.
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on 25 November 2014
In 1839 an expeditionary force entered Afghanistan, deposed the ruling family and placed their own choice of king on the throne. Over the next three years that force was harassed, attacked and eventually driven out of the country at devastating loss of life and humiliation.

The invading force was British and their motivation was to do with the relationship between Afghanistan and Russia. However the local tribes disliked the British more than they disliked each other and chose to work together to restore some form of independence for their country. Starved of supplies and facing a harsh winter the British choose to retreat over the Khyber Pass, some were fortunate to be captured and held as hostages, others were less fortunate. Eventually the British regrouped and invaded from India to wreak their revenge but the first Afghan War was a lesson for the British Empire.

Fast forward nearly two centuries and Afghanistan is still an area fought over. The Russians invaded in the 1980s and were driven out by the western-sponsored Taliban, now the Taliban are the enemy and the intertribal warfare still continues. The roots and the background to the modern conflict are evident in the events described in this book.

William Dalrymple has produced a meticulously researched account of the first Afghan War. He has used source material from all protagonists to great effect, no-one is a hero and some terrible decisions were made.
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on 29 April 2015
If it's not your subject, reading history can be a dull task. The likes of Arnold Toynbee and Raymond Carr have such a plodding style, although new writers are coming along, giving us a window into a world while telling us a story we really want to follow. Dalrymple is one of them.
1839 British India - you know those nice Victorian people who civilized an ancient civilization? What if Russia invaded Afghanisatn? What would happen in India? What would happen to their wonderful opium growing East India Company? So they thought they'd get there first. And they did. If you've ever wanted to read one of the most thoroughly researched and inclusive catalogues of stupidity, this is it. Dalrymple does a magnificent job of using all the sources so that the letters, diaries, orders, field notes and laundry lists tell the story day by day as the British do everything they shouldn't do and then are themselves shown the door by the Afghanistanis in the most emphatic way possible.
Very very readable.
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on 31 August 2015
Another interesting and informative history from the authoritative Mr. Dalrymple, written in his usual engaging style. Having read his books on India, I knew this would be not only instructive but also entertaining, and so it proved. Many reviews have comprehensively covered the content so this review is to encourage anyone with a passing interest in the history of Afghanistan to try this book. It is not an enormous tome and you will not be bored; by the end, you will have a much greater grasp of Afghanistan's past and present, and the key players ( many admirable and many appalling) on both sides.
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VINE VOICEon 1 January 2014
This is a fantastic book in which William Dalrymple provides a gripping account of the first British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 - `a war begun for no wise purpose' - and the subsequent catastrophic defeat and ignominious retreat from Kabul in 1842. A final chapter deals with the return of the relief force, the ruthlessly violent and destructive Army of Retribution, an army which, Dalrymple notes, "committed what today would be classified as war crimes".

'Return of a King' is a catalogue of military incompetence, stupidity and treachery on a monumental scale, and the story is told in simple, yet very elegant, prose. Dalrymple is not just a great story teller; he also explains complex events in an exceptionally clear, vivid and engaging way. As the lengthy bibliography and 34 pages of endnotes indicate, this book is scholarly and based upon a huge amount of archival research which includes the examination of "hundreds of tattered letters and blood-stained diaries". Dalrymple makes excellent use of all these sources to show exactly what those on the spot were thinking about what was going on.

If the lessons of history - in particular that "Afghanistan is no easy place to rule" - have still not been learnt, they are all too obvious in this study.
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on 25 January 2014
I had the priviledge once to meet Mr Dalrymple. At the time, I was working on aid to Iraq, between the two Gulf Wars and we were in perfect agreement about the West's stupidity in their policy to Iraq.

Now the author tackles the other great conflict of today, Afghanistan, from an historical basis. He looks at the two absurd British expeditions in the 19th C and briefly passes over the Russian one in the 20th C. Incidently, in this last one the Americans supplied the Taliban with weapons to defeat the Russians and many of these are what have been used to return NATO soldiers home in body bags this time around.

Beautifully written, completely absorbing, expertly researched, easy to read. I really admire his pluck in going back over the previous invasion and retreat routes in the middle of a vicious war. Perhaps the final word on our ignorant politiciant was written by Aldous Huxley — 'That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.'
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on 19 February 2015
'Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.' Edmund Burke. I wonder how well those who decided to invade Afghanistan either side of the turn of the twentieth/twenty-first century knew this nineteenth century invasion. It would make them sweat to read it now.

The story is exceptionally well written and reads like a fast paced accident waiting to happen being viewed in slow motion. All the detail is there, the pace is relentless and the sense of impending doom hanging over the invaders is palpable. The use of contemporary letters and diaries further enlivens an already pretty lively story of what being at the sharp end of international power politics is like.

It also portrays the importance of understanding local politics, culture and religious beliefs and the disastrous consequences of failing to do so.

The only difficulty I had in reading is was in keeping up with the identify of some of the characters involved in the early stages of the book.

An excellent portrayal of a long forgotten but highly informative historical disaster which still has implications in Afghanistan to this day.
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