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Reading, Berkshire and Afghanistan

Started by Taman Tun, June 28, 2020, 05:05:43 PM

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Taman Tun

There is an interesting article by Roger Crutchley in the Bangkok Post about the park in Reading where three people  were murdered the other week:-

Like most expats I keep an eye open for any news from my hometown, which happens to be Reading in Berkshire. I surfaced last Sunday morning to find the lead item on the news was the awful murder of three Reading people relaxing in Forbury Gardens, a small park in the centre of town. When something horrible like that happens in a place you once regularly frequented, no matter how long ago, it prompts a most uncomfortable, empty feeling. My condolences to those who lost loved ones.

As a teenager, I often strolled around the gardens, sometimes having a sandwich lunch. The place was dominated, and still is, by a magnificent statue of the Maiwand Lion, which you may have seen in the television news coverage. The lion, which has been there since 1886, marks a very harrowing event in British military history 140 years ago, but one you seldom hear about.

It is a memorial for the nearly 300 soldiers from the 66th Berkshire Regiment killed in the disastrous Battle of Maiwand in Afghanistan on July 27, 1880. But that doesn't tell half the story. The battle was an unmitigated disaster, as 2,500 British and Indian troops, exhausted by the intense heat and lack of food, were overwhelmed on the road from Kandahar to Herat by the 12,000-strong Afghan force under Ayub Khan. Nearly 1,000 British and Indian soldiers were killed, while an estimated 3,000 Afghan fighters lost their lives. More than 2,000 horses, elephants and mules were also killed.

On my visits to Forbury Gardens in the 1960s, I read the plaque about the battle, but even then it seemed such a long time ago and so far away. Little did I know that in 1969, I would travel through that same area on the way from Herat to Kandahar. Thankfully there were no battles. I passed through Maiwand, 65 kilometres west of Kandahar, and sadly had forgotten its history which had been so faithfully recorded in the little park in my hometown.

In a chaotic retreat, many soldiers died of thirst in the unforgiving Afghan desert and the survivors were a sorry sight as they reached the fort in Kandahar. One survivor wrote: "I never saw such a sight in my life -- too awful to describe."

To cover the retreat of the main force, about 100 soldiers made a last stand, knowing they would eventually be overrun. They were picked off until there were just 11 left, nine soldiers and two officers. They became known as the Last Eleven. After running out of ammunition they charged the Afghans with their bayonets. None survived. Their efforts are recorded by quirky Scottish poet William McGonagall in 'The Last Berkshire Eleven'. Their bravery even impressed their foes, one Afghan officer writing: "These men charged ... and died with their faces to the enemy, fighting to the death".

Bobbie the dog

Among the survivors was a wounded dog.

The 66th Berkshire had a mascot mongrel called Bobbie, who travelled from England with the regiment and was in the thick of the battle, barking fearlessly at the enemy throughout the hand-to-hand fighting. After the battle Bobbie was nowhere to be seen and presumed dead. But a few days later a bloodied Bobbie, suffering from a bullet wound in the back, was spotted limping towards the Kandahar fort and rescued.

Some months later, when what was left of the regiment returned to England, Bobbie was taken to see Queen Victoria on the Isle of Wight and she personally pinned the Afghanistan Medal on the dog.

Alas it was not a happy ending. A year later, Bobbie was killed after being run over by a horse-drawn carriage near Portsmouth. Queen Victoria shed tears upon hearing the news. How ironic that a dog which survived one of the most ferocious battles ever, should succumb to a simple street accident back home.

But Bobbie was not forgotten. The dog's fame was such that it was stuffed and now sits proudly in a military museum in Salisbury, along with the medal. Bobbie is also featured in the Animals at War memorial in London's Hyde Park.

Poetic licence

There are many literary references to the Battle of Maiwand. Rudyard Kipling crafted a long poem concerning the horrors of the battle. The last two lines read: "I wish I was dead 'fore I done what I did, Or seen what I'd seed that day." Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes books may also be aware that Sherlock's companion, Dr Watson, was "wounded" in the battle in the opening chapter of 'Study in Scarlet'.

The rather basic Bugle pub in Reading's Friar Street also commemorates the Maiwand battle.

A walk in the park

Strangely, I always associate Forbury Gardens with the school dentist which was nearby.

During primary school days, in an attempt to make me forget about the impending pain and terror at the dentist, my mum would walk me through the peaceful gardens.

I didn't really appreciate how much history I was walking past as I could only think of the torture I was about to suffer. "Just think of the Forbury flowers and you'll be alright," assured my mum. It didn't work.

Apologies for the history lesson.
If the old only could, if the young only knew.

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