Flashman on Afghanistan

March 23, 2012 at 11:56 pm (adventure, Afghanistan, Champagne Charlie, history, imperialism, literature, Pakistan, spoofs, war)

“Mr Fraser is a skillful and meticulous writer, twice as good as Buchan, and twenty times better than Fleming” – Auberon Waugh

I’ve decided to re-read entire ‘Flashman’ oeuvre of George MacDonald Fraser, some of the most entertaining and educative historical novels ever written, imho. For a start, the central conceit of the series is that these are not novels at all, and Fraser isn’t the author.

Christopher Hitchens (another fan) explained it in his 2006 essay Fraser’s Flashman: Scoundrel Time (republished recently in Arguably):

“George MacDonald Fraser has never claimed to be anything but the editor of ‘The Flashman papers,’ discovered by luck during an auction at an English country house. When the first ‘packet’ of papers was published, in 1969, several well-gulled reviewers genuinely hailed it as a grand literary discovery (one of them going as far as to say that there had been nothing like it since the unearthing of Boswell’s diaries). It is the deftest borrowing since Tom Stoppard helped himself to the walk-on parts of Rosencrantz and Guilderstern.”

The first book of the series, entitled simply Flashman deals with the cowardly bully’s expulsion from Rugby School (as depicted in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays), his subsequent entry into the army and his “service” in the First Afghan War of 1841-2. Here’s a brief taster:

…[L]ooking back I can say that, all unwittingly, Kabul and the army were right to regard Elphy’s [ie General William Elphinstone’s] arrival as an incident of the greatest significance. It opened a new chapter: it was a prelude to events that rang round the world. Elphy, ably assisted by McNaghton, was about to reach the peak of his career; he was going to produce the most shameful, ridiculous disaster in British military history.

No doubt Thomas Hughes would find it significant that in a such a disaster I would emerge with fame, honour, and distinction — all quite unworthily acquired. But you, having followed my progress so far, won’t be surprised at all.

Let me say that when I talk of disasters I speak with authority. I have served at Balaclava, Cawnpore, and Little Big Horn. Name the biggest born fools who wore uniform in the nineteenth century — Cardigan, Sale, Custer, Raglan, Lucan — I knew them all. Think of all the conceivable misfortunes that can arise from combinations of folly, cowardice, and sheer bad luck, and I’ll give you chapter and verse. But I still state unhesitatingly, that for pure, vacillating stupidity, for superb incompetence to command, for ignorance combined with bad judgement — in short, for the true talent for catastrophe — Elphy Bey stood alone. Others abide our question, but Elphy outshines them all as the greatest military idiot of our own or any other day.

Only he could have permitted the First Afghan War and let it develop to such ruinous defeat. It was not easy: he started with a good army, a secure position, some excellent officers, a disorganised enemy, and repeated opportunities to save the situation. But Elphy, with the touch of true genius, swept aside these obstacles with unerring precision, and out of order wraught complete chaos. We shall not, with luck, look upon his like again.

NB: Flashman, the first of a series of twelve of books (or “excerpts” from the “Flashman papers”), was published in 1969. George MacDonald Fraser, an old-school Tory and war veteran, died in 2008 having described Tony Blair (to Christopher Hitchens) as “not just the worst prime minister we’ve ever had,  but by far the worst prime minister we’ve ever had,” adding: “It makes my blood boil to think of the British soldiers who’ve died for that little liar.”

Hitchens commented:

“This is morally fraught terrain, between the first sound of the bugle and the news of triumph or disgrace, which it takes a serious man to cover, whether saddled on a mettlesome charger or flourishing only a pen. And, since history is often recounted by victors, why not have it related for once by one who is something worse than a loser? Imagine if King Hal had kept Falstaff on hand as his bosom chum until the eve of Agincourt and you have a sense of Flashy’s imperishable achievement.”


  1. Innocent Abroad said,

    I agree with every word of this. (not something I expect to say again, so I thought it worth saying now 😆 )

  2. representingthemambo said,

    Interesting piece. I’ve started getting into the Flashman stories in the last year or so and they are very entertaining. Fraser’s ability to weave pure fiction into historical fact and make it so plausible is extremely impressive.

    Fraser was clearly a hopeless reactionary but he, like PG Wodehouse, had a view of the ruling classes that pisses them all off endlessly: that most of them are really stupid. I suppose it’s why Wodehouse was kept at arms length for so long and even now gets a kicking in the press periodically.

    It’s interesting that you quote Hitchens. Fraser was wrong about most things but he understood the realities of war and knew that people should not be sent to die on a whim. His view of Tony Blair is spot on. The Afghan and Iraq wars are two of the greatest frauds of contemporary history and Blair’s role in them was literally criminal.

    It’s to his eternal discredit that Hitchens, normally a man to so adroitly question received widom, fell for those frauds so completely.

    • Monsuer Jelly est Formidable said,

      “interesting piece”

      no it is not. it is shit and so are you.

      • Innocent Abroad said,

        Ah: the world’s most intelligent blog commenter is with us again, I see.

    • Roger said,

      Oh no it isn’t.

  3. Roger said,

    Read the first Flashman book and even praise from Hitchens couldn’t persuade me to start the second one.

    It is amusing and well-researched but once you’ve got the joke you really don’t need to hear it over and over again but with different historical window dressing.

    Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series is far superior.

    • Innocent Abroad said,

      Superior? Very different, yes; excellent, beyond doubt – written by a High Tory, d’accord – but comparison, as someone once said, is otiose.

  4. maxdunbar said,

    Great piece… interestingly, despite Fraser’s conservatism, the books are very subversive, the idea of this complete imposter, coward and degenerate decorated time and again by the Establishment. Also, there’s a great anti clerical streak

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