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The Trials of Eldred Pottinger: New novel explores life of soldier and diplomat

By Jack Averty | In-depth | Published:

He was dubbed the "Hero of Herat" after masterminding the defence of the Afghan city – but years later was court marshalled and accused of cowardice after a rebel uprising left thousands dead.

So, was Eldred Pottinger a hero or a coward?

A new book, penned by former journalist turned politician Nigel Hastilow, looks to explore the burning question.

The novel takes you through the first Anglo-Afghan war through Eldred's eyes, building off the facts of the disastrous campaign to imagine what life would have been like for the spy turned solider.

The book follows Eldred's highs and lows, including the defeat of the Russian and Persian invasion and then the uprising that was to follow years later, leaving thousands dead and Eldred accused of being a coward.

There is plenty of other detail in-between, including how the British introduced cricket to Afghanistan and the tale of a senior officer who would turn up to army meetings and lay on the floor wrapped in a carpet.

Mr Hastilow, a columnist for the Star, said of his book: "I tried to imagine what it would be like to be there. He was one of the first people ever to go into Afghanistan, sent in as a spy, then he spent a year defending the country from invasion by the Russians and the Persians. And then the UK decided to get rid of the king in Kabul and impose its own puppet.

"The puppet was in place for about three years. Things settled down and most of the British army went back to India. But the country was not as rich as we had hoped, so we had to up the taxes and as soon as we did that and stopped paying the bribes they revolted. And what at first appeared to be a fairly calm, stable place turned into mayhem.

"It all ended in horrendous disaster and Eldred ended up, by accident because various people had been murdered, as the most senior political officer. So he was forced to negotiate a deal with the rebels that led to his army getting massacred.

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"Eldred was taken hostage, fell in love with another hostage, married her whilst they were in prison. Then eventually the UK sent the army back, devastated the country, Eldred was taken home and given a court marshal for cowardice and misuse of public money. So you try to imagine how you could live through all of that.

"It is written in the first person, so it is all about him and all about his point of view. So for instance, when William IV dies and Queen Victoria becomes the monarch he did not know because he was in Afghanistan and it takes months for the news to arrive. So you discover it when he discovers it. And of course when the rebellion is kicking off, I was trying to imagine what he saw of it with the rumour, the gossip and the fear, rather than the bigger picture."

The new book, which is out now

Asked about how the novel came about, Mr Hastilow added: "Originally I was given a book about Eldred Pottinger, a history book. So the basic stories are from that. But I had never even heard of the war, let alone Eldred. I had only started reading it because Tony Blair had decided to invade the country. There were loads of other books on the subject it turned out, including contemporary diaries, so I just read more and more about it.

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"I suppose I had not heard about Eldred or the war because it was not one of our glorious victories. If you learn about the great British empire this was not one of our finer moments. It was a terrible disaster and demonstrated complete incompetence."

He continued about the book: "It was a lot of work, it took a long time and I am pleased with the result. I probably started it about six years ago, it has been a part-time effort. It has been bubbling away that whole time. But the trouble is because it's a historical novel you end up asking yourself questions you don't know the answers to, and then you spend ages researching things and discovering they are totally irrelevant to you anyway."

The novel is a complete change in writing style for Mr Hastilow, whose career has been based off reporting fact as a journalist.

Explaining the difficulties and the differences between the two styles, he said: "The facts are so astonishingly difficult to believe that you cannot make them up. But you have to imagine how people react to things and what they say and how they think. So the basic facts of the story are true, but you can relate those in two sentences if you wanted to do. The book is about what it was like to live through, and that's where I suppose the making up comes in.

"It was a challenge to get into his head and write as him. I really enjoyed doing it and I think that comes off in the book, but you have to keep telling yourself this is a story, a novel, not a history book. A history book will not tell you what they had to eat, and who they chatted to and what about when they were not making great events happen. And of course what it actually felt like. It is difficult to be sure but that's what the aim of the exercise was.

"There are things you can say in a novel, which you cannot say as a journalist. Journalists try to stick to the truth, but novels allow you to use the truth to your own end. It is different, and sometimes you find yourself thinking oh blimey I can just make this up I do not have to stick to the facts."

So was Eldred Pottinger a hero or a coward? Mr Hastilow believes he was firmly the former.

He said: "I don't think any of it was his fault, but some do. The main accusation is that he did the deal with the rebel leader – the exiled king's son – to allow for the retreat. But that was completely against his own advice and he was ordered to do it.

"So for him the dilemma was do you obey orders, or do you lead a mutiny against the senior officers? And as a good British solider he obeyed his orders – but he did not want to. Had they followed his advice, all might have been well."

  • The Trials of Eldred Pottinger is available now on Amazon Kindle and as a paperback in all good book stores.
Jack Averty

By Jack Averty
Senior Reporter - @javerty_star

Reporter with the Express & Star, based at head office in Wolverhampton

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