Book Review: Sabres On The Steppes – Danger, Diplomacy And Adventure In The Great Game, John Ure

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A COMPANION to John Ure’s last work, Shooting Leave, this is another fascinating collection of tales of the 19th century Great Game in Central Asia, an era when, as Ure puts it, “men were men and Britain ruled the world”.

While Shooting Leave documented the adventures of the heroes of the covert struggle against Russian expansionism, this volume deals with the misfits and mavericks of whom the Establishment did not approve: the private adventurers and freelancers who operated outside the government system – or those within who grossly exceeded their orders.

Many of these men were Scots. Here is Alexander Gardner, the son of a Scottish doctor who, after wanderings in Mexico, Ireland, and Russia, wound up in Afghanistan in the 1820s as a cavalry commander for a rebel chieftain, Habib-ulla Khan. Here too is David Urquhart of Cromarty, a young diplomat who on his own initiative became the first Briton to contact the highland tribesmen of Circassia in the western Caucasus in 1834.

The tribesmen, then fiercely resisting a Russian invasion, were so encouraged by “Daoud Bey”, as they called Urquhart, that they mistook his presence as a sign of official support from London – much to the fury of Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary of the day.

There are lessons to be learned from this impeccably researched and beautifully written book. Captain Charles Christie, the son of the founder of the auction house, was sent to “mentor” the fledgling Persian army, much as British troops are training up the Afghan National Army as a bulwark against the Taleban today.

When the Russians attacked in 1812, Christie was ordered to keep out of the fight but refused, and was wounded. His Persian recruits “saw their mentor fall and… ‘more than half the battalion he had raised and disciplined himself’ were killed or wounded while trying to drag him to safety.” Will the ANA perform so heroically when the British withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014?