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"Dr. John Watson army rank and uniform?" Topic

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1,573 hits since 29 Mar 2017
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Personal logo piper909 Supporting Member of TMP Inactive Member29 Mar 2017 4:29 p.m. PST

I would like to put Dr. John Watson, from the Sherlock Holmes stories, in my British Northwestern Frontier armies. Watson is noted as being a veteran of Maiwand, where he suffered a wound or wounds (Doyle was never consistent about this in the stories). Doyle was also less than precise about Dr. Watson's service details. Watson is written to have been an "Assistant Surgeon" and "late of the Army Medical Department" (is this an accurate organizational name for this time, and is this an official rank or just a title? Was it a commissioned rank?)

At this period of history, before the formation of the Royal Army Medical Corps, how were medical personnel enlisted. commissioned, or assigned? What uniform would he have worn? A blue one as per the Army Hospital Corps? Or the red uniform of the infantry regiment Watson would be assigned to? What organization would he answer to? What level of training or medical education would he have had to be at this state? Doyle only mentions how Watson was going to be attached to the 5th Foot but then was detached to serve with the 66th in Afghanistan. How could watson have kept up with so many uniform changes?

There is an account of a similar fellow here, who is ranked as a "Surgeon-Major" and the photograph seems to show a infantry officer's uniform:


On field service in the 2nd Afghan War, I expect Watson would be wearing a khaki drill drill tunic, home service trousers, and a sun helmet at Maiwand?

What light can anyone else shed?

foxweasel29 Mar 2017 5:39 p.m. PST

I don't want to appear a smart arse, but, it's a work of fiction. Don't hope to marry up Conan Doyle's writing with reality.

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP29 Mar 2017 5:42 p.m. PST

Now now. The man asked a question.
Go to some Holmes fan sites and I'm sure they have an answer.

foxweasel29 Mar 2017 5:52 p.m. PST

As I said, I wasn't trying to be clever. But a lot of the things he wrote may not be real.

thosmoss29 Mar 2017 5:53 p.m. PST

According to "The Sherlock Holmes Encyclopedia" by Orlando Park, Watson is described as:

"Doctor Watson received his medical degree in 1878 from the University of London.

"Shortly after, he went to Netley to take the prescribed course for Army surgeons. He was then attached to the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers as Assistant Surgeon. This regiment was in India at the time. He followed, landing at Bombay, and eventually caught up with his outfit at Candahar in time to take part in the Second Afghan War. We was transferred to the Berkshires and at the battle of Maiwand, was struck in the shoulder by a Jezail bullet. Murray, his orderly, saved him from capture, and he was removed to the base hospital at Peshawar for rehabilitation.

"Recuperating from his shoulder wound, John contracted enteric fever and was returned to England on the troopship 'Orontes.' He landed at Portsmouth with a nine-month furlough from the British Government and his health 'irretrievably ruined.'"

So … guess the shoulder wound explains the cane?

Mad Guru Supporting Member of TMP29 Mar 2017 5:57 p.m. PST


Here are 2 more links to articles worth reading if you are interested in historical reference info on the British military medical aspect of the Second Afghan War:

1. "Army Surgeons in the Afghan War and the March to Kandahar"


2. "'You have been in Afghanistan I perceive' Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson and the Afghan War"


Both articles are written by Garen Ewing, creator and operator of the Second Afghan War website of historical record, where they both are featured.

In official documents of the time, British medical officers who fought in the Second Afghan War are listed as serving in either the Army Medical Department or Bengal/Bombay/Madras Medical Department.

The Army Hospital Corps existed from 1857 to 1884, when it became part of the new Medical Staff Corps.

Here's a link to a good overview of its institutional history, from over on the Victorian Wars Forum:


I'm no expert, but I believe the bottom line is that the Army Hospital Corps with its uniformed enlisted personnel, from its inception until its organizational changeover/demise, never operated in India, where British army regiments contained their own surgeons/medical officers, who were officially part of the Army Medical Dept., and Indian regts. were served by British officers who were part of the Medical Depts. of their respective armies, be they Bengal, Bombay, or Madras, all of whom -- the British regiments included -- were assisted by native bearers.

Re: uniforms on campaign… if there's any chance of a fight, Dr. Watson would almost definitely be wearing khaki. The only reason for him to be in full dress or home service dress, would be very cold weather, or a parade or other official function where it was appropriate, which were held in Afghanistan from time to time during the course of the war.

Personal logo piper909 Supporting Member of TMP Inactive Member29 Mar 2017 6:05 p.m. PST

Thanks! Lots of useful things here and further explorations ahead.

Of course it's "fiction." So is at least half of anything discussed here on TMP. That doesn't mean I'd want to get a surgeon's uniform for the 2nd Afghan War wrong if I can avoid it.

Doyle was a storyteller, not a miniaturist or professional soldier, and not unduly concerned with the fiddly details some of us are obsessed with.

Winston Smith Supporting Member of TMP29 Mar 2017 6:07 p.m. PST

And he believed in fairies. grin

foxweasel29 Mar 2017 6:12 p.m. PST

That's what I meant Guy, but I can see you knew it already. Cheers mate.

Rhingyll Supporting Member of TMP29 Mar 2017 6:41 p.m. PST

For some reason I think Watson was a Captain but that may be from the latest Sherlock Holmes series starring Benedict Cumberbatch. He would have been called Surgeon-Captain Watson as the British Army used the word surgeon in front of a medical officer's army rank until the end if the 19th century. Below is a Army Medical Officer circa 1900 which I realize is later than the 2nd Afghan War.


Ragbones Supporting Member of TMP29 Mar 2017 6:54 p.m. PST

Interesting links, Mad Guru! Good reading!

rmaker29 Mar 2017 7:04 p.m. PST

Watson's wound is mentioned in several stories, but it moves around. Sometimes it's in the arm/shoulder, others in the leg/knee/hip.

One of the standard initiation questions for applicants to the Baker Street Irregulars (the largest and longest established Holmes fan group) is "Where was Dr. Watson wounded?" The correct answer is "Afghanistan", with extra credit for "Maiwand".

mrinku29 Mar 2017 8:16 p.m. PST

Given that Doyle was a medical man himself, it's likely he would have socialised with doctors who had seen service. Watson may be fictional, but Doyle would hardly have had to do much research to add authentic colour to his background details.

Doyle was pretty good on detail when he needed to be. He did write some historical military fiction the Brigadier Gerard yarns, and the two 14thC novels about Sir Nigel Loring (White Company and Sir Nigel). All are great reads.

He also authored a lengthy history of the Boer War and an expose on the Belgian Congo, so I'm fairly certain he was well up on contemporary military matters.

Personal logo piper909 Supporting Member of TMP Inactive Member29 Mar 2017 8:17 p.m. PST

I have my own theory about Watson's wound, that very neatly explains its "wandering", but I can't reveal it here because it's going into a writing project that might actually lead somewhere, and I don't want any of you scalawags nicking it.

Thanks for the posts, very, very good info here (I'm nicking all of it).

4D Jones Inactive Member30 Mar 2017 1:57 a.m. PST

Just to go off on a tangent (which never happens on TMP) with a literary connection: Watson was supposed to have been born in Northumberland, as was Luis Jorge Borges grandmother.

Rhingyll Supporting Member of TMP30 Mar 2017 11:03 a.m. PST

My great grandfather, would never lie nor make up a story (unless he had to). He told my grandfather that he knew John Watson personally and from Watson's own mouth he was told that a jezail round hit his gun holster and the round deflected into his shoulder. The impact of the shot caused his revolver to discharge into his leg. Thus he was wounded both in the leg and shoulder. But Piper909 probably already knows this.

Personal logo piper909 Supporting Member of TMP Inactive Member31 Mar 2017 11:38 a.m. PST

Ringyll, umm, that's a new one to me -- a decent hypothesis, and close to the truth in a way, but not exactly as "I" heard it! Q.E.D.

PS: And Northumberland Rules!

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