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WATSON’S WAR WOUND

THERE’S A LOT OF scholarship, some of it contradictory, regarding the war wound of Dr. John H. Watson, chronicler of the world’s greatest consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Exactly where was Watson wounded?

In Maiwand, Afghanistan, is the glib response. But you know what I mean: What particular portion of Watson’s anatomy required doctoring?

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The Battle of Maiwand, July 27, 1880. This, other images and insights from The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels (Slipcased Edition) (Vol. 3), edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger, W.W. Norton, 2006.

When we first meet Watson in A Study in Scarlet, he recounts his duties in Afghanistan as Assistant Surgeon, initially with the Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers: “I was removed from my brigade and attached to the Berkshires [formally Princess Charlotte of Wales’s Regiment], with whom I served at the fatal battle of Maiwand. There I was struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery. I should have fallen into the hands of the murderous Ghazis had it not been for the devotion and courage shown by Murray my orderly….”

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Murray carrying Watson to safety. Image by Richard Gutschmidt, Spate Rache (Stuggart: Robert Lutz Verlag, 1902.

To summarize: Maiwand is in south central Afghanistan, 50 miles northwest of Kandahar. The Jezail is a large heavy rifle with an iron forked rest, perhaps the word derived from the Arabic word for “big,” jazil. The subclavian arteries are in the upper chest below the collarbone.

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Above, the Charge at Maiwand. Below, a jezail.

Version 2

But confusion arises later in The Sign of Four when Watson says he is “nursing my wounded leg. I had had a jezail bullet through it some time before.”

Gad zooks. This is as puzzling as when the doctor’s wife refers to him as “James” in his chronicle of “The Man With The Twisted Lip.” Mystery writer/Sherlockian Dorothy Sayers passes off this oddity by noting the H. in John H. Watson evidently stood for Hamish, the Scottish James.

Well, okay. But what about where that bullet hit?

Some say Watson was wounded twice. However, I admire the other conjectures, at least in part because of their richness of imagination. (“If you’re gonna be a bear, be a grizzly.”)

As noted in The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, if Watson had been bent over, say while he was attending a patient, a single bullet could have caused the two wounds. A second conjecture is that the bullet may have ricocheted off the collarbone, grazed the artery, left the body at an acute angle and then entered the leg.

Occam’s Razor, seeking the simplest solution, suggests a third possibility: The good doctor could have been shot from below while he was squatting over a cliff to answer a call of nature. Ouch.

The most bizarre hypothesis suggests that Watson was killed, not wounded, at Maiwand. His orderly Murray took his identity, with a subsequent “guilt for this masquerade … explaining all the errors of dates, places, and names rampant throughout the Canon, including his absentmindedness about his own wound.”

Holmes said, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” You’re telling me…. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

5 comments on “WATSON’S WAR WOUND

  1. Skip
    January 24, 2017

    Would not the greatest consulting detective the world has ever known have perceived Murray’s ruse had he assumed Dr. Watson’s identity? It’s more likely the dutiful Murray had the good sense and discretion to not recount Dr. Watson’s compromised position during the unfortunate incident.

  2. Drew
    December 12, 2020

    Appreciate this Sir–Big Fan! I am a US Army Infantry Staff Sergeant currently serving in Parwan Province, Afghanistan.

    • simanaitissays
      December 12, 2020

      Hello, Drew,
      Thanks for your kind words. And, especially, thank you for your service. — ds

  3. Lance E Mason
    August 27, 2021

    The whole subclavian artery claim is untenable. If damaged, it can’t be compressed to stop the bleeding (“tourniqueted”) without strangling the patient and/or blocking the carotid arteries to the brain. Further, if “grazed” such that it is bleeding (the only way Watson would know it had been hit), it wound pump out blood at a ferocious rate, due to its proximity to the heart. Any “graze” would quickly become a full rupture. Watson would be unconscious in minutes, and then dead, as there was no one on the Afghan battlefield to open his chest and close the arterial bleed. Further yet, how could Watson possibly know which artery was hit, and that it was a “graze” vs something worse? All he could know was that he’d been shot, and, at best, that he had an arterial bleed, due to the rate of the bleed and the bright redness of the blood. He couldn’t see the artery, and, from the bleeding alone, couldn’t distinguish its source as the SCA vs., say, the brachial or another artery in the region.

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This entry was posted on January 24, 2017 by in The Game is Afoot and tagged , , , .
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