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Sherlockiana: Dr. Watson‘s Injuries



Injuries of doctor Watson, which he got while in British army during the Second Afghani War, is one of the main subject of holmesologic debates. It’s all doctor’s fault. If only he wouldn’t talk about his person so negligently, trying to move spotlight in direction of his friend. From what he said we know, that he nearly lost his life in war and only thing that he brought back were unpleasant memories:

The campaign brought honours and promotion to many, but for me it had nothing but misfortune and disaster. I was removed from my brigade and attached to the Berkshires, 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, who threw me across a pack-horse, and succeeded in bringing me safely to the British lines. [STUD]

It was in no way fatal wound. Real reason for deporting the young doctor from the line was chronic bowel disease that he got while recovering in Peshawar Hospital [STUD]. That was what Holmes noticed when they first met [STUD]. He naturally also noticed strange holding of his left arm, bone wasn’t entirely in order yet.

This is the last time we read about the aftermath of the battle of Maiwand. In decades it isn’t even mentioned. However, Watson speaks multiple times about another injury – his leg. Once it is bullet hole [SIGN], then bullet stuck in his leg through his Afghani adventures [NOBL]. So, is it one, two or even three injuries?

It’s quite hard to imagine, that he would forget history of his wounds, that he continuously mentions. It’s possible that we could forget which leg we had broken many years ago, however, if our mind serves us right, it is only possible if said injury healed without consequences.

We won’t be moving on thin ice of speculation if we sum both mentions of an injured leg into one medical record and claim about stuck bullet is just a metaphor that symbolize damage that said bullet has done.

Discrepancy between a leg and arm, however, cannot be solved that easily. There is uniqueness in Watson’s words while he talks about his injury. Was he really injured only once, as many researchers assume? Most commonly accepted theory is that Watson was shot while leaning forward (as a medic he was probably treating one of the injured) while bullet moved through his leg and stuck in his shoulder, where it damaged his bone. It is possible. Would it be stupid to think that benevolent doctor Watson really was shot twice? Injury, that got him sent home via his bowel disease, could by time be healed without consequences and be remembered only by military retirement? There was no reason to pamper heroic scars and bother other by mentioning them all the time. Watson wasn’t like that.

Let’s build a short timeline.

After finishing his studies in year 1878, JW enters military doctors training in Netley. In the autumn of same year he sails to his regiment in India. It’s also the time when Second afghani war began.

After arriving in Mumbai he found out about the war and that the Fifth Northumberland regiment is in Kandahar. He and few other officers then went to support the regiment. He is then relocated to the Berkshire regiment (the exact date isn’t known).

27th July 1880 – battle of Mainwand is over, JW is injured and thanks to his servant Murray is safely transferred to Peshawar hospital.

It’s not probable that young doctor would spent lot of time in India – he was likely transferred to some other unit. It’s safe to say that he went back to his regiment very soon.

However there is more than a year and a half long period of time when he could easily be shot in his leg. It was war after all. It took place in Afghanistan,in a harsh rocky area. These things just happen. His leg was treated and although walking could be bit harder, there were worse things to be afraid of and to think about.

Injured arm mentioned Watson himself only once. Injured leg twice. Twice did Holmes noticed Watson’s subconscious movement of his hand to his old injury:

Your hand stole towards your own old wound and a smile quivered on your lips, which showed me that the ridiculous side of this method of settling international questions had forced itself upon your mind. [RESI, CARD]

And that’s all.

Mention in The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor shows real reason why Watson talks about his leg injury and not about that one in his arm.

It was a few weeks before my own marriage, during the days when I was still sharing rooms with Holmes in Baker Street, that he came home from an afternoon stroll to find a letter on the table waiting for him. I had remained indoors all day, for the weather had taken a sudden turn to rain, with high autumnal winds, and the Jezail bullet which I had brought back in one of my limbs as a relic of my Afghan campaign throbbed with dull persistence.[NOBL]

Leg injury reminded itself thanks to changes of barometric pressure, very similar to how people with rheumatoid arthrosis or osteoarthrosis can feel these kinds of things. Pressure and humidity cannot be effectively used to weather forecast, as is often believed, however it is for sure undisputable. Injuries – for example damaged ligaments, which had the author of these lines can confirm it – respond in the same way. They are current even if their origin lay deep in the past.

This sadly doesn’t solve the question of Watson’s injury, however it submits another material for a thesis and opens other questions.

Is it possible that shot through the leg that ended in shoulder could cause permanent or long-lasting injury that reacts to atmospheric pressure? Or is it possible that Watson just haven’t paid that much attention to being shot into the leg, having worse problems at time of war?

As Holmes said: “The game is afoot.”



Illustration by Richard Gutschmidt (1861-1926) from first german edition A Study in Scarlet (A.C.Doyle. Späte Rache. Stuttgart: Robert Lutz Verlag, 1902)





"Things just happen. What the hell."
* Terry Pratchett. Hogfather


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