Captain Watson & Afghanistan

I am, unashamedly, a Sherlockian.

A Sherlockian who grew up having the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle read to her and watching Jeremy Brett create screen magic in the Granada TV series but who fell completely and totally in love with the BBC version that is currently gracing our TV screens. And I make no bones about the fact that, although I am fond of Sherlock, John Watson is the character I love the most, especially in the BBC incarnation where soft jumpers and good manners seem to hide a hardened soldier in plain sight.

My head canon for the BBC’s version of John is a little different from the Dr Watson introduced to us by Sir Arthur one hundred and twenty five years ago. In the simplest of terms it is but one change, but that change is huge, makes a big difference to how John spent the years before he met Sherlock. It is also a change that, I’m fairly certain, wasn’t intended by BBC Sherlock’s creators – Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss.

But since when has the opinion of a show’s writers ever stopped anyone thinking up their own version of a character’s back-story? That’s right, never!

So I work from the premise that John was not an ‘Army Doctor’ but a doctor who, once he’d qualified as a GP, decided he wanted something different out of life and joined the Army. Only he didn’t do it the easy way and join as a doctor and serve in the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps). No, he decided he wanted to be in the Infantry, rose quickly to the rank of Captain and would have remained in the Army for the rest of his life had he not been shot in Afghanistan.

This head canon sprang into being, almost fully formed, in the first few minutes of the first episode of BBC Sherlock, when we were introduced to John via the medium of seeing him dreaming of front line combat. Initially I dismissed my thoughts as daft, right up until the point where John shot a man with barely a second thought. After that the thoughts refused to go away, despite Sherlock’s repeated use of the descriptor “Army Doctor” and John’s apparent acceptance of the term; my brain pointing out that John himself never uses the term, just agrees when other people use it.

Which made innate sense to me. I think John accepts “Army Doctor” as a descriptor of his time in the army in much the same way I accept the term “Accountant” to describe my current role; I am a qualified, paid up, member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, despite not actually having working as a “proper” accountant for over six years. Accountant isn’t the truth but it isn’t a lie either. Using the term gives the person who is asking about my job an easily understood label to hang on me that offers a clear indication of my skill set and what I’m capable of without me having to recite my entire history.

Which is something I find infinitely preferable to ending up in a detailed and convoluted conversation about my life and prevents me finding myself having to justify my choices from GCSE’s forward – yes, really, it’s amazing how nosy people can be with someone they’ve barely met – and stops the conversation ending in confusion on the part of the questioner and barely suppressed anger on mine.

For someone with ‘trust issues’ I would imagine letting people walk away with a  slightly incorrect impression of what they actually did in the Army would be much preferred to expounding their life story and reasons for their choices every time they’re asked about it. Especially given that, unless you’re from an Army family, you probably have no real idea how the Army works. Plus I can’t imagine John wanting to have to fight against stereotypes and misconceptions as well as explain why he went off to “get shot at” rather than stay in the UK and do something most people think of as a prestigious job.

And please don’t think I’m being rude about the general public’s understanding of the Armed Forces. It’s just that I know when I started researching the Afghanistan conflict I was, very quickly, really quite horrified at how little I knew about Britain’s Armed Forces, never mind the fact that much of what I thought I knew was coloured by Americanised war films and subsequently about 95% wrong!

It was actually my research that really drew me into wanting to understand my head canon for John better. As I learnt more about the British Army, both its structure and its role in the current Afghanistan Conflict, I found myself continually using bits of what I suspected about John’s pre-Sherlock life as jumping off points for further research. Questions like the ones in the blog summary leading me to pinpoint just what areas of the British Army and life on deployment I still didn’t understand.

It also morphed into me properly “playing the game” with BBC Sherlock canon and trying to construct a mapped out history for John that fitted with, or explained away, the mentions of his past life we’ve been given and was as true to real life as possible.

As such, I’ve started sharing, both on AO3 and on here, various posts about John and his time in the Army and I’ll keep this page updated with links to them all (and all is rather over descriptive at the moment, given that there’s only 4) so they other people can find them easily.

  1. The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers
  2. British Rules of Engagement in Afghanistan
  3. Johnny Get Your Gun
  4. John’s Mug

I have no idea whether any of this will be of interest to anyone other than me. I’m hoping it will, though. In fact I’ve got my fingers crossed that it will provoke discussions in the comments, flush out other avenues of research I haven’t yet explored and also that people will point out where I’ve got stuff wrong or completely misconstrued something. I’ve found investigating the British Army and the Afghanistan Conflict a lot like walking through the metaphorical wardrobe and finding myself in different world and I’d really like to meet some fellow travellers!