From the First, Second, Sixth and Ninth Packets of the Flashman Papers we have a comprehensive record of Harry Flashman’s career from his expulsion from Rugby School in 1838, to his near-expulsion from the Punjab, on the orders of Sir Henry Hardinge, in February 1846.
On leaving Rugby, Flashman returned home, intent on having his father, Buckley Flashman, buy him a commission in a prestigious regiment who are not going into active service anytime soon. Flashman senior is initially reluctant, but apparently decides that having his son and his mistress in the same household is not a wise idea, and purchases Harry a Lieutenancy in the future 11th Husars, under Lord Cardigan.
Initially, Flashman is a favourite of Cardigan’s for his appearance and horsemanship, but his taste for vicious amusement betrays him, not for the last time by any means, and after his notably public participation in a duel with a fellow officer, and his ill-advised seduction of and forced marriage to Elspeth Morrison, daughter of a Glasgow mill-owner, Flashman is sent overseas, to India in 1840.
There he attracts attention for his genuine skills with horses and languages, and is attached to the Army of the Indus, under Lord Elphinstone, stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Flashman endures hair-raising adventures in Afghanistan, but ultimately, through what will become a pattern of good luck, dissemblement and the Victorian desire to see heroism wherever it goes, he wins his first undeserved honours and recognition, for apparently defending a strategic post, at Piper’s Fort, whereas he had been completely laid out with cowardice, and was the last man standing by default.
Flashman returns to England in 1842, recuperating from his wound and enjoying his laurels. He enjoys the good life, including an affair with the woman who will one day represent herself as the famous dancer, Lola Montez. He arranges for the humiliation of the bumptious and self-satisfied Otto von Bismarck at the hands of a retired pugilist, sets up Lola Montez’s public exposure as a fake and enjoys a purple patch, from 1842 to 1843, as a fast bowler at cricket.
In 1843, he also pursues an affair with Fanny Paget (who may or may not be a relation on his mother’s side) whom he is sharing with Lord Cardigan. He is nearly caught by Cardigan, who is in turn caught by a private detective, whom Flashman bribes to give a false name to Lady Cardigan, which she records in her memoirs.
Though a sinecure post has been obtained for him, Flashman ends up making England too hot for himself, between Montez’s desire for revenge and the real threat from a bookie, whose money he has taken, and who he has offended by failing to throw a single-wicket cricket match he should win easily: hence Mr Tighe’s desire to ‘fix’ the outcome.
The match is against the far Eastern merchant, Don Solomon Haslam, who is playing to take Elspeth on a cruise to his plantations. Flashman having lost the bet, takes the obvious option of accompanying Elspeth, and her miser father, John Morrison, on the cruise.
The voyage is leisurely, and it is deep into 1844 before Haslam’s party reaches Singapore. There he reveals his true colours, kidnapping Elspeth and attempting to have Flashman killed. Flashman is rescued by James Brooke, the White Raja of Sarawak, in Borneo. Haslam is identified as river pirate Sulemain Usman, and Brooke mounts an expedition against the pirates, with Flashman as part of his crew.
The expedition puts the pirates down for a time, but Flashman is wounded and captured by Usman, who sails away into the Indian Ocean. Flashman’s reunion with Elspeth convinces Usman that his chances of winning her are non-existent, and he claims to be looking for somewhere to put the Flashmans ashore, where they (and he) will be safe. Flashman does not believe this: under the impression they are at the British possession of Mauritius, he escapes ashore and claims sanctuary. However, this is Madagascar, where whites are slaves: the pair are taken from the ship.
Whilst Elspeth is kept safe, and completely unaware of any danger, Flashman finds himself enslaved by the mad Queen, Ranavalona. He becomes both her lover and Sergeant-General to her army.
Flashman remains in captivity into 1845, when he is reluctantly impressed into a plot to overthrow Ranavalona. The plot is uncovered, and he and Elspeth flee, fortuitously arriving at the coast during a bombardment by British and French ships, on which they leave.
Whilst Elspeth returns to England, Flashman, against his will, is sent to India, where he is required on Army service in the Punjab. At first, this is as a political officer, charged with finding away to prevent the overwhelmingly powerful Sikh Army from attacking the British. Instead, in his relationship with the semi-drunken Maraharani, Mai Jeendan, he becomes involved in her plot to break the arrogant, powerful Khalsa, who control the Army.
Flashman’s enforced tinkering with the Sikh Army’s plans arouses the wrath of Governor-General Sir Henry Hardinge, but proves to be effective in Britain’s ultimate victory. He even comes into possession of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which he hands over, flippantly, to Hardinge, literally minutes before his departure, on Hardinge’s orders.
Flashman is next seen in England, in ‘late 1847’ (not so late that he does not become aware of the fashion debate between ‘stripes’ and ‘checks’). He is still recuperating from being shot in the back. Fraser later refines this wound into a shot on the side that burrowed towards Flashman’s back, but otherwise gives us no other information as to who, what, when, where or why.
Indeed, in later years, Fraser showed no intention of clearing the gap up, even with one of Harry’s celebrated asides. As the books progressed, his Explanatory Notes grew more dismissive about the very idea of filling these in.
By exploring negative information, we can exclude further British military action: Flashman specifies that the First Afghan War and the First Sikh War are his only pre-Crimea campaigns. Similarly, I would exclude a wound from any kind of duel, since Flashman does not refer to taking part in any other than the celebrated affair with Lieutenant Bernier.
However, I have a theory that, without any evidence to support it, fits neatly with the time-frame.
Flashman leaves the Punjab in February 1846 to return to England, a journey that will take a couple of months, given that Africa lies in between. After the Great Mutiny, his voyage home was via the Cape of Good Hope, where he meets John Charity Spring in Cape Town, but there is no mention there of any previous visit to the city.
Let us posit that, on this occasion, Flashman’s journey home is via the Red Sea, and an overland trek, by camel, to the North African coast.
What if the caravan is attacked, by Tuaregs or other bandits? Flashman escapes but finds himself stranded in the Sahara desert, over at least one night of moonlight. Before he can die of thirst, he is found by a petrol from the French Foreign Legion, who take him back with them into Algeria where, lacking any other support, he joins the Legion.
Now in the Twelfth packet, Fraser makes it clear that Flashman was in service with the French Foreign Legion twenty years later, in Mexico, but even he hints, in a footnote, that this may not have been Flashman’s only period in La Legion Etranger. The French president, MacMahon, does refer to being an old Algeria hand as if the pair had shared service.
We can imagine Flashman not planning to make Legion service a long-term affair, and taking the first opportunity to desert, perhaps disguised as an Arab Sheikh. The Legion naturally take a dim view of this and, in fighting their way out, Flashman is shot in the side, the bullet burrowing into his back.
This narrows down the time this adventure takes. Whilst he speaks of his ability to bounce back quickly from wounds, because of the nature of this wound, Flashman would have needed an extended recuperation before he was even able to travel back to England, relatively unaffected and probably not even admitting his wounding to Elspeth: would she have so blithely let him leave the country so quickly afterwards if she knew he’d had that kind of wound?
To me, this is entirely plausible and decidedly Flashmanesque, though there isn’t a scrap of evidence to make it more than a hopefully educated guess.
Of course, Flashman has confirmed that he was serving with the Foreign Legion twenty years later, in Mexico, and that Emperor Maximilian rescued him from the Legion, who were pursuing him as a deserter. That seems to rule out the idea of an 1847 tour of duty. Or does it? Flashman does not actually say that he was serving with the Legion: in fact, he was reluctantly a part of Jesus Montero’s bandits at roughly the same time. Besides, in what circumstances, in his mid-Forties, within eighteen months of his service (distinguished and otherwise) in the American Civil War, does Flashman end up impressed into the Foreign Legion and taken to Mexico?
I would go out on a limb, again unsupported by evidence, that Flashman undergoes another of those hellish coincidences that dog his life, to the extent that you might almost believe in divine intervention and punishment, Flashman encounters his former drill sergeant, or someone of similar authority, from twenty years ago, is recognised as a deserter, and is dragged back to the Legion and into service in Mexico. From which that adventure flows as we shall see later.
It’s an interesting question to wonder if Fraser knew what this incident was about when he referred to it in Royal Flash? Did he have a general plan for Flashman’s career, or was it a bit of ‘colour’, designed to thicken Flashman’s world, a trailer left for Fraser either to exploit, if he came up with a good and timely idea, or otherwise to be left as something Flashman never lived long enough to relate?
I wouldn’t like to guess.