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Fighting for the Empire

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An Irish doctor’s adventures through Imperial campaigns and two World Wars

Fighting for the Empire is the story of a remarkable Irishman, a staunch Catholic from Galway who qualified as a doctor and served the British Crown and its Empire for almost fifty years.

His extraordinary military career took in countless conflicts including two World Wars, Imperial adventures, acts of heroism and encounters with royalty. It also included a period of Irish history that split families and communities in two.

Joining the Indian Medical Service in 1896, Thomas Kelly was posted to the turbulent North West Frontier almost as soon as he arrived in India. Eight years later he was one of the first Westerners to set foot in the mysterious mountain city of Lhasa, winning a commendation along the way for an act for bravery that was illustrated on the front page of London newspapers. This did not stop other British doctors, who just treated white troops, dismissing him as a “Sikh fellow” because he cared for the Indian troops.

Kelly’s many adventures brought him face to face with both hardships and glamour. His duties included entertaining Swedish Explorer Sven Hedin, King George V and later the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) who he despised, describing him as a drunkard and a womaniser.

The First World War saw Kelly serving with the Indian Medical Service in Aden, Egypt and Mesopotamia (covering present-day Iraq, Syria, Iran and parts of Turkey), collecting the Distinguished Service Order as well as being commended in dispatches four times, including for his role in the aftermath of the infamous siege of Kut. He campaigned for the end to the inefficient separation of British (white) hospitals and Indian hospitals and for British nurses to be allowed to treat Indian soldiers. The end of the First World War saw no let-up as he was pitched into the brief and bloody 3rd Afghan War that raged across the notorious North West Frontier in 1919.

Bitterly disappointed at being turned down by the Royal Navy at the outbreak of the Second World War (he was then 69), Kelly became a ship’s surgeon in the Merchant Navy. In this capacity he took part in the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Bordeaux as France fell to the German invaders, went with the 8th Army to Egypt and served on Atlantic convoys. His war finally came to an end in late 1944 after serving on ships transporting troops for the invasion of Europe. His age (74) caught up with him and he was sent home still protesting that he was more than fit enough to remain at sea.

Containing many photographs from Kelly’s personal albums and private collections, Fighting for the Empire is a fascinating look not just at an individual’s bravery and hardships but at the closing years of the British Empire.

© David Worsfold

The book is published by Sabrestorm. It can be ordered through Casemate UK or for US buyers Casemate US. It is also available through Amazon

It has been enthusiastically reviewed in the UK and USA – read What Others Say about Fighting for the Empire.

David offers a series of talks for book clubs, historical and special interest groups based on this book and other major research projects. You’ll find a complete list here

Fighting for the Empire: An Irish Doctor's Adventures Through Imperial Campaigns and Two World Wars


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