The First Anglo-Sikh War is a singular book in that it manages to elicit favorable comments from proper historians, battlefield archeologists and now, from History Poodles like me.
The foreword by Prof. Peter Doyle BSc PhD Cgeol FGS; Battlefield Archeologist; Co-Secretary, All Party War Graves and Battlefield Heritage Group says “With this book in hand, the battlefields of the Punjab come alive again”. And Professor Doyle aint wrong. The sleeve reviews are by people of stature in the serious history game.
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But for those of us who like to poodle through our history, cherry-picking obscure wars and events, and who get bored easy, this book is also a fascinating page-turner.
It is set in 1845. Just after the horrible retreat from Kabul. So John Company and British Pride weren’t exactly screaming from the terraces. We had captured most of India using a simple but effective proposition:
“See things our way and you can keep your Palace and some of your revenue. Oppose us, and you see those Irish guys polishing their bayonets over there? Look. They are waving”. Superior military technology and back-stabbing diplomacy, God love us.
I had assumed the Sikh wars were pretty much the same sort of thing. A couple of wars, the Sikhs see things our way then come to be as useful to us as the Gurkha for the next hundred years or so.
My first surprise was my definition of ‘Sikh’. Having spent time in and around Amritsar as a younger man, I assumed that would be their capital. Wrong again. It was Lahore in Pakistan. They had also nicked Kashmir and hoofed the Afghan out of Peshawar. They had European mercenaries to train their heavy gun crews (who managed to cattle our lads all ends and sides), to drill their huge army and to advise on modern military tactics.
And anyone who knows the Sikh, knows that they are brave, to the point of Gurkha brave (so were the Brits and the Seypoys in this one).
But there was a flaw. The Sikh army had some weird Communist thing going on. The soldiers could ‘elect’ their officers. Or de-elect them. Either through a meeting without biscuits, or an axe through the back of the head. Just so it got the job done, either one worked for them.
Soooo, the more sensible Sikhs saw that their formidable army was actually an undisciplined rabble and more to the point, they could be next for the meeting / axe experience.
And they plotted with Brit political agents to lose the war.
Astonishing not so much because it happened, but because with our well honed ability to miss-read a situation, and the hierarchy of the day ignoring their Spook assets, we almost managed to lose a sub-Continent.
I do hope that has given you a desire to read this book?
And for the weirdo battlefield archeologists among you, Sidhu has done a fab Guide at the end. With this book in hand, a decent GPS and the ability to say “Sorry about Koh-i-Noor but Cawnpore makes us quits, eh? Any chance of a chai and a bedi?” You might walk the battlefields of the Punjab and truly make them come alive again.
Five Mushroomheads. I would make it six but Bad CO steadfastly refuses to take bribes.
The Iron Duke
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