Hardcover: 560 pages
Publisher: Amberley Publishing (15 Jun. 2016)
The Anglo Sikh Wars mark the finishing acts of what could be termed the conquest of India. The work of domination started by Clive and expanded by Mornington was essentially ended by the Sikh Wars and Dalhousie’s laps scheme, which saw to it that by then end of the 1857 rising there was little need for further wars of conquest, only those of maintenance.
Amarpal Singh picks up from his previous book to finish the tale of the fall of the last great independent state in India. It an instructive phase in the story of British expansionism as it is a dramatic moment in the history of India. What had begun as an admired and useful northern neighbour became a flight risk after the death of the Great Ranjit Singh. The first Sikh war was an attempt by the British to retain a stable northern frontier by a direct presence, and for the Sikhs a fight for the retention of independence.
The imposition of a British resident in Lahor, the disbandment of the majority of the formidable Sikh army and the eclipse of the Khalsa government to a gaggle of pandering yesmen, were the results of the First Sikh War. On top of that came the inevitable demand for a cash forfeit and the promotion of a young boy, Duleep Singh, to rule the Punjab as a protectorate of the British Empire.
So far so good for the British. Of course as was typical of many colonial conflicts everything soon went down the plug-hole because of what should have been avoidable accidents. Because the British continually insisted in sending difficult, often uniformed men with no sensitivity or interest in the country they were posted in (though many residents could quote pre British Indian history like they would European classical antiquity), to deal with local matters, the new Lahor resident soon found himself facing open rebellion on two fronts, which united the dissatisfied people of the Punjab in a fight to overthrow the British and rescue the young prince.
A peaceful solution was out of the question because of the insult offered to the British flag, etc etc, and all of a sudden a second Sikh War was in the offing as the British fumbled to respond to the insurrection which quickly turned into all out war. As the author shows us, they did this with typical bull headed victorian pomposity, which almost had them falling flat on their faces more than once. And had the Sikhs a general of just a little more imagination and audacity, there might well have been another disaster to add to the annals of British military history.
This was a war of reluctant freedom fighters, pulled into a hasty war by the will of their people and soldiers. But once brought to the field they felt duty bound to see the thing through. Starting with the occupation of the Punjab by the British and the treaties that dismantles the Khalsa state, Amarpal Singh follows this train to Multan where the insurrection properly began, then to the hill country where it progressed. The course then splits in two because the war was fought in two theatres, and follows them both and indeed their peripheries in detail right to the end.
Between 1815 and 1854 the British army’s only experience of General actions was in India. What should have been a proving ground for change and new thought became testaments to the resolution of the British soldier and his Sepoy colleague. As with the ewrlier war in Nepal, this conflict would see Sikh troops brought into the East India Company army which would form a redoubtable corps in the future. The reader will also be able to see how different war in India was to war in Europe, commanders in the subcontinent had often very different priorities and much more correspondence with the enemy than in the west. Something the author demonstrates excellently without drawing a comparison.
This is a superb military history. Authoritative, poignant at times and textured. Replete with first hand accounts and sharp analysis alongside overview maps that compliment the accounts of the action. The images are well chosen and reflect the authors travels to the battlefields, the fields today being a facet which takes up some space at the back of the book, plus some very rare early photographic portraits. This is a work that will surely become one of the foundation stones of any bibliography or library of the Sikh Wars worth the name, not just for its importance in continuing study but because of its robust and well crafted narrative. Only an author steeped in his subject could hope to produce such a sweeping and definitive account of so little studied a conflict with such clear vision and verve. This is a full and unbiased picture of an important chapter in the history of British India, well worth the attention of student and enthusiast alike.