Book Review: Raiders from New France by René Chartrand.

  • Illustrator: Adam Hook
  • Short code: ELI 229
  • Publication Date: 28 Nov 2019
  • Number of Pages: 64

https://ospreypublishing.com/raiders-from-new-france

In this book Chartrand is allowed to flex his muscles on his pet subject, the hybrid tactical strategic form that allowed the French to maintain their dominance over the rich backwoods fur trade from the late 17th century to the mid 18th. 

Readers of Chartrand’s books will not be surprised to read of how the French governors hit on this stratagem, learning it as a result of fighting the Iroquois and then turning it on the American colonies. Though never formalised into a rigid doctrine these tactics were universally understood and maintained as a sort of living tradition, kept sharp because at its heart, it was practiced constantly by those engaged in the fur trade and the First Nation allies that they learned from.

Chartrand has written many books for Osprey, all rooted in archival research, and almost all have, with various levels of intensity, promoted the thesis of a conscious Franco-Canadian adoption of wilderness warfare to deflect large scale invasions and to control large swathes of largely uninhabited territory.

This book is the first that I have noticed by the author which is solely about this subject, rather than an example of it. He strives to explain the why and how of it by charting the evolution of the strategy from the raids on the Hudson Bay in the 17th century to the more well known raids and campaigns of the 18th.

At the same time, the illustrations, provided by fellow veteran Osprey contributor, Adam Hook, working in a format that suits his talents, give an idea of the look and equipment of the raiders mentioned in the text and the results are interesting to see.

Starting with the pioneers of the system and the first official raids in 1686 and 87 the book covers ‘King William’s War,’ the administration of Frontenac and the raids and counter raids between New France, the Iroquois and ‘New England’ that made up that conflict in the 1690s. Moving along to Queen Anne’s War which swiftly flared up in 1702, unwanted and barely a year after ‘peace,’ the famous raid on Deerfield is covered, alongside Haverhill and an interesting overview of the Fox Wars of 1712-1737. 

This great preponderance of early subjects is refreshing, being as so few of these subjects are widely covered. About four pages are given to the more well known events of the 1740’s and 50’s that he author has covered at length in other titles. The last ten or so pages cover the men, equipment and methods utilised during this very long period, which nevertheless saw little radical variation in either manpower, material or doctrine after the widespread adoption of long range raiding as a defensive strategy.

Raiders from New France offers a very interesting survey of the origins of New France’s territorial expansion and defence. 

Josh.

Book Review: Gurkha Odyssey by Sir Peter Duffell.

“I predicted soon after the launch that if Gurkha Odyssey was even half as well written as General Duffell’s eloquent and sincerely delivered talk, then it would be a brilliant book and I am delighted to assure you that I feel 100% justified in that prediction. ”

  • By Sir Peter Duffell
  • Imprint: Pen & Sword Military 
  • Pages: 290
  • Illustrations: Black and white illustrations plus 8 page colour plate section
  • ISBN: 9781526730572
  • Published: 16th October 2019
  • https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Gurkha-Odyssey-Hardback/p/16715

The Scarlet Thread of Lali.

A profusion of lali, the distinctive red piping that adorns the full dress uniform of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, and one of their antecedent regiments, was evident in the large and well appointed crowd that attended the book launch of Lieutenant General Sir Peter Duffell’s Gurkha Odyssey at the National Army Museum this November.  

A glance at the black and red dicing which ivied the neckties of many amongst that small sea of dark jackets, some proudly rifle green, listening intently to the author talk in the clean, antiseptic, surroundings of the strip lit Foyle Centre conference room on the lower ground floor, could leave a viewer with no doubts that the principle pre amalgamation regiment represented in the audience was the 2nd King Edward VII’s Own Goorkha Rifles (The Sirmoor Rifles.)

This scarlet thread of regimental tradition snakes back all the way to the siege of Delhi in 1857 and is picked up on the spine of General Duffell’s book, where the Sirmoor badge is prominently displayed, the prince of Wales’ feathers surrounded by a moat of lali. A significant device, bound to evoke 200 years of regimental achievements to all those present who, wether they were Sirmoors or not, at one time or another, wore or wear the emblem of the Brigade of Gurkhas. The crossed kukri’s shone brightly on many a lapel that night.

Rightly so the Royal Gurkha Rifles still take the histories and traditions of the regiment’s that came before them very seriously, indeed they always have, for since the earliest times of service in the EIC’s Bengal Army, the Gurkhas and especially the Sirmoors have striven to maintain their separate and singular identity apart from ‘the ruck,’ as Peter Duffell explains in Gurkha Odyssey.

Since the defence cuts in 2004-2006, when as Brigadier Allan Mallinson put it, ‘Regiments whose names the Duke of Wellington would have seen each day in the “morning states” during the long years of the Peninsular War and Waterloo’ dissapeared from the army’s order of battle, the regimental traditions, once central to the high standards of the British Army have come under threat. With once distinguished Regiments being reduced to Battalions in larger, unfamiliar, and as yet impersonal district and national, ‘super Regiments’ which for many swallowed the individual character of the units assigned to them.

Therefore just as the simple flash of red piping on a green uniform can conjure to those who learned the ‘Sirmoor system’ the narrative of Gurkha Odyssey is bound up with the threads of a proud regimental legacy of service, duty and sacrifice. It is a celebration of the virtues of the Gurkha soldier as well as a personal journey.

The Odyssey.

Duffell’s long association with the Gurkhas, his Odyssey, began when national service brought him into the ranks of the 60th Rifles. Here he started a learning process, quite distinct from basic training and other initiations necessary for national servicemen and volunteers. The Rifle Brigade’s cherished traditions are based on their motto ‘quick and bold,’ which refers to a soldier’s mind as well as his physical ability and it is no coincidence that both the 60th Rifles and the Sirmoor Rifles shared a great many ideals. Wishing to continue in a military career, Duffell, then a junior officer was advised to apply to join the 2nd Goorkhas, a ‘sister’ unit of the 60th, with an association going back to when the Gurkhas were a ‘Local Battalion’ proving themselves in action alongside the 60th at Delhi Ridge in 1857.

Learning the ‘Sirmoor system’ was chief among the responsibilities for all newly arriving officers and men at Slim Barracks, Singapore during the mid-20th century. For British officers, much depended, and still does, on how a new arrival is able to adapt to the special requirements of Gurkha service, demanded by their founder, General Frederick Young, which even a casual glance at memoirs from officers, and indeed the rare accounts of Riflemen, who have served in the Gurkhas, will tell you have not changed since the inception of the Goorkha Local Battalions in 1815 by Frederick Young. 

A key theme in General Duffell’s book is the importance and steadying influence of tradition and history, in not only a regiment, but in it’s members. He does this by beginning the book with his own introduction to military life and his new regiment, which he joined on its highest and holiest day, Delhi Day. This allows the author to interrupt his own remembrances of service and introduce the notable moments of regimental history, and indeed wider Gurkha Brigade history, which also has it’s influence, before returning to the events he witnessed himself, which now form part of their lali edged legacy. A particularly striking moment stood out to me as I read through the chapter dedicated to the Afghan Wars and came to a subheading labelled ‘The Fourth Afghan War’ which summarised some of the recent service of the regiment. It’s attendant start date was clear but a question mark stood beside it. This conflict, which occurred and is indeed still occurring during my own lifetime has it’s own place in the story, but is as yet an unfinished unfinished chapter. 

Fittingly the section relating to the Gurkhas in those much forgotten post war conflicts in Malaya and Borneo during the last century, where the author saw active service alongside many veterans of the war with Japan, takes centre stage as the book progresses. Then as now in the ‘4th Afghan War’ operations were carried out in remote and difficult-to-access regions against a numerous and dogged enemy, where the employment of heavily armed patrols and a great dependence on Helicopters pervaded. The tough and amiable qualities of the Gurkha soldier are never better showcased than in such unconventional campaigns where the local population need befriended and the insurgent enemy suppressed. 

No book about the Gurkhas ever fails to observe the humour and stoicism of the Nepalese Riflemen and the author’s adroit turn of phrase and polished imagery brings these qualities, and many individual vignettes, to life in softly humorous style. At the launch itself many of the anecdotes contained in the book, such as the Wodehousian manner of a rifleman as he alerted his officer to the presumptuous appearance of the enemy, drew appreciative laugher from the audience. The General’s extensive travels and his great familiarity with the language and character of Nepal allows him to describe with ease and confidence, themes and places far removed from Catterick and Shorncliffe.

This book shows us how vital the Gurkhas have been to the success of the British Army and to the defence of the realm in peace and war, not least the positive impact the existence of Gurkha Regiments has on Nepal and the good investment the loyal and long serving Nepalis represent for Britain. It offers examples of the distinctive role this corps has played in the past and that which is continues to play today and into the future. 

A word must be retained for the visual matter included in the volume, with delicate sketch portraits of Gurkha servicemen adorning most of the chapter headings and not a few watercolour scenes in the well illustrated plate sections executed in a controlled yet free, atmospheric style by Ken Howard OBE RA. 

In finishing the book, I reflected on the sure but humble way in which the author gave his talk and how the tone of his writing seemed to match his personality. Since that night I have discovered that many of the soldiers I occasionally converse with over social media had served at one time or another under his command in Hong Kong and each, even those from other regiments, remember him fondly. 

Where would we be without the Gurkhas?

On the night of the launch the obvious affection reserved for him was impossible to ignore as an extensive line of well wishers formed to have books signed. The manner in which he interacted with them and comrades alike was moving to see. A kind word and a handshake came with each signature, and I overheard a dignified Nepalese serviceman, his rank obscure in his civilian clothes, but his regimental affiliation obvious, observe to a retired gentleman of the Gurkha Logistics Corps, how proud he was of Sir Peter and how pleased he was at he turnout, even if he had expected more senior Gurkha officers to have attended. Trust me when I say, it would have been difficult to fit many more people in. 

Peter Duffell ends his odyssey on a hopeful note, observing that though in small ways the Gurkha soldier has changed since the 1960’s, the changes are only positive for the new recruits passing through to Catterick from Pokhara. His views on the future of the regiment he helped to shape when the future of the Brigade was in jeopardy are no less encouraging.

The new challenges the Royal Gurkha Rifles must face in a changing, increasingly nationalised, world will further shape the regiment and it was announced this year that for the first time girls will undertake the formidable selection course alongside the thousands of boys eager to prove themselves, meanwhile the 70 year old agreement ensuring the ever reliable pool of recruits comes under reappraisal. As ever vigilance will be required to see the RGR through, but I have no doubt that they will ever succeed to rise to the challenge.

I predicted soon after the launch that if Gurkha Odyssey was even half as well written as General Duffell’s eloquent and sincerely delivered talk, then it would be a brilliant book and I am delighted to assure you that I feel 100% justified in that prediction. 

Josh.

Book Review: Gurkha. Better to Die than Live a Coward: My Life with the Gurkha Rifles by Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu.

“Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu’s heart pounding account of active service is filled with honesty and humanity. ”

Genre: Biography & True Stories / Biography: General. 5th May 2016. Price: £19.99. ISBN-13: 9781405535892. https://www.littlebrown.co.uk/titles/kailash-limbu/gurkha/9781405535892/

A Gurkha Story.

This book is neither an autobiography, nor is it the personal record of a campaign. It is about leadership, comradeship, war, courage, ethos and belonging. In addition it is a very specific sort of memoir (if that is the right word) because this is a Gurkha memoir. 

I am always struck by the strong sense of continuity that links all the Gurkha memoirs I’ve ever read. Wether it is the journals and letters of Major Reid who defended Hindu Rao House on Delhi Ridge in 1857, the similar testimonies of officer’s who served at Gallipoli, or the more traditional single volume memoirs like that written by Patrick Davis who served in the 4/8th Gurkhas in Burma during WW2, the tone and spirit of each is recognisably that of one who has served in a Gurkha regiment. 

Each new account maintains a recognisable flavour that was noticeable in the last, the strong bonds of attachment to the Brigade is always there, an Arthurian dedication to the traditions of both Brigade, regiment and battalion is as plain as a Kukri in each one. A strong familial loyalty and affection between officer’s and men, quite above what one normally expects in regimental remembrances, and robustly marked no matter the generation, is the subject is interlaced into each narrative.

When you read how the author of this book would rarely leave HQ at Now Zad (Nawzad) without making sure his commanding officer was being taken care of, and ordering a cup of tea to be sent in, it makes me feel that in all meaningful ways if a Sirmoor of 1857 was to suddenly drop into a sangar position at Now Zad with Kailash Limbu and his Riflemen, he would fit into the rhythm of regimental life so naturally that within a week the only way you’d be able to tell which one had travelled into the future and vice versa would be by the ability to speak English. 

This book is notable as it is the first official record of active service, told by a Nepalese soldier in the British Army. The majority of first hand material on the Gurkhas comes from their British officers and from the outset I was intrigued to know if the great respect and affection the ‘sahebs’ have always felt for their men over two centuries was as reciprocal as it seemed. I was also curious to see if the view from the ranks was the same in terms of the fearless and invincible reputation the Brigade fosters.

An Ordinary Rifleman.

As he points out at the beginning, Kailash Limbu is very much a ‘typical’ rifleman. Firstly he represents the traditional recruiting base, drawn from the castes of the middle hills of Nepal, familiar to Gurkha recruiters since the 19th century. He did not, in his opinion, do anything out of the ordinary during his deployments in Afghanistan, he did not hold off dozens of insurgents single handed until his ammunition ran out and then charge the enemy armed only with his Kukri, he was mentioned in dispatches, but on the whole the author declares he merely did his duty the way only a Gurkha can; celer et audax.

This sense of regimental individualism, constantly alluded to by Kailash Limbu, of being a British Army Gurkha, is a pleasing reminder of how the pre 2006 British Army used to see itself. As a large machine of unique and individual parts, each with it’s own special legacy to uphold, now many of the most famous, due to budgetary and political necessity, have been amalgamated into ‘super Regiments’ like so much newspaper papier-mâché in a collage. 

As yet the Royal Gurkha Rifles, which they have been called since their own amalgamation in 1993, retain this fiercely independent spirit, due to some adroit and surgical adjustments by the Brigade when the fate of all the Gurkhas hung in the balance, being able to point back through their own for the most part individual histories as a way of establishing their unique esprit de Corps.

The colour sergeant’s claim to being an average rifleman certainly rings true, the book is less about heroics as it is grit, routine and professionalism. The fact that an ‘average rifleman’ equates to something bordering on superhuman to civilians like me is beside the point that this story is authentic in it’s unvarnished portrayal of being trapped in an isolated Afghan village called Now Zad during active operations in what some senior officers are now calling the Fourth Afghan War.

Rarely will Gurkha memoirs dwell on the inner emotions of the Riflemen, the typical, joking stoicism of the lower ranks of the Brigade is almost as difficult to pierce as one of their picquet lines, yet Kailash Limbu’s section is a collection of human beings. They fear, they hope, they bleed and they depend on each other as a tight knit family with almost all the attendant quirks that goes along with it.

Contact.

The author is fearlessly honest about combat and the Gurkha attitude to the enemy. There is nothing terribly glorious in the firefights that take place, which run from the perilous to the macabrely absurd. Kailash Limbu is gifted with a sharp, matter-of-fact, yet highly visual style of writing that sucks the reader into a very alien and frightening world that he and his men had to operate in for about a month under near constant attack and hostile observation. 

It offers a piercing glimpse into what Colour Sergeant Limbu calls, in the spare terminology of army vernacular, ‘Contact.’ The intricacies and procedures of modern warfare and one can readily appreciate how disciplined a soldier’s mind must be in order to function effectively under fire. The Taliban tested the strength and resilience of the Gurkhas repeatedly, but, as the author proudly declared on a few occasions, no matter how hard they pushed, the outnumbered Gurkhas pushed back a little harder. As far as he is concerned the Gurkha is a human being but a well trained one, and as a soldier, imbued with a purpose to overcome challenges without regard to danger and who, no matter what he is against, will win in the end. 

Tactically the modern soldier has the advantage of being able to rely on technology to offset numerical inferiority. Increasingly since the 1960’s the Air Force has been the ‘force multiplier’ to the infantryman that the Navy had been to their predecessors, and in Afghanistan especially this means combat helicopters as much as altitude fighters. Some reading this might recall articles reporting that serving officer’s pleaded for more attack helicopters during the height of the fighting in Helmand, and this book offers practical scenarios as to why. Even his Riflemen, CS Limbu States, who after so many long range contacts wanted nothing more than to fight hand to hand with the enemy, were cheered to know air support was on it’s way. 

In the quiet moments between contacts when they are mostly preparing for the next one, the Gurkhas chat and play games to pass the time, sharing stories and generally keeping each other’s spirits up. Though the CS makes it clear home life needed to be kept separate in order to focus properly on the endless routine of preparing for the next emergency, his own personal story of how he became a Gurkha is revealed through many conversations with the gallant Gaz, a fine soldier, with an unconquerable good humour and a useful competitive streak. Through Gaz’ curiosity and admiration of Kailash Limbu we get to know our author and the rigours of Gurkha selection and motivation a little better.

Simple things stand out, the first being how vital it is for combat and field efficiency that there are enough experienced NCO’s, such as the author, at a basic level. The Colour Sergeant’s ability to keep everyone on their game in and out of contact, delivering enough of the personal touch to keep spirits high, unit bonds strong, and offer enough examples of leadership while always ensuring discipline is taken seriously, cannot be praised too highly.

The generous Kailash praises not only the men of his section, support services and the ever ready airforce but his senior officer’s as well, who he describes as fine and caring commanders. He is gracious enough to leave the names of those he gently critiques; anonymous, and as all good soldiers do, he praises the courage of his enemy.

Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu’s heart pounding account of active service is filled with honesty and humanity. It is that of a capable regular modern soldier, proud of his regiment and the men he has served alongside, confident in his and their own abilities to take on whatever challenge might occur not just because of their training, or weaponry but because they wear the same badge. It leaves a reader doubly glad and deeply humbled that the Gurkhas, for whatever reason, choose to come so far and overcome so much to serve in the British Army.

Josh.

*Note. Author, Colour Sergeant Kailash Limbu is currently listed on Army websites with the rank WO2 and was of a lower rank during the incident he describes.

The Paraguayan War.

  • Author: Gabriele Esposito
  • Illustrator: Giuseppe Rava
  • Short code: CAM 342
  • Publication Date: 31 Oct 2019
  • https://ospreypublishing.com/the-paraguayan-war-1864-70

Following the successful reception of his Men At Arms titles on the armies of South America, Gabriele Esposito has brought us a concise overview of a momentously important but very little known (in the non Latin world) war.

The Paraguayan War or the war of the triple alliance occurred as a byproduct of a civil war in Uruguay that sucked into its struggle the states which orbited it. 

Eventually Paraguay was pitted against Brazil, Uruguay & Argentina, & though at first tactically successful was broken & decimated by the end of what proved to be South America’s largest & costliest conflict.

Esposito’s book, illustrated by the gripping artwork of Giuseppe Rava, takes on a very complicated and understudied (in English) subject that spanned the years 1864 – 1870, was fought over at least four countries & involved multiple armies, politicians & generals from all sides overseeing over 100,000 men.

Though thorough, the scale of the subject is not met by the treatment, which must necessarily brush over events in order to paint the larger picture. As a campaign book that covers multiple campaigns, the work should perhaps have focused on the cataclysmic events leading up to the Battle of Tuyutí.

Osprey has commissioned books in this series that cover wide periods of time before. But most suffer, as a result, from a lack of detail that is usually relied on in Campaign titles to draw a reader in. 

Single campaigns that carried on through several years suit the format best. The optimum is to focus on a single operation, and I fear that this title flounders for want of focus in such a small space.

Nevertheless this title is very welcome as a divergence from the usual subjects that are published in English & will doubtless be an excellent starting point for those interested in the military history of South America.

Josh.

Book Review: Hadrian’s Wall by Patricia Southern.

Interestingly enough I was born within the reach of what northerners simply call ‘the roman wall.’ As a kid I was taken to some of the forts, Vindolanda, Housteads, Chesters, etc and though he memories are now a little blurred, I do know that these trips never failed to inspire me. 

Even though my home, for a time, was miles to the south of it, Hadrian’s wall was a presence. It was on brown signs stencilled next to a stylised crested helmet on most main roads, parts of it emerged from the grass outside bland pedestrian walkways over busy motorways and rows of semi detached Council houses.

Though the wilds of the border reaches were out of sight, Hadrian’s wall was always there, ruined, inscrutable and yet unmistakeable.

Encyclopaedic and engaging, this book belongs on the shelf of every Roman Britain Reader. That’s the sum of it. Now what to do with the rest of the review? 

Well, now that everything else is partially redundant, I can assure you the author is a competent and concise writer, that meaning, this is less of a narrative as it is a lively discussion and as well as keeping a reader interested, does not spare them the process she used to arrive at a particular opinion, and likewise fails not to guide them through a debate that has no satisfactory answer.

The blurb tells us this will give us a look at everyday life on Hadrian’s Wall. Now allot of books promise to do this and whenever I read his I figure; oh, so they are trying to do what Ian Mortimer does with his time traveller books.

This one however, I must admit, offered the picture of daily life on the wall without attempting to play tour guide.Instead by it’s end you will have read about roughly every facet of life on the roman frontier, and therefore have a fairly comprehensive idea of the Rhythms of existence on Rome’s most famous boundary.

Everything from the building of the structure, to how it was manned and organised, the comings and goings, running and the many elements of civilian life and the examination of sources and evidence is included.

Life, death and everything in between that pertains to the centuries of the wall’s existence is covered. Although with all ancient history there are gaps, the author is a sensible and scrupulous manager of the records and whenever it comes to informed guesswork the book is always thought provoking.

Twain said that History Rhymes and one can only wonder if the construction of this great barrier had the same impact in it’s time as the discussion of modern frontier walls does today. With that in mind, and with the understanding that history is weaponised for political advancement a thorough knowledge of key aspects of it is vital for negotiating modern news and media.

Hadrian’s wall, as the most famous example of internal security in the ancient world can be argued as either a remarkably successful achievement or an ultimately flawed one.

From Donald trump to, Immigration crises, national security and even pop culture, (fun fact that everyone knows, Hadrian’s wall inspired Martin for a piece of Game of Thrones) This book will help those who read it to understand what it really was and what it did within the prism of it’s own time and our understanding of that time.
Josh.

Book Review: Eyewitness At Amritsar by Amandeep Singh Madra and Parmjit Singh.

What can have been going through the mind of General Dyer that day in Amritsar 100 years ago? What perverted sense of justice and duty led him to order his troops to open fire on an unarmed and unthreatening crowd in the Jallianwalah Bagh?

He said himself that he came to the decision in under a minute and that he did so to preserve the British empire. In less than 60 seconds thousands of lives were changed for ever and between three and five hundred lives would end altogether.  History itself changed that day.

Lauded even to his death as the man who saved India, ironically no enemy of the empire struck a more deadly blow against it than Dyer did that dark day in Amritsar.This is the timely story of a massacre in words and pictures, brilliantly and sensitively presented by Kashi House and handled expertly by it’s two authors.  

Before you even open this book you get almost a sense of intruding on a hallowed but tragic scene. The cover image is devoid of frills, a narrow alley leading to a wide dusty inner-city space. Empty and haunting, one can almost imagine oneself standing there, peering through, and trying to make sense of the insanity of it all.

That is the brilliance of this book. It is transportive and breaks down the walls of time and place and takes you on a journey, that is as visual as a documentary and as informative as an interview. 

Kashi House produces books that I love to read and this one I must be counted amongst those that are totally original in how they present their subject. I’ll be quite plain with you all, I help prove the stigma that the British don’t know about the Jallianwalah massacre.

I’d heard of it, I’d seen it recreated in the movie, Ghandi but I knew nothing about it and was absolutely ignorant of what happened before and after. When I received ‘Eyewitness’ I confess to worrying if I would be up to reviewing it with such pitiful knowledge of the subject. 

Yet as I turned the pages I saw that the authors had crafted a book that was designed to engage a blithe readership without scrimping on depth or detail. I devoured it in a day.

Eyewitness is separated into sections, beginning with an introduction that gives an overview, it then turns the story over to quotes by contemporary witnesses, victims, perpetrators and commenters all aided by some of the most evocative photographs and images I’ve seen collected in binding.

We first learn about Amritsar, about it’s cantons, holy places and narrow, teeming, streets that spider through the city with labyrinthine complexity. In some photos I swear I could hear the noise of the crowd. The text and photos are so well synced that it is as if we are taken through them, right down to the entrance to the Bagh.

Historical context comes next, India and the Raj in the aftermath of the Great War. It was a volatile time of loud discourse and angry passions but also great movements and leaders who dared to stage a rebellion in a way that no one had done before. It was a strategy that the British had no answer to, armed rebellion could be crushed with a certain legality, but not non-violent demonstrations. Nevertheless simmering tensions were building in Amristar.

The narrative proper starts after that showing the riots that preceded the massacre, and then the inconceivable horror of the event itself as told by the participants. The plight of the victims loved ones being especially moving and the marble-cold outlook of General Dyer being more than infuriating.

What follows, as Ghandi said, was, at least from a philosophical/intellectual point of view almost worse. The humiliating repression that the increasingly tyrannical Dyer unleashed on Amritsar, again for scant legitimate cause, left me quite stunned.

Well might some of the quotes damn these actions as the point where India realised it could not depend on British justice and where faith in the system of imperial government was broken once and for all.

I cannot praise the ingenuity and hard work that went into this book enough. I’m not just crafting pleasing blurbs here when I say it is perfect for serious scholar and newcomer alike. 

This is how History should be popularly presented, it is how I’ve always hoped it could be presented and how I’ve often tried to present it. By using a preponderance of authentic voices and materials crafted together with a minimum of handling the reader can see, rather than be told, what happened. 

Eyewitness to Amritsar is a poignant, immersive, book that is both fair and incisive. A visual testament that allows readers to connect with the very fabric of history, giving a thrilling and eye opening glimpse into how events are recorded and how they played out.

From the Great to the small, this book is an all encompassing, respectful, tribute to a tragedy that changed history.

Josh.

Book Review: The Anarchy by William Dalrymple.

‘The Anarchy is worthy of it’s author’s ambition as a brilliantly realised and enjoyably written history which looks out at it’s subject with an eye to both the past and the future.’

FormatHardback 
Edition1st
Extent 576
ISBN9781408864371
ImprintBloomsbury Publishing

The EIC and the Corporatocracy

‘The country lies groaning under the Anarchy’ wrote the Compte de Modave of the country of Bengal in 1762. His use of the word anarchy was echoed by its use in the work of Mughal historians, and 20 years later by Maratha ones to describe the period of the decline and fall of their respective empires.


So too does William Dalrymple’s Anarchy, which chronicles, in a robust, fluid, style, the ‘relentless rise of the east India company.’ As the story of the fall of one is the story of the rise of the other, the author is therefore at pains to show how what he calls the world’s most magnificent Empire was replaced by a ‘dangerously unregulated private company.’ The significance of this took a while to resonate with me.


At face value this is not an unheard story, many historians have written the antique and modern records of the East India Company, this version is, however, is endowed with a new significance which has not been focused on, and certainly not with the same amount of force. 


Unlike other works on the infamous conglomerate, this book is not another history of the British Company in India. It is the pursuit of an echo, which strives to examine the relationship between big business and government. It is in fact a record of the first ‘corporatocracy,’ the new imperium. We need not look to far to see an example, because that was what made the USA a superpower after WW2. And it is also what is now driving China.


If you have ever noticed how industrial countries will invest in underdeveloped ones, exchanging various advancements for material assets, then deploy military force to secure the investment after provoking confrontation, ‘The Anarchy’ will start ringing bells. As mentioned, the East India Company was truly the first recognisable corperatocracy, and it’s record shows that it all but patented the system of wealth and territorial acquisition through commerce.


The claim that the Mughal empire was the most magnificent empire in the world is crucial to the juxtaposed history at hand. Based principally on the estimated revenue for the empire during the peak of it’s success during the early to mid 17th century, this is an undoubtedly correct assertion. Perhaps Dalrymple goes a touch far to say that Elizabethan England was a cash strapped, impoverished, realm, but there was no real comparison between the Mughals and Tudors at the time when the East India Company was founded. 

The EIC was remarkable because unlike other corporatocracy’s (which rely on their government to do the back-breaking) they took it upon themselves to create a military and civil service. As a result they could operate much more directly against a given target and did so with shocking success.

The mad idea that a private company such as today’s Walmart, Disney or Google could deploy it’s security forces (or even have security forces comparable to a modern state army) could grow not only in profits but indeed to actually replace a nation state and come to govern a huge chunk of the earth’s population is just that, mad.

The Imperial Accident?


And yet it happened, and it is not just Dalrymple or modern historians who have noticed the absurdity. A great swathe or intelligent thinkers wrote or voiced their befuddlement at the idea that the EIC, a private stock enterprise, answerable to it’s own shareholders, could have an army of over 100,000 men by the end of the century and be actually governing land. That number is more than twice the that available to the United Kingdom in 1793 when the war with Republican France broke out.


During Burke’s epic oration condemning Warren Hastings, he cut to the heart of the argument against this form of British rule in India. All the previous empires that had conquered it had contributed something culturally to the land as a nation, these empire’s had been or in time became Indian empires. But the company was only interested in taking from India rather than putting anything into it. 


When viewed in this light it is interesting to look at the often used argument that the British brought order and law to India, stuff and nonsense to be sure, but the philanthropic bent of the later British (as opposed to Company) Raj was that it had something to prove. As if shamed by the words of it’s 18th century critics, it all but broke it’s back trying to make their presence be seen as beneficial and philanthropic.


Beginning with the formation of the company, by ‘merchants and pirates,’ and running through its measured and bumpy rise to the careers of Clive, Hastings, Cornwallis and Wellesley, the Anarchy is a sweeping and insightful history of events that many will find eerily familiar from the wars and politics of the mid 20th century.


Despite the blurb, Dalrymple is not pointing at the White House, rather the corporate driven world we live in as being a legacy of the East India Company. These businesses are pinnacles of organisation. The EIC was so effective in it’s hoarding of commodities that it reversed the flow of wealth that had been running east since roman times.

The money flow has now returned to the east and Dalrymple is hearing the echoes of the past resonating, the world he says has returned to a place it was when the EIC first came to India.
There is an argument that the British empire started accidentally. Yet with the idea of commercially driven expansion, can this be supported?

Dalrymple admits that the EIC had no long range plan to conquer the whole of South Asia, their seizure of the commerce of Bengal was purely driven by a desire for trade and developed into something both surprising and concerning as they discovered their increasing strength and abilities. Truly it was a sinister and dexterous runaway. It took almost a century for the British government to actually bring the company to heel.

Yet, like all the other colonial commercial ventures that birthed colonies, they did bring it to heel and they did take over. It was in the vested interest of the British state to see the EIC remain a successful enterprise.

The Ambition


Vaunted as Dalrymple’s most ambitious project yet I must admit that before I realised what the author was trying to connect with, the book seemed little more than a continuation of a pet subject. I was forced to reflect on it in a new light when realisation struck about a week later.

Dalrymple said this year that it’s scale was the ambitious part, having confined himself in previous books to reconstructing snapshots that connect a moment in time with the greater sphere of history. By comparison this is a sweeping history, of a faceless nonentity of boards, committees and armies. But that is it’s subtlety, and why it is brilliant.

Though in great part lacking any one central figure to follow, this does not mean that the characters and vignettes are now well drawn. Dalrymple’s description of Lord Wellesley as an empire building cuckoo in the Company next was priceless, and the impeachment of Warren Hastings is another example. Dalrymple, likewise, gets Clive solidly within his sights and gives no quarter.


Worryingly the book reveals that the British state did not conquer India, instead it sanctioned the actions of a private mercantile company to do so in its stead, much as it had with other ‘company’s’ during the 15th and 16th century’s.

Acting essentially as an addict does to a powerful drug, the flow of cash from the company’s clearing houses at the ports of Great Britain overwhelmed all good sense and moral imperative. As the old adage goes, the money trail is also the way to the truth of most human mysteries, and how even governments are at the mercy of big business.

It shows that the oft repeated curiosity of India being ruled by only a few civil servants is actually a legacy of the ruthlessly efficient organisation of the company, which after a century of operating still had only 35 permanent employees at head office.


At the end Dalrymple returns to his roots as a travel author and paints a languid picture of a boat sailing down the Yamuna at dusk, when the sky and water are contrasting and vivid and the land is dark, save for the blushing walls of the Red Fort. He ponders how a single private cooperation could have conquered the builders of this wondrous building.

In truth, as the book reveals, that the company did not actually conquer it in the traditional way, least of all the British government, a new kind of blueprint for empire building was founded. The company was the richest of the scavengers that came to pick at it’s carcass. Knocking aside those that had done the heavy lifting. 


The Anarchy is worthy of it’s author’s ambition as a brilliantly realised and enjoyably written history which looks out at it’s subject with an eye to both the past and the future. It challenges the nostalgia and nationalism which is prevalent in India and Britain. It corrects perceptions of how and why the British conquered their jewel of great price and asks us to take a look at the word today as a comparison. Reading this it is hard not to admit that we are blithely and perilously close to the Anarchy that consumed the Mughals. 

Josh.

Book Review: Dominion by Tom Holland.

  • Paperback: 624 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown (5 Sept. 2019)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1408706962

“Revolutionary in every sense.’

Tom Holland has had this date from the beginning. It has been a long time coming but what was once just a distant call, echoing from the beyond in Rubicon became inevitable by the time Shadow of the Sword hit the shelves and the Twitter-debates led into death threats. In his history of the fall of the Roman republic, Holland referenced the execution of an itinerate street preacher that grow to have more meaning than many of the deaths suffered by the emperors of Rome. Indeed, his new book carries on the theme of narrating a Rubicon moment, for the history of western Christianity is at it’s heart a tale of revolution. At some point around 2017 or so his tweets, a sure thermoriter of whatever he is writing about, began to take on a eclectically biblical sheen as he polled his followers about the prophets and regaled them with the semi-heretical thoughts of century’s of thinkers from ‘pro’ and ‘con’ camps. 

Reading this book it struck me that though we tend to think of France and Russia when we talk of Revolutions, one of the greatest in world history occurred when over the course of many century’s a densely populated swathe of the world chose to believe in a common promise of an afterlife that came out of a dangerous backwater of the Roman Empire and grew to shape, in some way or another, everything that happened thereafter.  Tom Holland’s new book is revolutionary in every sense.

Underpinning the fabric of western thought is Christianity, Holland argues, keeping up his revolutionary theme. The reason for this can be found in what Holland sees as the labour pains of the church. The initial idea of Christianity, which championed the poor and downcast turned everything that the western world had taken for granted on its head and it proved a rigorously subversive doctrine. 

The teachings of Jesus offered a new kind of salvation and a new way to look at the world. Periodic bouts of persecution followed, which although never sustained, was what we would today call repression, as varying roman emperors championed, purged, and dismissed Christianity by turns. Persecution and repression was mixed with a great deal of confusion when the Romans embraced the faith as a state religion. The theological hierarchy of the church found themselves at odds, arguing about such topics as how Christians could remain true to their origins? How there could be such a thing as charity if there were no more poor? Could slavery really be an acceptable institution for a follower of Christ to be complicit in? Down to trying to rationalise and communicate the teachings and very divinity of Jesus and the Trinity for a international audience. The writers of the Torah, he writes, ‘formulated’ a divine covenant that would make sense to a geopolitical ancient audience much as the founding fathers of the USA would formulate a constitution to do the same.

These labour pains birthed the church and they were so acute and cut so deep into the very fibre of what it meant to be human; to seek purpose and to fear death, that with each successive convulsion layers of imperative significance began to be unconsciously dyed into the fabric of western society. No matter how rigorous the criticism, nor how indifferent the world has become, the more stringent the debate the more ingrained Christianity became. This is not only because it’s message speaks to a desperate need within the mass of humanity to be seen, but because unlike other major religions it has been made communicable and has bent and adapted to the culture that it in itself created. Rather than lose it, the western world has always sought to fit the message of Jesus into the changing world view of succeeding generations.

Christianity’s simple presence in society provoked the development of western thought. What is the nature of secularism and its place in the fabric of religion? What is it’s place in the world? What is sin in a world not of gentiles & Christians but of believers? In Dominion the rise of Christendom as a concept and the establishment of the church as an entity apart and separate from royalty and imperium was in itself the first revolution to rock the west.

It must be admitted that at times I wondered if what I was reading could truly find a ledge of continuity to swing from into the final summing up, or wether it would just end up as a good anecdote. Certainly within it all there is plenty to intrigue, such as how the Bible came to be and the strong Greek roots visible in the very contents of the old and new testaments. 

There are times, I suspect, when in the ardour of narrative creation Holland sinks into the proverbial sand. There is a whiff of contextual dismissal as well in the force of some arguments. As an example, we may use his suggestion that God was once worshiped by the Jews as a bull. An interesting and academically attractive thought. To support it he cites 1 Kings 12.28 and Hosea 8.6 as inpirical evidence of that resolution. While no one would argue that a certain bovine sanctity is prescient within the early scriptures, it may be said that some of the footnotes are a little self conscious of the weak shoulders upon which this assertion is held up. The theory mentioned above ignores a great deal of the more logical explanation for the raising of the two golden calves by Jeroboam, but maybe that is the point. After all in its 30th verse does it not make clear that this was a sin, and did not the psalmist openly mock the re-enactment of Aaron’s folly at mount Sinai? The passage in Hosea is a passage which damns apostasy with gleeful vigour, for in the preceding verses the prophet begs for mercy as ‘with their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction. Your calf is rejected O Samaria … an artisan made it; it is not God the Calf of Samaria shall be broken in pieces.’

If anything all this should have gone towards his argument that the Jews saw life as one long trail of sin, from the Apple in the garden to the Calf on the mountain. True, the Jews may well have once worshiped a graven image of God, but it was called sin and counted against them. Yet Holland, captured by the fancy that God existed to the ancient Jews in multiple forms, both benign and cruel, hammers and crafts his own image of a murky past where the God of Israel was legitimately idolised as a beast.

Another early theme is to offer a theology that God once fought for control of the heavens with other supernatural beings. Certainly the Jews of the Old Testament entertained household deities as is seen in the story of Jacob. God might well also be translated from old texts in the sense of all gods but such a linguistic ambiguity might merely further the idea of that long, wide, road from apostasy. 

Sometimes the revelations which are meant to surprise, come as no surprise. For instance Holland hints strongly that God had once been one of many ‘gods’ in the eyes of his chosen people who came to dispose of the others. The scriptures tend to be quite suggestive of the many spiritual powers at work in the world and the heavens. argument for God as the one and only is that of coming to accept him as the one and only sovereign, it is not to the exception of the existence of other ‘gods of men’. It seems clear that while the Jews proffered allegiance to one God as their own, their rejection of the others was not based on a lack of knowledge of the existence of other spiritual powers, but of the supremacy of their own over the others. It is generally accepted that whenever Jewish scripture refers to God over all, the ‘all’ represents heaven, earth and the children of Israel, the chosen all, not ‘gentiles’. Thus when a psalm speaks of God and gods, it is essentially placing those lesser beings under the feet of the Almighty. 

Yet Holland keeps mostly to the argument, prevalent, it must be said amongst zealots, of the existence of a single divine being without exception. It occurred to me that the Jews, (or perhaps this is a more Christian outlook, forming part of the said revolution) were capable of recognising a spiritual universe at work, that in itself was under the influence of personally unknown spirits, worshiped as gods by unclean foreigners. The argument becomes somewhat more circular when he semi-concludes that in some distant theology, God made himself master of the heavens and all the beings in it, both good and evil. By which means he concludes his roving discourse on the clash of the idea of a merciful and avenging God, without quite saying it; that God is a testing God.

The ambiguity of the author’s graceful prose is useful for such an emotionally charged subject. Some of it will be outright provoking, though not in an obvious way. Holland, being an artful fellow, rarely outright challenges something, he massages it into flexibility. Thus Moses, whose grave cannot be found and whose deeds are recorded only in one place, is suggested, though never declared, to never to have existed. 

He strives to find a new interpretation of how the scriptures have been interpreted, and wonders at what they were before. A lead objective being to try and lay out the character of God, on a purely intellectual basis, and what made him different and indeed more special, more attractive to an ancient mind than any of the others. He begins this quest by examining why it was such a big deal to be crucified, and it emerges very quickly that he wishes to trace back from the indelible stains of the Christian experience, to see why the passage of centuries have left them patched and remade but unfaded. The blood of Christ, he might be prone to say, hasn’t blotted easily. 

Moving with method the book rolls through the centuries, and layers of significance build and build. By it’s end we can reflect on it and for me I drew a few conclusions. One being that surely one of the greatest strengths that Christians can claim is the knowledge that the Dominion of God is still potent. Though many might declare that God is dead and that nothing is now sacred because we have science, though many philosophers, writers, and historians, Holland included, say that at some point or another they grew to prefer the gods of Greece and Rome, it is a sentiment that everyone knows to be glib. The gods of the classical past are amusing, sterile things of fable, fertile in the realm of story but little else, save for the vertiginous potency of distant imagination. But neither they, nor anyone else believes in them any more than they believe in a work of theatre. Yet on a daily basis a vast index of western humanity will stub their toe, break a plate, or communicate surprise by invoking the name of God, Jesus or Mary. Truly, the name of God still weighs both light and heavy in the everyday life of the Dominion once called Christendom. 

What can be argued is alive. And Holland proves, above everything else, perhaps, that one of the great legacies of Christendom is the ancient love of debate. Dominion is by turns awed, horrified, reverential and irreverent towards it’s subject. It is a fascinating journey from the Cross to the iPhone. An eye opening and thought provoking read about the revolution at the heart of western thought. 

Josh.

Book Review: The First Anglo Sikh War by David Smith

  • Author: David Smith
  • Illustrator: Steve Noon
  • Short code: CAM 338
  • Publication Date: 25 Jul 2019

https://ospreypublishing.com/store/military-history/period-books/19th-century/the-first-anglo-sikh-war-1845-46?___store=osprey_rst&___from_store=osprey_usa

In October 1854 when the Russians had drubbed the Light Brigade at Balaclava, Sir Richard Airey was heard to shrug off the disaster by saying, ‘This is nothing to what we had at Chillianwala.’

His words would have been equally apt had he referenced any of the Battles of the 1st Sikh War, such as Ferozeshah. Few knew much about this obscurely named place in a far away country, where a decade before Balaclava a poorly understood enemy had almost destroyed a British army. Fewer in the UK know about it today.

Although a proud moment in Punjabi history the Sikh Wars hold no resonance to the British. It is just another embarrassing colonial conflict to be quietly avoided. It was embarrassing at the time as well because of the offhand way in which it was prosecuted.

The first was a curious War, as many authors, including the present one; David Smith have commented, because the war aims in the first conflict of both the British and the Sikh’s were ultimately the same; the destruction of the Sikh army. 

Multiple campaign books covering each battle of the 1st Sikh War could have been done, but this general survey is nonetheless precise and detailed. It’s prominent citation of Amarpal Singh Sidhu’s work is enough in itself for me offer it as a recommendation.

It quickly emerges that the war was fixed from the start, though no one knows exactly how. The author is quite sure that the inexplicable performance of senior and talented Sikh officers can only be explained by self interest and treachery.

Even so, with overconfident fire-eaters commanding the British Army of the Sutlej, the tide could easily have been turned as British battalions were decimated in hasty & unscientific frontal assaults.

The Sikh army is described accurately as an efficient and effective military force with every modern advantage. But it had become unwieldy & it had lost the commander it had been created for. The British are not super humans in this book, they are only slightly worse led, marginally more dogged and in the end victorious due to a long tested regimental system & loyal officers.

The book falls down only in the sense that it crams so much into less than 100 pages. As such there is little by way of explanation or discussion and some elements of the fighting are just ignored. When dealing with Aliwal for instance the author fails to explain how the 16th lancers broke the Sikh ‘square,’ and leaves out that the Gurkha battalion present almost lost it’s colours during the battle.

Luck & treachery would coincide to hand the British government in India & certain factions in Lahore their long hoped for wish. The Sikh army of Ranjit Singh was broken, though not in any true sense destroyed. The crippled remnant would rally again but the blow had served it’s purpose. A second war followed, as difficult as the first and referenced by Airey, but by the time the Light Brigade rode into the valley of death, the Sikh Empire had disappeared.

The book covers the ferocious fighting at Mudki, Ferozeshah, Smith’s masterly victory at Aliwal and Sobraon. As usual there are helpful maps & an interesting selection of images in the title.

Steve Noon’s colour plates are masterful examples of illustration, packed with colour and detail, imagining scenes with realistic yet cinematic grandeur. It is always a joy to look at them and pick out the details and stories they hold.

This title is a detailed overview of the war that will prove very useful for enthusiast and student alike.

Josh.

Book Review. Killing Napoleon by Jonathan North.

Although I don’t agree anyone can read about the Napoleonic and Revolutionary wars without being aware of the royalist opposition to both, I do admit that there is a widespread delusion that Napoleon was a beloved and cherished leader.

Fanatical loyalty to the emperor did indeed exist, but an equally fanatical element opposed him and everything that had occurred since the overthrow of the monarchy.

This is best exemplified in the attempted assassination of Napoleon in 1800, the subject of this book by Jonathan North. The first Consul, as he was then, was nearly the victim of an indiscriminate explosion that was detonated as his carriage drove by.

Fate intervened to spare Napoleon a martyr’s death and the Napoleonic Wars were destined to play out in all their collective horror. North’s book is about recreating this dramatic event that almost changed history, and examining the effect it had.

North does a good job of retelling the story in the vein of a thriller novel, loading a relatively short book with detail. Sketching out the characters, their motivations, the political and cultural scene right down to the place the ‘Infernal Machine’ was laid.

Unfortunately, although I enjoyed the book in many respects, and found it on the whole very interesting and detailed, I was unable to get past the author’s opinion or spin that this was an early example of a terror attack.

Many people interpret ‘terror attack’ and ‘terrorist’ differently. To my mind these are modern terms and have no real equivalent in the early 19th century. My interpretation of terrorist is an individual of a political group that is intent on bringing about a certain political result through violence against the public. 

It is a fine point, for the elements of this event bear strong resemblances to modern terrorist attacks. However the would be assassins, though uncaring about who died in the explosion, were really after one target, Napoleon, they were not out to terrify the public. 

There was also never a concerted, conscious campaign of violence directed against the citizens of France exterior to course of conflict in western France, which was a civil war between royalists and Republicans not relatable in practice to modern terrorist activities.

The attempted assassination of Napoleon was similar to a terrorist attack, but in spirit quite unlike one. That aside I thought that ‘Killing Napoleon’ was an interesting and entertaining read that sheds light on an important moment in the history of Napoleonic France.

Until the next time, Believe me: Josh,