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 looked set to ransack the British supply base at Balaclava, one old India hand was heard to shrug off the peril by saying, ‘This is nothing to what we had at Ferozeshah.’

This was a statement that seems as bewildering now as it must have then. Few knew much about this obscurely named place in a far away country, where a decade ago 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.

It 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.

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. 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: Whispers across the Atlantick by

Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Osprey Publishing (27 July 2017)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1472827953

One of the big questions about the American Revolution is; how did the British lose when they won most of the battles? Richard Holmes pondered this briefly in one of his introductions, but came to no determination. But the truth is that the entire accepted story of the American War of Independence has yet to be rescued from the realm of myth and legend. And the trail to answering how the British lost the United States leads us to consider the Generals and politicians responsible.

General Howe is one of the most interesting. He remains a great anomaly in the record. Despite being the General to come closest to defeating Washington, and arguably never being defeated in a major engagement, he can be cited more than even Burgoyne, Clinton and Cornwallis as perhaps the man who lost the British Colonies in America.

This is the first book I have seen that sets out to examine his record in America. Utilising highly original sources, connected to the enquiry of 1778, David Smith takes Howe’s own words in his defence and excavates the truth from them. What is revealed is a story of a commander who should have been the man to defeat the American Rebels, but who through a number of personal flaws and a ridiculous expectation of a government giving orders from 3,000 miles away, essentially made it possible for the Republic of the United States to survive its most critical years.

This is a scrupulously fair book in my opinion. It defends Howe were he should be defended (the Battle of Long Island) and criticises were there is cause (His endless diffidence, his curious laxity and his cliquey approach to command). Using famous and rare excerpts from British and Hessian Officers we also get a fresh glimpse at the engagements of 1775-77.

What I found interesting in reading this book was the relative qualifications of the commander’s, on both sides. Here we have a war, prosecuted from London by a failed and disgraced soldier (Lord Germain), who evinced an unrealistic and blinkered expectation of reducing America to its pre 1750 state, in which nothing short of total victory without any concessions was acceptable. You have a field commander who is supposed to bring this about who is firstly a Whig, and secondly who has never commanded anything more than a battalion in action, seconded by a similarly quailed, though more robust second in command, thirded by a seperate commander in Canada, leaving us to conclude that in a shocking twist, the shamed Gentleman General Burgoyne, derided as more playwright than soldier, was probably the most experienced field commander in North America after Gage and Carleton. We need not examine that as of 1775, George Washington had commanded nothing larger than a battalion either, and got himself royally beaten doing so to boot.

With all of this illustrated, the adroit observations continue to tumble. The utter collapse of any cohesive strategy, the realisation that as more time went by, the Rebels, even with numerous tactical defeats could expect to ask for more and more concessions at a treaty table. Indeed even had Britain crushed the rebellion in 1776, the only year they (with hindsight) realistically came close to doing so, it is likely that it would not have eneded the American question, for the box once opened cannot easily be shut… at least notwithout breaking the box.

Whispers Across the Atlantick is an excellent book, the title of which nicely sums up the folly of Britain’s attempt to control the war from London. Among other things it’s also interesting to read of the political consequences for Howe and other commanders, being as each chapter begins with an excerpt from Howe’s defence before a court of enquiry. David Smith has written an excellent and refreshingly unbaiased account of Sir William Howe’s service in America, and its consequences, which adds a layer of depth to this enigmatic general that you rarely see in histories of the war.

Josh.