Friday, 24 June 2011

First Anglo-Sikh War : Book Review

(Book review: Published in the June 2011 issue of "The Sikh Review" and some other journals.)

This is the first study of its type, which uses battlefield archaeology to give a vivid account of the battles fought during the First Anglo-Sikh War. The terrain and landmarks of each battlefield are described in detail “to give a comprehensive vision of the battlefield”. Satellite imagery on Google Earth has been used and there are many battlefield sketches and photographs.

This pioneering methodology also invites similar studies of other Indian battlefields. As Prof. Peter Doyle writes in his foreword to this excellent book by Amarpal Singh Sidhu, “Battlefield archaeology has grown out of a need to reinterpret battlefields, to place them in their correct geographic setting, to understand the events that were played out in past wars…”.

In addition to Indian sources, much new unpublished information, such as first hand accounts, maps and letters from that period over the last 100 years, has been included from UK sources such as the National Army Museum, British Library and a few other museums.

And so, the reader is given a tour of each battlefield as he retraces the clash between two great armies from 18 December 1845 to 10 February 1846. The stakes were high: loss of sovereignty for the Sikh state, or the end of colonial rule in India.

There are many well researched books written in recent years of the chaotic period after Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death (27 June 1839) and the two Anglo-Sikh Wars ending in the annexation of Punjab by the British in 1849. However, my question, “Why yet another book?”, is answered by the author in his preface, “Appreciation of the battlefields is important. No other single event can decide the fate of countries and nations in more dramatic fashion than trial of strength over a few square kilometres of often uncompromising land. Few other events are more galling than the loss of independence suffered after a defeat. On the battlefield are displayed the highest human qualities of bravery, camaraderie, and loyalty and also the basest vices of treachery and cowardice.”

In many ways this remarkable book complements other earlier studies of this period. Of these, “The Last Sunset: Rise and Fall of the Lahore Darbar” by Capt. Amarinder Singh of Patiala reviewed by Dr Kirpal Singh in the December 2010 issue of The Sikh Review, is a more recent publication.

The author has done a most objective introductory analysis of the events which led to the First Anglo-Sikh War and the battles of Mudki, Ferozeshah, Bhudowal, Aliwal and the “slaugher” of the retreating Sikh army at Sabraon.

Clash between two great armies in India in the first half of the 19th century, was inevitable. The British colonial administrators and generals were waiting for the right opportunity but, for reasons discussed, they were in no hurry. “The pact of 1809 proved useful to the British because the powerful Sikh army was controlling the turbulent tribesmen in the north and west’ while “British rule was over the more placid states”. Therefore, “the Sikh empire provided security for the territories of the East India Company at no cost to the company itself.”

Meanwhile, the Sikh army of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s kingdom, north of Sutlej River, was not quite ready to take on a well disciplined imperial force maintained entirely at the expense of the subdued rulers of India through the devise of “Subsidiary Alliance”. In addition, the British army had access to inexhaustible supply of Indian sepoys, whose loyalty was secured through the myth of the invincibility of the British. The British army was fully trained in superior western warfare methods and the generals had experience from other military campaigns and, no doubt, were full of “Victorian arrogance and bluster”. In fact, until Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s death, the waiting game was of mutual benefit to both sides.

The intrigue and treachery at Lahore Darbar following the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and the subsequent loss of control over the Sikh soldiery, changed the “mutual benefit” equation. By 1945, the clash between British raj and Khalsa raj, which was inevitable, became imminent.

At some stage following years strife at Lahore after Maharaja Ranjit Singh, it was decided by Lahore administration that decimation of the recalcitrant Sikh army with British help, was the only solution. “Sikh Army had become a wholly republican force with generals having nominal control over the troops. It was the common soldiery that elected “punchayats” and therefore held ultimate power….they went on vendettas or carried out looting”, and absented themselves from cantonments without leave for long periods. Taxes could not be collected and the treasury was empty.

The British too were getting regular reports of the events at Lahore and continued to make necessary preparations.

In March 1945, Raja Gulab Singh of Kashmir (influential at Lahore) had already written to the British Governor General to invade Punjab. “This would not be a war of conquest, however, but one organised specifically to annihilate the recalcitrant Sikh army.”

This plan was communicated in advance to the British and full support offered by Gulab Singh, and in the battlefields, by Tej Singh Commander-in-Chief of the Sikh army and Lal Singh the Vizier or Prime Minister, who was second in command during this campaign. None of these three leading players on the Sikh side were Sikh or even Punjabi.

On the 11 December 1845, the Sikh army of 35 to 40 thousand crossed Sutlej with 150 guns. Although, the army remained in defensive positions and within Lahore territory south of Sutlej, this was nevertheless seen as an act of war by the British. Sir Henry Hardinge, the Governor-General, even after declaring war, had doubts about the legality, and rights and wrongs of the British campaign as he confided to his staff at Mudki, the site of the opening clash. It is significant that, despite provocation, the large Sikh army did not attack Ferozepore despite provocation, and adopted a defensive position at Ferozeshah.

The Sikh army was divided into four separate contingents (including the one at Philaur), and kept on the defensive as sitting targets to be attacked and overrun at will by the well disciplined and well led British forces at Mudki, Ferozeshah, and Sabraon. The engagements at Bhudowal and Aliwal under the command of an inefficient, and inexperienced Ranjodh Singh based at Philaur, were probably not part of this treacherous plot against the Sikh state. However, the disastrous retreat of the Sikh army across Sutlej River from Aliwal, was a forerunner to the contrived massacre on a much larger scale of the retreating Sikh force at Sabraon.

Throughout the War, British would be kept well informed about battle plans, deployment of forces, entrenchments and weaknesses in defences.

Strength and military formations of opposing forces, the battle itself, casualties and the aftermath, are based mostly on original records and eyewitness evidence pieced together painstakingly, cross-checked and corroborated where possible.

The book is in two parts: First part gives an account of each battle giving details as above and the second part gives battlefield guides and locations of places of interest on, and near, the battlefields.

And so each battle is brought to life. Soldiers on both sides showed incredible bravery. None asked for mercy and no mercy was shown.

Both, Sir Henry Hardinge, the Governor General of India, an experienced military man himself, and Sir Hugh Gough Commander-in-Chief, were present at the main battles of Mudki, Ferozeshah, and Sabraon.

Due to well planned attacks by the British force in full knowledge of Sikh defences and weak points, the battles themselves were quite short. Sabraon, the last battle, was around 4 hours, Aliwal around 2-3 hours, Bhudowal even less. Only Mudki and Ferozehshah lasted around 8-9 hours. It was mainly due to the Sikh commanders always keeping the Sikh army in a defensive position and not advancing during a British retreat that battles like Ferozeshah,Chillianwalla, Bhudowal ended prematurely.

Despite a much longer supply line, compared with the Sikh army, the British had better field intelligence and communication; their smaller numbers were deployed more efficiently, their battlefield tactics were better than the leaderless Sikh army, and they kept in battle formations and showed readiness to attack. The Sikh army remained divided and on the defensive and hardly used the cavalry. They kept waiting and allowed British forces to build up.

The author has shown how opportunities to destroy the British army were missed by the Sikh commanders. With better military intelligence, some highly vulnerable targets like Ludhiana and Ferozepore with small contingents, and the military supply train from Delhi, could have been destroyed almost at the outset of hostilities, and even the capture of Delhi was well within Sikh grasp. Loss of confidence in the British invincibility would have brought forward the 1857 Indian mutiny.

However, when Lahore Darbar itself was ready to surrender its sovereignty to the British, that was not to be.

The treachery of Tej Singh and Lal Singh claimed something like 10,000 lives at Sabraon where a single lane boat bridge had been partly destroyed by Lal Singh and Tej Singh “taking precaution to first retire across it themselves, their object being to effect, as far as possible, the annihilation of the feared and detested army.” (William Edwardes, Under Secretary to the British Government). As Gough and Hardinge watched the Sabraon battle from a watchtower at Rhodewalla village, Hardinge reminded a British officer, Thackwell, riding past, “When you get into the entrenchment, don’t spare them”.

The cavalry charge by Sardar Sham Singh Attariwala is described by eyewitnesses. Dressed in white, he mounted his horse “Shah Kabutar” and rallying 50 cavalrymen behind him he charged HM 50th Regiment on the British left. “He was later found riddled with seven shots. Hardinge later compared his attack to that of the Light Brigade, writing that “with Sham Singh fell the bravest of the Sikh generals.”

Gough’s pre-battle order not to spare any Sikh soldiers was carried out. “Now and then a few [Sikh soldiers] turned and rushed at us with their tulwars only to be caught on our bayonets or to be shot down. The slaughter was terrible.” (Pte Joseph Hewitt 62nd Foot p 162)

In this war, the British captured a total number of 320 guns of which 80 guns “had a bigger calibre than anything seen in Europe.”

This study is a milestone achievement for Sikh historiographers in the comparatively new discipline of battlefield archaeology. It gives much new material for military analysts, historiographers, serious students of Sikh history and lay readers and tourist interested in understanding the battles in the First Anglo-Sikh War.

The book is well written. Perhaps the author could have given modern spellings for the names of some villages and places mentioned in the book.

“The First Anglo-Sikh War”
Author: Amarpal Singh Sidhu
Foreword by Professor Peter Doyle, Battlefield Archaeologist.
Amberley Publishing Plc

Hardback 240 pages
It is available at many UK stores like W H Smith and can be ordered online on most major internet book websites e.g. Amazon (UK) & Amazon (.com)

Book review by Gurmukh Singh

© Copyright Gurmukh Singh

Please acknowledge quotations from this article
Articles may be published subject to prior approval by the author

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