Sahib, p.9
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       Sahib, p.9

           Richard Holmes

  He beat them again at Hyderabad in March; when they asked what terms they might be offered, he replied curtly: ‘Life and nothing more. And I want your decision before twelve o’clock, as I shall by that time have buried my dead, and given my soldiers their breakfasts. ’71 Punch magazine, in one of the two great Latin jokes of British India, maintained that he reported his success in the one-word punning telegram ‘peccavi – I have Sin[ne]d’. Like some muscular Victorian headmaster, Napier believed that the best recipe for ruling a country was ‘a good thrashing first and kindness afterwards’. When one local nobleman killed his wife and was duly condemned to death, a deputation came to protest that: ‘She was his wife, and he was angry with her.’ Napier replied: ‘Well, I am angry with him, and mean to hang him.’ He did so, and the practice of wife-murdering fell off sharply.72

  With Sind duly secured, the Gwalior campaign of 1843–44 Fsaw two victories at Maharajpore and Punniar, both distinguished by brisk British attacks on larger forces. This left the Sikhs as the only rival to the Company in the whole of the subcontinent. Originally simply a religious grouping, the Sikhs had become a powerful state under Ranjit Singh, who brought together the twelve Misls, Sikh confederacies, established his capital at Lahore and annexed both Kashmir (1819) and Peshawar (1834). Auckland and his advisers recognised that on Ranjit’s death:

  The whole country between the [Rivers] Sutlege and the Indus must become the scene of protracted and bloody civil war, only to be terminated by the interference of a third and stronger power, with an army and resource sufficiently strong to bid defiance to all hope of resistance, and that that army must be the British army and that power the British government, there can be little doubt.

  In the wake of the annexation of Sind it was unlikely that the Company would let legal quibble stand in its way: ‘The East India Company has swallowed too many camels,’ wrote Auckland’s military secretary, ‘to strain at this gnat.’73

  Ranjit ruled in the best tradition of oriental despots. He bore the insults offered him by his Akali regiments of religious extremists with indifference, ‘until they are involved in any great crime, such as robbery or murder, when he shows no mercy, and they are immediately deprived of either their noses, ears, arms or legs, according to the degree of their offence’. One man thought that it would be amusing to look into Ranjit’s zenana – the women’s quarters – from a mango tree, and was ‘in a few minutes dismissed without either ears or nose, and died in a few hours’.74 Already old and unwell, Ranjit did not improve matters by drinking ‘wine extracted from raisins, with a quantity of pearls ground to powder mixed with it … ’. This brew was:

  as strong as aquafortis, and as at his parties he always helps you himself, it is no easy matter to avoid excess. He generally, on these occasions, has two or three Hebes in the shape of the prettiest of his Cachemiri girls to attend upon himself and his guests, and gives way to every species of licentious debauchery.75

  When Ranjit died in 1839, to be accompanied to the funeral-pyre by four of his wives and seven slave girls, his eldest son took over, only to be poisoned in 1840: his own son was ‘accidentally’ killed when his elephant collided with a gateway on his way home from the funeral. Sher Singh, the army’s nominee, was head of state until his assassination in September 1843. Dalip Singh, Ranjit’s youngest son, then ascended the throne, though power lay in the hands of his mother, the Maharani Jandin. She was described by Sir Henry Hardinge, who replaced Ellenborough as governor-general, as ‘a handsome debauched woman of thirty-three, very indiscriminate in her affections, an eater of opium’.76

  But it is more true to say that, while this lethal dynastic merry-go-round spun on, the real power was the Khalsa, the Sikh army. Ranjit had created the most powerful native force in India by welding together disparate elements, including Sikhs, Hindus and Moslems, and using foreign military experts to train them. In 1822 two Napoleonic veterans, Jean François Allard and Jean Baptiste Ventura, brought infantry and cavalry training manuals with them, and Henri Court, another Frenchmen, cast guns at Lahore arsenal and trained some of Ranjit’s gunners. Although many foreigners left, or were dismissed, in the disturbances following Ranjit’s death, as late as 1844 there were twelve Frenchmen, four Italians, one Prussian, two Greeks, seven Eurasians, one Scotsman, three Englishmen, three Germans, two Spaniards and a solitary Russian attached to his forces.

  Perhaps the most spectacular of the whole polyglot crew was Paolo di Avitabile, a tough Italian soldier of fortune who went up to govern Peshawar. Captain Osborne, who breakfasted with some of them, thought that ‘they do not seem very fond of his [Ranjit’s] service, which is not to be wondered at, for they are both badly and irregularly paid, and treated with little respect or confidence’.77 By the time Ranjit died his regular army numbered some 70,000 horse and foot, supported by over 300 cannon, cast in six arsenals. Some of these were good copies of Mughal pieces, and others were modelled on cannon presented to Ranjit by the East India Company.78 In addition to its regular troops, the Khalsa had irregular gorchurra cavalry and perhaps 3,000 Akali religious zealots.

  But if the Khalsa, with its smart uniforms and well-drilled infantry, looked like a European army, it did not behave like one. Regiments had all-ranks committees called panchaychats, which met to form an army council most concerned with that thing so dear to soldiers’ hearts: substantial and regular pay. Hardinge, a high-minded and paternalistic Tory, would have avoided involvement in the Punjab if he could, for he had ambitious social and economic projects and was anxious to avoid another ‘Sind scrape’. However, some Sikhs favoured a plundering raid across the Sutlej, and were encouraged by the Maharani Jandin, because this would at least get the Khalsa out of Lahore. When a Sikh emissary tried to persuade some of the sepoy garrison of Ferozepur to desert, Hardinge did not rise to the bait, but he moved more troops to the frontier and travelled there himself. He reached Ambala on 3 December 1845 to hear that the Sikhs had crossed the Sutlej, violating the provisions of their 1809 treaty with the British: he declared war at once.

  The short but bloody campaign that followed was complicated not only by the stormy relationship between Hardinge and his commander in chief, Sir Hugh Gough, but by the fact that Tej Singh and Lal Singh, the two chief Sikh commanders, appointed by the army council on the outbreak of war, believed that the British would triumph and were anxious to emerge on the winning side. Hardinge’s political agent at Lahore, the energetic Major George Broadfoot, supplied intelligence that was often contradictory, but was secretly and independently in touch with both Tej and Lal Singh. Because of Hardinge’s reluctance to be seen to provoke the Sikhs the British were weak in numbers; and they were not helped by Gough’s conviction that the Sikhs, what Hardinge had called ‘the bravest and most warlike and most disruptive enemy in Asia’, could be viewed as a traditional Indian army, strong in numbers but weak in cohesion.

  On 18 December the Khalsa pushed hesitantly forward to catch Gough on the march at Mudki. Gough rallied, formed up on difficult ground and attacked the Sikhs, but the battle ended inconclusively, with the Sikhs falling back on their main position at Ferozeshah. Gough attacked them there on the 21st, and after a terrible day’s fighting, spent a cold night on the field. Things looked so bleak that Hardinge had his state papers burnt, sent Napoleon’s sword (a present from Wellington) for safe-keeping and ordered Prince Waldemar of Prussia, ‘who had accompanied the army as an amateur’, to a place of safety. Gough was reinforced by Harry Smith’s division before dawn on the 22nd, but it took another day’s fighting to make the Sikhs draw off.

  Even then they might have won, for fresh Sikh troops appeared when the British were at their last gasp. Gough later said that while he had no doubt about offering battle on the 22nd – ‘my determination is taken rather to leave my bones to bleach honourably at Ferozeshah than they should rot dishonourably at Ferozepore’ – the appearance of this new force briefly dismayed him:

  We had not a shot with our guns, and our Cavalry Ho
rses were thoroughly done up. For a moment I felt a regret (and I deeply deplore my want of confidence in Him who never failed me nor forsook me) as each passing shot left me on horseback. But it was only for a moment, and Hugh Gough was himself again.79

  Gough’s forces suffered 2,415 casualties, and it was a striking fact that although his native regiments easily outnumbered his British, 1,207 of those hit were Europeans. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lawrence believed that this was in part a legacy of Afghanistan, where ‘by far our worse loss was the confidence of our native soldiery’.80 Sita Ram – using the word Sirkar, for ‘state, government, supreme authority’ – would have concurred:

  It was well known during the Afghan War the Sirkar itself had been afraid. It had ordered the artillery to fire more that year to remind the people of Delhi of its power. But the disasters in Kabul went a long way towards showing that the Sirkar was not so invincible as had always been supposed.81

  Hardinge himself thought that: ‘The British infantry as usual carried the day. I can’t say I admire sepoy fighting.’82 When his men cheered Hardinge and Gough after the battle, one honest commanding officer said: ‘Sir, these cheers of my men are not worth having; only a few of the regiment were with me during the night.’83 And perhaps Indian reluctance was caused by more than the Company’s bruised iqbal or their awareness of the fighting quality of the Sikhs. There was a feeling that the Sikhs were the last independent power in India: if the Company beat them, then it would have the whole of the subcontinent.

  Gough was reinforced after Ferozeshah, and while he paused to regroup he sent Harry Smith off to deal with a large Sikh detachment. Smith found them at Aliwal, where he won what he called a ‘stand-up, gentlemanlike battle, a mixing of all arms and laying-on, carrying everything before us by weight of attack and combination, all hands at work from one end of the field to the other’.84 The Sikh force included some of Avitabile’s best-trained battalions, who formed equilateral triangles – their equivalent of squares – when charged by HM’s 16th Lancers. Corporal F. B. Cowtan wrote that his troop of lancers

  moved on like a flash of lightning, clearing everything before us, guns, cavalry and infantry. As for myself, I went through cavalry and infantry squares repeatedly. At the first charge I dismounted two cavalry men, and on retiring we passed through a square of infantry, and I left three on the ground killed or wounded … My comrade on my left, just as we cheered before charging, had his heart torn from his side by a cannon-ball, but my heart sickens at the recollection of what I witnessed that day. The killed and wounded in my squadron alone was 42.

  After the first charge self-preservation was a grand thing, and the love of life made us look sharp, and their great numbers required all our vigilance. Our lances seemed to paralyse them altogether, and you may be sure we did not give them time to recover themselves. There was no quarter given or taken. We did spare a good many at first, but the rascals afterwards took their preservers’ lives, so we received orders to finish everyone with arms.85

  When he heard of Smith’s victory, which did so much to restore sepoy confidence, Gough fell on his knees to thank God, and then moved on to attack the Sikh camp at Sobraon. He took it, as we have seen, on 10 February 1846, and the Sikhs asked for terms. By now the European portion of Gough’s force had been reduced, by battle casualties and sickness, and Hardinge’s terms were relatively generous: the Sikhs lost some territory, including Kashmir, and agreed to reduce the size of their army. This would avoid outright annexation, or running the Punjab as a ‘subsidiary state’ with the Company’s troops helping local landlords extract taxes from their peasants. Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lawrence was appointed resident at the court of Dalip Singh (whose mother was regent), and British agents were established in other major towns. There was an air of genuine optimism. Lieutenant Herbert Edwardes, one of the great soldier-administrators of the era, recalled:

  What days those were! How Henry Lawrence would send us off to great distances: Edwardes to Bannu, Nicholson to Peshawar, Abbot to Hazara, Lumsden somewhere else, etc, giving us a tract of country as big as most of England, and giving us no more helpful directions than these, ‘Settle the country, make the people happy, and take care there are no rows’.86

  But there were rows aplenty. The Company sold Kashmir to Gulab Singh for £3 million, but its Sikh governor refused to give it up until British troops arrived. It was discovered that the regent and her adviser, Lal Singh, were involved in the plot, and both were removed from power and replaced by a Council of Regency. Hardinge, meanwhile, had reduced the native army by 50,000 men to save money, despite furious protests from Gough, and then returned to England, being replaced by the Earl of Dalhousie. No sooner was Dalhousie installed in Calcutta than war once more flared up in the Punjab. Two British officials were sent as resident magistrates to the fortress city of Multan, accompanied by Khan Singh, the city’s new governor. Mulraj, the outgoing governor, a man with a reputation for honesty, received them courteously. But both were attacked and badly wounded by the garrison, and were then butchered the following day, showing, at the last, a courage that was to inflame their countrymen.

  It is impossible to be certain of Mulraj’s role: he was probably a decent but weak man overtaken by events. However, over the months that followed Multan became a magnet for disaffected Sikh zamindars and dismissed officials, out-of-work soldiers, and adventurers like the Baluchis and Pathans encountered by Major James Abbot, ‘who, at all times, prefer military service to agriculture’. In September an attack on Multan by Major General Whish failed, and there was a general rising across much of the Punjab. Dalhousie’s nerve did not fail him, and his directive to Gough, written on 8 October 1848, deserved quoting as an example of one of the clearest statements of intent that a military commander could receive:

  As long as there is a shot or shell in Indian arsenals, or a finger left that can pull a trigger, I will never desist from operations at Mooltan, until the place is taken and the leader and his force ground if possible into powder … I have therefore to request that Your Lordship will put forth all your energies, and have recourse to all the resources which the Government of India has at their command, to accomplish this object promptly, fully and finally.

  Gough was permitted to fight the Sikhs elsewhere if he thought it necessary, but he was reminded that Multan and its defenders ‘are the first and prime objects of our attention now’.87

  Multan was taken by storm in January 1849, its capture accompanied by a spree of looting and killing which so often disfigured the aftermath of an assault. Captain John Clark Kennedy of HM’s 18th Foot, serving on Major General Whish’s staff, described how bloody retribution was followed by ritual commemoration:

  The bodies of the two political officers, [Mr Patrick Alexander Vans] Agnew and [Lieutenant William] Anderson, who had been murdered by Mulraj’s men, were now disinterred from their graves outside the city and carried back into it, not through the gate by which they had entered and through which they had been driven out in ignominy and contempt but over the ruins of massive works which had crumbled into dust under the guns of their fellow countrymen. Their brother officers stood round their graves. An English chaplain performed the last rites. The British flag was flying over the highest bastion and the farewell volleys, echoing through the ruins of the citadel, must have reached the ears of Mulraj himself, a prisoner in our camp.

  Mulraj was taken to Lahore, court-martialled, found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hanged but, seen as ‘the victim of circumstances’, was banished for life.88

  While operations against Multan were ongoing, Gough fought a scrambling cavalry battle at Ramnagar, and crossed the Chenab. But an attempt to engage the Sikh army on favourable terms miscarried, probably because of poor staff-work. On 13 January 1849 he went head-on at a strong Sikh position in close country at Chillianwalla, where one of his battalions, HM’s 24th, took the battery to its front ‘without a shot being fired by the Regiment or a musquet taken from the shoulder
, which even Gough described as ‘an act of madness’.89 It could not hold the ground that it had captured, and was driven back with the appalling loss of fourteen officers killed and nine severely wounded; 231 men killed and 266 wounded.90 To make matters worse, a cavalry brigade, with two experienced regiments in it, fell victim to an almost inexplicable panic. At the end of a difficult and depressing day Gough had to fall back to Chillianwalla for water, abandoning not only the captured Sikh guns but also four of his own.

  Gough’s bulldog approach had already aroused criticism, and the losses of Chillianwalla, over 2,300 in all, provoked a storm of protest in both India and Britain. Dalhousie wrote that Gough’s conduct was beneath the criticism of even a militia officer like himself, and the British government decided to replace Gough with Napier. ‘If you won’t go, I must,’ declared the Duke of Wellington. But Gough had settled matters before Napier arrived. On 21 February he attacked the Sikhs at Gujarat, and this time he did not send his infantry in until his gunners had done their work properly. The Sikhs were decisively beaten for a loss of only 800 British casualties. The pursuit rolled on to Rawalpindi on 14 March and Peshawar on the 21st. Gough left the country accorded his old honours as commander in chief, promoted to a viscountcy and given the thanks of Parliament. Even the satirical magazine Punch managed an apology:

  Having violently abused Lord Gough for losing the day at Chilianwalla, Punch unhesitatingly glorifies him for winning the fight at Gujerat. When Lord Gough met with a reverse, Punch set him down as an incompetent octogenarian; now that he has been fortunate, Punch believes him to be a gallant veteran; for Mr Punch, like many other people, of course looks merely to results; and rates as his only criterion of merit, success.

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