British Empire Books

Bengal Lancer

AuthorF. Yeats-Brown
First Published1930
This Edition1984
This PublisherRichard Clay Ltd

"If united India wants us to go, we shall vanish
as the mists will vanish from the plain
of Panipat tomorrow. But, if we did, our tradition
would remain, for India never forgets..."

This is an intriguing period book, written by a British officer between 1905 and 1925. The author witnessed the Indian army's development from an old-style frontier and garrison army to one that was forced to deal with the modern rigours of a World War. The author himself manages to have an intriguingly varied military life. He starts life with the King's Royal Rifle Corps, then joins the Bengal Lancers (17th Cavalry) and finally ends up as an observer in the Royal Flying Corps (this is despite no flying experience and being short-sighted). Indeed, it is interesting to see how enthusiasm and energy is forced to give way to professionalism and seriousness as the full gravity of the world war begins to sink in. One gets the impression from this book that the pre-war Indian Army was one where the British officer could just relax and play polo and go pig-sticking to his heart's desire. The Great War changes this self-confidence and amateurism. There is a particularly interesting chapter where the author describes the collisions of the old way of fighting and the new. This takes place from the vantage point of a plane (itself part of the changing world). The author recognises that he is witnessing the passing of an era as cavalry and elan is forced to give ground to barbed wire, artillery and trenches. It is a very powerful and enlightening chapter. You can also judge that the author has lost the taste for battle when he goes back to fight on the North West Frontier in 1919. Armoured cars, machine guns and planes have single handedly wiped out the necessity for cavalry. Indeed, he chastises those officers who do not already understand this point. His military world has changed and he loses his heart to fight.

There are plenty of other things that you can take from this book. As usual, it is the asides and throw away lines that give you a powerful insight into the era. For example, when the author mentions that his unit has been posted to new barracks and that these are a three month horseback ride away. With just this one dimension to mind, one can begin to sense the scale and majesty of India. He harbours no illusions about his presence in India, whilst attempting to get a drink of water, he casually comments that 'I am hated in this kind village'. At once, one sees that his feelings towards India are not reciprocated by the population at large. The way that he justifies British presence in India is by taking up the Indian caste system and using it back on itself. He sees the British is part of the Aryan tribe, not unlike the Brahmins. These are theories that are entirely consistent with the time period, and would probably have been regarded as being even a little too forward thinking. It is interesting to see how the author begins to be mesmerised by Indian culture and religion as East meets West. He cannot have been the only British officer to have taken up Yoga and Hindu philosophy. It really is interesting to see how India managed to project such a powerful hold over her conquerors. The author ends the book by trying to link the Christian world with the Hindu one in what is a rather naive and yet touching way of bringing the cultures together. I think that you will be surprised by what you learn from this book!

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by Stephen Luscombe