British Empire Books

The First and Second Sikh Wars
An Official British Army History

AuthorReginald George Burton
PublisherWestholme Publshing

Westholme Publshing have reissued a fascinating book about the Sikh Wars from 1845 to 1849 where Britain found itself challenged by the formidable Sikh army known as the Khalsa. I say Britain, but of course India was still technically run by the East India Company at this time - although the British Government had placed many restrictions and responsibilities upon the Company by this time. So despite the fact that the subheading of the book is 'An Official British Army History' it is more accurately an East India Company history. Crown regiments were indeed supplemented to operations in India and were often at the vanguard of any action but the bulk of the army was drawn from the sub-continent itself. In this case, the Sikh run state of Punjab lay on the border of the Bengal Presidency of the East India Company and so it would be this Bengal Presidency Army that was to be responsible for fighting the Khalsa.

The Khalsa was a surprisingly modern Europeanesque army. It had been built up over many years by its ruler Ranjit Singh. This warrior state spent lavishly on its infrastructure and equipment. Modern artillery, European advisers, a plentiful supply of muskets and a proud warrior ethic would turn this army into a formidable war machine. In many ways too formidable for its own good as far as the East India Company was concerned. The Company would feel nervous about its borders with such a large, independent and powerful army so close to them. In many ways, they would be glad of an opportunity to remove such a threat from its borders. The issue would become more serious still after the death of the strong leader Ranjit Singh. Power passed to a succession of weak leaders who were to be dominated or intimidated by the Khalsa. The Khalsa were equally arrogant of their own position and abilities. The stage would be set for a mighty clash.

This is the backdrop to the book written by Reginald George Burton. It was originally published in 1911 at Simla. This was actually shortly after the amalgamation of the three Presidency (Bengal, Bombay and Madras) armies into a united Indian Army. So the book would have been written as something of a text book for a new generation of Indian army officers. It is important to understand this point in order to appreciate the style and layout of the book. It is faithfully reproduced down to the fonts, layouts, maps and even the occasional typographical errors. This is in no way a criticism, the layout and organisation of the book is simplicity and clarity itself. It is very easy to find your way around the book, it has clear section headings, great tables detailing troops and units involved and a great collection of appendices that go so far as to tell you precise (and I mean precise) casualties down to each and every unit.

Reginald George Burton's text book approach does have its limitations. As I have inferred, the book offers great detail about all the significant actions from the first shots after crossing the River Sutlej to the final defeat of the Khalsa at Gujerat some four years later. It is a great book for the minutiae of troop movements, tactics employed, equipment utilised and virtually all details of a tactical nature. His summaries of the course of the battles is exemplary making great use of contemporary eyewitness accounts - at least from the British side. Burton's omission is the wider political and strategic context of the actions. He is obviously looking at the conflict through the prism of the British forces employed and why they were successful, or unsuccessful in various actions. He has not concerned himself in any significant way with the motives behind the actions or the rights and wrongs of conflict as a whole. His is a matter of fact narrative that focusses on the events at the micro level. Fortunately for anyone who buys this reissued book, this major weakness is more than ably compensated for by the fine introduction by Jon Coulston of St Andrews University.

Jon Coulston has written a superb overview of the events leading up to the war, the political machinations behind the scenes and evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the British and Sikh forces. It gives the grand strategic overviews and places the action fully in its historical context. In short, it more than compensates for Burton's limitations. I certainly would not embark on reading Burton's book without having read Coulston's introduction and in fact, I found myself frequently turning back to Coulston's words to remind myself of the significance of parts of Burton's narrative. This succinct introduction is a powerful reason to buy this Westholme reprint rather than trying to locate an original version of the book. It illustrates that you can take a classic text and still add to the value of the book in itself.

Buy this book at: Amazon

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by Stephen Luscombe