The British Empire Library

The Life of a Lancer in the Wars of the Punjaub, or, Seven Years in India, 1843-50

by James Gilling

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This is a smallish book, consisting of some 170 pages, with a useful glossary, an informative introduction, Gilling's text, endnotes, a comprehensive bibliography and an index. The book is well-edited and researched. No liberties have been taken with the text, and save correcting a few obvious mistakes and modernising some old spellings, the text is unabridged. It is not always in chronological order. I find the print a bit small, and a challenge to these ancient eyes.

The illustrations are a mixed bunch, with the 9th Lancers and battle scenes excellent - some of the rest are the 'usual suspects'. The maps I found poor. There is no plan of Gujrat, or Sobraon, which would be useful in understand Gilling's description of these battles, and the Northern India map is rather sparse. Not all readers are 'old India sweats', and it would be pleasurable to follow trooper Gilling's route :Calcutta - Monghyr - Dinapore - Benares - Chunar - Allahabad - Cawnpore - Meerut - Sardhana - Kurnaul (Kamal) - Pehoah - Mudki - Ferozeshah - Arutka - Sobraon and Lahore. I prefer footnotes to endnotes, but this is a personal preference.

I'm not sure that the provision of servants made the men feel part of the ruling class, as the editor asserts - perhaps we can say 'privileged '. As we say in Punjab - 'The man with one-eye is king of the blind.' Gilling mentions the dexee - the ubiquitous dixie, cooking pot, which comes from the Persian degchi (a degcha is larger that a degchi). We meet this word in the Sikh prayer Deg Teg Fateh, literally, Deg (cooking pot) Teg (sword) Fateh (victory). Incidentally, 'Sikh' can be spelt 22 different ways, including Seek, Sicque, Seick, not to mention Shik in Bengali newspapers .

The complexity of the Sikh army can be confusing, but simply put, the Khalsa Anny was divided into two - the State Force, paid for by Maharaja Ranjit Singh, and the feudatory, or fauj-i-jaghirdari, paid for by landholders like Guiab Singh and others. Both consisted of artillery, cavalry and infantry. The State Force was again divided into regular troops, fauj-i-ain, irregular troops, fauj-i-sawari or ghorchurras, and the fort and treasury guards, fauj-i-kilajat. The Aieen Corps (mentioned on page 34, but not in the glossary) are also known as the fauj-i-ain. Jinsi means mixed, as in a mixed gun battery.

The Sikhs formed only a sixth of the Punjab population, Hindus formed half, and Muslims a third. Ranjit Singh preferred Muslim gunners, perhaps for obvious reasons while the fort guards were often hill Rajputs. Gilling states on page 71 'the lance - a weapon which before had not been so well tested by British troops - was established as the finest weapon ever used in British cavalry!' The lance is reliant on mobility. Personally I would prefer the 1796 cavalry sword, with the Scinde Horse double-barrelled carbine. Mention is made of Lieutenant Peter Lambert's grave (page 99). The last time I was there it was intact, but in very poor condition. I think our friend Gilling would just about recognise it. Trooper Gilling has an awareness and a curiosity that enlivens his writing with some diverting asides, as with his mention of those two fascinating ladies, the Rani Jindan and the Begum Sumru. Maharaja Duleep Singh went to Calcutta to meet his mother Maharani Jind Kaur, and to return with her to England, this frail old lady taking up residence in Kensington where she died on l August 1866. The Maharani found a temporary resting place at Kensal Green cemetery before being returned to India, for cremation at Nasik, with her ashes finding a home at the Samadh at Lahore.

In this time of complaining bookshelves (I know mine are), one has to select with discretion. So what has this book to offer? We have of course met Trooper Gilling before, in the 9th Lancers Regimental History by E.W. Sheppard (1939), where he is heavily quoted, which surely reinforces his significance, and isn't it wonderful to have the full text? Here we have an honest, first hand and well written account of the Anglo-Sikh wars. Further, Trooper Gilling's mobility whilst reconnoitring, presents us with a more extensive overview of the battles. The rescue of this rare book is a welcome addition to the understanding of the Sikh wars, which must be applauded.

British Empire Book
James Gilling
First Published
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2014 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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