The further Duke of Wellington first made his name as a commander in India, most famously winning one of his hardest fought battles at Assaye. The aim of this book is to put Wellington’s time in India in its context, looking at how his campaigns fitted into the overall pattern of British activity on the sub-continent during his years in the east.
The book covers a key period in the expansion of British power in India. In a few years the British defeated Tipu Sultan, ended the threat from Mysore in the south, and then won a series of victories over the Marathas, expanding their influence in the north. Arthur Wellesley wasn’t actually the British commander-in-chief during this period, but he was the key figure in the defeat of Tipu Sultan, and commanded one of the two main armies during the Maratha War. His campaigns and battles are examined in some detail, but so are those of General Lake (the actual commander-in-chief). Several more minor campaigns also get attention.
This is an interesting period, in which the British were simply one amongst several powers in India (and not obviously the most powerful) and often relied on Indian allies. They were also much more integrated into Indian society than would be the case for most of British rule, relying on Indian ‘spies’, Indian supply chains and of course large numbers of Indian troops – the Sepoys. We do get a good feel of that world, and can understand the appeal of it for many of the British involved in these campaigns.
In places this does feel like a rather old fashioned book (or perhaps a rather old fashioned subject). Comments about minor campaigns that ‘deserve to be better known’ feel a bit out of place. Ironically part of this is because of the extensive use of eyewitness accounts of the fighting, almost all of which come from British sources (the one exception being the possible autobiography of a Sepoy, but even that might actually have been written by the British officer who claimed to have translated it).
Maratha sources clearly exist, as they are mentioned from time to time, but nowhere near often enough. The extensive list of printed primary sources only includes two Indian sources. This is the one weakness of this book – some direct quotes from these Maratha sources would have helped balance the text.
That does lead into one of the book’s great strengths – the extensive use of eyewitness accounts, not just from Wellington’s forces but from most of the British armies operating during this period. As a result we get a clear image of the varied experiences of British troops in these wars, as well as the varied attitudes of individuals to their Indian allies and opponents. The material on the campaigns is also strong, with good analyses of the various British commanders and their performances. This is a useful addition to the literature on Wellington in particular, giving us a better idea of the background to his time in India than those books that just focus on Wellington.
I - Armies
1 – The Most Succesful Army in the World? The British Forces in India 1798-1805
2 – A House of Cards: Britain’s Enemies in India 1798-1805
II – Campaigns
3 – Dangerous Consequences: Mysore 1799
4 – Little Wars: Dhoondiah Waugh, the Polygar Uprisings, and the Restoration of the Peshwa 1799-1803
5 – The Greatest Gamble: War in the Deccan 1803: Admednuggar and Assaye
6 – Marching to Victory: War in the Deccan 1803: Argaum and Gawilghur
7 – A River of Blood: War in Hindustan 1803: Delhi and Laswari
8 – An Elusive Enemy: The War against Holkar 1804-1805
III – Soldiers
9 – We dread not the Mahrattas but the Sun: Voyage and Arrival
10 – In Slow and Quick Time: Life in the Garrison
11 – Hand to Hand: In Action
12 – Sometimes Bliss and Sometimes Woe: Sepoys
13 – Scarcely a Good Tempered Man: Doctors, Hospitals and Disease
Author: Martin R. Howard
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military