The First Anglo-Sikh War 1845-46 – the betrayal of the Khalsa, David Smith

The First Anglo-Sikh War 1845-46 – the betrayal of the Khalsa, David Smith

The First Anglo-Sikh War was a result of the increasing levels of instability in the Sikh Empire after the death of its founder, the great Ranjit Singh. During the almost four decades of his reign he had been able to control the army he had used to conquer the independent Sikh powers, but after his death that army continued to expand, and the failure of his heirs to provide stable government meant that it became increasingly unruly. By the mid 1840s a clash between the Sikhs and the British East India company became increasingly likely, but the resulting war

One of the most controversial issues of this was is the extent to which some of the Sikh leadership worked against their own army, or even betrayed them to the British. There is clear evidence that this was true for some of the leaders (one in particular went as far as asking for orders from the British!), but not all. In other cases the assumption is that betrayal was the only possible reason for the poor performance of many of the leaders. However there is an alternative view, which is that some of the leaders were either incompetent or simply too afraid of their own troops to issue firm orders. This book very firmly supports the first view, so the poor performance of almost all of the Sikh generals is explains by treachery. One weakness in this argument is that even here the author has to admit that one of the commanders was loyal but incompetent. One could also argue that Gulab Singh, who refused to commit his troops to the fighting, had a legitimate reason to oppose the Sikh leadership, having fought against the Sikh conquest of his homeland in 1808. This book firmly follows the betrayal line, and views it as the only example of a war where both side’s command wanted to see the same army defeated!

Whatever the truth of this issue might be, there is no doubt that this conflict saw poor leadership on both sides. Sir Hugh Gough, the British commander-in-chief, repeatedly failed to take advantage of the poor positions taken up by the Sikhs and the inept or treacherous performance of their commanders and instead launched costly frontal assaults with tired troops. To add to the confusion the Governor General of India, Sir Henry Hardinge, offered to serve as Gough’s second in command, but on occasion used his authority as Governor General to issue orders to Gough.

We get a good examination of the two armies, both of which were rather complex organisations with several different types of troops. The account of the campaign is nice and clear, and makes it clear how often the British came close to defeat, only to be handed victory by poor Sikh leadership (for whatever reason). On the British side General Harry Smith emerges as the most competent of the leaders, while on the Sikh side the responsibility for the hard fought nature of the battles clearly lies with the troops themselves and not their leaders.

This is an interesting account of a short but controversial war, and one which still has consequences today as it saw the restoration of an independent state of Jammu and Kasmir which survived until the British left India, and whose fate since then has been tied up in the clashes between India and Pakestan.

Origins of the Campaign
Opposing Commanders
Opposing Forces
Opposing Plans
The Campaign
The Battlefields Today

Author: David Smith
Edition: Paperback
Pages: 96
Publisher: Osprey
Year: 2019

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