Two wars—two volumes, combined into one essential first hand account of the British cavalry in India
Readers interested in the military history of British India during the 19th century will discover an entertaining guide in the author of this book, Daniel Mackinnon, an officer of H. M. 16th (The Queen’s) Lancers. Mackinnon’s good humoured, informed and philosophical personality shines through his personable narrative, revealing him to be a far thinking, humane and modern man. This makes his assessment of his experiences in the First Afghan War—as the British sought to place the puppet Shah Shuja on the throne of that inhospitable country—highly informative for the contemporary student of the region. Tellingly, Mackinnon understood how potentially dangerous the policy he was in Afghanistan to enforce was, he empathised with the Afghan people and could foresee perils inherent in an occupation of the region which hold good to the present day. The author also takes the reader on campaign with a renowned cavalry regiment with all the detail of camp, march, skirmish and battlefield that could be required by the military history student or enthusiast. Originally published in two volumes (combined in this Leonaur edition for good value), Mackinnon’s narrative continues, to tell of his part in the First Sikh War, which all but broke the power the sub-continent’s ‘super-power,’ Runjeet Singh, had forged into being and began the process by which the Punjab would finally be conquered and absorbed into the British Empire. Of course, we follow Mackinnon in company of Sir Harry Smith on campaign towards and throughout the famous battle at Aliwal, where the 16th (The Queen’s) Lancers won undying fame as they charged and broke the ‘squares’ of Sikh regular infantry. An excellent and essential account that is highly recommended.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
Just before these operations had taken place, on the extreme left of the British line, the right wing of the 16th Lancers, having stood exposed to the fire of a galling battery in their direct front, were advanced to the attack under the directions of their gallant leader Major J. R. Smyth, commanding the regiment. The two squadrons, moving forward in compact and beautiful order, charged home, and captured every gun under a storm of fire, for the Sikh artillerymen and musketeers stood their ground and fought with desperate bravery and resolution. Venting their unconquerable hatred in savage yells of abuse, the swarthy warriors cast away their discharged muskets, and rushed sword in hand, to meet their abhorred opponents, preferring death to retreat; but no efforts of despair could now restore the day to the Khalsas, for their line had been doubled back and penetrated in several places, and the greater part of their artillery captured or abandoned.<br>
The Khalsa army, hurled from the ridge on which they had taken up their position, now directed their retreat on the nearest fords of the Sutlej below the entrenched camp.<br>
Sir Harry Smith, ordering the artillery forward, and still keeping his forces in compact order, descended from the ridge towards the retreating enemy, saluted by the deafening cheers of each regiment as the gallant and victorious general rode past them. One such day is worth years of repose and inactivity to the soldier, and Aliwal has inscribed the name of Sir Harry Smith on the deathless scroll of British conquerors.<br>
The Sikh general had conducted his retreat with such precipitation, that when the British forces approached the bank of the river the greater part of the Sikh army had crossed, though many, losing the fords or trampled by the cavalry, had been swept down the Sutlej and drowned.<br>
A few shots were fired, on our advance, from some pieces of cannon on our side of the river, but they were the last those guns were destined to fire against the British Army, as the enemy were compelled to abandon them, and provide for their own safety on the further shore.<br>
Our artillery, having formed on the bank, opened a fire of shrapnel on the retreating masses upon the farther shore, who soon dispersed, some taking refuge in villages near the river, and others directing their retreat towards the fortress of Philore, which is nearly opposite Loodiana.<br>
As the sun sunk beneath the horizon, the whole British force, drawn up in line on the bank of the Sutlej, rested on their arms for the first time since the morning’s dawn had lighted their path to victory.<br>
The enemy’s deserted camp on the river, protected by a semicircular entrenchment, had long been in the hands of our native cavalry, and when our brigade arrived at their bivouac, at nightfall, it was found most effectually stripped,4 and I did not hear of any of the Buddewal sufferers recovering as much as. a stable jacket from the wreck. A few books and other trifles of which the Sikhs could make no use, found their way back to the original proprietors; but the newspaper-report, that we had enriched ourselves with Sikh precious stones and metals is, unfortunately, quite devoid of foundation. Those who had carried away any Sikh metals usually found them more troublesome than useful.<br>
Camels, laden with tents, strayed in different directions over the plain; but most of them were furnished with owners in the course of the night, although our camp followers remained huddled together in their den of safety at Buddewal. Enormous quantities of ammunition had been collected in the Sikh camp, to carry on the long operations they meditated against the British forces, and the cartridges, which were packed in large wooden cases, continued to explode during the night. Large portions were collected by our parties sent out for the purpose, and, when fired, shook the earth as with an earthquake, and lit up the surrounding country, causing our horses to break loose from their pickets, when, conceiving that they had not been sufficiently worked during the day, they galloped wildly through our bivouac. The day of slaughter was certainly followed by a night of confusion; but the Sikh army had been beaten, and few in our camp gave much thought to anything beyond the exploits of the day.<br>
Covered with such fragments of tents, or Sikh horse clothing as we could lay our hands upon, or rolled in our cloaks, (the few happy men to whom Buddewal had left such a garment,) we clustered together and discussed the day’s proceedings. Most of those who had escaped unwounded were splashed with the blood of their comrades or enemies, and the field where we lay was amply spotted with ghastly looking corpses, which would have afforded valuable subjects for newspaper tales of horror; yet few, if any, of our numerous party complained of their night’s slumbers being interrupted or haunted by such apparitions.<br>
The human organ of destructiveness requires exercise for its development, and with those advantages it becomes, with many, one of the most engrossing of earthly passions. I have seen instances in many veterans of men whose eye never brightened with such radiance at any prospect as that of returning to their old gory pastime; ay, and amongst that number were examples of warm-heartedness and benevolence, which it would puzzle the metaphysician to reconcile with their destructive propensities. Ambition is perhaps the best cause or palliative for these inconsistencies; and I trust, from the examples above alluded to, it may be deduced that war does not necessarily harden the heart, though it nourishes the ambition of its votary. I will never admit that worldly distinction is sought invariably on selfish motives; for the gratification of one who is prized more than life is a sufficient inducement, and I do not envy the soldier without some such guiding star.