Tuesday, 29 March 2016
Bright Eyes of Danger: An Account of the Anglo-Sikh Wars 1845-1849 - Bill Whitburn
Author: Bill Whitburn
This book is a tale of internal strife amongst the Sikh population fed by greed, ambition, nationalism and duplicity and a mixture of international concern and jingoism on the part of the British. Its many actors include Afghans, foreign mercenaries from such diverse places as France and the United States, Honourable East India Company (HEIC) company soldiers and British Line Units as well as a host of individuals that were appearing on the international stage for the first time and who would go on to cement their reputations as house hold names during the Mutiny.
Whitburn’s book covers the international and local situation leading up to the wars, a comprehensive analysis of the two wars themselves and the immediate and long term effects of the conflicts. It would have been beneficial to have had a synopsis of the main characters at the front of the book (he does do this for local terminology and acronyms) as the rogues gallery is extensive and confusing. Nevertheless, he has a good eye for detail and has obviously done his research into not only the battles themselves but also the behind the scenes machinations between the British government and the HEIC. It is shocking the degree to which incompetence was tolerated by the British in their senior commanders and the sense that war was seen much more as ‘sport’ as opposed to a deadly business. It was also very noteworthy to read of the professionalism and competence of the Sikh army commanders and the degree of respect that built up between the adversaries. One is additionally struck by the endurance and capacity of the soldiers themselves to overcome deprivation and fatigue in the execution of their duties.
Notwithstanding the emphasis on the combat operations of the wars, Whitburn also discusses the fascinating world of civil/military relations in the context of the unique workings of the HEIC and its interactions at the strategic level between the Board of Governors and the British Government as well as at the operational level between the civilian and military offices within India itself. These alone make for fascinating reading and discussion.
His research is solid and the commentary reads well although he has a tendency to insert narrative that, while intended to add emphasis, tends rather to distract from the flow. Additionally, I found the maps to be of little value being overly simplistic with not enough detail. Finally, a majority of the photographs included were of remarkably poor quality which was surprising. In fairness, these are sidebar issues which taken as a whole are not critical to the overall impact of the book; they are more of a disappointment.
Whitburn has provided a very solid bibliography and rendition of a period of history lost, to a great extent, in the shadow of the Indian Mutiny. Despite the shortfalls, the book is an enjoyable and educational read that represents a balanced and nuanced view of the adversaries and the climate within which they operated.