The Second Anglo-Sikh War, by Amarpal Singh, Amberley Publishing, Stroud, United Kingdom, 2016, $42
Amarpal Singh’s first book, The First Anglo-Sikh War (2010), appeared to general acclaim. He follows up with this companion volume, described as “the warts-and-all story of the conflict that led to the demise of the Sikh empire,” the last independent power in India. Indeed, the conflict was more than that, for British rule extended all the way to the Khyber Pass.
The slaying of two young and supremely inexperienced British officers, Patrick Alexander Vans Agnew and William Andrew Anderson, sent with a pitifully small escort in April 1848 to take possession of the city of Multan, sparked the unexpected war between the East India Co. and the Sikh empire. As the governor general, when writing to the Duke of Wellington in September 1838, related, “These Sikhs fight, as we know, well and long behind walls and guns.” And so it proved.
Commanded by Field Marshal Sir Hugh Gough, the British pursued a series of battles in which the outcome was always in doubt. At Ramnuggar in November, Sher Singh, having skillfully used every advantage of ground, kept his main positions intact, boosting the morale of his army. At Chillianwala, where 2,000 years earlier Alexander the Great had faced the Punjab ruler Porus, the opposing forces met on January 13, at the end of which Gough boasted, “Victory was complete as to the total overthrow of the enemy.”
Not quite, for one final, epic victory was required, at Gujrat on February 21. Gough recalled the cannonade there as the most magnificent he had ever witnessed, and as terrible in its effect. One old artilleryman, the sole Sikh survivor of a battery whose eight guns had been destroyed, turned toward the advancing British troops, rendered a profound salaam, then walked away, the cheers of his foes ringing in his ears.
It was an epic day, the end to an epic war that decided the near-term future of the Punjab. In its aftermath Sher Singh agreed to British terms for surrender, his army finally laying down its arms and disbanding in mid-March.