And I was giving you a ringside view of how strategic decisions were taken by high commands of both the sides in the First Anglo-Sikh War, in the words of that “redoubtable” soldier, Harry Flashman. We had got to the point he was ensconced with Lal Singh, the wazir of the Khalsa armies invading British India. Now read on… It is Lal Singh who begins by reciting his plaint.
~~ “Why, that we must wait! What else can I say, man? But we can’t wait forever! They keep telling me that Ferozepore can be plucked like a ripe fruit, if I will but give the word! And how can I answer them? How can I justify delay? I don’t know!” He seized me by the wrist, pleading. “You are a soldier – you can think of reasons! What shall I tell them?”
I hadn’t reckoned on this. I’d always thought myself God’s own original coward, but this fellow could have given me ten yards in the hundred, and won screaming. Well, Gardner had warned me of that, and also that Lal might have difficulty thinking of reasons for not attacking Ferozepore – but I hadn’t expected to find him at such a complete nonplus as this. The man was on the edge of hysterics, and plainly the first thing to be done was to calm his panic (before it infected me, for one thing) and find out how the land lay. I began by pointing out I was an invalid – I’d only been able to limp into his presence with the aid of a stick – and that my first need was food, drink, and a doctor to look at my ankle. That took him aback – it always does, when you remind an Oriental of his manners – and his women were summoned to bring refreshments while a little hakim over my swollen joint and said I must keep my bed for a week. What they thought, to see such a hairy gorracharra sowar treated with such consideration by their Wazir, I don’t know. Lal fretted up and down, and couldn’t wait to drive them out again, and renew his appeals for guidance.
By that time, I’d got my thoughts into some order, at least as far as his Ferozepur dilemma was concerned. There are always a hundred good reasons for doing nothing, and I’d hit on a couple – but first I must have information. I asked him how many men he had ready to march.
“At hand, twenty-two thousand cavalry – they are lying a bare mile from Ferozepore, with the enemy lines in full view, I tell you! And Littler Sahib has a bare seven thousand – only one British regiment, and the rest sepoys ready to desert to us! We know this from some who have already come over!” He gulped at his cup, his teeth chattering on the rim. “We could overrun him in an hour! Even a child can see that!”
“Have you sent messengers to him?”
“As if I would dare! Who could I trust? Already these Khalsa bastards look at me askance – let them suspect that I traffic with the enemy, and …” He rolled his eyes and flung his cup away in a passion. “And that drunken bitch in Lahore gives me no help, no orders! While she couples with her grooms, I wait to be butchered like Jawaheer -“
“Now, see here, Wazir!” says I roughly, for his whining was starting to give me the shakes. “You take hold, d’you hear? Your position ain’t all that desperate -“
“You see a way out?” quavers he, clutching at me again. “Oh, my dear friend, I knew you would not fail me! Tell me, tell me, then – and let me embrace you!”
“You keep your bloody distance,” says I. “What’s Littler doing?”
“Fortifying his lines. Yesterday he came out with his whole garrison, and we thought he meant to attack us, and held our ground. But my colonels say it was a feint to gain time, and that I must storm his trenches! Oh, God, what can I – “
“Hold on – he’s entrenched, you say? Is he still digging? Capital – you can tell your colonels he’s ming his defences!”
‘But will they believe me?” He wrung his hands. “Suppose the deserters deny it?”
To be continued….