How some command decisions of the First Anglo-Sikh War were taken…. In Flashman’s words III

And continuing the account of how Harry Flashman advising Lal Singh, the Wazir of the Khalsa host invading British India, to fight his battles to lose….

~~~~ “Why should you trust deserting sepoys? How d’ye know Littler hasn’t sent em to give you false reports of his strength, eh? To lure you into attacking him? Ferozepore’s a ripe fruit, is it? Come, raja, you know the British -foxy bastards, every one of us! Deuced odd, ain’t it, that we’ve left a weak garrison, cut off, just asking to be attacked, what?

He stared wide-eyed. “Is this true?”

“I doubt it – but you don’t know that,” says I, warming to my work.“Anyway, it’s a dam’ good reason to give your colonels not to attack headlong. Now then, what force has Tej Singh, and where?”

“Thirty thousand infantry, with heavy guns, behind us along the river.” He shuddered. “Thank God I have only light artillery – with heavy pieces I should have no excuse for blowing Littler’s position to rubble!”

“Never mind Littler! What news of Gough?”

“Two days he was at Lutwalla, a hundred miles away! He will be here in two days – but word is that he has scarcely ten thousand men, only half of them British! If he comes on, we are sure to defeat him!” He was almost crying, wrenching his beard net and trembling like a fever case. “What can I do to prevent it? Even if I give reasons for not taking Ferozepore, I cannot avoid battle with the Jangi lat! Help me, Flashman bahadur! Tell me what I must do!”

Well, this was a real facer, if you like. Gardner, for all his misgivings about Lal, had been sure he and Tej would have some scheme for leading their army to destruction – that was what I was here for, damnit, to carry their plans to Gough! And it was plain as a pikestaff that they hadn’t any. And Lal expected me, a junior officer, to plot his own defeat for him. And as I shared at that shivering, helpless clown, it came to me with awful clarity that if I didn’t, no one else would.

It ain’t the kind of problem you meet everyday. I doubt if it’s been ever been posed at Staff College…. “Now then, Mr Flashman, you command an army fifty thousand strong, with heavy guns, well supplied, their lines of communication protected by an excellent river. Against you is a force of only ten thousand, with light guns, exhausted after a week’s forced marching, short of food and fodder and damned near dying of thirst. Now then, sir, answer directly, no hedging – how do you lose, hey? Come, come, you’ve just given excellent reasons for not taking a town that’s lying at your mercy? This should be child’s play to a man with your God-given gift of catastrophe! Well, sir?”

Lal was gibbering at me – his eyes full of terrified entreaty – and I knew that if I wavered now it would be all up with him. He’d break, and his colonels would either hang or depose him, and put a decent soldier in his place – the very thing that Gardner had feared. And that would be the end of Gough’s advancing force, and perhaps the war, and British India. And no doubt, of me. But iof I could rally this spineless wreck, and think of some plan that would satisfy his colonels and at the same time bring the Khalsa to destruction… Aye, just so.

To gain time, I asked for a map, and he pawed through his gear and produced a splendid illuminated document with all the forts in red and the rivers in turquoise, and little bearded wallahs with tulwars chasing each other round the margin on elephants. I studied it, trying to think, and gripping my belt to keep my hand from trembling.

I told you I didn’t know much about war, in those days. Tactically, I was a novice who could bungle a section flanking movement with the worst of them – but strategy’s another matter. At the simplest, it’s mere common sense – and if the First Sikh War was anything, it was simple, thank God. Also, strategy seldom involves your own neck. So I conned the map, weighing the facts that Lal had given me, and applied the age-old laws that you learn in the school playground.

To be continued…..

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