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

Continuing Flashman’s account of the First Anglo-Sikh War, we now look at how the British high command took its decisions, in this case prior to the Battle of Ferozeshah, (Dec 21-22, 1845).

~~ At all events, I was reclining at my dooli in the shade, discussing beef and hardtack and coughing contentedly over my cheroot. admiring the view of our army deployed across my front and feeling patriotic, when there was a commotion fifty yards off, where the HQ staff were at breakfast – Hardinge trying to hog the marmalade again, thinks I, but when I peeped out, here was the man himself striding towards my grove, looking stern, and five yards behind, Paddy Gough with his white coat flapping and bright murder in his eyes. Hardinge stops just inside the grove and says: “Well, Sir Hugh?”

“Well, indeed, Sorr Hinry!” cries Paddy, Irish with fury. “I’ll tell ye again, you’re lookin’ at the foinest victory that was ever won in India, bigad, an’ -“

“And I tell you, Sir Hugh, it is not to be thought of! Why, you are outnumbered two to one in men, and even more in cannon – and they are in cover, sir!” 

“And don’t I know that, then? I tell ye still, I’ll put Ferozeshah in your hand by noon! Dear man, our infantry aren’t Portuguese!”

This was a dig at Hardinge, who’d served with the Portugoosers in the Peninsula. His tone was freezing as he replied: “I cannot entertain it. You must wait for Littler to come up.”

“An’  if I wait that long, sure’n the rabbits’ll be runnin’ through Ferozeshah! ‘Tis the shortest day o’ the year, man! And will ye tell me, plain now – who commands this army?”

“You do!” snaps Hardinge.

“And did ye not offer me your services, as a soldier, in whutsoivver capacity, now?  Ye did! And I accepted, gratefully! But it seems ye won’t take my orders -“

“In the field, sir, I shall obey you implicitly! But as Governor-General I shall, if necessary, exert my civil authority over the Commander-in-Chief. And I will not hazard the army in such a risk as this! Oh, my dear Sir Hugh,” he went on, trying to smooth things, but Paddy wasn’t home.

“In short, Sorr Hinry, ye’re questionin’ my military judgment!”

“As to that, Sir Hugh, I have been a soldier as long as you -“

“I know it! I know also ye haven’t smelt powder since Waterloo, an’ all the staff college lectures in creation don’t make a battlefield general! So, now!”

Hardinge was a staff college man; Paddy, you may suspect, was not.

“This is unseemly, sir!” says Hardinge. “Our opinions differ. As Governor General, I positively forbid an attack until you are supported by Sir John Littler. That is my last word, sir.”

“And this is mine, sorr – but I’ll be havin’ another one later!” cries Paddy. “If we come adrift through this, with our fellows shootin’ each other in the dark, as they did at Moodkee – well, sorr, I won’t hold myself responsible unless I am!”

“Thank you, Sir Hugh!”

“Thank you, Sorr Hinry!”

And off they stumped, after a conference unique, I believe, in military history. As to which was right, God knows. On one hand, Hardinge had to think of all India, and the odds scared him. Against that, Paddy was the fighting soldier – daft as a brush, granted, but he knew men and ground and the smell of victory or defeat. Heads or tails, if you ask me.

So Hardinge had his way, and the army set off again, south-west , to meet Littler, crossing the Sikh front with our flank wide as a bran door if they’d cared to come and fall on us. The didn’t, thanks to Lal Singh, who refused to budge while his staff tore their hair at the missed chance. Littler hove in view at Shukoor, and our force, turned north again, now eighteen thousand strong, and stormed Ferozeshah.

It is not my intention to give an account of the battle, which Flashman says “was shockingly botched, on both sides.” The British took Ferozeshah, after appalling bloodshed, retired to re-form and the Khalsa took it back again. The British army again attacked and retook it at a bloodier cost and it was after this, with Gough entrenched and awaiting the Khalsa attack that we will return to Flashman’s account – but in the next post.

To be continued…..

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