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

I had told you how Flashman was with Sir Hugh Gough, when the Khalsa infantry advanced on the weakened British force, and before it subjected to an immense bomdardment. Sir Hugh, accompanied by his two gallopers (one of them reluctant), rides up ahead to draw the fire onto him, and is successful in diverting it from his steadfast troops. Suddenly, a miracle happened….To know what it was, read on….

~~~ All of a sudden, the firing died away, and across the plain the bugles rang out, and the drums rolled, the great gold banners were raised in the rays of the setting sun, and the Khalsa began to move. It came on in column by regiments, with a line of Jat light infantry leading, green figures with their pieces at trail – and suddenly Charley West was shouting:

“Look, Sir Hugh! Our cavalry! The guns – my God, they’re retiring!”

Not before time, thinks I, ‘though it shocked me, I can tell you. For he was right: where we sat, perhaps a furlong ahead of our right flank, we had a clear view of the appalling ruin of our army – the dozen battered squares of red figures, with great gaps in their ranks, the regimental colours stirring in the evening wind, the bodies sprawled on the earthworks, the plain before them littered with dead and dying beasts and men, the whole hideous scene mantled in dust and smoke from the charred wreckage.

And the cavalry, what was left of it, was trotting away southward, across the front of our left-hand squares, which were inclined slightly back from the right. They were in columns by troops, Native lancers and Irregular Horse, and then the 3rd Lights, with the horse guns following, bouncing along the teams.

“They – they can’t be runnin’!” cries West. “Sir Hugh – shall I ride to ’em? It must be a mistake, surely!”

Gough was staring after them as though he’d seen a ghost. I guess it was something he’d not seen in half a century – horse and guns leaving the infantry to their fate. But he didn’t stare more than a moment.

“After ’em, West! Bring ’em back!” he snapped, and Mad Charley was away, head down and heels in, drumming up the dust, while Gough turned to look again towards the Khalsa.

They were well out of the plain now, in splendid style, infantry in the centre with the horse guns at intervals among them, cavalry on the wings. Gough motioned to me, and we began to trot back towards our position. For the first time I saw Hardinge, with a little knot of officers. just in front of the right-hand squares. He was looking through a glass, and turning his head to call an order. The kneeling squares stood up, the men closing on each other, pieces at the present, the dying sun flickering on the line of bayonets. Gough reined up.

“Here’ll do as well as any place,” says he, and shaded his eyes to look over the plain. “Man, but there’s a fine sight, is it not? Fit to gladden a soldier’s heart, so it is. Well, here’s to them – and to us.” He nodded to me. “Thank you, me son.” He threw back the tail of his coat and drew his sabre, loosing the frog to let the scabbard fall to the ground.

“I think we’re all goin’ home,” he said.

I glanced over my shoulder. Behind me the plain was open beyond our right flank, with jungle not a mile away. My screw wasn’t blown or lame, and I was damned if I’d wait here to be butchered by that juggernaut tamping inexorably towards us; the blare of their heathen music came before them, and behind it the measured tread of forty thousand feet. From the squares came the hoarse shouts of command; I stole another look at the distant jungle, tightening my sound hand on the bridle…

“Dear God!” exclaims Gough, and I started guiltily round. And what I saw was another impossibility, but…. there it was.

The Khalsa had halted in its tracks. The dust was eddying up before the advance line of Jats, they were turning to look back at the main body, we could hear voices shrilling orders, and the music was dying away in a discordant wail. The great standards seemed to be wavering, the whole vast army was stirring like a swarm, the rattle of a single kettle-drum was taken up, repeated from regiment to regiment, and then it was though a Venetian blind had been opened and closed across the front of the great host – it was the ranks turning about, churning up the dust, and then they were moving away. The Khalsa was in full retreat.

There wasn’t a sound from our squares. Then, from somewhere behind me, a man laughed, and a voice called angrily for silence. That’s the only noise I remember, but I wasn’t paying much heed. I could only watch in stricken bewilderment as twenty thousand of the best native troops in the world turned their backs on an exhausted, helpless enemy…. and left the victory to us.

Gough sat his horse like a statue, staring after them. A full minute passed before he chucked the reins, turning his mount. As he walked it past me to the squares, he nodded and says:

“You get that hand seen to, d’ye hear? An’ when ye’re done with it, I’ll be obliged for the return of my neckercher.”

To be continued….

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