REVIEW

Book Review: Victoria Cross Winners of India - Till Memory Serves

April 14, 2007
Aaman Lamba

One of my ancestors fought with Guru Gobind Singh against Aurungzeb in the 17th century. Another nameless forebear was a functionary with Porus against Alexander. We may have generally picked the losing side, but at least we were fighting for the country, as it were. Then, the family took on the desultory ways of landed gentry. I have no knowledge of more recent warriors in the family, except perhaps for the techno-financial kind, but the memory of those that went before lives on, albeit dimly.

Soldiers die in forgotten fields, and if their memory is not honored, their valour does not educate future generations. Even if they fought for a bootless cause, as long as they stood fast, history remembers them. Jaswant Singh, a politician with much time on his hands, along with Manvendra Singh, serves as chronicler of forgotten heroes of the Indian Army who served in British India in times past, and the forty who received the Victoria Cross decoration in pre-Independence India.

There is a rich trove of historical record in this book, and much thrilling tales of valour. The original Victoria Cross Warrant from the National Archives is reproduced in facsimile, with it's 'Fourteenthly', and 'Fifteenthly' points of note, from 1856, under the pen of Queen Victoria, soon to be Empress of India, and lately come out of the violent Crimean War.

The book relies on some impressive sources and research, from the London Gazette of the period to the regimental chronicles. We move through the great battles of yore, commencing with numerous actions in the Great War. The Indian contribution to the First World War is brought home forcefully, with participation in most major battles, and much sacrifice in the name of a foreign occupying power. The Indian invasion of Iraq, of which I shall write another time, illustrates how difficult it was even then to make progress against an apparently weak opposing force, and how illusory the progress was. Names such as Rifleman Kulbir Thapa, Sepoy Chatta Singh, and Sepoy Ishar Singh are resurrected, with their tales of valour, bravery, and occasional death on the battlefield.

In the Second World War, the Indian Army acquitted itself admirably in the North African, Egypt, and Burma theatres, effectively stopping much of the Italian and Japanese advances. The Burma campaign was particularly interesting, given the direct threat it posed to the Indian sub-continent, and the extreme proximity reached by the Japanese to Assam. As Mr Singh, notes, however,

the Burma campaign was largely ignored in terms of both publicity and support and the 14th amry gave themselves the considerably justified title of the 'Forgotten Army'

He provides much valuable detail on the Assam Campaign, from the Chindit offensives to Lord Mountbatten's militarizing of the Assam railways, and the retreat, and later counter-offensive to take Mandalay, Rangoon, and the final official Japanese surrender of 15th August 1945. There is a suitably spectacular array of Victoria Crosses awarded and documented for this campaign, perhaps the largest contingent of Indian-awarded Crosses.

The final section deals with the invasion of Italy, commencing with the Sicily offensive, and the unconditional surrender of first the Italian, and then the German armies in May 1945. This was the last pre-Independence campaign of note of the Indian Army, and two years later, the Victoria and George crosses would be history, although it is little remembered that King George VI held the title of King of India until 1950 and King of Pakistan until his death in 1952, with Queen Elizabeth II, reigning as Queen of Pakistan until Pakistan's becoming a republic in 1956. The Crosses, of which forty were awarded to Indian Army officers, and other ranks, were replaced by the Param Vir Chakra in India, and the Nishan-i-Haider in Pakistan. The numerous valorous acts in defence of those sister nations will require another book, perhaps one that Jaswant Singh might pen, given his prolix pen.

Aaman Lamba is the Publisher of Desicritics.org, a Blogcritics network site. He also blogs, more infrequently nowadays, at Audit Trails Of Self
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#1
Deepti Lamba
URL
April 14, 2007
09:17 AM

Sounds like an awesome book about the valor of our fallen heroes and of those who survived the wars to tell the tales.

Will read it before it gets buried under the growing pile of books and mags:)

#2
Amrita
URL
April 14, 2007
12:11 PM

Aaman - one of my dad's closest friends and cousin was a part of the Burma assault in WW2. He could tell some great stories, but he always made it all sound like a lark. I thought war must be a fun gig until I grew up and did a re-think. I'll read this one for him. Thanks.

#3
Chandra
April 14, 2007
02:21 PM

Aaman...

Aurangzeb/ Guru Gobin Singh...17-18th century!!!!

Is it fair to classify people who fought for the British as mercenaries?

rgds

#4
Aaman
URL
April 14, 2007
02:39 PM

typo - will correct thanks.

Nope, mercenary is "a person who takes part in an armed conflict and "is motivated to take part in the hostilities essentially by the desire for private gain" - in the Raj, while there were numerous mercenaries, most were European freebooters and perhaps the early Company officers, who doubtless had 'private gain' on their minds could be classified thus. Most soldiers in the Indian Army were typical footsoldiers and cavalrymen, much like in an army anytime in history or in the present day.

#5
Dipendra
April 15, 2007
10:54 AM

Aaman

Porus and the Guru Gobind were hardly on the losing side - they were part of broader counter-offensive that eventually led the opposing side fatigue and either withdraw in the case of Iskander or irretrievably decline in the instance of the Moghuls.

But are your sure your ancestor fought with King Puru? If you were Jat - I would believe you. There is a real martial tradition in the North Indian peasantry.

I would definitely buy Jaswant Singh's book - this is an excellent review and an inadvertent sales pitch. I love his memoires - a Call to Honor- which I am currently reading.

There must be another reason for him to chronicle this - not just because he has time on his hands. I suspect the intent was different. Indian soldiers - much like the Americans today - fought in different continents and helped achieve the outcome of different battles that had profound implications on the international environment - Flanders, Thessaloniki, Galicia, Egypt, Libya, Mesopotamia, Afghanistan, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc.

I would like to argue that the British empire in the 1900s owed itself in no small measure to the sepoy from different parts of India. I was literally moved to tears - well I did break down -when I walked through the memorial to the fallen Indian soldier on the road between Rangoon and Pegu - there were Tamil names (my surname included), names from the United Provinces, names of those belonging to what one would today called the scheduled castes, Gurkhas, Sikhs, Hindu Jats, Bengali etc - on a well manicured many acred memorial still maintained with aplomb by the Brits in an otherwise impoverished Burma. That was truly a monument to bravery.

So in short, the collective bravery of the Indian soldier helped change history twice in the 1900s. Who is to say - it might do so once again?

Best regards

#6
Dipendra
April 15, 2007
11:01 AM

Quick addenda - the reference to the Jat was an innocent note of appreciation. I meant no offense to the non-Jat. Oops.

#7
Deepa Krishnan
URL
April 15, 2007
11:51 AM

The fewer books that we have that glorify war and soldiers, the happier I will be.

#8
AnArch
April 15, 2007
11:58 AM

You sleep comfortably in your bed because of their sacrifices.

#9
Deepa Krishnan
URL
April 15, 2007
09:28 PM

If there wasn't so much hogwash and propaganda built around 'sacrifice', they'd probably get paid enough for dying in strange places. At the moment, India's armed forces are very poorly paid people.

- Deepa

#10
Bihari
URL
April 16, 2007
07:13 AM

Deepa, the Indian army takes care of their own. Food and other items are subsidized for them, housing is provided, even those who retire from the army get jobs once they become civilians, they even provide educational courses and have schools for the children.

Its our cops who need better infrastructure. I have yet to meet an Indian army guy who is not proud of his unit or his country.

One may be against war in general but when encroachments happen as in Kargil who do we civilians turn to for safety? Its our jawans.

I know for a fact that most of the unmarried recruits are shipped off to Kashmir. You may take their sacrifices lightly but most us of realize that its more than a job, its a calling for one doesn't get fired one dies in this kind of job.

Don't begrudge a soldier who puts his life on the line for you.

Sure their salaries should be increased because of the risk factor their job implies.

Anarch had a point we do sleep comfortably in our beds because of the army.

Being a pacifist does not mean that we do not defend our borders. It means we give dialog a chance and then as a last resort turn to war.

#11
Deepa Krishnan
URL
April 16, 2007
08:09 AM

I don't think our army is well looked after, sorry. They're short of equipment, and what little there is, is in bad condition. Even the foodstuff they get in some of the remote outposts isn't edible. I'm not grudging them anything. I'm saying the EXACT opposite, that they're not getting enough for the job they do. What I have a problem with, is all this glory and hype surrounding what is a gruesome sickening job, the job of killing other human beings. Someone's got to do it, yes. It is unavoidable, yes. If we don't have an army, we'll get attacked, yes. But I'm not going to celebrate its glory, sorry.

#12
Bihari
URL
April 16, 2007
09:43 AM

The glory of giving their lives to keep you safe is not worth acknowledging because you cannot bring yourself to accept the vileness of human beings?

You rather not honor a dead soldier who died in Kargil is that? Would you able to look at a dead soldier's mother in the eye and tell her that her son died in vain? That he didn't die a hero's death for his country? And why? because you don't like the idea of war. Idealistic [EDITED]!!

You are the pigeon who'd rather close your eyes and wish the cat away or rather have someone kill the cat without having you to bear witness to the violence.

Grow up!

#13
Deepa Krishnan
URL
April 16, 2007
10:07 AM

Yes, I agree, I'm being a bit of an ostrich about war. I hate it and I want it to go away.

And you're right, that those who choose a career where death stares them in the face deserve our consideration.

It sticks in my throat, though. Why must I be indebted to someone for my safety? Do I not deserve to live safe without a man with a gun out there at the border?

#14
Bihari
URL
April 16, 2007
10:26 AM

Deepa, do you leave your door open at night and sleep? Do you feel safe walking down a lonely road in the middle of the night? No! none of us do.

Which is why we have people who protect us. They do the dirty job we could never do and for that reason alone we are grateful to them.

The day we all become enlightened wars will end but that wont happen any time soon.

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