Huzzah for Henry, Lawrence of India

<i>Soldier Sahibs: the men who made the North-West Frontier</i> by Charles Allen (John Murray, &pound;22.50)
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The Independent Culture

As the epitome of "muscular Christianity", Sir Henry Lawrence was a soldier-saint whose death defending the Residency during the siege of Lucknow in 1857 ensured his status as the foremost legendary hero of the era. He came to prominence after the first Sikh War (1845-46), when appointed agent to the governor-general in the Punjab and Resident at Lahore, capital of the old Sikh kingdom.

As the epitome of "muscular Christianity", Sir Henry Lawrence was a soldier-saint whose death defending the Residency during the siege of Lucknow in 1857 ensured his status as the foremost legendary hero of the era. He came to prominence after the first Sikh War (1845-46), when appointed agent to the governor-general in the Punjab and Resident at Lahore, capital of the old Sikh kingdom.

To begin with, he had a tutelary role. But after the death of the great Sikh rajah Ranjit Singh, the one man capable of restraining the khalsa - the militant Sikh community, or army - from the folly of challenging the nascent British Raj, Lawrence soon became the real power in the land, the "uncrowned King of the Punjab".

To help him govern this vast, unsettled territory - the "land of the five rivers", with its mixed population of Hindu, Sikh and Muslim peoples - he appointed a number of mostly young fellow spirits, soldiers or soldier-politicals, who are the subject of Charles Allen's book. Lawrence sent these "Wardens of the Marches" out to wild and often lawless districts with a minimum of instruction and a maximum of responsibility: "Settle the country; make the people happy; and take care there are no rows!"

The names of John Nicholson, Herbert Edwardes, Reynell Taylor, James Abbott, Frederick Mackeson, Neville Chamberlain, Harry Lumsden of the Guides and William Hodson of Hodson's Horse are not as well known as they once were. Their duties were administrative and military. They collected revenue, laid down the law - as both judge and jury - and led frequent skirmishes with frontier tribes in districts the size of small European countries. Most went out to India as ensigns or cornets (the most junior of junior officers) while in their teens; some served in the Afghan war. The Punjab was their "university of life".

The so-called Indian Mutiny killed Nicholson and Hodson, whose contrasting styles were well described by Nicholson's biographer, Hesketh Pearson: "Nicholson was of the class to which Cromwell belonged, Hodson was of the type immortalised by Shakespeare in the character of Hotspur. They were perfect representatives of the two main kindsof warrior through the ages, the heavy-hearted, purposeful, religious idealist; the light-hearted, volatile, careless opportunist."

Allen set out to write a biography of Nicholson but soon decided that he could not do so "without also covering the personalities, actions and motives" of the other pioneers. That was probably sensible, given that he has discovered nothing new about Nicholson and that the lesser-known pioneers deserve to be remembered.

Nearly all of them were driven by their common faith and the conviction that they were doing God's work. The problem is that their arrogance - a kind of cultural superiority complex - makes them deeply unsympathetic to modern sensibilities.

The engaging James Abbott is one exception, and Allen turns to him with some relief. Another is their mentor, Henry Lawrence, whose humanity transcended the prejudices of his time. But the book fails to do justice to Lawrence. The account of his celebrated falling-out with his younger brother John is inadequate and misleading. And in the chapter dealing with "Joe" Lumsden and the founding of the Corps of Guides, Allen does not mention that the revolutionary military concept behind the guides was Lawrence's brainchild. There are sins of commission as well as of omission, the most glaring being that Field Marshal Lord Roberts "died in comfortable old age at Waterford in 1914", when his death from pneumonia during a visit to the Western Front is one of the better-known facts about him.

Soldier Sahibs is a lively read, but it falls well short of Allen's stated intention to "come to grips with" the "moral confusion [that] still colours our attitudes to men like Nicholson, and to British rule in India".

The reviewer's history of the Gurkhas, 'Imperial Warriors', is published by Granta

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