Unsung heroes of the Raj get treated to an extended fanfare.
In the mid-19th century, the British army dispatched a corps of soldiers to the Punjab, India’s far northwestern frontier, to fight the feared “Pathans” and other enemies of the empire’s progress. The majority of their officers were young men scarcely in their 20s whose bravery under fire became the stuff of legend. Focusing on half-a-dozen or so of these junior leaders, Allen (who is descended from John Nicholson, the youngest of the lot) offers an approving view of their work as they battle mustachioed brigands and revolutionary firebrands—such as Shahwali Khan (the feared Jafir of the Dagger Hand) and Jehandad Khan of the Tanoli (whose men were “brave and hardy and accounted the best swordsmen in Huzara”). Although young, the British officers assumed positions of great responsibility, challenging for men with much more experience; a 25-year-old named Harry Lumsden, for instance, commanded a force of 3,500 Sikh fighters, while a 29-year-old named Herbert Edwardes led an even larger army of Afghans into combat. Allen attributes these young men’s willingness to fight and die on the distant frontiers of empire to patriotism and religious fervor (“We have to make a leap of imagination from our own faithless age,” he sniffs, “back to an era when the promise of the Heavenly Kingdom for those who had fought the good fight was still very real”), overlooking the possibilities for profit and advancement that followed a pitched battle—to say nothing of thrill-seeking and other less exalted motives for serving the crown.
Though uncritical in his admiration for British arms, Allen provides a rousing and informative yarn that will appeal to fans of Lives of the Bengal Lancers and Gunga Din.