The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Sahib: The British soldier in India
By Richard Holmes,
HarperCollins, Rs 825

The British army was the engine of overseas expansion. Historians have studied the activities of the Tommy in Europe but their role in south Asia remains unexplored. Richard Holmes, an established British military historian, tries to throw light on this hitherto uncharted territory. With the help of archival records, Holmes focuses on the daily lives of the ordinary white soldier and studies their activities from the inception of British rule in India till the beginning of the first world war.

During the raj, a large percentage of the white community in India were military personnel. However, life in the subcontinent was hard and many privates perished to diseases like cholera. Yet, people continued to flock to the army. According to the historian, Peter Stanley, British officers in the Bengal Army were an educated lot. As a result, there was a wide social gap between the privates and their officers.

The Duke of Wellington considered British soldiers as 'scum of the earth'. Most of the British soldiers were born as a result of the dalliances between sailors and ladies who plied the ancient trade near the docks. These poor uneducated young men, bereft of any family support, thus felt that military service was better than an empty belly. Even criminals and vagabonds joined the army.

The military historian, John Hackett, writes that British soldiers were despised by the larger society. This fostered unity in the ranks and helped them to fight and die. The lure of tangible benefits ' double rations of rum, the incentive of plunder and batta (extra pay) ' kept the soldiers going in a firefight.

Marriages between Indian women and white troops were common affairs and their offspring were co-opted in the army. However, the spread of Christianity and influx of British women in large numbers led to a decline in such unions. The memsahibs, writes Holmes, were responsible for hardening British attitudes towards natives.

The book, though, is rather weak when it comes to analysing facts. The author does not tell us in what proportion the Irish and the Scots joined the British contingents stationed in India. He also fails to mention how the ratio of these two ethnic groups changed with time and the different factors that motivated them to join the army.

Nevertheless, Holmes must be commended for rejecting the romantic vision of the likes of Philip Mason and Charles Allen. His perception of the British soldier was not of a Victorian liberal. Rather, it is based on real facts and is a must read for those who want to know more about military history in colonial India.

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