The Sabre's Edge


Allan Mallinson


Skinner's Horse raised 23 February 1803


In his enigmatic memoir Bengal Lancer, Francis Yeats-Brown recounts how the Honourable East India Company received its licence to trade in Bengal. The Mughal overlord, the Emperor Shah Jehan, who built the Taj Mahal, had a daughter, Jehanara - 'modest and beautiful'. One day Jehanara's maid upset an oil lamp in the palace, and in trying to save her the princess scorched herself about the face and hands. Shah Jehan, distraught, sent word for the best physicians in the empire to come to Agra. One Gabriel Broughton, surgeon of the Company's factory at Surat, arrived quickly and, though hampered by the etiquette of purdah (he was only allowed to feel his patient's pulse from behind a curtain), he not only healed Jehanara but also saved her legendary beauty. As reward, he would take nothing for himself, but asked that a charter be given to the Company to trade :in Bengal. 'These are the threads of karma that go to the making of ant-heaps and Empires,' writes Yeats-Brown: a clumsy slave girl, a kind princess, and an altruistic doctor who asked for the charter on which the British built Calcutta.'

When the Mughal hegemony began to weaken, in the middle of the eighteenth century, Bengal broke away from Delhi's rule, along with Sind, Oudh and Gujerat, and the Company found itself increasingly drawn into the power politics of the successors to the empire. Fortunately there were Robert Clive, Warren Hastings and a great many others of their kind to advance British interests, and by the third decade of the next century John Company was the predominant power in the whole of India.

But there were always challengers, within and without, and the sepoys of the armies of the presidencies of Bombay, Madras and - above all - Bengal, together with the handful of British (King's) regiments for which the Company paid, found themselves from time to time campaigning hard. However, in India the climate and disease claimed many more lives than did the tulwar, the jezail or the jingal - in the war that begins my story, nineteen men out of the legions of twenties who died.

But dead men's boots meant promotion for the lucky ones who survived. That was the soldier's silver lining in the clouds of war ... In addition to those I have thanked in previous books, and in whose debt I remain, I would add this time Major Patrick Beresford, regimental secretary of the King's Royal Hussars (and their Winchester museum's curator), Sally Brown of the British Library, Liza Verity of the National Maritime Museum and Christopher Calkins of the Petersburg National Battlefield. I must likewise acknowledge my debt over some years now to Dr Anne-Mary Hills, whose long study of Nelson's pathology, and of his navy's medicine, she has unstintingly shared with me. My thanks are also due to Dr Michael Crumplin, surgeon, whose knowledge of surgical practice in Wellington's army is, I suspect, unrivalled. I am, as ever, full of appreciation for Chris Collingwood, whose jacket paintings show a deep knowledge of the minutiae of uniforms and equipment, and whose skill in composition and drawing so vividly sets the scene for my cavalry tales.

On the reverse of the jacket of this, the fifth of Matthew Hervey's adventures, there are two sowars in the distinctive yellow kurtas of Skinner's Horse, better known to the world, perhaps, as the 1st Bengal Lancers. This glorious regiment was raised on 23 February 1803, and this year therefore celebrate their bicentenary. To them, in admiration, I dedicate The Sabre's Edge.

And Israel smote him with the edge of the sword’ and possessed his land from Arnon unto Jabbok, even unto the children of Ammon; for the border of the children of Ammon was strong.

The Fourth Book of Moses, called Numbers


'The Commander-in-Chief can hardly persuade himself, that if we place our frontier in even a tolerable state of defence, any very serious attempt will be made by the Burmans to pass it: but should he be mistaken in this opinion, he is inclined to hope that our military operations on the eastern frontier will be confined to their expulsion from our territories, and to the re-establishment of those states along our line of frontier which have been overrun and conquered by the Burmese. Any military attempt beyond this, upon the internal dominions of the King of Ava, he is inclined to deprecate; as instead of armies, fortresses, and cities, he is led to believe we should find nothing but jungle, pestilence and famine.'

The Adjutant-General of the Presidency's Army, to the Government of Bengal, 24 November 1823





The Rangoon River, noon, 11 May 1824


The gun-deck of His Majesty's Ship Liffey at once fell still. The big fourth rate had furled sail, dropped anchor and beat to quarters, and her first lieutenant would have the gun crews silent to hear the captain's next order.

Astern of Liffey were the sloops of war Larne, Slaney and Sophie, their guns likewise run out and trained ashore. And astern of these, with great pyramids of white sail still set, was the rest of the British flotilla - close on a hundred men-of-war and transports, sailing slowly with the tide up the broad, brown Rangoon river.

The stockades at the water's edge were silent too. Like the gun crews aboard the warships, the Burman soldiers crouched behind their wooden walls, but teak-built walls, not oak. With their spears and ancient muskets, they had no doubt that the white-faced barbarians would pay for their effrontery in sailing up the river without acknowledging the supreme authority of King Bagyidaw, Lord of the White and All Other Elephants.

On Liffey's quarterdeck, Commodore Laughton Peto turned to Major-General Sir Archibald Campbell, general officer commanding the Burmese Expeditionary Force. 'Well, Sir

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