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Authors: Allan Mallinson

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The Sabre's Edge

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The Sabre's Edge
Allan Mallinson
Series:
Matthew Hervey [5]
Published:
2004
Tags:
Military, Historical Novel
Militaryttt Historical Novelttt

SUMMARY:
The most exciting adventure yet for Matthew Hervey and the Sixth Light Dragoons.1824. The Sixth Light Dragoons are still stationed in India and the talk in the officer’s mess is of war. The Burmese are encroaching on Company land and skirmishes are common on India’s borders. Meanwhile, across the country in Bhurtpoor the succession to the Raj has been usurped. The rightful claimant Balwant Sing has been forced from the throne by the war-mongering Durjan Sal. The conflict looks set to flair up into bloody conflict, taking the surrounding provinces with it. With the threat of war on two fronts the British troops must intercede.The trial ahead will test Hervey and his newly blooded troop to their very limits, for Durjan Sal has taken refuge in the infamous Bhurtpoor -- a fortress surrounded by a deep moat almost five miles in perimeter, with thirty-five turreted bastions and the Tower of Victory built with the skulls of Lord Lakes’ defeated men. Hervey can be sure of one thing: the siege of Bhurtpoor will be hot and bloody work. Once again, the fortunes of Matthew Hervey and his courageous troop will be decided by the sabre’s edge.From the Paperback edition.

The Sabre's Edge

Allan Mallinson

WF
HOWES LTD

This large print edition published in 2003 by W F Howes Ltd Units 6/7, Victoria Mills, Fowke Street Rothley, Leicester LE7 7PJ

First published in 2003 by Bantam Press

Copyright © Allan Mallinson 2003

The right of Allan Mallinson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

All rights reserved

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN 1 84197 640 7

Typeset by Palimpsest Book Production Limited, Polmont, Stirlingshire Printed and bound in Great Britain by Antony Rowe Ltd, Chippenham, Wilts.

To

Skinner's Horse
raised 23 February
1803

FOREWORD

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 BAY OF BENGAL 1823

'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

PART ONE

JUNGLE, PESTILENCE AND FAMINE

CHAPTER ONE

THE WOODEN WALLS The Rangoon River, noon,
11
May 1824

‘S
ile-e-ence!'

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 acknowledgin
g 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 Archibald?

'They have had their time, Peto.

But the commodore required a more emphatic order. Firing first on an almost defenceless town was not a decision to be entered lightly. 'You wish me to commence firing, sir?

Before the general could reply, the shore battery erupted in smoke and flame. Two or three heavy shot whistled harmlessly through
Liffey's
rigging.

The general was obliged, but amazed. His flotilla had violated the sacred waters of the Kingdom of Ava: but in such force that could not be resisted. He, Sir Archibald Campbell KCB, veteran of the Peninsula, had offered suitable terms of surrender. By all the usages of war the Burmans should have accepted at once.

'Presumption, and folly,

he declared, snapping closed his telescope. 'Commence firing!

Peto nodded to his first lieutenant. 'Commence firing.

The lieutenant raised a speaking trumpet to his lips. 'Fire!

Hervey started. The roar of cannon was like nothing since Waterloo - fourteen twenty-four-pounders firing as one, nearly the weight of shot that the whole of the horse artillery could dispose that day along the ridge of Mont St-Jean. He gripped the taffrail as if he would be shaken off his feet. But before the smoke rolled back over the quarterdeck, he just managed to glimpse the destruction that the broadside had wrought - the guns in the shore battery toppled and the great teak doors of the stockade beaten down.

There was another broadside, this time from
Larne,
and even closer to the bank. Not as heavy as
Liffey's,
but almost as destructive, it battered down yet more of the stockade, the nine-pound shot from the guns on her upper deck firing high and sending showers of bricks and tiles from the buildings within. Hervey did not think the business could take much longer.

Now
Sidney's
and
Sophie's
guns were bearing on the walls, and soon too were those of the East Indiamen-of-war astern of them, so that there was a drumroll of fire as the crews worked their pieces like demons.

No, the Burmans could not take a pounding like this for much longer. No one could.

Campbell agreed. He turned to the little knot of staff officers behind him. 'How our work might have been easier in Spain, eh, gentlemen, had we been able to sail our artillery about so!'

And had the enemy been so obliging as to call a pile of logs a fortress, said Hervey to himself.

Major Seagrass, the general's military secretary, turned to his temporary assistant. 'Where are these war boats of yours, Hervey?'

Hervey nodded. He had warned of them, albeit from limited experience, and the flotilla was taking particular precautions against surprise. 'It seems our luck is great indeed. And the Burmans', too, for those boys yonder are bruising for a fusillade.

He indicated the lines of red at the gunwales of the transports, private men and sepoys alike in their thick serge, muskets trained ready to repel the war boats. The attack would be a swift, swarming affair if it did come.

The general judged it the moment. 'Signal the landing!'

A midshipman had the signal-flag run up in a matter of seconds. There was cheering from the transports, audible enough even with the crashing broadsides. Soon boats were being swung out and lowered, or hauled alongside by their tow lines, and redcoats began descending to them.

As they began pulling for the bank, fire erupted once more from the battery.
Liffey
answered at once, and there was no more firing from the stockade.

The landing parties scrambled from the boats and raced for the breaches. They exchanged not a shot, and soon there was more cheering as the Union flag rose above the shore battery. Campbell saw his success, called off the bombardment and ordered the rest of his force to follow. In half an hour two brigades were ashore, with still not a musket discharged by either side. Later the general would learn that not a man of his had been so much as grazed, and he would remark again on the address with which battle could be made with artillery such as he had.

He turned now to the little group of officers on
Liffey's
quarterdeck. 'Well’
he said, with a most satisfied smile, his thick red side-whiskers glistening with sweat in the clammy heat of the season before the monsoon. 'Let's be about it. We have a great need of beef and water, and it is there ashore for the taking. My boat, please, Commodore Peto!'

Captain Matthew Hervey had watched many an infantry action in his dozen and more years' service, but always from the saddle. The quarterdeck of one of His Majesty's ships was undoubtedly a more elevated vantage point, and perhaps preferable in that respect, but it was no less frustrating a place for an officer to be when there was hot work to be done with the enemy. But then the only reason he was able to observe the action at all was that he had a friend at court - or, more exactly, on the supreme council of the presidency of Bengal - who had arranged that he join the expedition on General Campbell's staff, the general being clearly of a mind that there was no place for cavalry on this campaign. Indeed, the general had planned his operations certain that everything would be accomplished by his infantry - King's and Company's - with the sole support of the guns of the Royal Navy, and without any transport but that which floated, or supply other than obtained locally. It was, by any reckoning, an admirably economical expedition.

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