Book Review: Sahib: The British Soldier in India 1750-1914


Sahib is the third volume of British military historian Richard Holmes remarkably ambitious, long running narrative trilogy of the history of the British soldier, along with Redcoat and Tommy. This volume I chose to read over the others because to me it was different -histories of soldiers in the Napoleonic and First World Wars are numerous, so I felt the story of the British soldier in India 1750-1914 would be a breath of fresh air, and I was not disappointed.

Publication Date: 2006
ISBN: 0007137540
Price: £6.99

The British conquest of its Eastern Empire of India, Burma, and Ceylon would, of course, not have been possible without the British Army and its native contingents, which performed remarkable feats of arms in defeating a variety of numerically superior native armies across a huge subcontinent. The long British domination of that subcontinent also would not have been possible without the adaptation of the British soldier to a variety of military and political tasks and to a complex mixture of cultures very different from the British Isles. The British Army in India in fact, Holmes argues, took on its own unique existence there, the story here celebrated in Richard Holmes extensive narrative.

Sahib is surprisingly less a chronological history of the role of the British Army in India than a series of vignettes in which Holmes examines how the British soldier adapted to local circumstances. British regiments were often stationed in India for years to decades, following a six month deployment by sea. The individual soldiers and officers often went native to one degree or another during their long stays. Holmes explores the resulting customs in marriage, recreation, living arrangements, promotions, discipline and indiscipline and quotes extensively from rather charming letters, diaries and memoirs to provide individual perspective on various customs.

Holmes highlights the experience of the families who went out with their soldiers to a strange land. Of these, some came to be at home, some never found a home, and many never went home. British families learned to live with different languages, food, servants, marriage customs and religions, traces of which are still visible in British regiments today.

The British regulars largely withdrew upon Indian independence in 1947, Holmes makes great pains to note, the whole subject of the British Army has become somewhat politically incorrect in this post-colonial era. Holmes suggests this lack of attention is unfortunate in that it fails to do justice to the long and remarkable service of the British soldier in India, and after reading this book I would have to say I agree. American readers may find echoes and cunningly woven hints of the United States Army's long overseas tenure in places such as Germany and South Korea.

Sahib is a scrupulous read at over 500 pages, but its attractive cover and striking color makes it more than suitable for being seen reading it in a corner Starbucks. As with other books in his trilogy of the British soldier, the time span covered in Sahib is a challenge for a single volume. The cross-cutting topics produce some duplication of material. On the other hand, Holmes' extremely accessible writing style will entertain both the general reader and the specialized military student looking for some casual reading. Sahib is therefore recommended to both, however we would still definitely class it as a book to accompany Hob-Nob's.