Killings in Kashmir

Soldier Sahibs: the men who made the North-West Frontier

Charles Allen <em>John Murray, 368pp, £22

In Soldier Sahibs, Charles Allen focuses on a 20-year period of Britain's expansionist history before the formal establishment of the British Raj in India in 1857. The backdrop to his narrative is the rugged terrain of the North-West Frontier, which, in the mid-19th century, was considered to stretch anywhere beyond and including what is now the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

What interests Allen, however, is not the landscape, but the lives of the soldiers and administrators whose actions helped to shape the political boundaries we know today. Literally a handful of men - often teenagers when they first arrived in India - enabled Britain, through the loose authority of the East India Company, to establish a significant presence. The human cost was high. Although John Nicholson - or "Nikal Seyn" as he was familiarly known - achieved lasting fame before his death at the age of 34, his younger brother, Alexander, was killed within weeks of his arrival in Peshawar. John, with tears "coursing" down his face, had to bury his brother's mutilated body before writing to tell his mother that "poor Alexander is no more".

Famous among this close-knit group of men were the four Lawrence brothers - General Sir George, Sir Henry, Lord John, (one of the early Viceroys) and Richard. There was also Herbert Edwardes, after whom Edwardes College in Peshawar was named, and James Abbott, who demarcated the boundaries of Hazara and after whom the town of Abbottabad was named.

Starting with Britain's ill-fated decision to seat an unpopular king, Shah Shuja, on the throne of Afghanistan, Allen describes the events affecting the key characters in the story. Shah Shuja's presence in Afghanistan was deeply resented by the supporters of a rival claimant, Dost Mohammed, and in 1842, after only a few years, the British had to withdraw.

The story of the humiliating retreat of the British garrison, numbering 4,500 fighting men and 12,000 camp followers, is already part of Anglo-Indian folklore, and Allen describes again how a "lone survivor", Dr Brydon, rode into Jalalabad on a half-dead horse.

Before the destruction of the army was complete, nearly 100 Europeans - officers and soldiers, as well as 12 women and 22 children - were taken as "hostages" by Dost Mohammed's son, who was shadowing the retreating army. Of these, the most famous was Lady Sale, whose diary provides a descriptive account of the destruction of the army and of its nine months of "protective custody". After Dr Brydon staggered into Jalalabad, there were also reports of a few Indian soldiers and several hundred camp followers reaching the city.

No sooner had the British made good their defeat in Afghanistan, by sending an "Army of Retribution" to take an equally harsh revenge, they were challenged by the rising power of the Sikhs in the Punjab. Through the experiences of the men who served there, Allen tells the story of the first and second Sikh wars that led directly to the annexation of the Punjab, which remained under British control for the next hundred years.

After the first Sikh war, the British sold the prized valley of Kashmir to the Hindu raja Gulab Singh, a feudatory of the Sikhs whose neutrality during the war had enabled the British to defeat the Sikhs more easily. Allen appears to give Gulab Singh greater status than he had at the time - he was not a Hindu ruler whose neighbouring state of Jammu had survived the encroachments of the Sikhs, but a feudatory who had been rewarded for his loyalty with the gift of Jammu in fief by the Sikh leader Ranjit Singh in 1820.

To a 21st-century reader, the history that Allen relates may appear part of a fascinating but distant past of no relevance to the present day. But, as Allen rightly points out, the sale of the predominantly Muslim valley of Kashmir to Gulab Singh was to have "dire consequences" for the future stability of the region.

Nevertheless, no one can dispute the bravery with which these men helped to shape the administrative and geographical destiny of modern-day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Victoria Schofield's Kashmir in Conflict is published by I B Tauris (£14.95)