A memoir of the Anglo-Sikh war 1845
Lot 295
An account of the First Anglo-Sikh War, consisting of transcripts of original letters bound together in a notebook, describing events of 1845-46, including the Battles of Mudki and Ferozshah, as witnessed by Lieutenant James Cumming, an officer of the 80th Regiment of Foot Scotland, probably Orkney, transcripts made circa 1850
Sold for £3,500 (US$ 4,265) inc. premium

Lot Details
A memoir of the Anglo-Sikh war 1845
An account of the First Anglo-Sikh War, consisting of transcripts of original letters bound together in a notebook, describing events of 1845-46, including the Battles of Mudki and Ferozshah, as witnessed by Lieutenant James Cumming, an officer of the 80th Regiment of Foot
Scotland, probably Orkney, transcripts made circa 1850
manuscript on lined paper, 157 pages (131 numbered, 26 unnumbered), some loose, marbled boards, worn, spine defective
187 x 123 mm.


  • James Cumming, on the evidence of the first letter in the notebook, dated 1st May 1828, had left his home in Orkney in 1825 in order to fight in the Greek War of Independence against the Turks. He seems not to have informed his father of his reasons for leaving. The author of the letter, a certain H. L. Fitzwilliam, who was a friend of Cumming's and his fellow combatant, apologises to the father on Cumming's behalf but explains that it was illegal at the time for British subjects to be involved in the conflict.

    Another note tells how Fitzwilliam's letter failed to reach Cumming's father, as it had been sent to an apparently out-of-date address in Aberdeen. The father therefore did not see or hear of his son until 1843, when James Cumming briefly returned to Orkney from India. In the meantime he had become a serving soldier in India (it is not explained how), was married (to a woman known in the letters only as 'Eliza') and had two sons, who were left in England to go to school. The note says that he sailed for India on 14th June 1844. A letter (the first of Cumming's own, dated Agra, 4th October 1845) describes how Eliza had died in childbirth, after the journey from Calcutta to Agra, and the child shortly afterwards. Cumming erected a monument to her before leaving for the Punjab and the operations against the Sikhs (pp. 19-28).

    He was appointed regimental interpreter (p. 35) but by 30th July 1846, due to fever, had been ordered to take command of the depot in Umaballa and the camp followers. However, he was soon back on active service up-country, engaged in forced marches in hard terrain, during which he was attacked by two natives, of whom he shot one, but not before sustaining sword-cuts. He kept the sword, a 'Damascus blade, worth £50' (thus displaying the perennial interest of British soldiery in prize money and any artefact which might be worth something). He then rejoined his regiment.

    Highlights of the letters include:

    The Battle of Mudki (18th December 1845). It was a splendid sight - above twenty thousand cavalry in well-formed columns covered the plains - their sabres glittering in the setting sun made the whole country seem like a sea of liquid silver (p. 53). The action is described on p. 55. Now all was close engagements - cavalry, infantry and artillery fighting more like Devils than men, and many a gallant fellow bit the dust (p. 56).

    The Khalsa troops are soldiers from their birth. They are naturally brave and have been trained by clever French soldiers, and having always conquered in their numerous wars, they thought themselves invincible. (p. 57).

    The Battle of Ferozshah (21st December 1845, pp. 60-90). The first compliment the 80th received was an immense cannonball which passing over Captain Lockhart's head struck Major Lockhart's horse right in the breast, smashed the animal to pieces, and injured the major severely. While fainting between two soldiers he called 'Fight on my lads, for I am gone. (p. 62).
    As we drew near the fire from the entrenchments became terrific, the Enemy's artillery was served with such accuracy and rapidity and their weight of metal so great that our light field guns had no chance of silencing them. (pp. 62-63). At nightfall at the end of the first day, he and his men had gone for sixteen hours without water.
    My duty with a small party was to spike the guns. While we were engaged in that I saw with surprise a large body of Sikhs clad in chain armour rise from the ground and attack our people hand to hand [...] These were some of the flower of the Sikh army - men generally determined to conquer or die, and die they did, most of them. One of their officers singled me out as his antagonist - By God's help my swordsmanship prevailed and his splendid suit of chain armour became my prize. I have been offered £150 for it. But I shall keep it as a trophy. (pp. 73-74).
    The noise of that terrible engagement conducted by the lofty chain of Himmaleh Mountains was distinctly heard by our ladies and women in Umballah, a distance of more than a hundred miles in a direct line. The Governor-General and several other Peninsular officers declared afterwards that they had never witnessed so hot a fire of so long continuance, not even that of Waterloo! (p. 81). He also comments: Thus ended the great Battle of Ferozshah, the severest action that ever was fought in India since the British landed in it (p. 86).

    British forces from all over India gathered to move up to the River Sutlej: Cumming enumerates 39,200 men.
    The Battle of Aliwal (28th January 1846): In all our former battles the Sikhs had been observed, even when lying so severely wounded that no one wished to injure them further, to discharge their firearms at our men the moment they had passed or to cut with their sabres at anyone within their reach. More of our men were killed in that way than is generally known. It was therefore necessary to despatch them in self-defence. The Sikhs appeared neither to look for nor desire quarter. (p. 109).
    Eventually Sikh forces retreat to the Sutlej, but are mown down in their hundreds while attempting to cross the pontoon bridge. (p. 115)
    Maharajah Duleep Singh and Ghulab Singh meet British commanders to agree terms (pp. 118-119). Cumming is encamped in Lahore not long afterwards (p. 121).
    I may mention in conclusion that as I have now been in Twenty three great engagements, besides many small affairs, both by sea and land, surely few will blame me if I say "I am tired". (p. 130).

    The second section of unnumbered pages features two transcripts of letters, dated Meerut 13th April 1847 and Dinapore 11th August 1848. The regiment returns to the country around Ferozpur (where he notes the beauty of the landscape), and to the battlefields of Mudki and Ferozshah (the only memorials [...] hundreds of little mounds and heaps of dry bones). He recounts atrocious weather on the march, a dinner given by the Governor-General, Lord Gough. He reminisces sadly about his late wife, Elisa, and lists his sons' educational accomplishments. In the second letter he tells of a exercise in which his troops attempt to take a bridge held by sepoys. His horse unseated him and he broke his arm. (An argument ensued and a melodramatic brother officer exclaimed 'If he dies, the horse dies!')
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