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review 2020-06-09 18:42
The overshadowed war in India's history
 India's War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia - Srinath Raghavan
The 1940s was the most pivotal decade in the history of modern India. It was during these years that India broke away from centuries of British rule and established their independence after a bloody partition that still defines relations between two nuclear-armed powers. Numerous books have chronicled the struggle for independence and the chaos of the partition that followed, spotlighting the role of these events in shaping the nation. Yet this focus has the effect of overshadowing India's role in an even larger historical event, namely the Second World War. Indeed India is one of the few participants in that conflict for whom the war was overshadowed by other developments which assumed a greater place in the nation's history.
As a consequence, India's role in the Second World War and the war's role in India's history remain extraordinarily understudied events. To fill this gap Srinath Raghavan provides readers with a book that examines India's participation in the conflict and how it affected the lives of millions of Indians. It is a wide-ranging work that covers events from North Africa and Italy to Burma and Malaya, addressing the manifold ways in which India's participation shaped events and how these events, in turn, shaped India for better and for worse.
Raghavan begins by explaining the circumstances facing India at the start of the war. When war broke out in Europe in 1939, British politicians and administrators were dealing with a fractious Indian political scene, one dominated by the Congress Party but consisting of a range of different ideological and sectional interests. As they had a quarter century earlier, the British committed India to the war without any sort of consultation with India's political leadership, a decision which only fueled resentments. Yet these leaders were hardly united in their views on the war, with opinion ranging from Gandhi's nuanced pacifism to supporters of the war effort to those who believed that an Axis victory might lead to independence. These disagreements hampered efforts to form an united response to the war, which made it easier for the British to draw upon its resources for their war effort against Nazi Germany.
India's role in the war was substantial from the start. As Raghavan details, India played a vital role in Britain's strategic planning, with India in charge of imperial defense efforts in a vast swath of territory stretching from the Middle East to southern Asia. From the Indian perspective, the greatest threat was posed by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, as British officers in the region feared a Soviet attack through Afghanistan. Yet their ability to meet such an attack was constrained by the small size of the Indian army, which was geared towards more of a constabulary role than one of conflict against the military of a modern Western power. Efforts to train and equip Indian soldiers for more of a traditional battlefield role were hampered by a variety of factors, key among them being a lack of proper equipment and British beliefs about the "martial races" in Indian society. As a result, Indian mobilization was slow and half-hearted.
This changed with Japan's attack on Britain's empire in southeast Asia. The Japanese offensive in Malaya and Burma transformed the situation dramatically, as British military power crumbled before it. Indian units quickly demonstrated the limits of their military training, as they disintegrated in the face of aggressive Japanese forces. Raghavan describes the full impact of the war coming before India's doorstep, with hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing the Japanese advance and evacuating the eastern coastal cities in fear of a possible Japanese invasion. Yet as he details, it was at this point when India was fully committed to the struggle. Resources and equipment poured in to equip a rapidly expanding Indian army, which received better treatment and more extensive training than before. The improved results could be seen in 1944, when Indian forces proved more than a match for the Japanese army in the battles in Burma, allowing the British to retake the colony. An awakened India soon proved too difficult for a weakened Britain to manage, however, with the war's legacy contributing to the British decision to grant independence just two years after it ended.
Raghavan's book provides readers with a much-needed account of India's vital part in the Second World War. It is impressively comprehensive, covering not just the role played by India's soldiers, but the political, economic, and social impact of the war on India as well. Such a vast topic can sometimes overwhelm a book yet Raghavan's grasp of his material is impressively secure, veering off course only during his chapters covering the roles played by Indian troops in the Middle East and North African, in which his narrative deviates into more of a general history of the campaigns in those regions. Yet this does nothing to detract from the merits of a book that should be read by anyone interested in modern Indian history or the history of the Second World War, thanks to its long overdue coverage of a subject that straddles both subjects.
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review 2020-05-20 21:32
A work unsurpassed in its passion for its subject
A History of the British Cavalry, 1816-1919, Volume I: 1816-1850 - Henry Paget, 7th Marquess of Anglesey

When I was growing up one of the board games I enjoyed playing most was Risk. Part of the game involved a deck of “territory cards” on which, in addition to the color-coded territories depicted on the map, there were silhouettes of Napoleonic-era soldiers and weapons depicting infantry, artillery, and cavalry. While the infantry and artillery were and still are relatable arms to people today, the cavalry seemed much more representative of the forces of a bygone era, with their role both esoteric and archaic.


Yet the cavalry remains a subject of great fascination for many. Among their number was Henry Paget, the seventh Marquess of Anglesey. The descendant of a cavalry commander who served during the Napoleonic wars, Anglesey spent over three decades writing a multi-volume history of the British cavalry from their heyday in the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo to their obsolescence a century later. It is a monumental work in the truest sense of the term, one that details an arm and the men who served in it.


The first volume of Anglesey’s work, which covers the three and a half decades following the Napoleonic wars, is a book of three parts. The first part is an extended prologue that traces the history of the British cavalry from its origins as an elite force of armored knights on horseback to their more specialized employment for reconnaissance and as a strike force in the early modern era. What emerges from these pages is the sense of constant evolution facing the cavalry, as they adjusted to the ever-shifting conditions of war in ways that maintained their usefulness in battle, albeit sometimes in very different roles.


After a chapter summarizing the post-Napoleonic reductions in the cavalry and their employment in domestic police work (a role which became increasingly obsolete with the development of a dedicated police force), Anglesey moves on to the second part of his book, which details the social history of the cavalry. Here he explains in more detail the different types of cavalry, their assigned functions, and the lives of the officers and men who served in their regiments. The life he describes was a hard one, made even more difficult by the penny-pinching of successive peacetime governments. Here he covers as well the composition of the Indian cavalry employed by the British, showing the increasingly imperial composition of the British forces during the era.


Having described the lives of the men who served in the cavalry, Anglesey then shifts his focus to describing the wars of the era in which they served. This forms the final part of his book, and offers a cavalry-centric account of over a half-dozen campaigns waged on the Indian subcontinent. Anglesey’s coverage here is very traditional, often adopting the perspective and tone of the accounts from the era. As with his earlier chapters he describes a service that remained wedded to Napoleonic tactics and methods of training, which while increasingly obsolescent still were adequate for the wars in which the cavalry were employed. As Anglesey concludes, it was only with the challenges that the cavalry would face in the 1850s, that the need for change became obvious.


By the end of the book Anglesey succeeds in demythologizing a force which is too often stereotyped by its caricatures. While somewhat limited in terms of its research and dated in its interpretations, it nonetheless stands as the indispensable starting point for anyone interested in learning about the British cavalry or the post-Napoleonic British army more generally. In terms of the depth of the author’s understanding and his passion for the topic, though, it is unlikely every to be surpassed.

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review 2020-05-08 18:00
Podcast #183 is up!
The Emperor Jahangir: Power and Kingship in Mughal India - Lisa Balabanlilar

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Lisa Balabanlilar about her biography of the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Enjoy!

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review 2020-05-01 14:44
Good biography of an overshadowed emperor
The Emperor Jahangir: Power and Kingship in Mughal India - Lisa Balabanlilar

Sandwiched as his reign was by those of his father Akbar and his son Shah Jahan and subsequently overshadowed as he was by his remarkable consort Nur Jahan, the Mughal emperor Jahangir has received short shrift in the historical memory. Lisa Balabanlilar’s book rectifies much of this by providing a clear and sympathetic account of Jahangir's life that, while acknowledging his flaws, rebuts many of the claims that contributed to his historical marginalization. Yet her book is more than just a biography of Jahangir, as she uses his life as a window into the Mughal emperorship at its peak, showing how it operates and expressed the power of its occupant. It makes for a book that is rewarding reading not just for those interested in Jahangir but anyone interested in learning about the Mughal empire and how it was ruled.

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review 2019-05-30 19:33
Gotten as a Kindle Freebie
Gujarat: The History of the Indian State from the Ancient Indus Valley Civilization to Today - Charles River Editors

Brief but good overview. Includes pre-history and post-partition.

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