Saga of valour and glory
B. G. Verghese

Izzat: Historical Records and Iconography of Indian Cavalry Regiments 1750-2007
by Ashok Nath. 
Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research, United Services Institution of India, New Delhi.
Pages 828. Rs 6,000.

THE Indian Army has a proud history, its lineage dating back to Mughal times when princely regiments and irregulars were raised from 1750 onwards. The most renowned among these formations were the dreaded and daring cavalry. It is of this arm that Ashok Nath, a former Captain and cavalry officer, writes with a splendid array of illustrations of badges, emblems and insignia worn by these units as they evolved over time.

Nath quotes a 19th-century cavalry officer being asked of what use the cavalry was in modern warfare. Came the reply: "It does lend a little style to what would otherwise merely be an ugly brawl!" To which he might have added that the cavalry also added a considerable punch in firepower together with speed and ample scope for manouvere following the transition from mounted cavalry to armoured vehicles post-First World War. Hitlerís panzer divisions cut through Europe and fierce tank battles were fought in Russia and North Africa.

The Mongols were no doubt great horsemen, but it was the invention of the stirrup that enabled them to use their bows and arrows at the gallop to sweep across the steppes to Central and South Asia and into Europe.

Nath notes that the East India Company believed the cavalry was an extravagance and initially preferred getting such units as were recruited on loan from native rulers such as the Nawab of Arcot and the Nawab of Awadh. French ascendancy caused it to change its mind. The three Presidency armies, starting with Madras and then Bengal and Bombay, raised their own cavalry regiments, with the Bengal lancers later becoming the Governor-General, now Presidentís, Bodyguard, the oldest regiment in the Indian Army.

Two systems were in vogue at the time: the paigah system, under which the horses and arms were owned by princes and the horsemen were hired by them, though the attachment was not as loose as might appear. The other was the khudaspa or silladar system, under which each horseman brought his own mount, arms and accoutrements. These units were generally commanded by the Indians.

After 1784, the Company began raising its own British-commanded cavalry units, often leaving the task to irregular or regular officers who gave their names to the units they raised. Thus, Skinnerís Horse, Hodsonís Horse, Probynís Horse, Gardnerís Horse and so on, though some bore territorial nomenclatures such as Central India Horse, Poona Horse, and the Deccan Horse, formerly of the Nizamís forces. The Punjab units came last as British power expanded northwest, the Guides Cavalry being one of the earliest to be raised to scout the way forward. The Aden Troop was permanently stationed in Aden until it was disbanded in 1927. Fresh wars and conquests brought new units into being, some as a result of mergers and reorganisation.

The Great Uprising of 1857 brought about a major change. Many units that mutinied were disbanded. New raisings were made single-denomination and the tradition of mixed Hindu-Muslim regiments became a thing of the past. The First World War brought many more changes. The silladar system was finally given up with the existing 39 regiments being reorganised in 21 units. Further reorganisation saw the birth of the Indian Armoured Corps in 1937. By 1941, the old horse cavalry had been completely mechanised and new armoured units were raised and saw action on many fronts. However, 1947 saw the partitioning of the Indian Army between India and Pakistan. Of the 18 remaining armoured regiments, 12 came to India and six went to Pakistan. It was a sad parting, but Ashok Nath has carefully documented the fortunes of the units that went to the other side.

The volume narrates the history of each cavalry unit and traces its development from the first raising to its merger or disbandment. The basic genealogy is followed by notes on engagements fought, battle honours, its uniform, badges and emblems, motto, awards, ethnic composition and regimental march.

To the layman, the badges and emblems will be a perennial fascination. To those who served and their families, these are vignettes of personal historyóof valour, courage and death, sometimes in a foreign land. The mottos tell the story: For Ashok Nath, " was a labour of love, a product of years of meticulous research in many places. The volume breaks new ground and will be treasured by both the military historians and those interested in regimental lore. The USOI has rendered a real service in sponsoring this volume and has done well to call upon the author to write a companion volume on Indiaís even more numerous infantry units.