INDIA AT THE SHARPE END escape india In the footsteps of Wellington -and fictional hero Sharpe - BILL COLES marches off to the battle sites of southern India.
The Daily Mail (London, England); 4/12/2006
Byline: BILL COLES
In the footsteps of Wellington -and fictional hero Sharpe -BILL COLES marches off to the battle sites of southern India WALKING through the rubble of the Gawilghur gatehouse in the state of Maharashtra in central India, I had an eerie sense of the scores of British redcoats who fought and died on the same spot.
For to visit a battle site is to have a strange communion with the past and with those who have trodden the same turf before you.
This is never more true than at the sites of Wellington's Indian battles, many of which have hardly been touched in two centuries.
At the legendary Gawilghur Fort, there still remains the only extant breach from the entire Napoleonic era. Scale the rubble to the steep walls, and you can almost hear the rumble of cannon fire and the crack and pop of enemy musket rounds.
Few people know that Wellington - then just Arthur Wellesley - fought in India against the French for control of the region.
But from 1796 until 1805, he cut his teeth there, developing from a battalion commander into the seasoned general who would come to rout Napoleon at Waterloo.
And one of the great beauties of most of Wellington's battle sites is that the action seen there has been brought to life by Britain's most prolific author, Bernard Cornwell.
More than 20 years ago, Cornwell created Britain's best-loved soldier, the Greenjacket Richard Sharpe, and wherever Wellington fought in the world, Sharpe seems to have followed him.
Cornwell's 20 Sharpe books have also been turned into a hugely popular TV series, and this month viewers will be treated to a slice of Sharpe (played by Sean Bean) in India.
Being enthralled by Cornwell's battle descriptions is one thing. To visit Gawilghur and Seringapatam, near Bangalore, is quite another. Once I was on the battlefields, it was the actual events that mesmerised me.
My weeklong trip was organised by Holts Tours, Britain's premier battlefield tour operator. They normally specialise in the two World Wars, the Napoleonic Wars and the American Civil War, but are steadily branching out to India, Africa and even the Falklands. Cornwell himself used Holts to research Sharpe's battles.
At first I was dubious about going on a weeklong tour with a dozen battle aficionados. But it was these enthusiasts who helped bring the battlefields to life.
Between them and our group leader, Captain Mick Holtby, there was not one single piece of Wellington trivia we did not have at our fingertips.
The Battle of Seringapatam, in 1799, is famous for a number of reasons - not least because it was here that Wellington suffered his one and only military reverse. A night action to capture a small spinney went awry, and Wellington was so mortified that he never embarked on an open ground attack during darkness again.
Like most of Wellington's battles, Seringapatam was a skirmish with the French. The Tipu Sultan - the ruler of the kingdom of Mysore who was described by Europeans as a short, fat man, dripping with jewels - had allied himself to France, and as such needed to be taught a lesson.
AT Seringapatam he was holed up in a seemingly impregnable fortress with 30,000 soldiers.
Wellington did exactly what he was to do with a score of fortresses across the Continent.
The outer walls were peppered with cannon-fire until a breach had been created, and then shock troops stormed through the gap.
The first man into the breach was always promoted, and you can still stand on the spot at Seringapatam where a Sergeant Graham climbed to the top of the breach, planted his flagstaff into the rubble and bellowed: 'Lieutenant Graham now!' A moment later he was shot dead.
At Seringapatam there are dungeons and a courtyard where the Tipu used to delight in watching his Jetti strongmen snapping captured redcoats' necks.
The Water Gate, gloomy and untouched in 200 years, is where the Tipu was shot in the head as he tried to flee.
When his body was found, it had been stripped of every one of his jewels, including a ruby from his turban that was the size of a pigeon's egg.
Wellington was to describe the 1803 battle of Assaye as the finest battle of his life. Assaye is barely more than a few scrubby fields today, but you can still see the ford where Wellington was to display the hallmarks of genius.
Wellington needed to cross the River Kaitna. His local guides insisted there were no fords nearby, but he saw two villages on either side of the river and reasoned you couldn't have two villages so close together without a way of getting between them.
He was the first to plunge into the river on his horse Diomed (shot from under him later that day), and must have been mightily relieved when his hunch proved to be correct and the river was shallow enough to cross.
The fortress at Gawilghur was the last of Wellington's battles in India, and is one of the most breathtaking battle sites you will ever see.
Atop 2,000ft cliffs that plunge straight to the Deccan Plain, it was deemed to be invulnerable - but when Wellington's troops swept its walls with fire in 1803, the warring Mahrattas realised that their only option was to sue for peace.
For although the gatehouse did prove to be unassailable, some 80 soldiers from the Scotch Brigade scaled the outer cliffs and opened up the gates from the inside to let in a wave of redcoats. Around 4,000 Mahratta troops were put to the sword.
Eerie indeed. As I said, once you know the story behind a place, it gives a whole new dimension to the experience.
* HOLTS Tours' (01293 455 300, holts.co.uk) next trip through Wellington's India is scheduled for November 15-26.The trip costs [pounds sterling]3,175 per person, including flights, all meals and accommodation, based on two sharing. British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Mumbai.
* Browse hundreds of hotels in India at thisistravel.co.uk * Sharpe's Challenge, ITV, April 23 and 24.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Solo Syndication Limited