England, 1853. Young William Carey is hard-working, when he wants to be – like becoming an expert billiards player. Otherwise, he’s lazy and too fond of money. When he’s sent down from Cambridge, his father buys him a commission in a Bengal Native Infantry regiment, which has no social cachet at all.
India in 1856 is on the verge of rebellion. Either the resulting conflagration will destroy William or he will come good. Unlike most of his fellow officers, he learns both Hindi and Persian and gets to know his men, who begin to treat him with respect. But he also learns to work the system; skilfully manoeuvring towards transferring to an administrative post where the pay is higher and there are more opportunities for making money – not all of them scrupulous. As Welch puts it: ‘he had an unfailing instinct for doing himself a good turn.’ Then the Indian mutiny erupts and William’s financial ambitions come to an abrupt halt…
I really enjoyed this book. William is not your usual Welch hero; his morals won’t bear close examination, for a start. But I enjoyed the way he gets his own back, via the billiard table, on those who take him for a ‘flat’, and his ingenuity in getting himself out of tricky situations. He treats his Bengali soldiers as fellow-human beings, which is more than most officers did, and he’s clear-eyed about the fatal complacency of the high command.
Welch is very good at getting across the Indian Army generals’ erroneous assumptions about what will happen. William, a bit of a wide boy, sees exactly what is going on – but how far he will look after number one and leave other vulnerable people to their fates? It makes for a gripping read. Boys of 11 plus should love it.