Sahib, p.12
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       Sahib, p.12

           Richard Holmes



  With home-bred hordes the hillsides teem.

  The troopships bring us one by one,

  At vast expense of time and steam,

  To slay Afridis where they run.

  The ‘captives of our bow and spear’

  Are cheap, alas! as we are dear.

  KIPLING, ‘Arithmetic on the Frontier’


  WHITEHALL OFTEN has an engaging way of imagining that soldiers somehow lie at the heart of its problems. ‘The British soldier is a very expensive instrument,’ lamented Lord Cranborne, Secretary of State for India in 1866–67.

  One day, it is an estimate on a portentous scale for new barracks in new places, because he cannot stand the ordinary climate of India; another day, it is estimates for gymnastic institutes to give him exercise; then, for books to amuse his leisure hours, then a lumping sum for gas, because oil tries his eyes; then, for an ice-making machine to improve his dessert; then for separate cottages for married couples, because the wives like to keep cocks and hens; and – not to enumerate more items – an enormous bill for regimental beer, because Messrs Whitbread cannot brew good enough beer for him.

  He wondered whether there might not be ‘races that have neither Koran nor caste to defend, nor depraved rulers to avenge’, who could not stand in for the British soldier, for it was ‘no improbable contingency’ that recruiting difficulties and the sheer expense of maintaining 65,000 British soldiers in India would soon force a substantial withdrawal.1

  The problem was simple enough. The British army and, until 1858, the Company, had to recruit, arm, equip and train sufficient officers and men to fill the ranks of HM’s regiments in India, to provide officers and specialists for locally recruited units, to ensure an adequate supply of manpower to make up for routine wastage, and to maintain some sort of reserve to meet unexpected shocks. And it had to do all this half a world away, near the very limit of Britain’s logistic reach.

  Just getting to India involved a long and often perilous sea voyage. For the first century of British occupation this involved sailing round the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean, at the mercy of the weather and, during frequent continental wars, of French warships and privateers. From the mid-eighteenth century the voyage was generally made in East Indiamen, such as the Maidstone, a four-masted sailing ship of 8–900 tons, which took the newly commissioned Ensign Garnet Wolseley of HM’s 80th Foot to India in 1852 under the command of Captain Peter Roe.

  He kept up the reputation of the old class of vessels known as East Indiamen, a class then fast disappearing, and entirely unknown to the present generation. His officers were men of good manners, and the ship’s crew were all good British sailors, except the boatswain, a first-rate man all round, who was either a Dane or a Swede … 2

  Colonel Arthur Wesley of HM’s 33rd left England by fast frigate in June 1796, caught up with his regiment at the Cape, and made the rest of the voyage in the Indiaman Queen Charlotte, he reached Calcutta in February 1797. Transformed into Major General Sir Arthur Wellesley, victor of Assaye, he left Calcutta aboard HMS Trident on 10 March 1805, and anchored off Dover on 10 September. The advent of paddle-steamers in the 1830s made the journey faster and less hazardous, but it was still by no means safe. The troopship Birkenhead, lost off the coast of South Africa in February 1852, was a modern iron-built steamer, but struck a submerged rock some fifty miles out from Simon’s Bay. The soldiers aboard obeyed the order ‘Women and children first’, and stood steady in rank and file on the open deck as she sank, giving the women and children a chance to get away in the ship’s boats. Captain Wright of the 91st, one of the few officers to survive, wrote of how:

  The order and regularity that prevailed on board, from the time the ship struck until she totally disappeared, far exceeded anything I thought could be exceeded by the best discipline; and it is to be the more wondered at, seeing that most of the soldiers were but a short time in the Service. Everyone did as he was directed, and there was not a murmur or a cry among them until the ship made her final plunge. I could not name any individual officer who did more than another. All received their orders and carried them out as if the men were embarking instead of going to the bottom; there was only this difference; that I never saw any embarkation conducted with so little noise or confusion.3

  Of the 693 passengers and crew aboard Birkenhead, 454, the majority of the soldiers aboard, were lost.4

  By the 1870s most officers and men went to India in what Second Lieutenant Callwell remembered as ‘leviathans, the five Indian troopers, for these were over 7,000 tons, which meant a big ship in those times, and, designed on particularly graceful lines and painted a white that was almost dazzling at the start, barque-rigged moreover with huge yards, they were remarkably fine-looking vessels’. They may have looked fine enough, but Private John Fraser of the 5th Fusiliers thought that his voyage aboard HM troopship Crocodile in 1880 was ‘as bad, probably, as anything you may have read about in the most lurid of your excursions into popular fiction’.5

  Soldiers generally embarked on the Thames, the Medway or from the south coast of England. For most of the period all HM’s regiments in India maintained small depots in barracks at Chatham: the Company’s depot was there too until 1843, when it moved to the small Essex town of Warley. In 1852 Garnet Wolseley reported at Chatham Barracks, and found it ‘overcrowded with boy recruits, chiefly obtained from Ireland, and ensigns of all ages waiting for conveyance to India’. ‘Like all other ensigns,’ wrote Wolseley,

  I was allotted one very small room as my quarters. It had the usual barrack table and two chairs; the rest of the furniture, as is usual in all barracks, I had to find myself. The officers’ quarters were very old and abominably bad. An old great-uncle of mine told me that he had towards the end of the previous century occupied a room in the house where I was now lodged. It was, he said, even then generally understood that these quarters were so bad that they had been condemned as unfit for use.

  It was believed that the barrack master and his sergeants made a tidy living out of charging young officers for ‘barrack damages’ committed long before. ‘A cracked pane of glass,’ said Wolseley, ‘was a small silver-mine to these men. Fifty ensigns may have occupied the quarter with this cracked pane in it, and all had to pay for a new one.’ Shortly before embarking, he was billed for a latch-key. He had it in his pocket, and offered it to the sergeant, who continued to demand the money. Wolseley, with an early demonstration of the panache that was to take him to the very top of the army, furiously threw it into the river.6 Private Richard Perkes lived in an even less opulent barrack block, but expected less from life, as he told his brother in July 1841:

  I do not no whether you know of my enlistment in the Honourable East India Company. I hope that you are as happy as I for I never was so happy in my life as what I ham now for I have plenty of everything that is needful and there is a school to go to and plenty of books to read and a good Bible and prayer Book … It is expected that I should go out of England either 31 of this month or the middle of the next to bengale in the east indies … It takes them a bout five months sailing on the sea there is 4 hundred a going of every month … 7

  Soldiers and their families bound for, or returning from, India sailed either as part of the planned move of an entire regiment, which might require two or more ships, as drafts to reinforce units already in India, or as parties of invalids or men due for discharge back in Britain. Regiments bound for India marched or travelled by train to a major port of embarkation like Portsmouth, while smaller drafts generally set off from Chatham. Private soldiers sailed in formed drafts, usually commanded by officers and sergeants of their own regiments. Officers might either sail as draft-conducting officers, or travel privately, with an allowance given them by government or Company. Lieutenant Charles Scott, sailing in January 1861, was delighted to hear that: ‘my application for a passage had been granted or rather th
at the regulated allowance would be paid me to find my way out to India. I accordingly made my way up to town and took a passage on the Ellora for the 12th to Bombay.’ He was at Suez (‘a most awful hole’) on the 27th, Aden on 2 February, and arrived at Bombay on 10 February after as uneventful a journey as any traveller could hope for.8

  Just over ten years before, Second Lieutenant Kendall Coghill of 2nd Bengal European Fusiliers, had travelled round the Cape in ‘a fine tea clipper of 600 tons … [and] wasted 103 days in love, war and idleness’ before seeing land.9 Even before the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, it was possible to sail across the Mediterranean and travel through Egypt to resume the journey in the Red Sea, and this became increasingly popular after 1837. On 20 February 1852, Second Lieutenant Fred Roberts of the Bengal Artillery took the Ripon, a P&O steamer, from Southampton to Alexandria, and then boarded a Nile canal boat for Cairo. Here he stayed, like many young officers before and since, at Shepheard’s Hotel. Charles Scott observed that the canal journey to Cairo was ‘130 miles and they take 7 hours to do it. The country is very uninteresting and flat as a pancake.’ After booking in at Shepheard’s, ‘Hockley and I thought of riding to the Pyramids but found it would be too much of an undertaking as they are 10 miles off and the road bad & the Nile has to be crossed on a ferry’.10 Many of those who took the trouble to see the Sphinx seemed to find the creature disappointing:

  It is certain that age, or that neglect which imparts, in time, a vinegar aspect to the countenance of the most comely belle, has bereft the Sphinx of all her benignity. To my perception the colossal head (all that now remains) very closely resembles, when seen in profile, a cynical doctor of laws, with wig awry, suffering strangulation per tight cravat.11

  From Cairo Second Lieutenant Roberts found himself transported the 90 miles across the desert to Suez in ‘a conveyance closely resembling a bathing-machine, which accommodated six people, and was drawn by four mules’. He then took the paddle-steamer Oriental via Madras to Calcutta, arriving there on 1 April.12 Sergeant Robert Taylor of HM’s 64th made the same trip in 1858, with the difference that his comrades were provided with donkeys for the overland leg.

  This was the most laughable journey I ever had, every minute some man was going over his donkey’s head. The heat was very great, but no men fell out during this ride. The donkeys were most wonderful little animals, they performed the journey never halting and without water.13

  The cross-desert trip was well organised. Horses were changed every ten or twelve miles, and at the way-stations there was a meal of eggs, mutton chops, stewed chicken, roast pigeon, eggs, with bottled beer and tea or coffee. There was a hotel at the halfway point, with a chance of some sleep of sorts. At Suez, passengers destined for Ceylon, Madras and Calcutta boarded large P&O steamers. These were altogether more popular that the East India Company’s steamers, whose notoriously crusty officers were apparently ‘dead against the passengers and dead against’ the steamships which did the Bombay run. After the East India Company’s demise, the Oriental and Peninsular Steam Navigation Company (now with the ‘Oriental’ and ‘Peninsular’ reversed to produce the more familiar P&O) took over, and the short rations of the Company steamers were replaced with magnificent menus and ‘a fusillade of soda water . . ,’.14

  Lieutenant John Corneille left for India in 1754 with HM’s 39th as part of a small fleet, with his own regiment and an artillery detachment of seventy men and twelve short 6-pounder guns, crammed into the armed Indiamen Kent, London and Britannia. The latter vessel had 237 men ‘with livestock and provisions of all kinds laid on at the expense of the Company’, which was deeply anxious to get a British battalion to India.15 His voyage was uneventful, although the early loss of a gunner, who fell overboard while drawing up a bucket of water, warned the men that the sea could be dangerous even when it seemed calm:

  Though a boat was let down in less than three minutes, and though the day was fine and the sea calm, yet he sank at about sixty yards’ distance in view of all the men on board. It was an introduction to the dangers of the sea and had at least this good effect, that it made our landsmen more cautious than they were at first.16

  Lieutenant John Luard of HM’s 16th Light Dragoons had formerly served as a midshipman in the Royal Navy, so was less concerned about his voyage than another officer who feared ‘one hundred and twenty days in a sea prison, with a plank between one and eternity’. Luard sailed for India aboard the Marchioness of Ely, with the other half of the regiment on General Hewett. One officer recalled that ‘Old Die, the boatswain’, told him ‘that if he had been sent through hell with a small toothcomb he could not have picked up a more lousy crew’. They shared the ship with forty-four dozen ducks and hens, fifty-six pigs and seventy sheep. ‘The men were paraded each day to see that they were clean,’ wrote Luard, ‘and in hot weather they were paraded without shoes and stockings to see that their feet were washed and clean; their berths below were inspected daily and hammocks, unless the weather prevented, were sent on deck.’ The voyage took 121 days in all, and just before its end ‘Sergeant Major Maloney’s poor little child that had been ill nearly the whole of the voyage died, and was thrown over the sea gangway’.17

  Women and children were regular passengers because a proportion of soldiers leaving for India were allowed to take their families with them. There were far fewer vacancies than there were ‘married families’, which led to heart-rending scenes as husbands and wives said farewell on the dockside. Regiments might be away for many years, and so a couple separated by a posting to India might very well be severed for ever. John Corneille reported:

  a remarkable instance of love and resolution on the part of the wife of one of our corporals. The poor creature, passionately fond of her husband and loath to leave him, hoped that by disguising herself in the habit of a soldier she might remain undetected for some days and so make the voyage with him.

  She was taken before the captain, still insisting that she was male, but quickly confessed her gender when ordered to show her chest. The regiment collected 20 shillings for her, and she was sent ashore ‘without enquiring if the husband was privy to the plot’, testifying to a degree of official sympathy.18

  If a wife could remain concealed until a vessel was well under way she was likely to succeed in staying with her husband. Private John Pearman’s comrades of the 3rd Light Dragoons managed to smuggle ‘four young married women’ when they left for India from Gravesend aboard Thetis in 1845. In 1869, Mrs Johnson and Mrs Burns stowed away aboard the transport Flying Foam. On her arrival in India, Mrs Johnson was allowed to stay in the barracks of HM’s 58th Foot ‘as she has no other place to go’, and Mrs Burns was simply added to the authorised wives’ strength of her husband’s regiment, 107th Foot.

  Some children could be a real nuisance, as Major Bayley discovered when he left Bombay for England in 1858 aboard the steamer Ottawa with:

  sick and wounded men, and widows and orphans – and heaven forbid that I should ever again find myself on board ship in company with children brought up in India. They were perfect little devils; and for the first day or two we had a fine time of it, as many of the passengers were cripples, and unable to move after them … Trench of the 52nd … was the terror of mischievous and impertinent children. When a complaint was made to him respecting the bad behaviour of one of them, he sought out the offender, whom he smilingly led away, paying no attention to the remonstrances of its mamma, to the fore part of the deck; from whence, a few moments after, a sound resembling the clapping of hands, accompanied by loud howls, was heard; after which the culprit was allowed to join his angry parent.

  In a few days the effect of this discipline was very apparent; and peace and comfort pretty nearly established. There were one or two young persons who continued to be troublesome, but a call for Trench never failed to send them to their cabins double quick.19

  ‘When all were aboard the good ship the word was given to weigh anchor and the band played “God Save the Queen”,
wrote Private Pearman.

  We were now employed in getting out our sea kits and utensils for cooking, and being told off into messes – six each mess. Then we got our hammocks down and were shown how to tie them up and get into them. We were as close together as the fingers on our hands … There was little to do on board ship but play cards and sing in fine weather: parade twice a day, once for health, clean feet and body, and once for muster. Food was very good and I got very stout. A comrade named Hamilton, a tailor, learnt me the use of the needle, which I found afterwards to be very useful to me.20

  Pearman was lucky, because the weather was fine for most of his voyage. But Private Henry Metcalfe of HM’s 32nd Foot, who left Chatham on 14 June 1849, experienced

  a very stormy voyage, being in a very severe storm off the Cape of Good Hope on the 15th, 16th and 17th August, in which we were what sailors term battened down between hatches without food or drink the whole of that time. We lost on that occasion two of our boats, the bulwarks stove in, our jib boom taken away, also our fore and main top masts, with the running and standing rigging. There was 2½ feet of water on the Troop Deck.21

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