Sahib, p.2Richard Holmes
Despite services of which any British officer might have been proud, there were constant difficulties over Skinner’s status, and when he was recommended for the Companionship of the Order of the Bath there were complaints that he did not, strictly speaking, hold a commission, but enjoyed only local rank. One of his many supporters observed that: ‘Out of the numerous individuals in Spain and Portugal to whom brevet commissions have been granted, name one who has done more to serve the state.’15 The Court of Directors ruled in 1829 that:
Lieut-Colonel Skinner, holding from His Majesty the local rank of Lieut-Colonel in India, must necessarily entitle him to all the advantages arising from the possession of his commission; and, consequently, to take rank according to the date of it, with the officers of the King’s and our service … 16
James Skinner and his sons feature in these pages, and it would have been a very rash subordinate who withheld from them the title of sahib. If there are fewer mixed-race sahibs in these pages than there ought to be, you must blame the East India Company, not the author.
Although this is not a history of the Indian army, the story of the British soldier in India is so closely entwined with that of his Indian comrade in arms that I can draw no sharp distinctions: nor would I wish to. Though relations between British and Indian soldiers were never quite the same after the great Mutiny of 1857–58, on either side of this shocking and traumatic episode there were often close and cordial relations between British and Indian soldiers, and a sense of shared endeavour curls across the period like that most pervasive of Indian scents, the smoke from cow-dung fires. A stone in the little Pakistani town of Gilgit – where the Karakoram highway winds down from the Hunza valley and the Chinese border – pays tribute to the memory of Captain Claye Ross of the 14th Sikhs, killed near Korgah on 10 March 1895, and also ‘to that of 45 brave Sikhs who were killed at the same time’. Although the abundant source material enables me to do justice to the British soldiers who served in India, neither the available records nor my own linguistic limitations enable me to write with such confidence about Jack Sepoy.17
First to last there was something wholly distinctive about soldiering in India. To some it became a passion verging on the obsessional, far less to do with big ideas such as ‘Empire’ than a compelling personal involvement in the big bright caravanserai of an army that was entirely sui generis, never more or less than Anglo-Indian. Ensign William Hodson, a clergyman’s son and, unusually for the age, a university graduate, saw the pre-Mutiny army in all its ancient splendour as he moved up to his first battle, Mudki, in December 1845:
I wonder more every day at the ease and magnitude of the arrangements, and the varied and interesting picture continually before our eyes. Soon after 4 a.m. the bugle sounds the reveille and the whole mass is astir at once. The smoke of the evening fires has by this time blown away and everything stands out clear and defined in the bright moonlight. The sepoys bring the straw from their tents and make fires to warm their black faces on all sides and the groups of swarthy redcoats stooping over the blaze with a white background of canvas and the dark clear sky behind all produces a most picturesque effect as one turns out into the cold. The multitude of camels, horses and elephants, in all imaginable groups and positions – the groans and cries of the former as they stoop and kneel for their burdens, the neighing of the hundreds of horses mingling with the shouts of the innumerable servants and their masters’ calls, the bleating of the sheep and goats, and, louder than all, the shrill screams of the Hindoo women, almost bedevil one’s senses as one treads one’s way through the canvas streets and squares to the place where the regiment assembles outside the camp.
Riding forward with his regiment he saw the East India Company’s army looking almost as it might have done nearly a century before:
The stern, determined-looking British footmen, side by side with their tall and swarthy brethren from the Ganges and Jumna – the Hindu, the Mussulman, and the white man, all obeying the same word, and acknowledging the same common tie; next to these a large brigade of guns, with a mixture of all colours and creeds; then more regiments of foot, the whole closed up by the regiments of native cavalry; the quiet looking and English dressed troopers strangely contrasting with the wild Irregulars in all the fanciful un-uniformity of their costume; yet these last are the men I fancy for service.18
It was a prophetic comment, for Hodson – brave, hard as nails and deeply controversial – was eventually to raise his own irregular cavalry regiment, Hodson’s Horse, which left a bloody track behind it during the Mutiny. ‘I never let my men take any prisoners,’ he wrote, ‘but shoot them at once.’ In one sense he represented ‘that side of themselves which the British in India preferred not to see’. He was mortally wounded at Lucknow in March 1858 and was buried there in the grounds of the La Martinière school.19 His tombstone bore the words: ‘Here lies all that could die of William Stephen Raikes Hodson.’ For all his reputation as a looter, when his effects were auctioned, as was the custom, by his comrades, they fetched only £170, and his much-loved widow Susan was spared poverty only because the Secretary of State for India gave her a special grant. His regiment later formed the 9th and 10th Bengal Lancers, and survives to this day in the Indian army, an example of a thread of continuity that was often twisted but never broken.20
It is impossible to think of the British in India without paladins such as Hodson, John Nicholson, Henry Lawrence and Herbert Edwardes. But they were always in a minority, even amongst British soldiers. Far more of the protagonists in British India never held the Company’s, King’s or Queen’s commission, and many, like Private George Smith, who served in India in the 1870s, had their own very distinctive views of the country and its people.
In India’s clime, ‘midst dust and boiling heat,
Where swaddies are tumbled with their sweaty feet,
The land of pumpkins, melons and bananas,
Where soldiers’ pay is reckoned up by annas,
Where people of their clothes cannot much brag,
But walk out gaily in a clean arse rag.
The natives’ bodies give a sweet perfume,
Like old dead horses smelling in full bloom.
The land of sand-fly, mosquitoes and bugs,
That fly round buzzing in a soldier’s lugs.
Sleep away and sweat comes out like tallow,
And rolling about, he damns the Punkah wallah,
Calls him a sowar, which is nothing new,
Or cracks his head with an ammunition shoe.
If that doesn’t do for natives’ skulls are thick
He tries to rouse him with a well aimed brick …
The cooks come crying take your coffee sahib,
And various merchants bawling out cold pop,
Curried tripe, cow heel, boiled sausages and sop,
And other curious smelling doses,
It would make most epicures turn up their noses.
And coves crying shove up those bloody tatties,
Or that damned bheestie has not filled the chatties.
And parrots squeaking, mad soldiers roaring,
And blokes on charpoys sleeping hard and snoring.21
So many ingredients of military life in India are here. The punkah wallah tugging the string that moved the punkah – a swinging fan hung from the ceiling; sowar – actually a trooper in an Indian cavalry regiment – remained a term of abuse left over from the Mutiny; tatties were grass mats used to cover windows in hot weather, kept wet in an effort to reduce room temperature; a bheestie (like Kipling’s Gunga Din) was a water-carrier; a chatty was a spherical earthenware water pot, and a charpoy (a word still used in the British army until recently) a bed.
But writing about India presents a particular problem, because spelling, transliteration and terminology have changed. An author is often faced with the alternative of using outdated spellings which are nonetheless familiar to an English-speaking readership, or adopting current spellings which make history i
The quest for consistent transliteration would compel us to cross a bridge too far. We have already seen William Hodson write about Hindoos and Hindus in the same piece. The title pages of Richard Burton’s three books on Sind all rendered the spelling of the province differently, and although I style the place Sind, I cannot deny that the local regiments had Scinde in their title. Amongst the graves in Rajpura cemetery, Delhi, are those of two officers killed in the same battle, rendered on one tombstone as Badlee Surai and on the other as Badli ka Sarai. Lieutenant Richard Barter, who survived the battle, preferred Badli ke Serai, and so, generally, do I. Where I give an individual a rank it is generally the one he held at the time in question: Fred Roberts died a field marshal and a peer, but he was a subaltern on most of the occasions when I mention him.
Lastly, the India I write about now consists of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (with Burma administered by the British as part of India for much of the period). The old Indian army brought together men of many religions and none, and it is almost impossible to resist the conclusion that Partition was one of Britain’s less fortunate legacies. I have wandered about many of the battlefields described on the pages that follow, crossing the little River Cauvery to see where British cannon balls gouged the walls of Tipu’s fortress of Seringapatam in 1799, trudged through the mud (for it was the tail end of the monsoon) across Arthur Wellesley’s – the future Duke of Wellington’s – 1803 battlefield of Assaye, and looked, from the urban sprawl of Delhi’s Kashmir Gate, towards the ridge from which the British attacked the city. Perhaps most memorably, five years ago, I rode from Gilgit across the Shandur Pass to Chitral, brushing the Afghan frontier with my right sleeve, in the steps of Lieutenant Colonel James Kelly’s tiny force which raised the siege of Chitral in 1895. We rode into Chitral behind the bagpipes and drums of the Chitral Scouts, who were shrilling out those North-West Frontier favourites like ‘Hielan’ ‘Laddie’ and ‘Black Bear’, lasting evidence of the attraction of the music of one tribe of tough hillmen to another. In an orchard in the shadow of Chitral Fort I said goodbye to my Afghan pony, thick-necked, grey-coated and perverse, having narrowly decided against buying him so as to have the satisfaction of seeing his name on a tin.
Travelling in India and Pakistan is often uncomfortable, but feeling the harder edge of the subcontinent is a useful antidote to the excessive romanticism that, all too easily, seeps into this sort of subject. Twenty miles a day on beans and hay from the Karakoram to the Hindu Kush is no easy matter even today, but I can at least begin to imagine what it must have been like for men who did it in khaki drill jackets and ammunition boots. How their grandfathers coped with red serge and white cross-belts in the heat of the plains is another matter altogether, as we shall soon see.
Drums on the Sutlej
DARBY FULCHER, drummer in the grenadier company of HM’s 50th Regiment of Foot, normally wakes his comrades on campaign by walking through the lines of sleeping men, rapping out the insistent drumbeat of the General Call to Arms; but today, 10 February 1846, will be different. He is eighteen years old, with six years’ service in the army, all of it in India, where he arrived as a band boy in the summer of 1840. The result of a brief and tipsy union between a sailor and one of those mercenary Portsmouth ladies unkindly known as ‘the fireships of the sally-port’, young Darby decided that a red coat was better than an empty belly, and joined the 50th as it passed through Portsmouth on its way to embark.
Simply getting to India was not easy. The East Indiaman Ferguson, which carried the 50th’s recruits from Portsmouth, struck a shoal in the Torres Strait, but all her passengers and crew were safely taken off before she foundered, and he soon found himself in the military cantonment at Chinsura, just up the River Hooghly from Calcutta. The 50th lost twenty of its soldiers from cholera in its first months in India, before sailing to Moulmein in the autumn of 1841, in the expectation that friction with the King of Burma would lead to another war. But it was soon back in Chinsura, only to lose eighty more men (including, inauspiciously, Assistant Surgeon Burns) in another cholera epidemic.
A move up the Hooghly to a new garrison at Cawnpore proved scarcely less lethal: in three separate accidents the regiment lost four sergeants, the drum-major, sixty-three privates, four women and eleven children. On 29 December 1843, Darby Fulcher had his baptism of fire when a force under Major General Sir John Grey beat the fierce Marathas at Punniar and in which the 50th lost just an officer and eight men. Lieutenant Bellars, the regiment’s acting adjutant, described this battle in his diary:
Directly we reached the top of the hill … the enemy’s cannon balls were falling to the right and left of us, but being badly directed did us no harm. We moved a few paces over the hill, when they opened a heavy fire of grape and canister upon us, with four guns planted about fifty paces from the bottom of the hill, besides a tremendous fire from their infantry, who were in a small ravine. We made the best of our way down the hill, which was very high and steep, keeping the best order possible, and continuing our firing the whole time. We halted at the bottom under cover of a small bank and hedge, keeping up our fire for about ten minutes, when we were ordered to charge, which we did with a glorious cheer. But so well did the enemy stick to their guns, that the last discharge took place when we were within ten yards of them, and the gunners were only driven from their guns at the point of the bayonet. So determined were they, indeed, that until actually unable to move from wounds, they cut away with their sharp sabres at our men, many of whom were severely wounded by them. Thus ended this short but sharp skirmish, with the capture of four guns (one a large brass one) and a few prisoners.1
Fulcher’s dark hair, sharp features and prominent teeth made the sobriquet ‘band rat’ all too appropriate, and when he left the band to become a company drummer the name stuck. By now, as one of the many Irish wits in the 50th observed, he was a very big rat indeed, and should therefore be known as Bandicoot Fulcher. Colour Sergeant Thompson, as serious-minded as befitted the company’s senior non-commissioned officer, confirmed that this was wholly appropriate, for the bandicoot or musk rat ‘was distinguished by its troublesome smell’, and here too, he pronounced, there was a distinct resemblance.2 The abuse was as good-natured as barrack-room jokes can be, and Fulcher, big for his age, with a vocabulary of the most studied profanity and a taste for strong drink, fitted comfortably into the tight little world of the grenadier company, with its three officers and eighty NCOs and men. It was the senior of the 50th’s eight companies, leading the way when the battalion marched in column, and on its right when it shook out into line. Fulcher had no idea why it was called the grenadier company, for grenades (whatever they might be) had not been issued within living memory.
His job entailed a good deal more than drumming. A company’s two drummers were its captain’s confidential assistants, holding his horse and helping him into the saddle, running errands for him in barracks and standing close by him in the field to relay his orders and interpret other drumbeats. They administered floggings, under the eyes of the drum-major, sergeant major and adjutant. The humiliating ritual of drumming a disgraced soldier out of barracks involved the man, his badges and buttons cut away, being marched through the camp to the tune of ‘The Rogue’s March’:
Twenty I got for selling my coat
Twenty for selling my blanket
If ever I ‘list for a
The devil shall be my sergeant
He was then kicked through the barrack gate by the most junior drummer – the whole ghastly process sometimes being known as ‘John Drum’s entertainment’. Useful though they were in barracks and the field, drummers had a reputation for being badly behaved. Captain Albert Hervey of the 41st Madras Native Infantry recalled that:
While passing through a village early one morning there were a number of ducks waddling along to a piece of water hard by. Our drummers came right amongst them, several were snatched up unobserved, and crammed into the drums. At another time, as we passed through a toddy-tope, some of them contrived to get away and imbibe plentifully of tempting beverage. They are strange rascals are our drummers, and up to all kinds of mischief.3
Darby Fulcher wears a waist-length red serge ‘shell jacket’ closed by ten pewter buttons, with blue standing collar and pointed cuffs. The change to blue is recent; the regiment’s facings were once black, accounting for its nickname ‘The Dirty Half-Hundred’. His grenadier comrades show their elite status by crescent-shaped red shoulder wings edged with white, and Fulcher, in addition, is liberally chevroned with white drummer’s lace. His flat-topped Kilmarnock cap has a white canvas cover and his regiment’s number in a brass Roman numeral ‘L’ above its peak. Dark blue woollen trousers with a narrow red stripe fall over square-toed black boots, issued on the assumption that they will fit either foot. Fulcher’s function means that he is spared the white pipe-clayed cross-belts, supporting an ammunition pouch on the left and bayonet on the right, worn by his comrades; but, like them, he carries a circular water-bottle on a leather strap across his left shoulder and a white canvas haversack slung across his right. A short sword with a brass hilt sits over his left hip, and it is entirely in character for him to have sharpened it.4
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