Sahib, p.21
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       Sahib, p.21

           Richard Holmes

  Elliot Hill’s ‘Waitress’, Squire Cresswell’s ‘Blackie’, Tim Westmacott’s ‘Priestess’, Crum’s ‘Cluny’, W. K. Dod’s ‘Fame’ … Jim Crawford’s ‘Napier’, and Ferguson’s ‘Red Deer’ … ‘Priestess’ was a staunch old mare, and took eighty-one first spears during ten years’ hunting …

  Then there was ‘Pioneer, my old grey, who is only 14.3 [hands] but has the heart of a lion … In fourteen seasons he has only given me one fall.’ It was small wonder perhaps that Major Wardrop was drawn to announce that: ‘A good horse is rarer and dearer than a good wife.’185

  Important though horses were, it was advisable to have a doctor handy for sick or injured humans. Moreover, there was a wide recognition that a by-product of pig-sticking was paying grooms and beaters decently and so putting cash into the local economy, and becoming ‘a friend of the native gentleman of the country and … well in touch with the villagers’. The doctor at a meet would, thought Wardrop, be a mean fellow if he was not prepared to run an impromptu clinic for villagers. ‘I have never met a doctor who would not give up a couple of hours of his leisure to doing good,’ he wrote. ‘We have very complete medicine chests, of a large size, partly for this very reason.’186

  If horses were close to the heart of British India, dogs were not far behind. Francis Yeats-Brown joined his regiment with ‘Brownstone’ and ‘Daisy’.

  Lord Brownstone, as he was entered in the register of the Indian Kennel Club, was the son of Jeffstone Monarch, and the grandson of Rodney Stone, the most famous bull-dog that ever lived. Brownstone was a light fawn dog, with a black muzzle: I had bought him in Calcutta. His wife I had ordered from the Army and Navy Stores in England: she was a brindle bitch by Stormy Hope out of Nobby, with the stud name of Beckenham Kitty, but I called her Daisy. Both Brownstone and I were enchanted by her, for although rather froglike to an uninitiated eye, she fulfilled every canon of her breed’s beauty.187

  Ensign Richard Burton, the future explorer and translator, arrived in 1842 aboard what was for him the rather inaptly named John Knox to join 18th BoNI (Bombay Native Infantry), and brought a fat bull terrier with him. Most families kept dogs of one sort or another, and Violet Jacob told a friend that: ‘Dogs of good birth and respectable, family dogs, have boys to attend on them just as the horses have grooms.’188

  Dogs might find themselves on campaign with their owners. Both Sir Harry Smith and Major Le Mesurier, our diarist of the Second Afghan War, kept Newfoundland dogs (though Smith’s was carried off by a leopard in the Punjab). Lieutenant Benyon’s bull terrier, Bill – ‘a spotted dog of doubtful ancestry’ – did the whole of the march from Gilgit to Chitral in 1895, although he became so snow-blind that Benyon had to bathe his eyes with warm water every morning. (Benyon went on to earn the Distinguished Service Order for his tireless energy and repeated acts of courage.) Maria Germon, amidst so much human suffering at the siege of Lucknow, was broken hearted when her ‘poor doggies’ had to be put down: ‘C and the cook drowned them in the river – poor Charlie it was hard for him to have to do it.’189 Soldiers would often buy a puppy and share the care of it amongst three or four men. The dog would generally sleep on the barrack verandah, and accompany the regiment on the line of march. Perhaps the most remarkable of these martial dogs was the one encountered by John Shipp during the Gurkha War:

  I was on duty just then with a piquet … When passing one of the sentries, I frequently had to admonish him for not challenging in a louder voice. To my surprise he answered that he did not wish to wake his dog, which was asleep under a bush nearby. ‘What!’ I said. ‘I suppose you take nap and nap with him do you?’ ‘Why yes,’ said the man innocently enough. ‘I do sometimes, and to tell you the truth. I only relieved him five minutes ago.’ ‘Very candid, my good fellow,’ I said, ‘but don’t you know that you could be shot for sleeping at your post?’ He admitted that he knew it well enough, but insisted that he could rely on the dog to jump on him, and wake him up at the slightest noise. I found that this clever creature, when his master was on watch, would regularly stand his hour and walk his round, without ever leaving his post. It was even said that on dark nights he would put his ear to the ground and listen … It was a powerful animal, a kind of Persian hill-greyhound, that could kill a wolf single-handed.190

  Dogs also played their part in the enduring battle against thieves – or loose-wallahs – many of whom were extraordinarily accomplished. Surgeon Home maintained that in his day:

  communities in which robbery was hereditary, and the only employment of the men, were common enough, especially in districts through which traffic channels ran; the profession was as uniformly followed by the inhabitants of such a village as one, say, of weaving would be transmitted from father to son in another.

  A skilled thief would watch a camp carefully, wait until a sentry had swung back on his beat, and would then enter a tent, usually easing out a loose peg to slide under the brailings.

  To crawl noiselessly to the side of the charpoy would be the work of a moment. Seating himself comfortably near his victim … the operator would treat him to the life-like hum of a mosquito, and, after a little, to a gentle quick prick with a needle on the face, which would cause the patient uneasily to move his head away. And the little game would be played until the head of the sleeper no longer prevented the hand of the one at the bedside from gently extracting the valuables guarded by the head of the sleeper.191

  These tactics could be thwarted by an attentive dog. Reginald Wilberforce of the 52nd Light Infantry was marching from Delhi to Sialkot in 1857, and there were two bull-dogs with the battalion. The officers recognised that the thieves would take the trouble to find out where the dogs were, and avoid their tent, so, after dark, the dogs were moved to separate tents.

  About 1 a.m. a tremendous noise was heard and ‘Billy’, the plate-faced bulldog, was found with his teeth fixed in the throat of a thief in one of the tents. The man, naked as he was born, and oiled all over, had crept through the line of sentries into camp, through the native servants, who lay round the tents, and inside the tent to steal what he could find; he was unarmed, safe for a long knife he carried, with which he had wounded ‘Billy’, though not seriously.192

  One trusty Newfoundland dog, Rover, was taken in by a diversionary attack. Major Le Mesurier had turned in for the night when Rover barked at some intruders at the front of the tent. While the major rushed out to deal with them, their accomplices attacked from the rear, and ‘the whole of the back of the tent was taken up’ and his strongbox extracted. He found the box the next day, ‘burst open, and the contents pitched about in every direction’. The thieves had evidently been looking for money, but he had hidden it separately.193

  Thieves posed a particular danger on the frontier. They often worked naked, smearing their bodies with cheetah-grease so as to deter dogs, who hated the smell, and make it hard for them to be seized by humans. They concentrated on stealing rifles, and battalions were forced to go to great lengths to keep them safe: the rifles were chained up at night, and sometimes their bolts were withdrawn and stored separately. When sleeping in camps on the line of march men not only took out the bolts but attached their rifle to an ankle by the sling. From the 1890s, the obsolete Snider service rifle was pressed back into service. Its calibre was so large that, when firing buckshot cartridges, it made a satisfactory shotgun: it not only gave a sentry a much better chance of hitting a thief in the night, but reduced the risk of bullets whining around cantonment or camp. In Frank Richards’s battalion the issue of Sniders coincided with an outbreak of ‘ground colic’, and soldiers making ‘their frequent rapid journeys to and from the latrines … went in danger of being challenged by a flying sentry and not answering … quick enough: a group of buckshot in their backsides might further increase their troubles’.194

  There were at least two dogs with HM’s 66th Foot at Maiwand. Bobby, Sergeant Kelly’s terrier, was present at the last stand and then, despite being wounded, made his way back to t
he safety of Kandahar. Captain McMath’s bitch, Nellie, a regimental favourite, was not as fortunate: she was killed in the battle and was buried alongside her master.

  Monkeys and parrots were also popular pets. Men spent long hot days trying to teach birds a ‘soldier’s vocabulary’, and in Frank Richards’s battalion of Royal Welch Fusiliers a man had a pet monkey dressed in red coat, blue trousers and pill-box hat who could do arms drill with a little wooden musket. Unfortunately the creature was introduced to beer and, like too many of his human companions, eventually drank himself to death. Richards’s companions opined that this ‘was the most noble and happy end to which either man or monkey could come’.195 His battalion was accompanied by its regimental goat, who earned a bad reputation for stealing vegetables from their sellers. He eventually died and was buried in Agra, ‘underneath the big tree where they hanged the rebels during the Mutiny’. Richards thought that: ‘Every man in the battalion was genuinely sorry that the wicked old rascal had gone West, but the vegetable-wallahs were mightily relieved … ’. When Richards next visited Agra he noticed that the grave was still beautifully maintained, for it was an unwritten law that the graves of both regimental mascots and men who were buried outside cemeteries should always be well cared for.196

  British social life in India was never wholly self-contained. And even if many officers and men only met with Indians in circumstances where bat (Indian slang) would suffice, the Company’s officers and, later, officers of the Indian army, were expected to learn at least one local language. They studied with a language teacher, a munshi, and were examined after six months, gaining financial rewards (and the possibility of enhanced pay as an interpreter) if they passed, and incurring official displeasure if they failed: the Indian Civil Service gave a man just two opportunities to pass the exam, and sent him home if he failed the second attempt. In the late 1820s, Philip Meadows-Taylor was glad that his munshi had taught him

  to speak Hindostanee like a gentleman; and here let me impress upon all beginners the great advantage it is to learn to speak in a gentlemanly fashion. It may be a little more difficult to acquire the idioms, but it is well worth while. There are modes of address suitable to all ranks and classes, and often our people unintentionally insult a native gentleman by speaking to him as they would their servants, through ignorance of the proper form of address.197

  Some officers had an aptitude for languages, and realised that they were fundamental to the successful command of Indian troops. In the early 1840s, Ensign Henry Daly worked hard at his Hindustani and passed out top of the ‘qualified interpreters’. He then determined to master a second language, and duly learnt Maratha. The Commander in Chief, Bombay, realised that he was a man to be taken seriously, and appointed him adjutant of an irregular infantry battalion, more than doubling his pay at a stroke. He found himself in a cantonment which was so unhealthy that it had been abandoned by Europeans. And in it was his mother’s grave. ‘So we met,’ he wrote wistfully. ‘For months every day I passed the spot where she lies … I was only a child when she died, but so often had I read her beautiful letters that her memory was a living feeling.’198 Ensign Richard Burton also showed an early flair for language, so much so that Sir Charles Napier dispatched him, disguised as an Iranian merchant, to report on the male brothels of Karachi, which he did with quite extraordinary zeal for one so junior, even if some of the phrases he mastered were not in general currency in most officers’ messes.

  A few NCOs and men, especially those who hoped to stay on in India when their term of enlistment expired, learnt a language. Most, however, quickly learnt how to ‘sling the bat’. ‘Soldier bat’ enabled a man to mix a few words of Hindustani with a few words of English and produce a lingua franca that was clearly understood in and around the cantonments. The phrase: ‘Dekko that Mehta, Bill; let’s bolo him peachy to sweep up sub cheese. All teak?’ actually meant ‘See that sweeper, Bill? Let’s call him in afterwards to sweep up everything. All right?’199 Shocking blunders were common. Walter Lawrence heard two soldiers open negotiations with a butcher. ‘Kitna bajie for that sheep’s topi?’ demanded one. He was unaware that he had actually said: ‘What o’clock is it for that sheep’s hat?’ But the butcher understood at once.200

  In 1884, Charles Callwell proudly announced that his own knowledge of bat was ‘in advance of that suggested by the well-known lines:

  His Hindustani words were few – they could not very well be fewer Just idharao, and jaldi jao and khabadar you soor.201

  This was bat at its most abrupt and meant: ‘Just come here, and go quick, and take care, you swine.’

  Part of the delight of bat, of course, was to use it in Britain to demonstrate that one was an Old India Hand. Private Edwin Mole of the 14th Hussars, eating his first meal in an English barrack room in 1863, tells how:

  There were fifteen men in my mess, fourteen of whom wore three or four medals. They were good-natured fellows in the main, though a little short-tempered; and all bore signs of their long residence in India, where the regiment had been for nineteen years without coming home. They used many queer Hindustani names and terms, which it took me some time to get the hang of. For instance they never spoke of knives, or salt, or bread, but always ‘Give me a churrie!’, ‘Pass the neemuck!’ or ‘sling over some rootee!’.202

  Let us leave Drummer Fulcher, Private Richards and Private Pearman for the moment, as they sling the bat, look out at the Indian landscape across the verandah through a haze of pipe-smoke, weighing the possibility of walking out into the bazaar and securing those twin preoccupations of the soldier: drink and female company. And, perhaps musing, just for a moment, about that mighty military machine in which they had now become small cogs.



  I have eaten your bread and salt.

  I have drunk your water and wine.

  The deaths ye died I have watched beside,

  And the lives ye led were mine.

  KIPLING, ‘Prelude to Departmental Ditties’


  WHEN THE HOT WEATHER made life on the plains almost unbearable, the key figures in the Government of India decamped to the little hill station of Simla. It lay in a small British enclave surrounded by native states, on a crescent-shaped ridge about five miles long, covered with deodars and big rhododendrons. There was a single main street, called the Mall, as main streets in British-Indian towns so often were, with the unlovely Christ Church, built in 1857, a couple of hotels, a club, a bank, a town hall, an assembly room for concerts and a theatre for the amateur theatricals of which the Victorians and Edwardians were so fond. Annie Steel warned her readers against Simla. ‘It is a very large place, very expensive, very gay, very pretty,’ she wrote. ‘No one should go up to Simla who has not a bag of rupees and many pretty frocks.’1

  The four hundred or so European-style houses, architecturally a mixture of Tudor and Tibet with a splash of Surrey, had names like Moss Grange, Ivy Glen, Eagle’s Nest, The Crags, The Highlands, Sunny Bank and The Dovecot. The Viceroy’s house was called ‘Peterhof’: Lady Lytton, who went there as vicereine in 1876, thought it ‘a hideous little bungalow, horribly out of repair and wretchedly uncomfortable’. A major disadvantage was the fact that ‘there is no such thing as a WC in the whole of India … only … horrid night tables – there are always bathrooms for them, but it is always horrid’.2 From Simla the Viceroy dealt with his capital and thus the rest of his realm in what Lord Lytton called ‘a despotism of office-boxes tempered by occasional loss of keys’.3

  Most of Simla’s inhabitants walked, rode, or travelled in the local equivalent of sedan chairs. Only three people were allowed to use carriages on the Mall: the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab, who was, so to speak, the landlord; the Mulki Lart Sahib, or viceroy, and the Jungi Lart Sahib, the lord of war, or Commander in Chief, India. On Sunday, after morning service, a visitor strolling back to his hotel and clouding the gin-clear air with the blue smoke of his cheroot might
see the topmost link of India’s chain of command trotting home for lunch to his official residence, Wildflower Hall.

  There had been a Commander in Chief, India, since Major Stringer Lawrence, a veteran of Culloden, went to Madras to shake the pagoda tree in 1748 and was given authority over all the Company’s forces on the subcontinent. Lawrence’s real skill was as a raiser and trainer of troops. It was under his tutelage that the raggle-taggle mix of superannuated Europeans and locally recruited peons – there were 3,000 of the latter in 1747, but only 900 had muskets – began its transformation into the Company’s army, with Indian sepoys forming the bulk of its soldiers. They had their own native officers and NCOs, but were commanded by British officers, and were armed, trained and – but for a fondness for shorts rather than trousers – dressed in European style.

  Although Lawrence laid the foundations for one of the most remarkable armies in history, his own position embodied strains which lasted as long as the Company’s rule. For though he had held the King’s commission as a captain, his major’s rank came from the Company. The Mutiny Act of 1754 granted the Company’s officers power of command over British troops in India, but ensured that royal officers ranked senior to the Company’s officers of the same grade, quite regardless of how long they had enjoyed that rank. When Colonel Adlercron (John Corneille’s commanding officer) arrived that year at the head of HM’s 39th Foot, he superseded Lawrence, although the latter was granted a royal lieutenant-colonelcy by way of compensation.

  There was an unbecoming spat two years later when Rear Admiral Watson, indisputably the senior British officer in India, appointed Eyre Coote (who had a royal captaincy) to command the recently recaptured Fort St George. Robert Clive, the senior Company officer present, and a royal lieutenant colonel to boot, declined to accept the decision, although Watson threatened to bombard Fort St George unless he did so. Clive eventually gave way only when Watson landed in person, and handed over authority in the fort to the president of the Bengal Council. There was another squabble in 1770 when Eyre Coote, by then a major general, was sent to India to command the forces of all three presidencies. The Governor of Madras, however, insisted that his own status as ‘governor and commander in chief’ did not oblige him to accept Coote’s authority in his presidency, and added unhelpfully that he had no intention of doing so.

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