Sahib, p.47
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       Sahib, p.47

           Richard Holmes

  Nathaniel Bancroft was taking a quid of tobacco from a comrade’s pouch at Ferozeshah when a roundshot passed between his body and his right arm, tearing away the flesh. He sat on a limber alongside the decapitated body of his major, but felt so queasy at the sight and with the loss of blood that he dismounted just before the body was cut in two by another shot. The major had been popular, and some of the gunners placed the halves of his body in a horse blanket. When Bancroft reached the field hospital:

  He found the medical men busy with their shirt sleeves tucked up busily at work in the open air. On his presenting himself, he was directed to take a seat, and every preparation made for amputating his arm from the shoulder. Seeing this, he declined the pleasure of being winged, and was promptly told that if he did not choose to submit to that form of treatment he could go to the deuce and treat himself.

  Two ladies in the camp, probably soldiers’ wives, helped him to a native doctor, who dressed his wound. He then went back to hospital, where:

  sleep, however, was denied us. What with pain, evil dreams of the past, and the moans of the dying, the nights were something dreadful to pass, and even horrible to remember. Such as were able would endeavour to while away the bitter hours by recounting little historiettes of their lives; others would sing a verse or two of their favourite old ditty until the hour at which sleeping draughts were issued and each man got his dose and did his best to court ‘Tired Nature’s soft Restorer’.

  Another native doctor, ‘the barber-surgeon of the village’, helped save Mrs Forrest, one of the refugees from Delhi, who had been shot through the shoulder during her escape. In the process he showed that Indian medical skills were well developed:

  After thoroughly cleansing [the wound] from all the sand and dirt which had collected, and extracting certain portions of her dress which the bullet had carried into the wound in its passage, he caused boiling ghee (clarified butter) to be passed completely through it, and after this painful process had been repeated two or three times, a cloth was bound over both orifices of the wound. Next day it assumed a more healthy appearance, and finally commenced to suppurate; and although the treatment I have described was undoubtedly of a somewhat heroic nature, I believe it effectively prevented mortification from setting in, and was the means of saving this brave and gentle lady’s life.246

  Once hospitals were properly established and the pace of operations had reduced, however, they were a great deal more comfortable, as William Russell found in January 1858 when he visited the orphanage at Kiddepore, converted into a general hospital:

  The rooms are very large and lofty, and the men had plenty of room, but the heat, in some places, set at defiance all efforts to prevent close smells … There are … a number of wounded men from recent fights at Lucknow, Cawnpore etc; several with legs and arms carried away by roundshot. I passed one poor fellow with a stump outside the clothes. ‘Was that a round shot, my man?’ ‘No Sir, indeed it was not! That was done by a sword!’

  On enquiry, I found that a great proportion of the wounds, many of them very serious and severe, were inflicted by the sabre or native tulwar. There were more sword-cuts in the two hospitals than I saw after Balaclava. The men were cheerful and spoke highly of the attention paid to them. By each man’s bedside or charpoy, was a native attendant, who kept the flies away with a whisk, administered the patient’s medicine, and looked after his comforts. There is something almost akin to pleasure in visiting well-ordered hospitals.247

  William Russell saw a badly hurt officer, wounded in both legs and with his jaw broken, being helped along. As the man passed him, ‘a chance bullet, flying over the wall, went through his skull and he dropped dead’.248

  Survival in battle was so much a matter of sheer luck that most men grew blasé. Arthur Lang simply forgot to be frightened when he stormed Delhi: ‘it was most gloriously exciting; the bullets seemed to pass like a hissing sheet of lead over us, and the noise of the cheering was so great that I nearly lost my men who doubled too far down the road’.249 John Shipp spoke for many when he confessed to feeling ‘thoughtful heavy, restless, weighed down with care’ before a battle. But once the game was afoot:

  An indescribable elation of spirits possesses the whole being, a frenzied disregard of what is before you, a heroism bordering on ferocity. The nerves become taught, the eyes wild and rolling in their sockets, the nostrils distended, the mouth gasping and the whole head constantly on the move.250

  Even when the fighting was over caprice still rolled his dice. In 1800 George Elers was in his colonel’s tent when a shot whizzed by. On enquiry he found that:

  The armourers’ forge of the 77th Regiment was pitched together with a tent where some tailors of the same regiment were at work close together. One of the armourers had a pistol to repair for an officer, and he, not aware that it was loaded, put it into the fire. It exploded, and the ball entered the temple of an unlucky tailor sitting at work in the next tent. It went in at one temple and out the opposite; but the poor tailor recovered from this extraordinary wound, and I saw him alive and well six months after, but with the loss of both eyes.251

  Some soldiers of the 93rd Highlanders survived the capture of Lucknow and were engaged in sweeping up a large amount of loose gunpowder in a wing of the Martinière, when some soldiers of the 53rd Foot entered, one of them just lighting up his pipe. There was a flash, followed by a dull explosion, and presently:

  Corporal Cooper and, I think, four of his party came feebly running down to the water, their clothes all on fire and dropping off them as they ran, with patches of skin adhering to them. The feathers of their bonnets had been entirely destroyed, and the towers of skeleton-wires above their heads looked very weird. Where the skin did not fall with the burning clothes, disclosing the bare flesh, it looked perfectly black, and … their appearance was truly awful. The authors of this catastrophe disappeared, and of the eight or ten men of the 93rd, only four or five were burnt as I have described, and died in great agony during the next two days.252

  Blind wells – disused wells without well heads – were a constant danger, especially in Oudh. One galloping cavalry officer fell down a well with his horse on top of him and a trooper and his horse atop both. He landed in a sitting position, his back against the wall and his legs flat along the base of the well, and although both horses and the trooper were killed, he was pulled out unhurt. But perhaps the most awkward accident happened neither in battle nor even on campaign. Lord Lytton regretted that Captain Herbert Rose, one of his personal staff:

  has returned to England invalided and is not likely to resume service in consequence of an extraordinary accident: the bite of a donkey had reduced him to a condition which would be a very appropriate and appreciated qualification in any other Oriental court … The story is a strange one and I am quite unable to understand how the donkey could have perpetrated such an assault on the captain.253

  For once the story had a happy ending: the gallant captain was able to return to India, intact.



  Dim dawn behind the tamarisks – the sky is saffron-yellow –

  As the women in the village grind the corn,

  And the parrots seek the river-side, each calling to his fellow

  That the day, the staring Eastern Day, is born.

  O the white dust on the highway! O the stenches in the byway!

  O the clammy fog that hovers over earth!

  At home they ‘re making merry ‘neath the white and scarlet berry –

  What part have India’s exiles in their mirth?

  KIPLING, ‘Christmas in India’


  IT IS DIFFICULT TO DISAGREE with Captain Charles Griffiths of HM’s 61st who wrote of the 1850s that: ‘Strong drink is now, and has in all ages been, the bane of the British soldier – a propensity he cannot resist in times of peace, and which is tenfold aggravated when excited by fighting, when the wherewithal to induce it is spread before him
’.1 Drink was often very easily available on campaign in India. At Sobraon, John Pearman’s comrade Jack Marshall ‘who had been drinking for several days’, rode off to attack a Sikh horseman. He was cut down at once; ‘Bill Driver, a fine young man’ went out to help him and was killed by a roundshot.2 During the same battle Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Campbell of the 9th Lancers was drunk and incapable, and on the following morning Major James Hope Grant called upon him.

  ‘You know you were very drunk yesterday, sir, when you led us into action. I have come to tell you that if you do not at once undertake to leave the regiment, I shall now put you into arrest and report your conduct.’

  ‘Will you indeed,’ said the colonel in great anger. ‘Very well, I will be beforehand with you, and I now place you in arrest for bringing a false and insulting accusation against your commanding officer.’3

  After an inquiry Campbell retained command of the regiment, but his name was conspicuously absent from mention in Gough’s dispatches. Hope Grant was returned to duty without charge, and became one of the most successful column commanders in the Mutiny, where he earned a knighthood.

  When the British entered Delhi in September 1857 they found huge amounts of alcohol, deliberately left there, some maintained.

  The Europeans fell upon the liquid treasure with an avidity which they could not restrain; and if the insurgents had seized the opportunity it is hard to say what calamity might have befallen us, but fortunately for us, they did not take advantage of it. The General ordered the destruction of the liquor; so the streets ran with spirits, wine and beer, and the stimulants so much needed for our hospitals, and a large amount of valuable prize was sacrificed to the necessities of the hour.4

  Charles Griffiths agreed that the army’s commanders lost control:

  When and by whom begun I cannot say, but early in the morning of the 15th the stores had been broken into, and the men revelled in unlimited supplies of drink of every kind. It is a sad circumstance to chronicle, and the drunkenness which ensued might have resulted in serious consequences to the army had the enemy taken advantage of the sorry position we were in. Vain were the attempts made at first to put a stop to all the dissipations, and not till orders went forth from the General to destroy all the liquor that could be found did the orgy cease, and the men return crestfallen and ashamed to a sense of their duties. The work of destruction was carried out chiefly by the Sikhs and Punjabis, and the wasted drink ran in streams through the conduits of the city.5

  Sir Harry Smith was not simply popular because of his competence and genuine affection for his men: after Aliwal he rode among them with tears in his eyes, saying ‘God bless you, my brave boys; I love you.’ One trooper recalled that when he strolled about their tents ‘there would be a cry, “Sir Harry Smith’s coming!” Then he would call out “Trumpeter, order a round of grog; not too much water; what I call fixed bayonets”.’6

  Even in peacetime spirits were far more readily available to soldiers in India than they were in Britain; they were drunk neat, mixed with water to make grog, or in local ‘cocktails’. Private George Loy Smith joined the 11th Light Dragoons in 1833, and went to India soon afterwards. In the bazaar at Calcutta he:

  saw men buying cocoa nuts in their green state, for which they paid one pice; the seller then cut off the top with a small chopper so that you could drink the milk they contained (about half a pint). But before doing this, the canteen being close at hand, it was customary to get a dram of arrack to put in; this made a most delicious drink.7

  Arrack was a generic term for native spirit: in South India it was generally made from the fermented sap of palms, while in the east and north both molasses and rice were used as its basis. It could be especially lethal when newly fermented. In December 1755, James Wood observed that: ‘We are having to send a great number of our men every day to the hospital occasioned by their drinking new arrack.’8 Private Samuel West, writing home to Cornwall from Cawnpore in 1823, anxious for news of Jim Sampson, Mary Trevarton, Mrs Growler, Mrs Lilly and his friends in that other world at Egloshale, near Wadebridge, thought that arrack: ‘is more like rum than anything else, for many would not know it from rum’.9

  In 1833, the 710 men of HM’s 26th Foot, stationed in Fort William, got through 5,320 gallons of arrack, 209 gallons of brandy and 249 of gin, with 207 hogsheads of beer, each comprising two and a half gallons. Officers were very well aware of what went on. In 1848, Private Tookey of the 14th Light Dragoons gleefully wrote home that the privates of his troop had held a ‘ball’ which most of the officers attended: ‘we had the pleasure of putting them about three sheets to the wind. The adjutant and the riding master were led home by two men each and the Orderly Officer put to bed in the Barrack Room.’10

  It was long believed that a daily issue of spirits (for which soldiers’ pay was docked one anna per day) helped men withstand the rigours of the climate. In early 1803, when Arthur Wellesley was considering a move into Maratha territory, he thought that his small force would require ‘10,000 gallons of arrack, in kegs of 6 gallons each, well fortified with iron hoops’.11 Rum was, perhaps wisely, issued as a common alternative to arrack, and Gunner Bancroft describes how it was given to his comrades of the Bengal Artillery in the 1840s:

  The canteen stations were at Dum-Dum (then the headquarters of the regiment), Cawnpore and Meerut, and all detached troops and companies had their rum viz two drams per man, issued to them immediately after their morning parade, on an empty stomach. The first instalment was termed a ‘gum-tickler’; the second a ‘gall-burster’. After swallowing the two drams of rum, all ranks sat down to a hearty breakfast … Those who did not care to drink the rum to which they were entitled, allowed a class of men who were called ‘bag-dadders’ (rum-dealers) to draw their allowance for a month at the rate of Rs 8, or two annas a dram, thereby clearing a net profit of 100 per cent on the month’s grog transaction, while others took their rum away in bottles, and either consumed it themselves in the day, or sold it to soldiers more thirsty than themselves, at a charge of four annas per dram, making a clear profit of 300 per cent on every tot they sold. This nefarious practice was carried on with impunity, although recognised by the officers, but winked at all the same, not only in the artillery but in every regiment, horse or foot, in Her Majesty’s or the Company’s service.12

  In cantonments rum or arrack was issued in the canteen, and above the barrel was a board with the names of all those entitled to it. There were two holes beneath each name, and a wooden peg was inserted in the top hole when the first tot was issued. It was moved to the second hole with the next tot, and the soldier was then ‘pegged up’ for the day. A man might give a comrade his tot, perhaps to help repay a debt: he was in consequence ‘taken down a peg’. The word peg, for drink, made the social leap into the officers’ mess, where a burra peg was a large measure and a chota peg a small one. Officers did not, however, drink arrack or rum except in the direst necessity. Charles Callwell recalled that:

  When I left the country at the beginning of 1881 a ‘peg’ had meant brandy as a matter of course; if anybody then wanted whisky, which nobody did, he had especially to ask for it. But now the peg had come to mean whisky as a matter of course, and if you wanted brandy the servant went off rummaging in the purlieus of the mess to find some.13

  The way in which spirits were issued encouraged hoarding, even if the rum was distributed ready-mixed with water in the form of grog. Robert Waterfield remembered that during the siege of Multan an attempt was made to prevent this by issuing:

  an order for every man to drink his grog at the tub where it is served out, thinking by this means to put a stop to the men getting drunk. They may as well try to stop the wind, for the men, or at least a great many of them, get false bottoms fixed in their tin pots and when they go for their grog it is measured into these. Those who want to carry grog away will take a small portion of bread with him, which he will be eating, so as to allow his grog sufficient time to run through a small hole w
hich is in the false bottom. They can then raise the pot nearly upside down, without spilling the liquor; this enables them to carry it away, and if they don’t want to drink it, they can always get plenty of men who will purchase it for four annas per dram, just four times its first cost. By this means are the Colonel’s wishes baffled!14

  John Pearman saw similar tricks in the 3rd Light Dragoons:

  Then we had plenty of men who made ‘Bishops’, a sort of bladder to fit under their shirt, inside their trowsers, to hold about 8 drams, and smuggle it out of the canteen. This way these men sold it to the other men, mostly at ‘Gun Fire’ in the morning at 5 a.m. This they called ‘Gun Fire Tots’. We got it as we turned out to drill. These men would save a lot of money, and drink nothing for some time. This was called ‘to put the bag on’. But when they did break out, they would drink to such an extent that they had mostly to go to the hospital from the effects. At the time the batta money was served out there were about thirty men in the hospital from drink. The Regimental Sergeant Major died; Sergeant Major Kelly died; Sergeant Jones and many of the privates died. The drink did more for deaths than fever or other complaints.15

  Men who could afford it drank alcohol in the canteen. Imported beer was much more expensive than rum or arrack, as John Pearman saw at Amballa in 1846–48:

  There was a great deal of drinking and men dying every day from the effects of drink, although we were charged 1 rupee 12 annas per bottle of Bass stout or Burton Ale, 3s 6d; but only one anna per dram … of strong rum, and you could have as much as you liked to drink – carry none away to barracks.

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