Sahib, p.48
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       Sahib, p.48

           Richard Holmes
In the 1860s the development of the local brewing industry brought down the cost of beer. Edward Dyer established a brewery in the hill station of Kasauli, and became ‘the Ganymede of an Indian Olympus, whose gods were the major deities of the Government of India and the minor deities of the Punjab administration, and whose nectar was bottled beer’. The worthy Mr Dyer was once seen lighting his cigarette from a native girl’s cheroot, and sternly warned by a memsahib that: ‘That sort of looseness is what has peopled Simla with thirty thousand Eurasians.’16 (Dyer’s son, Reginald Edward, was born at Murree in 1864 and, in the fullness of time, was commissioned into the Indian army, and is now best known as the instigator of the Amritsar massacre of 1919.)

  On campaign old India hands often mixed their beer or wine with water to maintain a high fluid intake. On 1 June 1857, Captain Octavius Anson wrote:

  I drink a good bottle of beer mixed with water at dinner and a glass of sherry and soda water during the day, besides dozens of tea and toast-and-water. One must keep up the system this hot weather, but it is fatal to overdo it, especially with brandy.17

  In a more epicurean Georgian tradition, Lieutenant John Pester was unrestrained, enjoying a convivial dinner in a recently captured fort in 1803:

  It was the last night we were to pass in Sarssney, and I believe the first that ever fourteen honest gentlemen drank within its walls. Three dozen and a half of claret, and proportionable quantity of Madeira – everyone sung his song and this was as gay an evening and terminated as pleasantly as any I passed in my life. We concluded by breaking our candle-sticks and glasses, pranks which too frequently finish drinking parties in this part of the globe.

  Then, after a day of ‘the most desperate riding’ in pursuit of wild boar, he had another cheery evening:

  we kept it up till an early hour. Sung a good deal and parted in high good humour. Some of the party who absconded after drinking as long as they thought proper were brought back to the charge, and thus ended one of the hardest going days I ever saw in my life.18

  Colonel Arthur Wellesley kept a ‘plain but good’ table. ‘He was very abstemious with wine,’ thought George Elers: ‘Drank four or five glasses with people at dinner, and about a pint of claret after.’19 Ensign Wilberforce believed that a stiff drink, judiciously applied, had helped change the course of history. HM’s 52nd Light Infantry had entered Delhi by way of the Kashmir Gate and, after hard fighting in the city, had fallen back to the area of St James’s Church:

  As we had been without food since dinner the night before, our thoughts naturally turned to what was to be got. We were much rejoiced by finding our mess-servants with plenty to eat and drink; we were more thirsty than hungry, and my companion and I set to work at once to quench our thirst. I had a bottle of soda-water in one hand, and in the other a long tumbler, into which tumbler my companion poured some brandy. His allowance, however, was so generous that I dreaded drinking it, especially on an empty stomach, and I told him not to drink it either. But not liking to waste it, we looked around us, and saw a group of officers on the steps of the church, apparently engaged in an animated conversation. Among them was an old man who looked as if a good ‘peg’ – the common term for a brandy and soda – would do him good. Drawing, therefore, nearer the group, in order to offer the ‘peg’ to the old officer, we heard our Colonel say: ‘All that I can say is that I won’t retire, but will hold the walls with my regiment.’ I then offered the ‘peg’ to the old officer, whom we afterwards knew to be General Wilson; he accepted, drank it off, and a few minutes after we heard him say: ‘You are quite right – to retire would be to court disaster; we will stay where we are.’

  On such little matters great events often depend; for if the English troops had left Delhi, in all probability there would not have been one of us left to tell the tale.20

  For many private soldiers there was a glorious majesty to a beer on a sweltering day. During the Mutiny Lieutenant Alfred Mackenzie,

  happened to come across a British soldier – I think of the 9th Lancers – who had been wounded but not very seriously … He was lying patiently under a tree waiting for the hospital establishment to come up and find him; and when I asked if I could do anything for him he said he was suffering agonies of thirst, and would give anything for a drink of water. ‘Would you prefer beer?’ I asked.

  ‘Oh Sir,’ he replied, ‘don’t make game of me.’ His face was delightful to see when I lugged out of one of my holsters a pint bottle of ‘Bass’ which I had stowed in it according to my invariable practice, and knocked off its head by sliding my sword against it. The grateful fellow tried hard to make me drink half of it; but I could not resist the temptation of watching him swallow it to the last drop. When I presented him with a better Manila cheroot than he had probably ever smoked in his life before, he began, I really believe, to think he was dreaming, and that such luck could not be real.21

  Crime was committed under the influence of drink by officers and men alike. In 1861 alone, Captain Brabazon of the 66th BNI was dismissed from the service for drunkenness, as was Lieutenant Grant of 45th BNI, in his case first for being drunk on a visit to the sergeants’ mess (one of many young gentlemen across history who failed to rise to this most serious of military challenges) and then falling down drunk on parade. Captain Whiting of 59th BNI was luckier, and was severely reprimanded and placed at the bottom of the lieutenant’s list. Lieutenant Smith of the engineers, found guilty of ‘intoxication at a public entertainment’ at Lucknow, was simply severely reprimanded. Soldiers were dealt with by their commanding officers for minor offences of drunkenness without the need for court martial. The overall total of offences was huge. The men of the Madras European Battalion committed 357 offences in a year: two-thirds of these involved drunkenness, and half were attributed to habitual drunkards. In 1912–13, at the very end of the period, 9,230 soldiers across the whole of the British army, about 4 per cent of its non-commissioned strength, were fined for drunkenness, and many more were given more minor punishments.

  In 1857 one new ensign was lucky to have an indulgent commanding officer. An ensign was expected to ‘wet the colours’, that is, stand champagne to the mess the first time he carried his regiment’s colours. This young officer was orderly officer on one of these ‘colour nights’, and so had to inspect the guard at times specified by the adjutant:

  He left the mess apparently quite sober, but the fresh air outside, acting on the wine he had drunk, caused him to fall off his pony, and he slept in the ditch by the roadside. Some half hour after his Colonel, a very big man, came by on his way to bed; he saw the prostrate ensign, and after trying to awaken him, put him on his shoulders and carried him round the various guards, finally putting him to bed. Next day the report had to be written, and the report stated that the guards had not been visited that night. About noon the Adjutant appeared and requested his immediate attendance at the orderly room. There the Colonel sat, looking very stern. ‘Mr.—, I see your report omits to mention that you visited the guards last night. What is the reason?’

  —hung his head; he was not going to lie, and say he was taken ill.

  The Colonel again spoke: ‘I do not understand this, for I see that the sergeants of the Quarter Guard and the Prison Guard state that you turned them out at 12.30 and 12.50 respectively. How do you account for this?’ The Colonel, after keeping up the mystery a short time longer, dismissed the orderly room, and walking home with the youngster said, ‘You may thank your stars that I found you and carried you round last night. Don’t do it again.’22

  A well-regarded youngster doing ‘rounds’ (the field officer of the week, a rarer and more splendid vision altogether, was ‘grand rounds’) might, if in drink, be helped by what Kipling called ‘The shut-eye sentry’.

  Our Orderly Orf’cer’s hoki-mut, [very drunk]

  You ‘elp ‘im all you can.

  For the wine was old and the night is cold,

  An’ the best we may go wrong;

  So, ‘fore ‘e gits
to the sentry-box,

  You pass the word along.23

  In this instance in particular Kipling knew what he was talking about:

  I am, by the way, one of the few civilians who have ever turned out a Quarter-Guard of Her Majesty’s troops. It was on a chill winter morn, about 2 o’clock at the Fort, and though I suppose I had been given the countersign [with which to answer the sentry’s challenge] on my departure from the Mess, I forgot it ere I reached the main Guard, and when challenged announced myself as ‘Visiting Rounds’. When the men had clattered out I asked the Sergeant if he had ever seen a greater collection of scoundrels. That cost me beer by the gallon, but it was worth it.24

  There was widespread recognition that men ought, if at all possible, to be denied the opportunity of committing further offences while blind drunk. On 19 March 1835 the adjutant general of HM’s troops in India signed a general order:

  to prohibit … Non-Commissioned Officers from taking any other part in the confinement of drunken offenders than the ordering of an escort of Privates to place them in restraint. Where the Non-Commissioned Officer, instead of avoiding, comes forward prominently into contact with the irritated drunkard, violence is generally the consequence and the offence of the culprit swells to so great an extent as to demand the sentence of a General Court Martial …

  All men confined for drunkenness should, if possible, be confined by themselves, in the Congee House, not in the Guard Room, where they are often teased and provoked to acts of violence and insubordination.25

  The order was repeated in October 1847, but in May 1851 the assistant adjutant general wrote to the commanding officer of the 75th Foot to ask why Private Charles Williams, currently up for court martial, ‘was taken to the Quarter Guard when mad from drink, instead of to the Congee House?’. He was told that the Congee House was part of the same building that housed the guard room, with drunks ‘being placed by themselves separately in a cell until sober’.26

  Weapons were kept in racks in barrack rooms, and there was an ever-present danger that soldiers would kill a comrade, either while running amok while drunk or by calmly settling old scores on a sleeping man, or that they would strike an officer: both were capital offences. Executions were grimly demonstrative, for they were designed to deter others. In early February 1846, Private James Mulcahey of 2nd Bengal Europeans ran his comrade Private James Rowe through the belly with his bayonet. Rowe died five days later, and Mulcahey was duly court-martialled and sentenced to death. It was not until late March that news of the Governor-General’s confirmation of the sentence arrived, and Mulcahey was hanged at dawn on 18 May. The troops, 1st and 2nd Bengal Europeans, were formed in three sides of a square facing inwards, with the scaffold on the open side. Mulcahey and his escort entered the square from its left flank. First came the provost marshal, then the band of 2nd Europeans, its drums muffled, followed by the first division of the prisoner’s escort. Next came the prisoner’s coffin, carried by four men of his regiment, and Mulcahey himself, accompanied by the chaplain and escorted by two privates. The second division of the escort, with its subaltern officer, brought up the rear.

  The ghastly procession marched in slow time along the front of the troops, with the band playing the ‘Dead March’ from Saul. The prisoner was then handed over to the provost marshal. Mulcahey,

  dressed in white jacket and pantaloons, without a neck-tie on, walked in rear of his coffin without betraying any emotion; he was unusually pale, but nodded to several men with different companies of the Regt as he passed along … The crime, sentence and warrant were read aloud, and in a few minutes the unfortunate man was no more. A most painful and distressing scene occurred when the … trapdoor was knocked away the rope stretched so much that the prisoner’s feet just touched the ground & his struggles to raise himself on his toes caused many of the men to faint and fall out of the ranks in both Regts. It was but an instant; the rope is shortened and all is still. Then wheeling back by subdivisions on the left the troops passed in slow time without any music along two faces of the square and when past the body, broke into quick time the bands not playing till near the barracks.27

  In this instance the provost marshal was a sergeant selected from the condemned man’s regiment. There were no professional hangmen in the army and it was usually difficult to find soldiers who were prepared to volunteer. Garnet Wolseley recalled how, when a man had to be hanged for murder in the Crimea, £20 and a free discharge were offered to anyone who would do it. Eventually a ‘wretched little driver of the lately raised Land Transport Corps accepted the duty’. Even he deserted at the last moment and a provost sergeant had to do the job. When the driver was eventually caught, the sergeant duly applied the sentence of flogging himself, and laid on with relish. However, during the Mutiny, after the news of Cawnpore, when Wolseley asked for volunteers to hang a trooper of 2nd Light Cavalry ‘apparently every man wanted to be hangman’.28

  Death by hanging was not only degrading, but was sometimes slow. It often involved hoisting the victim up on a rope so that death came by slow strangulation: his friends might be allowed to tug on his legs to hasten death. Havildar Mir Emaum Ali, hitherto an admirable soldier, promoted and decorated for his courage in the field, was hanged at Palaverum near Madras in 1834 for shooting his brigadier for no clearly discerned reason. He was slid into eternity from the back of a cart, but ‘he struggled most violently and was so long in dying that the men … were obliged to climb up and pull the rope from above, while two caught hold of his legs from below, to assist in breaking his neck’.29 Lieutenant George Rybot saw a mass hanging during the Mutiny, and although ‘15 were sent off together, not one gave a single struggle; it seemed as if they were acting; all went as steady and indifferent as possible’. But in the next batch one old man ‘took a long time to die, his shoulders seemed as if their bones were coming through his skin & they kept working slightly … ’.30 When Lieutenant Henry Davis van Homrigh watched a man hanged on 14 July 1845, the ‘rope broke but the drop did for him’.31 Even when a primitive drop was constructed, miscalculations led to broken or stretched ropes and some men died only after repeated attempts.

  For a less disgraceful crime than murdering a comrade, a man would be shot. At what was initially ordered to be a mass execution for mutiny in Fort St George in 1795, six of the seven condemned men were reprieved after a two-hour wait at the foot of the gallows, and the remaining one was granted the option of volley rather than rope. In the late 1840s the offence of striking a superior officer became so prevalent that the Commander in Chief, India, issued repeated warnings that it ‘was an offence punishable by death, and that he should be compelled to put it into execution if the crime was not put a stop to’.

  Robert Waterfield watched Richard Riley Atkins of the Bengal Artillery shot by firing squad with similar pomp and circumstance to that attending the hanging of James Mulcahey. Atkins was shot by twelve men of HM’s 32nd, but, after the volley, remained kneeling on his coffin until the provost marshal ran in and shot him in the head. Waterfield, who heartily disapproved of these ‘military murders’, saw two more over the next eleven days: ‘One of the Lancers, and one of the 32nd, the latter for striking a sergeant.’ Corporal John Ryder of the 32nd thought them a cruel necessity. He had seen Colonel Hill of his regiment ‘when he had formed us into square, sit upon his horse, cautioning the men till tears ran down his face on the horse’s neck’. He thought that the punishment was a severe one, but was essential ‘while the British army is composed of such men as it is, of all characters and dispositions, or discipline would never be kept’.32

  It was rare for a British soldier to suffer the most dramatic death penalty in British India, being blown from a gun. However, an entry in the Calcutta Gazette in 1798 announced that:

  A general court-martial, which sat in Madras on 12th April 1798, sentenced the prisoners Clarke, Stumbles, Banks, Forster, Lawrence and Connor to death for the crime of Mutiny, the first three to be hung in chains, Forster to be blow
n away from a gun, and Lawrence and Connor to be shot to death with musketry.33

  Being blown from a gun was a traditional military punishment, less degrading than hanging but more demonstrative than the firing squad, and the Company had inherited it, along with much else, from the Mughals. It was commonly inflicted on mutineers in 1857–58, although John Nicholson ‘abandoned the practice … he thought the powder so expended might be more usefully employed’.

  Even British officers who were inured to hangings found it an awful spectacle, as Ensign Wilberforce recalled:

  A hollow square was formed by the nine guns on one face, the 35th Native Infantry, from whose ranks the mutineers about to suffer had been taken, were drawn up opposite facing the guns: the wings of the regiment made up the remaining sides of the square. The nine guns were unlimbered in open order and loaded with, of course, powder only. When all was ready an order was heard outside the square, ‘Quick march’, and immediately the nine mutineers, with a space between each of them corresponding exactly to the distance between the guns, marched into the hollow square. At the word ‘Halt!’ each man stopped opposite the muzzle of a gun; ‘Right face’, they turned; ‘stand-at-ease’, they joined their hands and leant back against their gun. The next instant their heads flew upwards into the air, their legs fell forward, and their intestines were blown into the faces of their former comrades who stood watching the scene. Mutineers as they were, no one who saw this execution could refrain from admiring the undaunted courage and coolness with which these men met their fate.34

  Lieutenant Griffiths watched a similarly gory spectacle at Ferozepore. He admitted to feeling ‘sick with a suffocating sense of horror when I reflected on the terrible sight I was about to witness’. Two mutineers were led aside to be hanged, and the remaining twelve were blown from the 9-pounders of the European Light Field Battery in two batches of six.

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