Sahib, p.5
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       Sahib, p.5

           Richard Holmes

  A set of bearers consists of twelve men, including the puddabhuee or head-bearer; there is also a fellow for carrying the massaul, or torch, as also another for the cavary baskets, or pettarahs, which are a couple of baskets, or light tin boxes, generally painted green, slung on a bamboo, containing eating and drinking requisites for the journey. The whole set have a man of their own to convey their food and cooking utensils.

  These poor fellows can run for upwards of thirty miles, with scarcely any rest, at the rate of four miles an hour, taking little or no sustenance at the time! When arrived at the end of their stage, they put down their load, and walk off, though some of them are apt to be troublesome, by begging a present, and it is generally customary to give them a rupee or two.

  The new set are not long in making their appearance. They lift up the palkee and trudge off never say a word to the traveller; but they can never make a start without a great noise and wrangling among themselves, which it is almost useless to attempt to check; and in this manner they proceed, running along till they come to the end of their stage, quitting the palankeen like their predecessors.1

  Railways developed rapidly in the second half of the nineteenth century. The first twenty miles of track, between Thana and Bombay, were opened in 1853. There were 4,000 miles of railway in India by 1869 and 31,500 miles forty years later. By then, ‘throughout the great band of flat country that runs from Calcutta to Peshawar it would have been hard to find a village that was not fifty miles from the railway, and there were not many that were twenty-five’.2 The first main line followed the Grand Trunk Road up the Ganges valley. Thereafter trunk lines were built to link Bombay, Calcutta and Madras, with ‘a myriad feeder tracks, from rack-railways winding precariously to hill-stations to infinitesimal narrow-gauge lines serving the Native States’.3 The last main line, through the Khyber Pass, was completed in 1926, local tribesmen having been encouraged not to oppose it on the grounds that it would make looting easier.

  Yet for the bulk of the period railways were of limited military value. In October 1858, W. H. Russell, moving up the Ganges valley, wrote that:

  The railroad is as yet in a very incomplete state. One of the most disagreeable incidents of travelling by it is, the liability to be set on fire by sparks from the engine – wood being used instead of coal. The other day a detachment of Sikh soldiers were going up country, one of them had his clothes set on fire by the embers. All his comrades were dressed in cotton-quilted tunics, with their pouches full of ammunition; and in their alarm, they adopted the notable device of pitching the man out of the window in order to get rid of the danger to which they were exposed.4

  Despite British preoccupation with the threat posed by the Russians to the North-West Frontier, as late as 1879 Charles Callwell, travelling from Dinapur to Rawalpindi, found that:

  The railway did not at this time run beyond Jhelum, although its extension to Rawal Pindi was being hurried on. I found on arrival at the terminus that there were already a number of officers and others awaiting their turn for transport forward by dâk-ghari (posting four-wheelers, with relays of ponies every ten miles or so). The staff officers intimated that I should be kept at the place for several days; but gave me the option of going by bullock cart, an offer which I jumped at without realising what it involved.5

  The bridge across the Indus at Attock eventually enabled the Punjab Northern State Railway to reach Peshawar, one of the most important bases on the frontier. Designed by the engineer Guilford Molesworth and completed in 1883, it was built on two decks, the railway crossing above, the Grand Trunk Road below, and it was approached through great iron gates, sentry boxes and gunposts.

  Slowly and carefully the trains eased their way across its exposed upper deck, high above the river; below the bullock carts, the camels, the marching soldiers, the pedestrian thousands made their way, and this remarkable iron corridor – always full of movement, the clanking trains above, the jostle below – provided a focus for a dun and treeless prospect of Sind, out of which, from high ridges all around, forts, guns and embrasures looked watchfully down.6

  The Khojak tunnel, opened in 1891 and at 12,780 feet the longest in India, took the Chaman Extension Railway to the Afghan frontier, and had heavily fortified towers at both ends. After the Mutiny, stations were often built near military cantonments, outside the towns themselves. In 1864 Lahore station was designed to be, as its architect put it, ‘perfectly defensible in every aspect’, with loopholed towers which were proof against the mortar bombs of the day.

  Even before the arrival of the railway, the Ganges, navigable to upstream of Allahabad, permitted something approaching large-scale troop movement. This was not always comfortable, as Surgeon A. D. Home of HM’s 40th discovered when travelling from Calcutta deep into Bengal in 1857:

  The transport provided for the voyage up the river consisted of two river steamers each towing a ‘flat’ carrying a section of soldiers; and further a hulk, a new sea-going ship, dismantled and fitted for the urgent particular service, was provided. Very ample and good of its kind as this provision seemed, the heat was so great that it was insufficient, and the men, particularly those in the hulk, suffered on the very slow passage upstream on a river in flood.7

  And even river boats were a bonus. Until well on in the 1870s, most British soldiers in India would have understood Sergeant George Carter’s journal only too well:

  3rd March 1842. This day made our first march towards Cawnpore. We marched in the old fashioned broad-topped heavy shako. They are very distressing to the head. About five miles after leaving cantonments crossed the Ganghes over a pukka bridge. The road is in well kept condition and very level. Norogunge 10 miles 4 furlongs.

  4th. To day the road is excellent. Crossed the Goomty by a bridge of boats. Sidepore 12 miles.

  5th. Road as yesterday. Crossed the Burwa by a pukka bridge. Chobeepore 12 miles.

  6th. Splendid roads. Crossed 5 Bridges by a large one at Benares. Benares 12 miles.

  7th. This morning the regiment was received by Major General Cox who gave us a deal of praise when the evolutions were finished. Our Rifle Company skirmished much to his satisfaction.

  8th. Marched this morning to Mow-ke-serai 7 miles 2 furlongs … 8

  … and so it went on, Kipling’s ‘eight ‘undred fighting Englishmen, the colonel and the band’ pounding their way up the Grand Trunk Road.

  As any infantryman might have told us, there is ground aplenty: but water, not land, is India’s most crucial resource. It was no accident that Indian civilisation began on the banks of the great rivers of the north some four millennia ago, and that the first of India’s ruling dynasties were established in the Punjab and the Doab. But most of India relies for water on the south-west and south-east monsoons, which sweep across much of the land between June and September. More than nine-tenths of the rainfall comes during these months, but there are years when the monsoons fail. Civil servant and historian Philip Woodruff describes what happens then:

  If there is no rain, there is no harvest of rice and millet in September and the ground is too hard to sow the wheat and barley that ought to be cut in March. The peasant seldom has enough grain in hand to carry him more than a month or two beyond harvest-time. The grain-dealer of course has stocks, but prices rise and the peasant cannot buy without running into debt. There is scarcity, debt, hunger and something near starvation. Then perhaps next year there is a poor crop and a partial recovery, then another failure; the dealer’s stocks are exhausted and there is no food in the area. This is famine.9

  Without water, agriculture cannot prosper, and civilisation itself is imperilled. The great Mughal city of Fatehpur Sikri, just west of Agra, was begun by the Emperor Akbar in 1591. Shortly after it was completed, fifteen years later, it was realised that the water supply was inadequate, and the whole complex, two square miles of elaborately crafted red sandstone, was abandoned. And without water armies cannot take the field: the logistic lessons learned in India by Arthur Well
esley (the future Duke of Wellington) in 1796–1805 stood him in good stead when he was later campaigning in Spain.

  Water is conserved in a variety of ways, from the omnipresent ‘tanks’ of north and central India, which range in size from large wells to small reservoirs, to the paddy fields of East Bengal and the south. Not least amongst the achievements of British India were reservoirs, like that created when Colonel John Pennycuick of the Royal Engineers built the Periyar Dam, opened in 1895. It was 173 feet high and 1,240 feet across at the top, creating a canal 35 miles long and 216 miles of lesser waterways. By 1909, India’s canal system was the most extensive in the world: 13,000 miles of primary and secondary canals with 42,000 miles of distributaries irrigated 23 million acres of land, half the total acreage of Great Britain.10

  Yet there are times when, perversely, there can be too much water. East Bengal remains prone to cyclones and floods. Both snow-melt in the mountains and the sudden arrival of the monsoon can convert the dry watercourses – the nullahs, such a common feature of the Indian landscape – into raging torrents. Rivers, fordable one day before, become – like the Sutlej on the fateful day of Sobraon – almost impassable to military movement the next. Familiar fords become death-traps. In 1878 a squadron of the 10th Hussars forded the Kabul River two miles east of Jelalabad: forty-seven out of seventy-five were drowned or kicked to death by maddened horses, and only nineteen bodies were found. Surgeon-Major T. H. Evatt tells us how:

  As daylight came and the banks lower down were searched, the bodies were found jammed amongst the boulders and under the rocky banks. The men were in full marching order, khaki, with putties and wool underclothing. They had their swords on and carried their carbines slung over their shoulders and their pouches were full. A man so accoutred simply had no chance against the swollen river.11

  The 6th Dragoon Guards lost six men drowned in a similar accident the following year. Captain James Browne RE was building a bridge over the Bara River near Peshawar when he was awakened with the news that the river had suddenly risen and was threatening not only his bridge, but his floating pile-driver – the only one of its kind in India.

  In the evening I went up to the roof of my house to bed; at about 12 o’clock I heard much shouting from the men on guard higher up the river. Turning out in my night-shirt, I rushed to give the pile engine ropes an extra pull. But in three or four minutes I saw the river coming down in a huge wave, about 200 feet wide: one wall of roaring water, coming on at the rate of fifteen miles an hour, tearing down the river banks, foaming and fretting in the moonlight; a very grand sight, but not at all to my liking …

  Then off went the huge machine, bobbing and ducking as if chaffing us for our trouble; the guy ropes torn from the coolies’ hands in a moment. Four of my Sikh guard and myself plunged in after it holding on like grim death, a pandemonium of coolies rushing along the bank …

  During these manoeuvres the Sikhs and myself twisted four of the chains together. These we fastened to the great ram – a huge mass of iron prevented from slipping into the water by two large beams. A carpenter swam out to us with a hatchet, and turn by turn we went at those beams, hitting as men never hit before, till the huge bit of iron slipped into the water. Slower and slower we went along, till at last we were moored by the ram, which held us firm as a rock.

  In that short time we had gone down about four miles – and farther on there was a fall in the river about fifteen feet high. Five minutes more and we would have been over it.

  The engine was saved, but Browne had to walk five miles home, wet, shoeless and clad only in his night-shirt.12

  Temperatures can range between the tropical and the polar. Lieutenant John Corneille arrived in India with HM’s 39th in 1754, and emphasised the extraordinary variation in the climate in Bengal:

  May, in my opinion, is as hot as human nature can well support. June, July and August, which form the rainy season and are subject to great thunder and lightning, are very warm, yet frequently each day is refreshed by very cooling showers. September and October are fine but still very hot. Though November, December, January and February are in the morning liable to thick fogs and very cold, in the middle of the day they are as delightfully temperate as even a European constitution desires. After that the heat gradually increases.13

  Isabella Fane, daughter of General Sir Henry Fane, Commander in Chief, India, found Calcutta decidedly unpleasant in April 1836:

  The very sound of a blanket now in Calcutta makes one start, so frightfully are we all grilling. The thermometer in the room is 84, in the shade 96 and God knows what in the sun, but my father thinks it is quite pleasant weather! So much for occupation! I must say for women, and occupied men, this climate does very well, but for those like the aides-de-camp of the establishment who have little or nothing to do, it must be anything but agreeable. The whole house is shut up tight from nine in the morning until six in the evening, and in the course of twenty-four hours three is all that it is possible to spend out of doors.

  A month later she reported that: ‘Even my father finds it hot and goes without his waistcoat or stock and with his gills turned down en garçon.’14 At the other military extreme at much the same time, for Private Robert Waterfield of HM’s 32nd, June in Meerut cantonment was a trying experience:

  Thermometer 88°–90°. Weather continued intensely hot, men crowding the hospital, numbers die of apoplexy. The intemperate by no means suffer as one would imagine … Two parades a day in consequence of the men drinking so much. This is hard on a temperate man, to be punished for other’s faults. The consequence of these parades is that the men drink more, the constant work inducing thirst. These things do not tend to make a commanding officer very popular.15

  Captain the Hon. W. G. Osborne wrote that it reached 113 degrees at 10.00 in the morning in his camp in the Punjab:

  All sorts of experiments to keep themselves cool are tried by the different unhappy individuals in camp; I think mine the most successful. Dig a large hole in the ground, in the centre of your tent, then place your table over it to form a sort of inner roof, and prevent the sun from shining down upon you. Make your bheestie water the whole floor of the tent, and then hang a wet sheet over the hole … pegged on the ground at the edges of the pit to prevent it touching the bottom; take off all your clothes, and get into it, and by having a skin of water thrown over you every ten minutes, you may perhaps get the temperature down to 100°, which would be a perfect heaven to what we are now enduring.16

  It was far harder for soldiers in the field. War correspondent W. H. Russell was caught between the hammer of the sun and the anvil of the plain at Lucknow in March 1858:

  The heat was sweltering and I pitied our men as they stood under its rays, many of them unprovided with proper protection against the sun and retaining their old European outfit. I felt the exhaustion produced by the temperature so much, that I could scarcely move a hundred yards without visible distress. The perspiration rolled in streams down our faces between banks of hardened dust, which caked as it settled on our saturated clothes. And these poor fellows might be exposed for hours, not only to this terrible heat, but to a hard struggle and severe fighting. ‘Water! Water! Pane! Pane!’ was the cry on every side.17

  Lieutenant Wilberforce, marching from Amritsar to Delhi the previous year, wrote that: ‘We are out in a field, and the heat is no joke: 105° at 9 o’clock, 120° at 12, and from 2 to 4 about 130°; we get under our beds with a wet towel round our heads.’18 Lieutenant Richard Barter later recalled that making for Delhi with the 75th Highlanders was every bit as unpleasant:

  By 9 a.m. the hot wind was blowing through the mango tope [the grove of trees where they had spent the night] scorching up everything. None in this country can form an idea of what this really is; the nearest approach to it is the hot room of a Turkish bath, but the hot wind differs from this by bringing out no moisture, but withering up the skin like parchment until it crackles, and the mouth and throat become parched and the lips split from
the fierce furnace-like blast. We threw water over one another from the bhisti’s water-bags and saturated our turbans and clothes, but in ten minutes after we were as dry as tinder, and towards noon all but the sentries dropped off into a queer state which could not be called sleep, till the fierce sun went down and the wind had ceased, when the Assembly sounded and we were once more on the long dusty road.19

  The arrival of the monsoon was a shock. In 1879, Second Lieutenant Charles Callwell, a gunner officer in Dinapur cantonment, described:

  The break of the rains in Bengal, an atmospheric upheaval pined for by those who, half blinded by the incessant glare, have been sweltering in the plains for the two or three months preceding, is a very wonderful spectacle. For a week or two before the crash, huge cloud-masses have been banking themselves up ever higher and higher in the sky, the constant flickering of sheet lightning during the night-watches has almost turned darkness into day, and a brooding stillness has steeped the face of the land in an unnatural ominous repose. Then, almost without warning and with startling suddenness, there comes a mighty rush of wind, every door that happens to be shut opens and every door that happens to be open shuts, the temperature drops fifteen or twenty degrees in as many minutes, the roar of the thunder drowns that of the tempest, and down comes the rain – rain such as is rarely seen in England even during the most violent of magnetic storms and which lasts not for minutes but for hours. You hurry on some warmer garment in support of the negligée which had previously sufficed, and then having made all secure against hurricane and deluge, you issue onto the veranda to watch the downpour … But if the actual break of the rains brought a delightful freshness with it at the moment, one soon found that the change of seasons had its drawbacks. For one thing, it put an end to polo for the time being. The Ganges … began rising, and it went on rising till its muddy waters partly flooded the station … Then when the floods subsided, there came fever and sickness, even if the heat was far less trying than it had been.20

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