Sahib, p.53Richard Holmes
Captain Octavius Anson watched him at work.
I saw Mr Rotton bury ten (Yule and five of ours, and Alexander, 3rd NI, and three 60th Riflemen) last evening. Mr R has the burial service by heart, and had no book with him. The corpses were all tied up in their [sleeping bags] and looked so snug and comfortable in their little graves, which were, however, hardly deep enough.119
Father Bertrand somehow managed to touch the souls of even those who did not share his beliefs. There were few Roman Catholics in HM’s 52nd Light Infantry, but:
So highly, indeed, did we esteem the little priest that he dined at our mess as an honoured guest – the first, and, I should imagine, the only instance of an Italian Jesuit priest dining at the Mess-table of a Queen’s regiment …
I once asked him how, in action, he could distinguish between the faithful and the heretic. His characteristic answer was: ‘Ah, my friend, in Rome the saints are good, and the Virgin Mary is very good; but here, where the cholera is doing its deadly work, and the bullets are flying around, the saints are no good – the Blessed Virgin even is no good. All I do is this: I hold this,’ (showing me his crucifix) ‘before the eyes of the dying man, and say, “Look at the figure of Jesus. Jesus Christ died for you! Believe in him and you are saved”.’120
The Reverend Rotton admired him greatly, calling him ‘a pattern Roman Catholic priest, whose services have been justly recognised’. Shortly before the assault on Delhi, when all involved recognised that losses would inevitably be heavy, Father Bertrand went from regiment to regiment giving quiet consolation. When he reached the 75th Highlanders he asked its commanding officer for permission to bless the men, saying: ‘We may differ, some of us, in matters of religion, but the blessing of an old man and a clergyman can do nothing but good.’ There was widespread agreement.
And yet at Lucknow the balance was different. There it was the Protestant clergyman, Mr Harris, who won men’s admiration. One of the heroes of the siege was a French merchant, Monsieur Deprat, ‘a man of a good family in France, formerly a soldier and afterwards an officer of the Chasseurs d’Afrique … ’. His military experience had encouraged Lawrence to give him command of a company of Indian police, and:
he acted as an artillery officer as well as a rifleman, and he performed deeds of bootless boldness which none but a Frenchman or a madman would think of. ‘Come on!’, would he often shout in his broken Hindostanee; ‘come on, ye cowardly sons of defiled mothers! Are you afraid to advance? Are you men or women?’ And then the reply. ‘Cursed dog of an infidel! I know thee! Thou art Deprat the Frenchman, living near the iron bridge. We’ll yet kill you. Be sure of that. Here goes!’ and a rifle ball would whistle past his ears.
Badly wounded in the face, he might have lived but ‘his own imprudence aggravated the wound’ and he died.121 Deprat was carried to his grave by four of his friends, but Father Bertrand would not accompany them, in pouring rain and under heavy fire, arguing that ‘Mr Deprat’s religious views were of a very loose kind and he did not deserve Christian burial’. He was eventually persuaded to attend, but:
mumbled a few unintelligible words meant to be Latin, and took himself off, leaving the poor French gentleman’s body to be buried like a dog, for there were not even gravediggers ready; and we were obliged, therefore, to lower it ourselves, as best we could, into a hole almost filled with water. Mr Harris, however, read the beautiful burial service over poor Captain Cunliffe’s body, and we took it as intended for Deprat as well.122
Senior officers recognised that good chaplains were a real asset. Hugh Gough, who did not understand the finer points of ecclesiastical preferment, tried to get one promoted to the rank of brevet bishop for his services in the First Sikh War. In the Second Afghan War, the Reverend G. M. Gordon was killed in action while accompanying an ill-judged sortie by the garrison of Kandahar. The burly Reverend J. W. Adams became the first clergyman to be awarded the VC, for an action in the Chardeh valley in December 1879, when:
Some men of the 9th Lancers having fallen with their horses into a wide and deep ‘nullah’ … and the enemy being close upon them, the Reverend J. W. Adams rushed into the water (which filled the ditch), dragged the horses from off the men, upon whom they were lying, and then extracted them, he being at the time under a heavy fire and up to his waist in water. At this time the Afghans were pressing on very rapidly, the leading men getting to within a few yards of Mr Adams, who having let go his horse in order to render more effective assistance, had eventually to escape on foot.123
Roberts later used the clergyman as his aide-de-camp, and Adams seemed to have had no reservations about bearing arms. Perhaps he was mindful of the advice offered to men of the cloth by Sergeant Forbes-Mitchell. At Bareilly on 5 May 1858:
a most furious charge was made by a body of about three hundred and sixty Rohilla Ghazis, who rushed out, shouting ‘Bismillah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Deen! Deen!’ … I remember the Rev Mr Ross, chaplain of the Forty-Second, running for his life, dodging round camels and bullocks with a rebel sowar after him, till, seeing our detachment, he rushed to us for protection, calling out ‘Ninety-Third, shoot that impertinent fellow!’ Bob Johnston of my company shot the sowar down. Mr Ross had no sword nor revolver, not even a stick with which to defend himself. Moral – when in the field, padres, carry a good revolver.124
A FAMILIAR FRIEND
REFLECTING ON his time in India, Charles Callwell wrote that:
1880 had belonged to the era of cholera and of brandy; by the end of 1883 had been ushered in the era of enteric and whiskey. Not that cholera had ceased. Far from it. We had a visitation of the fell disorder indeed during the ensuing hot weather at Dinapore. But cholera had ceased to be the disease that, statistically and in the aggregate, was the worst foe of the white troops and of the white community as a whole; outbreaks when they came were less violent than they had been, they came more rarely and when they came they were disposed only to lurk in the bazaars and give barracks and bungalows a wide berth. Enteric on the other hand, which had not formerly been proving a veritable scourge, was carrying off only too many officers and men, especially those of the younger sort; the vital importance of good nursing was possibly not so well understood then as it is now, and in any case the means for carrying out nursing were on a less advanced footing.125
India was certainly a killer. In 1857 mortality rates in the army at home were higher – at 17.5 per thousand per annum – than they were in Manchester, ‘one of the unhealthiest towns’ in England, where they ran at 12.5 per thousand. In India, though, they ran at a shocking 69 per thousand per annum for the first half of the century. White women in Bengal died at 44 per thousand, and their children in nearly twice that proportion, at 84 per thousand. Hospitals were always full: in 1863 the 70,000 British soldiers in India filled 5,880 hospital beds.
Callwell was right to identify cholera morbus – ‘Corporal Forbes’ in soldiers’ slang – as the major killer of Britons, soldiers and civilians. A water-borne disease long endemic in India, it was usually contracted by drinking infected water or eating fruit or vegetables washed in it, the water itself having been contaminated by the bodily fluids of those infected; flies too could spread the disease. Barrack sanitation positively promoted disease: effluent from latrines and urinals (the former, until well on in the nineteenth century, consisting of a pole or pierced bench above a channel) often just drained into nearby soakaways, whence it passed on into the subsoil and so into the wells from which the barrack’s water came. Sometimes the latrines were located directly above cesspits which were emptied from the outside, with the contents dumped some distance away.
The traditional night urinal in barracks in Britain had long been the urine tub or ‘sip pot’, and in India these survived long after they had been replaced by flushed urinals elsewhere. Full tubs were carried off by sweepers, who slipped a bamboo pole through the tub’s handles and, in the process of hoisting their burden onto their shoulders, inevitably slurped some of the pungent contents
J. W. Sherer unwittingly made the connection between water and the disease:
A most accomplished and agreeable man, Captain Young, occupied the tent next to me. He went down to dinner one evening at the hotel, which held on with comic pertinacity, and partook of some tinned provisions. The next morning he came out to early tea but said he felt poorly, and would lie down. He died about noon, and was buried in the evening … There was another officer who, it was understood, was engaged to a girl amongst the besieged in Lucknow, so that he was fighting like a Paladin to recover his Princess from the Saracens. But it was not to be. The barracks got inundated one day, and, curiously enough, we observed that several who took their shoes and socks off and paddled about got cholera. Alas! The Paladin was amongst them … 127
The Dutch-built fort at Masulipatam in Madras was so wet and unhealthy that, according to a critical Englishman, ‘no living creature but a Dutchman, a frog or an alligator would ever have chosen it for his habitation’. In 1799 the fort adjutant agreed that ‘there is only a sheet of brown paper between it and Pandemonium’, and in 1833 deaths there were so frequent that the surgeon persuaded his colonel to ban the Dead March, as its ‘daily repetition … has a very depressing effect on the patients in the hospital’.128
Cholera was especially feared because its onset was sudden and unexpected, its symptoms (violent abdominal pains and diarrhoea) shocking, and its mortality rate (usually around 50 per cent) high. When cholera hit John’s Fraser’s Northumberland Fusilier battalion in 1886: ‘all the earlier cases were fatal, and mostly horribly painful, the victims howling and shrieking in their agony until mercifully quietened by the coming of death; which frequently took place as soon as six hours after the first seizure’.129 Lieutenant Walter Campbell has left us a vivid picture of its impact on his own regiment, on the march in the 1830s:
Poor Paton of the 15th died this morning of cholera … Directly after the fort had been taken, we adjourned to the mess tent for breakfast. This being the only tent pitched, Paton, who had been carried along the line of march in a hospital doolie was brought in and placed in our tent to be sheltered from the sun till the other tents arrived. We were enjoying the good things provided by our most excellent messman, with the wolfish appetite of hungry subalterns, laughing and joking after our almost bloodless victory, when a gasping gurgling sound attracted my attention to the hospital doolie, which had been deposited in the corner of the tent without our observing it. Starting from my seat I pulled aside the canvas covering; there lay poor Paton insensible and with the death-rattle in his throat. Raising him in my arms, I wiped the cold dew of death from his forehead – supported him for a few moments until he had drawn his last breath – laid him gently down – dropped the curtains of the doolie – and heaving a sigh for our departed comrade, we all resumed our breakfast as if nothing in particular had happened. Death has become too familiar to us to elicit any further remark on such an everyday occurrence.130
However, his company’s senior NCO, the normally resolute Colour Sergeant Murphy, was clearly shaken by the impact of cholera on the battalion:
On the line of march this morning [Murphy] walked alongside of my horse, making many apologies for the liberty he took in doing so. He said the horror of the scenes he had witnessed for the past few days had so preyed on his mind that he must relieve his feelings by talking to someone who could sympathise with him. He was prepared, he said, to shed his blood and die on the field of battle like a man. But to lie down on the roadside and die like a dog … was no death for a soldier; and the idea made him shudder. I did what I could to cheer the poor fellow … and he appeared to be in better spirits. He assisted me to pitch the tents and I went to breakfast.
An hour later he was summoned by a sergeant with the news that Murphy was been stricken by cholera.
I rushed over immediately to the hospital tent, but so changed was poor Sergeant Murphy, in this short space of time, that I could not recognise him until he was pointed out to me. His ruddy healthy-looking face had collapsed and assumed a livid hue; his eyes had sunk, and his hands were shrivelled like those of a washerwoman after a hard day’s work. He was too far gone to speak; but he squeezed my hand and bestowed upon me a grateful look of thanks; and before the evening gun was fired he was underground.131
It was for long believed that cholera hung about like a miasma, which could be escaped by outmarching it, or by moving troops out of cantonments into cholera camps. This sometimes had precisely the desired effect, for troops might (or there again might not) find themselves on fresh camp sites with unpolluted water supplies. Fred Roberts was posted to the staff at Allahabad in 1866:
Cholera was rife; the troops had to be sent away into camps, more or less distant from the station, all of which had to be visited once, if not twice, daily; this kept me pretty well on the move from morning to night. It was a sad time for everyone. People we had seen alive and well one day were dead and buried the next; and in the midst of all this sorrow and tragedy, the most irksome – because such an incongruous – part of our experience was that we had constantly to get up entertainments, penny readings and the like, to amuse the men and keep their minds occupied, for if once soldiers begin to think of the terrors of cholera, they are seized with panic, and many get the disease from pure fright.
My wife usually accompanied me to the cholera camps, preferring to do this rather than be left alone at home. On one occasion, I had just got into our carriage after going round the hospital, when a young officer ran after us to tell us that a corporal in whom I had been much interested was dead. The poor fellow’s face was blue; the cholera panic had evidently seized him, and I said to my wife, ‘He will be next.’ I had no sooner reached home than I received a report of his having been seized.132
Some officers attacked their symptoms with alcohol. George Elers was sorely afflicted with something very unpleasant at Seringapatam in 1799:
My insides appeared to be all gone, and part of the intestines absolutely given way. The whole camp teemed with death and contagion. The flies and insects settled upon everything that was eatable, and the bullocks and other animals dying continually, these flies were constantly feasting upon their carcasses, and then settled upon our faces or provisions. I lay in this deplorable state for two or three days, when a Lieutenant Ashton brought me a couple of bottles of port wine that he had purchased at some deceased officers sale. From the moment I took two glasses of this precious wine I gradually recovered.133
When Lieutenant Campbell experienced the first signs of what he believed to be cholera, something within him,
suggested port wine as a remedy … which I had not tasted since I landed; but on this occasion nature craved for it. I accordingly sent to the mess for a pint bottle … which I immediately swallowed at a draught; so immediate was the relief that I never afterwards mounted guard without repeating the dose. Corfield … adopted the same system; and … he and I are now the only two officers fit for duty.134
Cholera epidemics killed far more British soldiers than major battles. At Karachi in 1845, HM’s 86th Foot had 410 cases and 238 deaths, and 2nd Bombay Fusiliers 221 cases and eighty-three deaths. From the eight regiments of the garrison, 175 men were admitted to hospital on 15 June, and seventy-five died; there were 277 admissions and 186 deaths on the 16th; 245 admissions and 116 deaths on the 17th, and 117 admissions and sixty-five deaths on the 18th. The 9th Lancers lost one officer, five sergeants, two trumpeters and eighty-three rank and file, as well as fourteen women and eight children, over a period of three months in 1843.135 In 1853, HM’s 70th, which marched to a cholera camp near Cawnpore, lost two officers, 344 men, thirty-seven wives and ninety-n
There were other risks. George Carter kept a record of the deaths in 2nd Bengal Europeans. From 1840–50, the regiment lost 616 men. Of these seven were drowned; four (one of them a pay sergeant, whose sums, we may suspect, did not add up) committed suicide; three were accidentally killed (one ‘walked down a khud [ravine] and was dashed to pieces’); two were murdered and one executed (the murderer of the other victim, Private Oliver Acid of the Light Company, was never caught); seventeen died directly ‘per liquor’ and another 582 ‘otherwise’. During this period the regiment’s average strength was 732 men. Things were proportionately more perilous for the regiment’s wives: there was an average of fifty-five across the period, but fifty-one of them died, seven of these in childbirth.136
During the period 1796–1820, 201 of the Company’s officers retired on pension, but 1,243 were killed in action or died of sickness. In 1838 the East India Company agents Dodwell and Miles published a complete list of the Company’s officers from 1760 to 1834, and it makes discouraging reading. Only about 10 per cent of officers survived to draw their pensions. Out of a random sample of ten gunner officers, four died in India of natural causes, two resigned, one was killed fighting the Rohillas in 1802, another was lost on his passage to Bombay, and one drowned while swimming. A similar sample of infantry and cavalry officers shows no better fortune: one resigned, seven died in India of natural causes, one perished on the voyage home, and one died on operations, though not because of enemy action. Lieutenant Thomas Macan was shot in a duel at Barrackpore on 14 June 1809; Captain William Slessor was killed on 7 January 1810 ‘by the accidental discharge of his fowling piece’; Lieutenant William Middleton was ‘blown up in the Duke of Athol on 19 April 1787; and Captain Ralph Harvey, dismissed from the service on 26 December 1771, managed to get reinstated on 27 January 1773 but proceeded to expire less than two months later.137
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