Sahib, p.56Richard Holmes
While there were some officers who treated their servants with indifference, there were others who formed a lifelong bond with them. Walter Lawrence knew of a youngster whose father, a retired officer, told him:
‘John, if you are ever in real difficulties, shout for my old man, Habib Khan.’ Two years afterwards the young officer was in charge of a company of sappers, who were to cross the Jhelum River by a ford. Night had come on, and he did not know where the ford was, and stood perplexed by the bank of the river. Suddenly he thought of his father’s advice, and proceeded to shout: ‘Hi, Habib Khan!’ and in a few minutes from the opposite bank came a joyous response: ‘Coming, Johnnie Baba!’ and Habib Khan came in a boat.178
Things were a good deal less comfortable for soldiers’ wives and children. Helen Mackenzie had first met her husband Colin in 1838 when he was a widower of thirty-two and she was nineteen. She loved him then, but he ‘forebore to speak’ because of her age. However, when he returned in 1843 as a hero of the First Afghan War they were duly married. He was commanding a Sikh regiment up at Ludhiana, and although there were few European soldiers there Helen soon discovered that things were not easy for their wives. She spoke to a bombardier’s wife who had lived on tea and chapatties on the two-month journey from Calcutta to Cawnpore, with other women dying of sunstroke or cholera. ‘A poor soldier’s wife is indeed to be pitied,’ she wrote.
She is often a young and inexperienced country girl, nobody cares for her, no one looks after her; her health is as likely to give way as any lady’s in India; she is treated more like an animal than a woman … She is sent hither and thither at all seasons and she may truly say ‘No man careth for my soul.’179
Until the close of the Crimean War soldiers’ wives generally accompanied their husbands to war, and were expected to help by acting as laundresses and nurses. For most Indian campaigns, however, they stayed behind in barracks, and the regiment’s departure was often heart-rending. When the 3rd Light Dragoons rode off to the Second Sikh War:
Women and children were to take up one barracks, and several sick men (convalescents) were to be left with them. Poor children and mothers! Some of them took the last look at their fathers and husbands, but they bore it as a soldier’s wife should.
Well, 3 o’clock came and there we sat, as fine a regiment of young men, 697 strong, as England could wish for. We gave a loud Hurrah! to the women as we marched off, to cheer the poor things, and off we went at the trot, not pulling up a rein until we were several miles off, for fear the women should follow. Two of them did, although we marched fifteen miles, and stopped that night in the tents with their husbands. How they got back I cannot say.180
It was perhaps the fragility of their married lives that encouraged some soldiers’ wives to take comfort where they could. When HM’s 32nd Foot reached Lahore in April 1848, its men embarked on a sustained drinking spree, with an average of fifty men under arrest daily for drunkenness. Robert Waterfield saw that:
what made things worse, the women of one or two of HM’s regiments lay here. The regiments to which their husbands belonged was up the country with Sir Walter Gilbert, and not having any one to watch over them, or to keep them within bounds, they came out in their true colours, and proved false to their plighted vows. There were some few exceptions, and I am afraid but few, and the scenes enacted by the false ones was, in some cases, disgusting in the extreme.181
Sapper Thomas Burford reached Ahmednuggar in March 1859, and reported that: ‘There is also a great number of Europeans here, and also a great many Soldiers’ Wives. Their husbands is up the Country and they are so fascinating that they enticed some of our men to stop absent from Tattoo.’182
Honoria, John Lawrence’s wife and an observer of unusual perspicacity, saw that some soldiers’ wives were themselves little more than children: she spoke to one whose corporal husband beat her because she ‘stayed out playing marbles with the boys when he wanted his supper’. As they lived in barrack rooms ‘among drunken and half-naked men, hearing little but blasphemy and ribaldry, and surrounded by influences that render decency nearly impossible’, it was not surprising that soldiers’ wives had a bad reputation. Staff Surgeon Julius Jeffreys affirmed that ‘the mortality of the barrack children is appalling. The infanticide of the Hindu is no more indefensible than the treatment of these poor little ones – it is a process of “protracted liquidation” of our own English stock.’183
Emily Wonnacott’s husband, William, held the warrant officer rank of schoolmaster to the 8th King’s Own Foot at Nusseerabad, and Emily found herself on the untenable middle ground between officers’ ladies and soldiers’ wives – not admitted to the society of the former and distinctly uncomfortable with most of the latter. She told her parents in 1871 that: ‘There are a few, and only a few, nice women in the regiment. Not one I would like to make a friend of. They are very illiterate & illbred and very fond of fighting and drinking which leads to worse.’ In her next letter she announced that:
There will be a wedding in the regiment tomorrow. A widow who only lost her husband and baby about three months [ago]. This disgusting custom prevails among the regimental people. A man would die today and tomorrow his wife would be re-engaged. Some poor creatures marry again for a home, but this woman had the offer of a comfortable situation in England, with a lady she formerly lived with.184
Emily declared that she was already worn down by the ‘heat, sand, snakes, scorpions, [and] spiders as large as the palm of your hand’, and fervently wished that she had never gone to India. In September 1870, she lost her eldest boy, Bertie, and the shock helped bring on a miscarriage. To make matters worse, she had just heard that her brother Tom had died of cholera at Mhow. She was dead herself in September 1871, leaving a distraught William to write to her parents:
We buried our pet yesterday. Her almost sudden death has cast a great gloom over the whole regiment, for she was liked by all who came in contact with her. An immense number followed her to her last resting-place, amongst them the Colonel and Adjutant … We laid her by the side of her darling Bertie … I have Willie with me. Poor dear little Nellie is taken by a colour sergeant’s wife who was very familiar with my lost treasure. I am heartsore & weary, & it grieves me more to give you this painful blow.185
The story was a familiar one: death sniping at parents and siblings, and sometimes grabbing whole families. A tomb in Christ Church cemetery, Trichinoply Fort, was ‘hallowed by relics of gentlest innocence’. It contained the four children of Captain D. Ogilby, and their mother too. The devout William Porter already had eighteen years’ service in the Madras Artillery and was destined for the rank of conductor, when he told his parents, in March 1837, that:
Since my writing to you Mary Anne was confined of a daughter and we had her baptised by the name of Anna Maria. But like a beautiful rose she bloomed but then for a time withered, drooped her head, she was but seven months old when she departed to the mansions of bliss.
A couple of years later his friend, Corporal William Harrison, was working in the ‘laboratory’ (the technical workshop where fuses were made and shells filled) when:
a spark accidentally ignited the mealed powder in the dredging box bursting the box in a number of pieces one of which entered poor William’s groin making a hole I could put my fist in, he ran out of the workshop crying in a most piteous manner but in a short time was quite quiet …
Harrison left a heavily pregnant wife and two small children; the family was saved from utter destitution only by a subscription raised by the gunners. In 1843 William Porter lost another daughter, this time because the nurse ‘observing a black spot on the child’s naval she most foolishly picked it off thereby opening one of the arteries placed about that part … ’. The same letter announced that a fellow soldier, not long back from China, had just been carried off by cholera, with two sons and a daughter, leaving ‘a poor widow and one son to deplore their loss’.
Two years later, Mary Anne Porter had another child,
Mr Hunsley died on the 22nd of March and was buried the same evening in St Mary’s ground. Sergeant Tom Kay is dead, it appears he was some time sick in hospital with the Dysentry. Sub Conductor Milne died at Tovay after being ordered to Madras. Gunner Burgess was found dead near Palaveram on the 20th of April. It is generally supposed he was murdered … Father Welsh was ordered to Kampted and died two days after arriving there … But what I think will surprise you most to hear is the death of poor Hunsley. He went, on command, to Masulipatam and after delivering the stores was on his return when death overtook him … It appears that from the time he left Madras he was scarcely a day sober which, if you recollect, we said would be the case … A subscription has been got up for the support of his two children.186
The letters and diaries of the paladins of British India are strewn with domestic tragedies. Henry Havelock told a friend who had just lost a daughter that:
I hasten to offer my condolences; what are they worth? Positively nothing in the estimation of a father, since they cannot restore to him his departed child, nor reverse the decree of ‘Thou shalt go to her, but she shall not return to thee.’ Yet I have felt the voice of fellowship to be soothing under such circumstances, and the assurance of sympathy to relieve the feeling of desertion and loneliness which has supervened on the first shock of bereavement. I have not alluded to higher consolations, because I know you have them ready at hand.187
He knew whereof he spoke: his own daughter had just died. In 1869 Charles MacGregor married the eighteen-year-old Frances Mary Durand, daughter of Sir Henry Durand, a member of the Viceroy’s council. When he went off to the frontier in 1872 he wrote:
It must be confessed that parting gives one’s feelings a tremendous wrench, and I can see very plainly why it is that marriage is said to spoil a soldier, and how easy it would be for a weak man to fall away from his duty if much pressed by a woman he loves; how difficult it would be for any one not to deteriorate under such influence. I must therefore thank my star that I have got a wife that will never use her influence to get me to go against my duty.188
Frances bore him a daughter, but her health failed and she had to go home. She died at sea off Southampton, and was buried there, aged just twenty-one. Her little daughter was left with an aunt. MacGregor married again, while on leave in 1883, and his much younger wife bore him another daughter, but he himself had less than four years to live.
Fred Roberts married while on leave in Waterford after the Mutiny. He applied for three months’ extra leave to recover his health and to spare his wife the hot weather, but was told that if he did not return to India he would lose his staff appointment. The Commander in Chief, Sir Colin Campbell, now metamorphosed into the whiskery splendour of Lord Clyde, told him that were he not a married man he would have been sent on the China expedition. Nora Roberts was furious, and told Campbell ‘You have done your best to make him regret his marriage.’ Their first daughter died ‘within one week of her birthday – our first great sorrow’. Another daughter died aboard Helvetia on their way back to India after leave in 1866: ‘we had the terrible grief of losing her soon after we passed Aden. She was buried at sea.’ Three years later they lost a baby boy at the age of three weeks, and another boy, young Freddie, almost died in 1871. Roberts finally lost him in 1900 when, by then a lieutenant in the Rifle Brigade, he was killed trying to save the guns at Colenso in South Africa. His peerage eventually went, by special remainder, to his surviving daughter.189 Even so he was luckier than Campbell, who lamented that: ‘The rank and wealth and honours, which would have gladdened those dear to me, came to me when all who loved me in my youth are gone.’190
The Ploughman settled the share
More deep in the sun-dried clod:-
‘Mogul, Mahratta, and Mlech from the North,
And the White Queen over the Seas –
God raises them up and driveth them forth
As the dust of the ploughshare flies in the breeze;
But the wheat and the cattle are all my care,
And the rest is the will of God.’
KIPLING, ‘What the People Said’
I F THE GREAT HEROES of Empire have their statues and memorials, even if their names are no longer familiar, the tens of thousands of men, women and children who made the passage to India and left their bones there have, for the most part, gone as if they have never been. More than two million of them were buried in the subcontinent, in churchyards now imperilled or swamped by teeming cities, in cantonment cemeteries, roadside burial grounds or the great grave-pits on battlefields. Of the officers and men who fell in the four great battles of the Sikh War of 1845–46, Mudki, Ferozeshah, Aliwal and Sobraon, most ‘lie in nameless and … in untraceable graves’.1 Colonel Patrick Maxwell, killed at Assaye in 1803 commanding the cavalry in the army commanded by Major General Arthur Wellesley, lies beneath a peepul tree on the battlefield. A stone still marks his resting-place, but time and climate have effaced his name. And of the men who died with him in what was, proportionate to the numbers engaged, one of the Duke of Wellington’s bloodiest battles, there is no trace whatever.
Nor is there much enduring evidence of those killed by disease and the climate. A brick obelisk near the village of Jalozai, up on the North-West Frontier, once commemorated:
Major W. G. A. Middleton, Ensign J. St. G. Drysdale, Asst Surgeon S. Hope, 61 rank and file 13 Women, 15 children all of the 93rd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders Who died of cholera at or near This spot during the month of October 1862,2
but it has long disappeared. The process of obliteration started long before the British left. Walter Lawrence remembered how:
sometimes one would come across waste and distant places, the solitary tomb of some gallant officer who had fallen fighting, but I never felt that this forlorn spot was British soil for ever; indeed, I always wished that the pyre rather than the grave had been our portion when the end came. The hot winds, the deluge of the rain and the relentless fig trees soon deal with these vain sepulchres. But even sadder was the sight of a moated and castellated hall, where once a soldier diplomat held high state, now desolate and ‘full of doleful creatures’. One night, driven by a pitiless rain and cold, I set my bed in such a hall, but the great bats and the black swarms of muskrats prevented sleep.3
A few of the great and the good who died in India had their bodies preserved for reburial in their homeland. Eyre Coote lies at Rockbourne on his West Park estate in Hampshire, but has a splendid memorial in Westminster Abbey, crowned by ‘a buxom young Victory, somewhat under-winged for her admirable plenitude’.4 Others returned home to find the long-awaited moment a curious anticlimax. Colonel and Mrs Muter sailed back after the Mutiny aboard the Eastern Monarch, which was carrying a cargo of 200 tons of saltpetre. The ship caught fire just off Portsmouth, and although all but seven of the passengers and crew were saved when she eventually blew up, the last Mrs Muter saw ‘of the ship so long my home was in that tall, sulphurous column which had risen from the mine over which I had slept for many months’. The Muters headed straight for London,
where we found difficulty in obtaining a bed. It was Epsom Race week; the hotels were full, the metropolis thronged. The waiters looked suspiciously at our attire (though we had each bought a ready-made suit at Portsmouth), and I fear their suspicion was confirmed when they saw there was not an article of baggage on the cab. There was something dreary and disheartening beyond expression in such a return to our country … 5
Major Bayley was invited to a ball at Buckingham Palace and was presented to the Queen, ‘as was the case, I believe, with all field officers who had recently returned from the seat of war in India’.
There was no marching past before Her Majesty at Windsor or elsewhere, no public distribution of medals and rewards, no banquets given to the leading officers of the force, and no record published of the arduous duties in which they had been engaged. Those times are changed, and the country has now rushed into the opposite extremes of fulsome adulation, making a laughing-stock of the army and covering with glory the conquerors in a ten days’ war waged against the wretched fellaheen soldiers of Egypt.7
The suave George Elers, who almost never put a foot wrong, was led astray by his Indian habits. In 1805 he was just back from India and visiting a family friend:
A bottle of Madeira was standing next to me at dinner, and I mechanically seized and poured about half a tumbler of it, according to custom, into water, as we do in India. Oh the look of astonishment he gave! ‘Do you know, young gentleman, what you are doing? Why you might as well drink so much gold.’ 8
Elers never rose above the rank of captain, and in an effort to secure the Duke of Wellington’s interest, offered him a present, only to be curtly informed that the duke ‘has no use for a Newfoundland dog’.
For NCOs and men the joy of return all too often chilled beneath dockside drizzle. John Ryder returned home to Leicester after the Sikh Wars, and was so changed that his parents did not recognise him. He bought his father a drink, and then another. But it was only when he said: ‘Well then, father, so you do not know me’ that his father actually knew who he was. The same thing happened with his mother, and it was not until Ryder said ‘Mother, you ought to know me’ that: ‘The poor old woman then knew me, and would have fallen to the floor, had she not been caught.’9
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