- Contributed by
- Alan Shaw
- People in story:
- Alec Scott and Alan Shaw
- Location of story:
- The Gwalior - Jhansi - Saugor road, Central India.
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 04 November 2004
L to R - Alan Shaw and Alec Scott just returned to Jhansi from our Saugor road reconnaissance, measuring a mahseer fish we caught by hand while fording the River Betwa causeway! We just got across in time before the monsoon flood - June 1942
345 Indian Workshop and Park Coy IE had only recently been raised at No.1 Depot Lahore, and sent to 14 Engineer Training Centre, Jhansi Cantonment. Here it was to carry out basic military and workshop training and to amass its arms, transport, engineer stores and equipment before proceeding on active service.
Its War Establishment Table listed seven commissioned officers, a major, two captains and four subalterns, six Indian Viceroys Commissioned Officers,(whom we officers always punctiliously addressed as “Sahib”) a Subadar, four Jemadars and a Jemadar Doctor of the Indian Medical Service. The latter although trained in Western medicine was also an Ayurvedic practioner. I took advantage of this treatment on more than one occasion.
The Company was organised in two Workshop Sections each of about 65 men, and four Park Sections each of about 35 men. In general the Workshop Sections were United Provinces Hindus and the Park Sections were Punjabi Mussulmen, a traditional Indian Army class composition which the VCOs and the Company Havildar Major and NCOs reflected.The total strength was about 240 rank and file.
In addition we had a complement of “followers” - domestic tradesmen who went everywhere with us even on active service, wearing uniform without badges.They looked after our creature comforts in the age old Indian tradition. They were the regimental dhobis (washermen), nais (barbers), mochis (cobblers), durzis (tailors) and sweepers (sanitary men).
They were recruited locally and paid by authority of Indian Army Regulations and the Pay and Allowances Handbook, which laid down e.g. that a Dhobi and Nai Allowance of so many annas per sapper could be claimed by the Officer Commanding, paid into the regimental funds and disbursed to pay the dhobis and nais, who could be recruited locally if necessary.
When the Company was concentrated in one place messing arrangements were based on separate Hindu and Musulman langars (cookhouses). When dispersed on works in small detachments, especially when no VCO was present, Hindus and Mussulmen ate quite happily out of one pot if no comment was made.
My first experience of taking an Indian Army company parade was at Jhansi. The men were formed up by the VCOs and NCOs in Sections (as Platoons were still called in the Sappers).The rank and file had been recruited at Lahore only a month earlier, from long queues of applicants from local and distant villages and also the Lahore bazaars or market places.
The incentive was the prospect of a steady job and free board and lodging coupled, in most cases, with the prestige of being a soldier. Most had previously been accustomed to wear only chaaplis (sandals) or to go barefooted. The uniform of khaki drill shirts, shorts, stockings , boots and puttees was also completely novel to the new recruits. The idea that Hindu turbans (wound around the head) and Mussulmen puggarees (turbans wound around a conical basket weave hat called a “kulla”) should be donned to a uniform regimental style was also a hard lesson to learn.
On this occasion my job was to carry out an initial inspection of every man before the O.C., Major Eden, arrived on parade. Slowly I walked with the Subedar and each Section Jemadar in turn along the lines of men. One or two, who had obviously come from military families, were dressed immaculately and standing to attention like guardsmen.
The rest ranged from merely untidy to comically disarrayed. Some were wearing two left boots, or had shirt tails outside their shorts and so on. Subedar Maula Dad Khan was so old as to be unfit for overseas service,, but Jemadar Gul Din was in his prime, a fine figure of a man, with closely clipped military moustache, eyes darkened with kohl, and iron grey hair.
He was a “pukka” (proper), VCO. He had the bearing of a professional military man of long experience, which indeed he was. He pointed out various faults in the sappers dress or bearing and made comments in Urdu, which I had not yet had time to learn sufficiently. One man appeared to argue with him. With one swift blow Jemadar Gul Din nearly felled him to the ground. I did not know which way to look. In the British Army violence by an officer is a court martial offence.
In 345 Company it seemed to be accepted, at least at first. We newly joined British officers learned to look the other way until the VCO or NCO could be taken to task in the privacy of the O.C. s office, a delicate matter.
Major Eden, already quite fluent in Urdu, with the aid of the patriarchal Subedar Maula Dad Khan would make it clear that we were not going to countenance violence. Gradually man management techniques conformed to army regulations!
When off duty we took our meals and relaxation in the 14 ETC Officers Mess. The Commandant of 14 ETC who was also the Mess President was a Major RE who wore with his uniform of pith helmet, khaki shorts and shirt, the navy blue woollen stockings of the Bombay Sappers and Miners. He was only twentyfour years of age and looked like a large fresh faced boy. But he was very experienced, competent and easy to get on with.
Shortly after I joined 345 Company he sent me and Alec Scott, ex jute mill engineer, on a personal training exercise.We were to carry out a reconnaissance and report with maps and sketches on the condition of every bridge and culvert on the eighty miles of road between Jhansi and Gwalior. On return we were to repeat the exercise on the one hundred and twenty miles of road south to Saugor. We took a 15 cwt truck with Alec's bearer to do the cooking, and our camping equipment and emergency rations..
We had to work under pressure throughout the heat of the day. The south west monsoon had still not arrived and the country was still in the full grip of the "hot weather". Passing through the State of Datia we camped just off the road in sight of Datia Palace a couple of miles away. I had my first experience of sleeping under the stars in rural India, on the spring steel framed “Safari” camp bed that had already served me well in England.
I wondered uneasily about snakes, which so far I had not encountered. Alec and his bearer seemed unconcerned. There were no mosquitoes about and we slept without nets which was a very great relief. To awake in the comparative coolness of the hot weather dawn and its abundant bird song was a delightful reward.
Arriving in Laskar, a companion city of Gwalior, we found a somewhat run down European hotel and stayed the night before returning to Jhansi the following day, pausing only to check the occasional culvert missed on the day before.
After a day in Jhansi to re-equip off we went down the Sagar road through Lalitpur. Alec and I were getting on very well. Although he was much more experienced in Indian matters my wider experience of Sapper work was a help to him and we worked well as a team.
We stopped at a dak bungalow (a post house) on the first night. This was very much part of travel in rural India. It was a Government maintained bungalow usually miles from anywhere, in the sole care of a keeper and his family with a chowkidar to keep guard during the night. The dak bungalow keeper could produce simple meals like poached eggs (“sunny side up’ or “turned over” sahib? was always his question) and sometimes a scrawny jungle fowl with curry and daal (lentils).
Trying to sleep in a dak bungalow bedroom could be an unnerving businessunnerving. Overhead was a dirty grey ceiling cloth stretched under the rafters forming a nightly battleground for lizards, snakes and rats. A mosquito net was a necessity if only to protect against wild life falling from above.
To offset these horrors was the pleasure of awaking and walking out into the pearly light of the Indian hot weather dawn, an almost mystical experience, especially in a wooded place surrounded by the calls of jungle crows, mynahs, hoopoes, coucals, the hawk cuckoo or brain fever bird and doves. Flowering trees and shrubs abound in India even under the arid conditions of the hot weather and in the middle of the dreaded hot weather the day still commences with this magical hour.
But too quickly the sun would be up and another fiendishly hot day would have to be endured. On our way back from Saugar the monsoon arrived with stupendous downpours and spectacular thunderstorms. These rains are not continuous. A great deal falls very quickly causing flooding. Then the sun shines from the rain washed sky.The temperature is slightly moderated but relative humidity soars and India’s next trial of strength begins. Everything grows that can grow, from the trees and crops in the field to the micro organisms on human skin and the mould on one’s books.
We just got back to the River Betwa "hot weathercauseway" south of Jhansi in time to get across, catching on the way a big mahseer fish with our bare hands!. This we had for dinner in the Mess at Jhansi cantonment that evening.
A cantonment was a large area outside an Indian city or large town set aside as a residential area for British personnel, both Army and civilans.It also contained all military installations and the living quarters of the Indian troops.
In mid 1942 there was much unrest among the Indian civil population. Although the Congress Party were against German and Japanese aggression they were agitating for a definite date for independence. There were atrocities involving murder of British officers and civilians travelling by rail. Jhansi City was out of bounds to us all for this reason.
Within our cantonment or in the Indian troops lines we felt perfectly safe. Even these raw young recruits were first and foremost proud of being soldiers. We never experienced any disaffection of either Punjabi Mussulmen, UP Hindus or Madrassi troops. The British had inculcated a system of morale building which served them, and indeed India very well.
Social life for British officers in Jhansi Cantonment tended to follow the pre war customs of the British Raj. We were members of the Jhansi Club. This meant that at least once a week we would spend an evening socialising with local British civilians as well as British officers of the various Indian Army units stationed in Jhansi. Indian Kings Commissioned officers were by then also admitted as members, a fairly recent innovation as in peacetime these clubs tended to be restricted to the British.
The Jhansi Club was not impressive. A string orchestra played for dancing in the evenings. Its musical quality was dreadful. Genuine Scotch whisky was expensive and in short supply and British beer unavailable. An Indian brand of whisky, Solan, was described to me by an old hand as “like celluloid collars dissolved in acetic acid” Not a bad description as I remember. Later I found when travelling from south to north of India by rail the beer became drinkable from Lucknow onward, having entered the distribution range of the Murree brewery.
After a few visits to the Jhansi Club we were invited to the “European Club”, run almost entirely by the people of mixed Anglo-Indian race who ran the Indian railways at almost every level. They tended to be ostracised by British expatriates but by loyalty and sentiment were more British than the British
We wartime newcomers arrived with virtually open minds and were made much of. Their racial mixture tended to produce daughters of quite stunning beauty and vivacity. Isolated in the centre of India they were eager to hear what life in Britain was like. They were a pleasant change to the generally rather strait laced older married ladies of the Jhansi Club.
We soon became aware that Anglo Indian parents were ambitious to marry their daughters off to expatriate British soldiers and especially officers. In peacetime many British soldiers happily made such marriages. Officers however always had to obtain consent of their colonel before marrying and marriage to an Anglo-Indian girl would not be encouraged. That is how it was.
The Jhansi Club saw less of us and the European Club more. It was all very decorous. The parents chaperoned the girls at all times! When not dancing we would sit at tables outdoors in the hot dry evenings playing “Tombola” (Urdu for “you say”) Known to British troops as “Housey-Housey”, this game came to Britain after the war as “Bingo” together with “Tombola” as the name for a lottery using a revolving drum.ward.
The lasting impression of our working hours in Jhansi was mainly of personal stress. Duties as Second in Command and Workshops Officer of 345 Company had entailed an excessive amount of office work for many months.One day one of our Hindu sappers took ill and died. In an Indian unit there is always one man among the Hindus and one among the Mussulmen who is regarded as spiritual leader . Military rank had nothing to do with it. They were in our case both Havildar Clerks.
The Hindu leader came to me as administrative officer and claimed the funeral expenses “ for firewood and sweetmeats” as I recall the main items, all as laid down in the Indian Army Manual of Pay and Allowances. He was by custom allowed to pick three or four of his comrades to accompany him to the hospital to collect the corpse.
After three days or so the party returned and solemnly handed over an unpainted wooden box about a foot cube in size, opening the lid for me to witness the contents. Inside was a scarlet cotton bag containing white ashes and a few pieces of calcined bone. This sad memento it was my duty to parcel up and send to the young man’s mother with a letter of condolence. They had used the money for its traditional purpose of cremating the body on the banks of the River Betwa and eating the sweetmeats during the ceremonies.
Still to be dealt with via the local District Soldiers Board of his remote Punjab village was a claim by the mother who had lost her sole support in cultivating her land. The family income was stated to be Rupees 50 per annum - less than £4 at a time when a labourers wage in Britain was £2.50 per week. This illustrated the value of an army career where each ordinary soldier received good food and clothing all found plus pay of 18 rupees per month, from which he was able to send money home.
Keeping the Company Imprest and Regimental Accounts was a personal nightmare. Balancing and submitting the Imprest Account to the Field Cashier Military Accounts (“FCMA” for short) at Poona was an end of month ordeal. Book keeping has always been a tedious and disagreeable job for which I am temperamentally unsuited. Yet throughout most of my army career one seemed to be saddled with it in one form or another either as administrative officer or Mess Secretary.
The outdoor work, of troop training and solving engineering technical problems was a welcome relief. The requirement to pass the Urdu Elementary Examination within one year of arriving in India seemed reasonable enough. If successful we received a gratuity of Rupees 150 ( equivalent to about £11, a useful sum then). If unsuccessful within the year leave was stopped and acting rank (and its pay advantage) lost until the examination was passed.
Pressure of work, involving a great many totally new procedures, and the trying climate, resulted in every afternoon lesson with the Urdu “munshi” (language teacher) becoming a battle with sleep.
It took place in my bedroom during the burning hot afternoon “siesta” period. It was increasingly difficult not to nod off as the dear old Indian civilian gentleman droned on!
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