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by Des McDougall

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Contributed by 
Des McDougall
Location of story: 
Lahore, India
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
31 January 2006


Starting Out
I soon got the hang of things. We paraded at 7 am sharp, B Company being in the more advanced state of training. The Regimental Centre was very important to a regiment. It was the training ground for all recruits, taking them right up to trained soldier standard before being posted to a battalion in the field. Luckily I seemed to get on well with them. Particularly the VCOs. (Viceroys Commissioned Officers) These guys were the real backbone of the Indian Army, always Indians promoted from the ranks of senior NCOs. They were 'officers' in the Indian Army only, Jemadars, Subedars, and, the most important, Subedar Major, ranks unique in the world. To become a VCO you had to be an outstanding soldier, and pass educational tests, too, not easy for some with no schooling of any sort before joining the army. They were a vitally important link between British officers and the men. Indian troops saluted them, they had their own Mess, and each had his own batman. Real VIP's, who had earned their place the hard way. Getting on the right side of them was a must!
We always treated them with the utmost respect, always called them 'Sahib'. Few officers would make an important decision without discussing it with his VCO.
Not that it was difficult, they were a wonderful, cheery bunch, but did appreciate it if you joined in with the activities. It didn't matter if you made a pratt of yourself. One morning I was with a platoon doing some boxing, I had done a bit of this at school, quite successfully as it happened, but I didn't say so. Then the VCO in charge asked me if I would like to have a go. I hadn't had my breakfast yet! I could sense the sudden interest among the jawans ( young men, literally, but an affectionate name for the sepoys). They waited to see what I would do. Obviously I said 'yes'. Big smiles all round. Put the gloves on, a large gangling Gujar was selected as my opposition, about my height. The battle commenced.
He came at me like a whirlwind, arms flailing round and round like a windmill. I tried to box as I had always been taught, more scientifically. It was of little use against this barrage. I switched to his tactics, but I was hopeless. His stamina was much greater than mine, and by the end of round 2 I was on my benders, as they say. In the third round he landed a haymaker on my mouth, and blood poured out all over the place. The VCO who was also referee then stopped the contest, as was normal if blood was drawn. Thank heavens! Cheers all round. We shook hands, the sepoy looked a bit worried as he had thumped the Sahib. I took his arm and raised it to the assembled recruits, and said "the winner" in very fractured Urdu. That went down very well. They all dashed about getting iodine and cotton wool to dress the wound, calling out 'shabash, Sahib' (Well done). My reputation was made.
Back in the Mess my swollen lip generated a fair amount of ribald remarks, Colonel Scotland, our quite remarkable Commandant of whom more later, seemed delighted when he heard the story. "Just you wait" he bellowed, ( 18 stone and 6ft 4 ) " by tiffin time it will be an epic battle and you'll be a legend!" Well, I was certainly not a legend, but word did get around. Don't think it did much for the idea of British invincibility, though! So much for all Clive of India's spadework!
Colonel 'Jock' Scotland was everything a good commander should be, in my humble opinion. His was a presence not to be ignored, whether in a confined space, or the vast expanse of the parade ground. On one occasion while I was there, he visited recruits doing their grenade-chucking practice, and went into the throwing bay with one to act as instructor. The poor jawan must have been terrified, with God in there with him! Naturally it all went wrong. The recruit pulled out the pin, threw it, and dropped the grenade at his feet. Colonel Scotland didn't hesitate. Picking the guy up, he dropped him over the 4 ft high protective wall and jumped over after him.
Later there were some uncharitable souls who suggested the jawan would have done better taking his chance with an exploding grenade rather than getting 18 stone of Jock Scotland landing on top of him. That was the sort of man he was, nothing fazed him.
I seem to remember that the troops took their main meal between 11 and 12 noon. Company officers were expected to visit the cookhouses occasionally and sample the food. The jawans were delighted to see the sahibs join them. I had developed a taste for curries - just as well - and it was no hardship to me. We had three religions, classes, to deal with - Hindus. Moslems and Sikhs. They all had their own cooks and langris ( cookhouses ) and there was always plenty of variety.
What you did have to be careful about was to keep your visits even-handed. Luckily Mac Macrae warned me about this. They seemed to know with unerring accuracy the last time you had been to their cookhouse, - and to any of the others! The curries were really hot, and the lads would watch with great expectation at first to see your reaction.. They always gave you a big lota ( tumbler, usually made of brass) filled with ice cold water. No refrigerators, of course, but large earthenware chattis (urns ) in which, through evaporation, water kept remarkably cold. I used to kid them on, keep a straight face and say something like - "You've given me the wrong one. This is for the women and children. Where is the one for soldiers?" Silly and simple, but it had them rolling in the aisles. They had a great sense of humour and loved to laugh What a shame it all had to end. I would cheerfully have spent the rest of my life with them.
I was to be about 7 months in Lahore. As the weeks went by, September into October, more and more subalterns began pouring into the Centre, coming back from jungle training camps now closing, and also new intakes from OTS. I had got my feet under the table by then, and was given my first command! Officer i/c Subalterns! They all had to report to me, and I organized them domestically and militarily. Many of them were senior to me, not in rank usually, but in length of commissioned service, and none too pleased at the arrangement. One complained, but got such a blast from the Adjutant that nobody else did.
I was at the Centre about 7 months altogether, doing various jobs, but always wanting to get a posting to a Battalion.
At one point I was put in charge of the Band. This didn't suit me, as not only was it a bit time consuming, but might tend to tie me to the Centre, not part of my plan. I wanted to get away to a battalion. Being in charge of new arrivals I knew that a recent arrival called George McFarlane could play the pipes. A word in the right ears and he got the job. I did the decent thing and bought him a drink. He had the last laugh. Our Pipe band was selected to march in The Victory Parade in London a few months later. Guess who went with them and marched at their head in the parade? McFarlane, all expenses paid. Oh well, you can't win 'em all....On reflection, I got the best part of the bargain, going to a Bn, where I had a great experience, and made some life-long friends,

Finishing Off
Little story about my posting. I had been making quite a nuisance of myself to get out of the Centre and to an active battalion. I mentioned before that our Commandant was a mountain of a man, Colonel Scotland, MC. He had served with the Tochi Scouts for many years, an elite Frontier unit, and killed a tribesman in a minor skirmish by hitting him once with his fist. Got him a great reputation. He was ageing a bit now, still 6ft 4, weighing about 19 stone, with a vast beer belly held in place by a wide leather belt. Or almost held in place! He wore shorts most of the time, and it was a sight to see. And a wonderful man and commander.
I kept pestering the Adjutant about my posting, and he would dutifully pass on my request to the Colonel. One quiet, hot afternoon, when most sensible folk were sprawled on their charpoys, Kirk-Green and the Colonel were doing a bit of overtime in the offices. I had collared K-G just at lunch time, bending his ear yet again about a posting. He obviously picked a bad moment to raise the request. The peace and quiet of the siesta hour was abruptly and totally shattered for about half a mile around. In the tones of a wounded bull elephant a - later almost immortal - phrase echoed from building to building. "Tell McDougall, - NO, TELL BLOODY McDOUGALL THAT I DECIDE WHO GETS POSTED TO BATTALIONS, AND WHEN."
It became quite a popular catchphrase, colleagues being heard to yell from time to time, "Tell Poop Singh, - NO, tell BLOODY POOP SINGH.....etc, etc". My constant dripping does seem to have had some effect, as I got my posting not long after that. To the Bn I wanted! Colonel Scotland probably decided that if he wished to complete his service without a coronary, getting shot of McDougall would be a sensible move. He was actually a remarkable character - and gave me a good report, which impressed my future CO. On my last night in the Mess he collared me. "Got ye' posting then, young McDougall."
"Yes Sir" I said. "sorry if I've been a bit of a nuisance.
"Best of luck" he blared, "and there's an object lesson in there somewhere if you look for it.""
Once again I was on the move. It was March 1946. There was a good time ahead.

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