A boy’s own adventure in India

I wrote earlier of the South Lancashire Regiment’s time in India, starting with their garrison duty at Jubbulpore, Madhya Pradesh province.

While Andy Duncan studied for his sergeant’s exam and improved his woodworking skills, others found more unusual ways to pass the time.

A 1907 newspaper story caught my eye with its mention of the South Lancashires in Jubbulpore. It gives a colourful description of the landscape my great-grandfather would have known.

WHAT THEY CALL A STROLL. (1907, June 8), Sydney Evening News, p. 12. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
WHAT THEY CALL A STROLL. (1907, June 8), Sydney Evening News, p. 12. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

In India Lance-Corporal Atkinson recently walked 118 miles in 47 hours, thus breaking  a record made by one of the South Lancs. Regiment by 6 hours 35 minutes. The following is an account of his experiences as related (says ‘Health and Strength’) by himself: —

When my regiment relieved the South Lancs. Regiment at Jubbulpore [Jabalpur], the first thing I heard about was a record left by a private of that regiment, viz., walking to Sangor [Sagar] by way of the Black Forest, unaccompanied and unarmed, with the exception of a hunting-knife. I decided to attempt to beat this record.

I started on my journey at 5 p.m. on February 27, 1907, carrying 1lb muscatels, 1lb almonds, 12 cakes of chocolate, 30 biscuits, and a hunting-knife. I decided to get water wherever possible. At 5.15 p.m. on the 28th I was sixty miles on my journey. The native police stopped me, and I showed them my pass. They could understand the pass, but I could not make them understand why I should walk instead of ride. Thinking there must be something wrong, they arrested me, and confined me in the gaol. They treated me well, and I was quite a curiosity to the women and children, who seemed to think my manner of eating and washing were peculiar. Next morning at 5.45 the police awakened me, and at 10 a.m. I set out with one native as escort, and walked fifteen miles to a railway station. After I was handed over to the Civil police, and had explained my case to the chief inspector, the escort seemed very much upset at his mistake. The chief inspector promised to help me.

I set out again on March 5, 1907, at 5 a.m., taking passes in Hindu and Hurdu. Arriving at Singrampoor [Singrampur], 47 miles from Jubbulpore, I was advised by the khansarma (or proprietor) of the Dak Bungalow to stop, as otherwise I should reach the Black Forest by night. The danger of this forest lies in the panthers, which lie on the branches of trees and drop down on their victim as he, or it, passes underneath. To ensure safety the native mail carriers travel in pairs, and carry flaming torches and spears, on which are fixed a number of bells. After an hour’s rest I pushed on, deciding to take my chance. After walking a few miles I heard the report of a rifle, followed by a terrific roaring. Not knowing what it was, I climbed a tree. On the noise ceasing I cautiously descended, and was relieved to find that the noise was caused by large monkeys, of which there was innumerable quantities. About 10 miles in the forest I noticed a movement on a tree branch overhanging the path. Fortunately I stopped, and immediately a panther dropped down and disappeared in the jungle on the opposite side. Wild boars, buck, nilgai, etc., were very numerous. I have heard of the stillness of forests, but on this occasion all the animals seemed to unite their voices in one grand chorus, the whistling of beetles mingling with the howling of jackals and the shrieking of hyenas.

I arrived at a village in a small clearing, called Nehta, at 10.30 p.m., and a kindly native lending me half his scanty rags I slept until 1.30 a.m. I earned his undying gratitude by giving him four annas (4d). He did not appear to have possessed such a large sum before, and salaamed most humbly. Leaving the village, the forest resumed its natural aspect. I arrived at Damoh, half-way to my destination, at 5.30 a.m.

Resting here for two hours, I resumed my journey, and after travelling 22 miles I arrived at a river, and was delighted to have a swim. Crossing the river, I arrived at the village of Garakhota [Garhakota]. Close to here the King (when Prince of Wales) shot his first tiger. This is the end of the forest, and I was very pleased to leave it behind me. Walking as rapidly as possible in the awful heat, I was glad when the sun set and night closed in. About 13 miles from the end of my journey I came to a Dak Bungalow, and some soldiers on shooting pass insisted on my going in. After half-an hour’s rest I continued my journey, and reached Sangor at 2 a.m. My shoulders were blistered by the sun, and my feet in an awful condition through my march of 118 miles. With these exceptions I was in perfect condition, and suffered no ill effects.

When viewed through a 21st century lens this ripping yarn gives us a glimpse of the mores of British colonial rule.

It is a ‘boy’s own adventure’, taking place in the romantic world of the British Raj. India is a playground for the British. The wild beasts and jungles of the subcontinent are reduced to an exotic backdrop for a story that illustrates the resilience and determination of the British character.

Lance-Corporal Atkinson’s descriptions of the Indian people he encounters emphasise their ‘other-ness’: they don’t think like the soldier; they don’t understand his motives or behaviour.

It would be easy to go further and judge the colonial-era attitudes that permeate Atkinson’s tale. I prefer to focus on understanding the times and places in which my great-grandfather lived.

Featured image: Detail from map of Central Provinces and Berar. Jubbulpore is top centre, with Damoh and Saugor to the northwest. Source: The Imperial Gazetteer of India 1909. [ONLINE] Available at: http://commons.wikimedia.org. This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1923.

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Peacetime service 1902-1911

Andy spent 1902 serving in the United Kingdom, where he was promoted to Lance Corporal and then Corporal. He achieved his 3rd class certificate of education (required for promotion to Corporal) in November 1902.

On 22 December 1902 Andy was part of a draft posted to India, where the 1st Battalion was on garrison duty.

Andy’s service record in The British National Archives (WO97 series) gives only the briefest outline of his time in India. Hart’s Annual Army List confirms the regiment’s movements, while details of soldiers’ daily routine in the heat and dust can be found in Richard Holmes’ book, Sahib: the British soldier in India 1750-1914.

The trip to India by steamer took about 6 weeks. Andy arrived in Calcutta [Kolkata] at the beginning of February 1902.

Andy joined the 1st Battalion at Jubbulpore [Jabalpur] in Bengal. He had arrived at the coolest time of the year and the weather into March would have been quite pleasant; cold, foggy mornings giving way to warm afternoons. Once summer arrived, however, temperatures shot north of 40 degrees, and work in the heat of the day became impossible. In Sahib one soldier describes the weather in May as “hot as human nature can well support”.  The monsoon season brought some relief, but temperatures remained around 30 degrees until winter arrived in November.

As a new arrival, Andy was probably baited with tales of the poisonous snakes and man-eating tigers that lay in wait for the freshman soldier. There was some truth in these stories, as death by snake-bite was quite common in Jubbulpore. Tigers were less common, but did appear from time to time and caused great excitement. A tiger had been shot on the Jubbulpore golf links a few years earlier.

"Wild Beasts in India." Australian Town and Country Journal (1900, November 17), p.38. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
“Wild Beasts in India.” Australian Town and Country Journal (1900, November 17), p.38. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

The nature of garrison duty in India meant that soldiers often had time on their hands. This gave Andy the opportunity to continue his education and work towards attaining his sergeant’s stripes. He studied writing and dictation, mathematics including proportions, interest, fractions and averages, and all forms of regimental accounting.

While only officers were required to study the Hindi language, Andy almost certainly learned enough colloquial language to speak pidgin Anglo-Indian with battalion servants and locals.

When not on duty men would occupy themselves by drinking, gambling at cards, playing backgammon or chess, and reading. Crafts were a popular activity. Perhaps it was in India that Andy learned or developed his woodworking skills to pass the time. A parquetry drinks tray and cribbage box crafted by Andy in later years have been handed down in the family.

Andy passed his class for rank of sergeant on 21 September 1903, and was awarded his second-class certificate of education on 23 March 1904.

In May 1906 Andy was stationed further east in Mhow, on transport duties. Then in 1907 the battalion was posted to Ranikhet Cantonment in northeast India. The move between garrisons probably consisted of a long, slow train journey of several days bookended by formal marches. The heat meant that the battalion would move at night and camp during the day.  Sahib describes how the rest camps were alive with activity and noise:

The constant jabbering of the natives, and the roaring of the camels, together with elephants and buffaloes, reminds one of the striking contrast between India and peaceful England … The women of Bengal beat all I ever saw, for they will fight, and keep up such a chatter that they may be heard above the din of the Camp.

Ranikhet was a forested hill station in sight of the western Himalayas. Andy would have welcomed the cool summers after the heat of Bengal and the central plains, but the heavy snow and near-zero temperatures in December would have required some adjustment.

Ranikhet Cantonment, Uttarakhand
Ranikhet Cantonment, Uttarakhand. Postcard from the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

Andy was promoted to Sergeant on 28 January 1907. He then sought and was granted permission to extend his service to complete 12 years with the colours.

The battalion remained at Ranikhet into 1908, then moved to the Lahore Cantonment (now in Pakistan).

The battalion’s activities in northern India were set against a background of increasing civil and religious unrest across the country. British newspapers reported concerns of seditious acts in the Punjab, political agitation in Bengal and Calcutta, and “the promotion of mischief of the gravest and most formidable kind” in Lahore. From May 1907 British troops were on patrol in Lahore, prepared to act swiftly and firmly against any challenge to British colonial rule. The South Lancashires would remain in the north of the country until the beginning of the First World War.

In 1909 Andy was posted to England for 6 months before rejoining the battalion. In 1910 he completed a musketry course at Changla Gali.

Napier-Barracks
The 1911 British Census records Sergeant Andrew Duncan stationed at Napier Barracks in Karachi. Postcard from the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

On 2 December 1911, having completed 12 years with the regiment, Andy left the British Army. He made his way to Australia, sailing from Calcutta.

Passenger List from SS Janus. VPRS 7667 Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (Foreign Ports). Public Records Office Victoria.
No longer Sergeant. Mr. A. Duncan sailed on the SS Janus from Calcutta to Australia in December 1911. VPRS 7667 Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (Foreign Ports). Public Records Office Victoria.

Sources

Ancestry.com. 1911 England Census [database on-line]. Class: RG14; Piece: 34989; Page: 2. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

British Army Service Records. The National Archives UK. WO96/684/108.

Hart’s Annual Army List. 1902 – 1911. Vol. 63 – 72 . London: John Murray

Holmes, R. 2006. Sahib: The British Soldier in India 1750-1914. United Kingdom: Harper Perennial.

VPRS 7667 Inward Overseas Passenger Lists (Foreign Ports). Public Records Office Victoria.

Featured image: British Infantry line, Mhow Cantonment, India. Postcard from the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.

Boer War service 1899-1902

The Transvaal-War Inevitable
THE TRANSVAAL. (1899, October 2). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), p. 5. Newspaper article found in Trove reproduced courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Andy joined the British Army in September 1899 as talk of war between Britain and the Boers reached fever pitch. The family story is that Andy lied about his age to enlist, and his attestation papers record his age as 18 years 1 month when really he was only 17. He was described as 5 feet 4¾ inches tall, with fresh complexion, blue eyes, brown hair.

Andy served in the South Lancashire Regiment from 26 September 1899 to 2 December 1911. He volunteered first for the South Lancashire Militia and soon transferred to the 1st Battalion, nicknamed the “Fighting Fortieth”. His military records indicate that he served in the 1st Battalion in South Africa and later in India.

Andy was not in the first South Lancashire contingent to sail for South Africa. On 30 November 1899 Andy would have joined the wildly enthusiastic crowds farewelling the South Lancashires as they marched out of the barracks. Andy was probably disappointed not to be going himself. Men were desperate not to miss out on an adventure that many thought would be over by Christmas.

Private Duncan finally departed for South Africa in early June 1900. It is likely that he sailed from Southampton on 8 June on board the newly-built RMS Tagus. 

John Downham’s book, Red Roses on the Veldt: Lancashire Regiments in the Boer War, 1899-1902 helps to expand upon the terse entries in Andy’s service record.

The voyage to South Africa would have been new and exciting for young Andy. Dolphins leapt and raced alongside the ship as it sailed south, the waters alight with phosphorescence at night.

On board, the daily routine included cleaning the ship, physical drills and rifle practice. Men passed their off-duty hours playing cards or holding impromptu smoking concerts, at which each man was expected to sing or recite verse. Perhaps Andy recited the poems of Robbie Burns, which he was known for in later years.

The ship reached Table Bay on 29 June. It was a period of relative quiet in South Africa: large, formal military operations were all but over, the capitals of the two Boer republics were under British control, and some British observers were predicting the end of the war. But the Boer guerilla campaign was just beginning.

Andy travelled north from Cape Town to join the regiment in the southern Transvaal, where they were tasked with securing rail and telegraph lines between Standerton and Volksrust. Their duties included digging trenches to protect the camps, manning isolated outposts along the railways, and patrolling the lines. They kept a close eye on Boer farms in the area and conducted searches for arms. When ammunition or weapons were found, orders were to confiscate farm stock and burn the farm. The Boer commandos were never far away; the soldiers had to remain vigilant and ready to fend off raids on the camp.

British infantry crossing the Vaal River
British infantry crossing the Vaal River, South Africa, c.1900. Australian War Memorial collection P00295.303
On 4 September 1900 the battalion marched south-east as part of the 11th (Lancashire) Brigade. It was a 90-mile march through Wakkerstroom to Utrecht and on to Vryheid. Andy would likely have escorted guns and equipment carriages pulled by slow-moving oxen.

The march was dusty and dirty. Men’s feet blistered and bled. The weight of their rifles bruised their shoulders. Tents or shelters were rare and there was little opportunity to wash off the accumulated mud, blood and sweat. At the end of each day Andy would have slept in the dirt, his greatcoat wrapped around him as protection against the bitterly cold night.

The 1st Battalion took up garrison duty at De Jager’s Drift on the Buffalo River on 10 November. Here Andy spent an uneventful two months, though not far away at Vryheid the Boers mounted a serious attack that killed 11 men. The South Lancashires left De Jager’s Drift in January 1901 to relieve the Vryheid garrison. The 3 day march saw several brushes with the enemy but no serious fighting.

Block House near De Jagers Drift, Transvaal
Block house on the road between De Jagers Drift and Vryheid, Transvaal, occupied by the South Lancashire Regiment. A uniformed dummy holding a flag stands guard. Australian War Memorial collection PO1220.003
On 14 January the Battalion reached Vryheid and entered the garrison on Lancaster Hill, a high rocky plateau on the northern outskirts of the town. Andy would spend the rest of his time in South Africa stationed here. Once defences were strengthened and the threat of attack had died down, Andy would have settled into a routine of parades and drills, work parties and outpost or sentry duty.

Despite Vryheid being relatively peaceful throughout 1901, the South African weather and the British army staple diet of ration biscuit and bully beef continued to take a toll on the regiment. Of the thirty-five deaths in the South Lancashires while Andy was stationed at Lancaster Hill, twenty-one of them were from illness or disease. Another two deaths were caused directly by the elements: one due to sunstroke and one due to a lightning strike (which also injured eight others).

Andy fell ill with enteric (typhoid) fever on 14 November 1901. His condition was first reported as “dangerously ill”, but by 30 November he was considered to be out of danger.

Andy was posted back to England 29 January 1902, before the final major battles of February – April. He had passed his initiation into military life. He was awarded the standard service medals for his time in South Africa: the Queen’s South Africa Medal with clasps for service in Cape Colony, Orange Free State and Transvaal, and the King’s South Africa Medal with two clasps for service in South Africa in 1901 and 1902.

Sources

Anglo Boer War website – Shipping records – June 1900. 2013. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.angloboerwar.com/other-information/86-shipping-records/1802-shipping-records-june-1900. [Accessed 19 April 2013].

British Army Service Records. The National Archives UK. WO96/684/108; WO97/4738/080.

Downham, J, 2000. Red Roses on the Veldt: Lancashire Regiments in the Boer War, 1899-1902. Lancaster, UK. Carnegie Publishing Ltd.

Roll of Honour – Ships – RMS Tagus. 2008. Roll of Honour – Ships – RMS Tagus. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Ships/RMSTagus.html. [Accessed 19 April 2013].

1900 ‘DRAFTS FOR THE FRONT’, Lincolnshire Echo (Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England) 8 June 1900, p.1

1900 ‘ITEMS OF INTEREST’, Gloucestershire Echo (Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England) 8 June 1900, p.4

1900 ‘TRANSPORT ARRIVAL’, Morning Post (London, England) 30 June 1900, p.5

1901 ‘CASUALTY LIST’, Lancashire Evening Post (Preston, Lancashire, England) 18 November 1901, p.4

1901 ‘CASUALTY LIST’, Lancashire Evening Post (Preston, Lancashire, England) 4 December 1901, p.4

Featured image: RMS Tagus c.1910. Postcard from the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer