After a day or two in the suburb of Kalyan we moved to Mhow in Central India. On New Year’s Eve my mate and myself found we’d been rostered for picket duty. That entailed merely wearing an equipment belt and walking around carrying a portable field telephone. It was a piece of cake really although one of our blokes who had been born in India said that his uncle had shot a tiger on the golf course at Mhow. We old hands felt that some of the dozens of newly called up young men should have been rostered on at such a time and we resented the fact that we weren’t free to celebrate. I went into the barracks, buried my belt and phone under the blankets on my bed, and told the rather startled youngsters (I was an elderly 22) “If that rings tell them I’m in the wet canteen.” That was probably the most terribly disobedient thing I did in my entire army service.
From there we moved to a town called Sialkot (see-alkot) in the Punjab in North West India. Now that’s in Pakistan. Happily I left India before Partition which was a totally British stuff up and led to hundred of thousands of deaths. I don’t recall much about that town or how long we stayed there. It was as close as I got to the famous North West Frontier with Afghanistan.
Next came Rawalpindi (rawlpindee) a brown dustbaked city. For some reason that I don’t understand I was put in charge of collecting the mail at the post office where there would be fine-looking tribesmen waiting for their pensions. I used to sort it alphabetically and call it out in the mess during tiffin (lunch). Early on some youngster responded “Corp” and I replied “Signalman to you mate.” It was an understandable mistake because dishing out the mail was nearly always the job of a junior NCO (Non commissioned officer).
Rawalpindi was chiefly memorable for me because an officer stopped me one day and asked if I’d had any bad news from home. I said I hadn’t and he handed me a telegram from our next door neighbour at home saying that my father had passed away. That was a considerable shock not only because I was fond of him but because he was just 51 and his death was completely unexpected. I could only imagine that he’d been knocked down by a bus, or murdered or committed suicide. And it was three weeks before I found out what had happened. The awful irony was that I sorted through a sack of mail every day hoping to find something for me. I did, in fact, get at least one letter from Dad written before he died.
The only other thing to report was that there was a club for British servicemen run by two old ladies who looked and dressed like something left over from the 19th century. One of them asked where I was stationed. “Oh, it’s lovely up there.” To me it looked bleak and just bare dried mud and I couldn’t help feeling that she’d been away from England too long. Somehow or other she learned that I used to be in the Sherwood Foresters. In the days when soldiers spent years in remote outposts of Empire my regiment had been stationed for a long time in Rawalpindi. She showed me a piece of linen with the regimental badge embroidered on it. I learned that peacetime soldiers had crazes. One time everyone had a dog. At other times it was embroidery. Somehow you don’t think of Kipling’s “thin red line of ‘eroes” doing cross stitch.
To avoid the confusion that followed the end of World War I when millions of men were released simultaneously, this time everybody was allocated a demobilisation number based on age and length of service. Dad was Group 1, Les about 22 and I was Group 33. Men in my group were released but those of us in India had to wait because the troopships were needed to take Indian servicemen to London for the Victory parade. You can imagine that we weren’t too happy about that.
Before leaving India I have to say that after I’d been there a little time I became ashamed to be English. I looked at the beggars shuffling along railway platforms with pieces of wood beneath their seats and the stumps of legs cut off at the knees sticking up. I probably didn’t know at that time that those men had been mutilated as children so that they could earn a living as beggars. The British had been there for more than 200 years and had taken millions of pounds out of the place but what had they done for the common people? They’d built railways to transport troops, post offices and telegraph offices for better communications and fine bungalows for the sahibs but not much else.
There was a song the best-known verse of which began: “Queen Victoria very good man/Plenty pani in the can/Plenty pani plenty rooti/…..”(pahnee-water; roottee- bread). But there was a verse that I preferred. It may have been written by some more than usually perceptive white but more probably by a downtrodden Indian. “Seven long years you fucked my daughter/Now you go to the Blighty Sahib/May the boat that carries you over/Sink to the bottom of the pani Sahib."”(Blighty was a colloquial word that was a corruption of an Indian word. It became very popular with the troops during World War I (1914-1918).
If somebody was lucky enough to get a wound that wasn’t life-threatening but bad enough for them to go to England for a time they were said to have got a Blighty one. One of the songs associated with that war “Take me Back to Dear Old Blighty” was sung at a big memorial concert held every year at the Albert Hall. It may still be going on, the English not being noted for giving up on things. After Guy Fawkes was caught trying to blow up Parliament when the king was present (It’s been said of him that he was the only man who ever went to Parliament with good intentions) it became the custom to search the cellars before the first session of every year. At first when high treason was still a popular blood sport and kings fought wars with their relations for control of the throne it made sense. In later years it became a tradition. There’s a small town in Sussex called Lewes (Loo-iss). The last time I was there, 50 odd years ago, they still had an annual ceremony at which they burned an effigy of the Pope. During World War 2 (1939- 1945) when manpower was in desperate short supply Winston Churchill was furious when he learned that a crack regiment mounted a guard on the Bank of England every night. That started during some riots more than a hundred years previously and had never been countermanded. Typical!) next