Forty-One Years in India
From Subaltern to Commander-In-Chief
FIELD MARSHAL LORD ROBERTS
When I went to India the mode of travelling was almost as primitive1852 as it had been a hundred, and probably five hundred, years before. Private individuals for the most part used palankins, while officers, regiments, and drafts were usually sent up country by the river route as far as Cawnpore. It was necessarily a slow mode of progression—how slow may be imagined from the fact that it took me nearly three months to get from Dum-Dum to Peshawar, a distance now traversed with the greatest ease and comfort in as many days. As far as Benares I travelled in a barge towed by a steamer—a performance which took the best part of a month to accomplish. From Benares to Allahabad it was a pleasant change to get upon wheels, a horse-dâk having been recently established between these two places. At Allahabad I was most kindly received by Mr. Lowther, the Commissioner, an old friend of my father's, in whose house I experienced for the first time that profuse hospitality for which Anglo-Indians are proverbial. I was much surprised and amused by the circumstance of my host smoking a hookah even at meals, for he was one of the few Englishmen who still indulged in that luxury, as it was then considered. The sole duty of one servant, called the hookah-bardar, was to prepare the pipe for his master, and to have it ready at all times.
My next resting-place was Cawnpore, my birthplace, where I remained a few days. The Cawnpore division was at that time commanded by an officer of the name of Palmer, who had only recently[Page 7] attained the rank of Brigadier-General, though he could not have been less than sixty-eight years of age, being of the same standing as my father.
Bengal Horse Artillery From Cawnpore I went to Meerut, and there came across, for the first time, the far-famed Bengal Horse Artillery, and made the acquaintance of a set of officers who more than realized my expectations regarding the wearers of the much-coveted jacket, association with whom created in me a fixed resolve to leave no stone unturned in the endeavour to become a horse gunner. Like the Cavalry and Infantry of the East India Company's service, the Artillery suffered somewhat from the employment of many of its best officers on the staff and in civil appointments; the officers selected were not seconded or replaced in their regiments. This was the case in a less degree, no doubt, in the Horse Artillery than in the other branches, for its esprit was great, and officers were proud to belong to this corps d'élite. It certainly was a splendid service; the men were the pick of those recruited by the East India Company, they were of magnificent physique, and their uniform was singularly handsome. The jacket was much the same as that now worn by the Royal Horse Artillery, but instead of the busby they had a brass helmet covered in front with leopard skin, surmounted by a long red plume which drooped over the back like that of a French Cuirassier. This, with white buckskin breeches and long boots, completed a uniform which was one of the most picturesque and effective I have ever seen on a parade-ground.
The metalled highway ended at Meerut, and I had to perform the remainder of my journey to Peshawar, a distance of 600 miles, in a palankin, or doolie.
Incidents of the Journey This manner of travelling was tedious in the extreme. Starting after dinner, the victim was carried throughout the night by eight men, divided into reliefs of four. The whole of the eight were changed at stages averaging from ten to twelve miles apart. The baggage was also conveyed by coolies, who kept up an incessant chatter, and the procession was lighted on its way by a torch-bearer, whose torch consisted of bits of rag tied round the end of a stick, upon which he continually poured the most malodorous of oils. If the palankin-bearers were very good, they shuffled along at the rate of about three miles an hour, and if there were no delays, forty or forty-five miles could be accomplished before it became necessary to seek shelter from the sun in one of the dâk-bungalows, or rest-houses, erected by Government at convenient intervals along all the principal routes. In these bungalows a bath could be obtained, and sorely it was needed after a journey of thirteen or fourteen hours at a level of only a few inches above an exceedingly dusty road. As to food, the khansamah, like 'mine host' in the old country, declared himself at the outset prepared to provide everything the heart of man could desire; when, however, the traveller[Page 8] was safely cornered for the rest of the day, the menu invariably dwindled down to the elementary and universal 'sudden death,' which meant a wretchedly thin chicken, caught, decapitated, grilled, and served up within twenty minutes of the meal being ordered. At dinner a variety was made by the chicken being curried, accompanied by an unlimited supply of rice and chutney.
I was glad to be able to break the monotony of this long journey by a visit to a half-sister of mine, who was then living at the hill-station of Mussoorie. The change to the delightful freshness of a Himalayan climate after the Turkish-bath-like atmosphere of the plains in September was most grateful, and I thoroughly enjoyed the few days I spent in the midst of the lovely mountain scenery.
My next station was Umballa. There I fell in with two other troops of Horse Artillery, and became more than ever enamoured with the idea of belonging to so splendid a service. From Umballa it was a two nights' journey to Ludhiana, where I rested for the day, and there met a cousin in the Survey Department, who had been suddenly ordered to Lahore, so we agreed to travel together.
The next halting-place was Jullundur. To make a change, we hired a buggy at this place, in which to drive the first stage, sending our palankins on ahead; when we overtook them, we found, to our surprise, that their number had increased to six. We were preparing for a start, when it struck us that we ought to make some inquiries about the additional four, which, from the luggage lying about, we assumed to be occupied, but which appeared to be stranded for want of bearers to carry them on. The doors were carefully closed, and it was some time before we could get an answer to our offers of assistance. Eventually a lady looked out, and told us that she and a friend, each accompanied by two children and an ayah,1 were on their way to Lahore; that the bearers who had brought them so far had run away, and that they were absolutely in despair as to how they were to proceed. It turned out that the bearers, who had been engaged to carry the ladies on the second stage towards Lahore, found it more amusing to attend the ceremony of the installation of the Raja of Kaparthala, then going on, than to fulfil their engagement. After discussing the situation, the ladies were persuaded to get out of their palankins and into our buggy. We divided the baggage and six doolies between our sixteen bearers, and started off, my cousin, the ayahs, and I on foot. It was then 10 p.m. We hoped relays of bearers for the whole party would be forthcoming at the next stage, but we were doomed to disappointment. Our reliefs were present, but none for the ladies. We succeeded, however, in inducing our original bearers to come on a further stage, thus arranging for the carriage of the ayahs, while we two men trudged on beside the buggy for another ten or twelve miles.[Page 9] It was a heavy, sandy road, and three stages were about as much as the horse could manage.
New Friends Soon after daybreak next morning we reached the Bias river. Crossing by a bridge of boats, we found on the other side a small one-roomed house with a verandah running round it, built for the use of the European overseer in charge of the road. On matters being explained, this man agreed to turn out. The ladies and children were put inside, and my cousin and I spent the day in the verandah; in the evening, with the assistance of the overseer, we were able to get a sufficient number of bearers to carry us all on to Mian Mir without further adventure. In the course of conversation we found that one of the ladies was the wife of Lieutenant Donald Stewart,2 of the 9th Bengal Infantry, and that she and her friend were returning to join their respective husbands after spending the summer months at Simla. This meeting was the beginning of a close friendship with Sir Donald and Lady Stewart, which has lasted to the present day.
At Mian Mir (the military cantonment of Lahore) I stayed a few days with another half-sister, and from there, as the weather was beginning to get cooler, I travelled day and night. One evening about eight o'clock I was disappointed at not having come across the usual rest-house; lights could be seen, however, at no great distance, and I proceeded towards them; they turned out to be the camp fires of a Cavalry regiment which was halting there for the night. Being half famished, and fearing that my craving for food was not likely to be gratified unless someone in the camp would take pity upon my forlorn condition, I boldly presented myself at the first tent I came across. The occupant came out, and, on hearing the strait I was in, he with kindly courtesy invited me to enter the tent, saying, 'You are just in time to share our dinner.' My host turned out to be Major Crawford Chamberlain,3 commanding the 1st Irregular Cavalry, the famous Skinner's Horse, then on its way to Peshawar. A lady was sitting at the table—Mrs. Chamberlain—to whom I was introduced; I spent a very pleasant evening, and in this way commenced another equally agreeable and lasting friendship.
FOOTNOTES, CHAPTER II
[Footnote 1: A Native woman-servant.]
[Footnote 2: Now Field Marshal Sir Donald Stewart, Bart., G.C.B., G.C.S.I.]
[Footnote 3: Now General Crawford Chamberlain, C.S.I., a brother of General Sir Neville Chamberlain.]