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Recollections of Thirty-nine Years in the Army
Chapter XI


Meean Meer—Death of Brigadier—Unpleasant recollections—First telegraphic dispatch—A son—Simla—Canal—Uniform—Shalimar Gardens—Lahore—Sebastopol—Dost Mahomed—Troops to Crimea—Aspect of affairs —Santhal outbreak—Another survey—Journey to Simla—Severe illness—A weary journey— Death of infant—Sick leave—Oude annexed—A sad case—Sail for England— Our voyage—Arrive in England—Aberdeen.

AFTER a succession of orders and counter-orders, the 10th marched away' from Wuzzeerabad; on the eighth day thereafter entered the recently erected and spacious barracks of Meean Meer. On the extensive plain where they stand, the Khalsa army assembled in 1845, prior to the "invasion of India" by them, and prior to that date quarters there existed for the troops of Runjeet Singh. On the same plain in 1846, the victorious army under Lord Gough encamped, and so commanded Lahore, situated some six miles distant. The name of the locality is that of a saint, a native of Bukkur in Scinde, who flourished in the time of Jehangir, and whose tomb still remains in tolerable repair.

Among those who died in the early part of 1854 was the Brigadier commanding, an old officer whose service in India had extended over about fifty years. He represented a class, then somewhat numerous, of men who had proceeded to that country while as yet in their teens, and thenceforward spent the whole or greater part of their lives in it. The funeral was performed with full military honours; but what struck us as incongruous and out of place was the suddenness with which, after it had been completed, the strains of "The Dead March" were succeeded by those of what were described as "rollicking" airs. Surely, under such circumstances, it would be more appropriate were the troops marched back in silence to their barracks.

Unhappily a painful state of "tension" had for some time previous existed in relations between the officer in command and those immediately under him; confidence was seriously impaired among all grades; actions and "system" of the superior looked upon as capricious, influenced by personal feelings, and, in some instances, tyrannical. The outcome of all this was, in respect to those affected, a condition very difficult to be borne, an existence approaching the miserable in place of one of friendly communication after the manner of regiments in general. Among the ranks there was reason to believe that attempts had been made, and others contemplated, against the objectional life. The following incident was suggestive under the circumstances of the time. A soldier came to hospital; a man of good character, long service, and known never to shirk duty. To the usual question, "What is the matter with you?" he answered, "Nothing, sir." Then, "What brings you here?" "Because I am harassed and worried to death, and have come to ask if you can give me a day or two's rest." His request was acceded to, and so, in all probability, a serious crime averted.

In the middle of March a Lahore newspaper published what was the first telegraphic intelligence ever received in this part of India. According to that intelligence, the Russian Ambassador to England had taken his departure from London; France and England were dispatching troops in view to joint action in support of Turkey, those from our own country comprising twenty-two battalions, and so leaving only eleven, exclusive of Household troops, in home garrisons. A month later came the further news that all the forces in the United Kingdom were under orders of readiness for service; that a powerful fleet had been rnobilised; the army materially augmented, several regiments recalled from the West Indies, and the fleet dispatched to the Baltic.

On 30th of March a son was born to me by my beloved wife, as I wrote at the time—another hostage to Fortune, and very material inducement for exertion on my part to earn, if possible, means whereby to maintain and educate my children in such a manner as is incumbent upon me. The state of her health required that with the least practicable delay she should proceed to the hills. A house was engaged at Simla for the season, and there she passed the greater part of the hot months.

My health having given way, I proceeded to that sanatorium somewhat later in the hot season. Forty miles from the plains, and 7,600 feet above sea level, the climate of Simla is agreeably cool, but rain so heavy that during the three months of summer the fall amounts to xoo inches. In the faces of declivities from rocks and mountain spurs grew deodars and rhododendrons, intermingled with wild apple, cherry, holly, walnut, etc. ; orchids, ferns, ivy, and woodbine. Small but rapid streams pursue their tortuous course over their rocky beds in each narrow valley, and at a distance of some two or three miles are two cascades of some 70 and 120 feet in height. Away in the distance the magnificence of the snowy range, consisting of what seems like an interminable succession of white glistening peaks, fixes the mind in wonder and admiration; while in a clear day it is possible to see the plains, together with the windings of the river Sutlej.

The "inauguration "—otherwise commencement—of what was to be the great canal uniting the Ganges and the Jumna was duly celebrated. The subject of that canal was discussed in the public papers from different points of view; the channel, while intended to irrigate many tracts that stand in need of being so fertilised, would be used in places where such aid to agriculture was not required, and in certain localities "malaria" would appear where none now exists. It may be curious to compare those predictions with the results of experience.

Somewhat later in the year a Cheap Postage Act came into operation in India, according to the system adopted in England since 1841. Another matter noted at the time had reference solely to the army; namely, that an entire change took place in the uniform of soldiers and officers, one item relating to which was that thenceforward the infantry were directed to leave the upper lip unshaven,—in other words, to grow moustachios.

In the middle of October my wife and children arrived from the hills. With health restored she was able to enjoy rides and other excursions around our station, the crisp morning air of the Punjab restoring to her cheeks, as to those of others that had become pallid, the rosy tinge natural to them. The frequency with which field-days and other great military displays took place—for our force numbered 13,000 fighting men—gave her, with other ladies, opportunities of being present on such occasions, and entertainments of sorts furnished us with an object or excuse to visit what were then the well-kept and ornamental gardens of Shalimar, the original planning of which is credited to Sultan Beg, an "Admiral of the Fleet" to Shah Jehan.

Occasional visits had to be made to Lahore, the history of which city presenting many points of interest, a few particulars relating thereto may be interpolated in this place. Surrounded by a line of ramparts now dismantled and rapidly going to decay, sufficient remains to indicate the great strength of the original fortifications. At regular intervals there are gateways, at each of which a strong guard was formerly posted for defence. Through one such gate we entered, and were immediately in a labyrinth of narrow and crowded streets. The houses, built partly of brick, partly of sandstone, are three and four stories in height, their fronts more or less elaborately ornamented by carvings of different kinds, but all such devices presenting evidence of decay. What formerly was the palace of Dyhan Singh is now a pay office for British troops. The Shish Mahal, or Glass Palace, is much defaced; the precious stones of its mosaic work taken away, the spaces at one time occupied by them giving to the whole an aspect of dilapidation even beyond what has actually taken place. What was the audience hail, however, remains in good repair, the walls and roof ornamented by mirrors of various sizes, some set in silver frames, others in those of gold, the whole interspersed with paintings done in the most gorgeous colours. But how changed the style of occupants now from that which in days gone by harmonized with such surroundings! As we entered, there sat upon the marble floor a motley crowd of Sikhs, men and women, old and young, their costumes betokening that they were of the labouring classes; the mission that brought them hither to receive, at the hands of representatives of the great Company Bahadur, pensions for sons, husbands, or fathers who fell in battle against that wonderful and mysterious abstraction known to "the masses" of India only by that designation. In close vicinity to the Shish Mahal was a large mosque, very similar in style and appear- ance to the Jumna Musjid at Delhi; it was now occupied as a magazine. Thence we proceeded to the gateway where a few years ago Rajah Nao Nehal Singh lost his life,—whether by accident or design is still by some few persons considered doubtful. Adjoining that gate stands the tomb of Runjeet Singh, on entering which we found two priests ready to give whatever aid the Feringhee might stand in need of. Under a coverlet of green cloth the Grunth, or Holy Book of the Sikhs, was carefully preserved; but the cloth was raised for us, so that we might look upon the sacred volume. In a shrine under an unfinished dome within the temple or tomb, the ashes of Runjeet were preserved, the shrine itself concealed under a green cloth; the walls of the mausoleum covered with paintings and other representations of Sikh mythology. In another building, though of less artistic appearance than that mentioned, were preserved the ashes of Nao Nehal Singh and of Soochet Singh; between the two shrines containing them lay covered as before the Grunth.

In the last week of October came news that the Russian camp before Sebastopol had been forced, but with a loss to the allied forces of 2,500 in killed and wounded. Many of us, besides the interest natural to the important events then taking place in the Crimea, had personal acquaintances among the actors in the drama of war there in progress, and were moreover conscious of an existing possibility that we also might be transferred to that sphere of action—a possibility looked at from various points Of view, according to circumstances, pecuniary and matrimonial, of individual officers.

The Indian papers of the day gave currency to a report that our quondam ally and prisoner Dost Mahomed had been making endeavours, by means of vakeels, to sound the Indian Government in regard to an alliance, offensive and defensive; intimating at the same time the possibility of his coming to terms with Russia, should his proposal be rejected. But according to the views expressed at the time, little danger was apprehended in the North-West,—that is, from Russia,—on account of the natural mountain barrier that serves as a defence in that direction.

Early in 1855 news reached us that Inkerman had been won' by our troops, though at a cost to those engaged of 2,600 in killed and wounded out of 6,000, the 57th being among the heaviest sufferers. Several regiments 2 had already been sent direct from India to the Crimea; the 10th expecting to follow to the same destination, officers and soldiers composing it held themselves prepared for such an emergency, which however did not occur. Among ourselves the chances of service nearer at hand were freely discussed, as were possible risks that might attend the further withdrawal of troops from India. That a state of unrest existed was declared from day to day in the columns of the local papers, and was evident to all who chose to pay attention to palpable indications. Few, if any, of us at the time gave a thought to the conditions to which that unrest was due, nor to the outbreak in which it was so soon to culminate.

All ranks and grades pertaining to regiments were interested in the varying phases of public affairs, their personal comfort, convenience, and possible prospects being likely to be affected thereby. For some time past Persia had treated British representatives with growing marks of disrespect, and now the circumstance led to the withdrawal from Teheran of the Commissioner of Her Majesty at that capital. There were, moreover, suspicions of an intended movement on Herat, in accordance, as believed, with Russian instigation; consequently, the early dispatch of an expedition was looked upon as a probable contingency,—the object, according to one set of views, to "assist" the Shah; according to another, to coerce him. Speculation was indulged in as to the regiments most likely to be so employed, "ours" being considered one of the most likely to be so. Our arrangements were made accordingly; but a year had to elapse before war was actually declared.

In the month of July (1855) came the unexpected news that the Santhals had broken out in rebellion. We asked each other, Who are the Santhals? They were a half-savage tribe inhabiting the Rajmahal Hills; nor was it possible at the time to ascertain the ostensible cause of their outbreak. The troops sent against them consisted of a local corps,' composed of their own tribesmen, the natural result being that they fraternised with the rebels. The next "force" dispatched to quell the outbreak was a body of sepoys of the 7th N.I., and they, it was reported, fired over the heads of the rebels, their officers using their fists upon the men who did so.3 Meanwhile the rebellion spread; depredations and murders were committed wholesale. Martial law was proclaimed in the disturbed districts; troops were employed during seven months against men armed to a great extent with bows and arrows; at last the guerilla warfare was brought to a close. The inaction of the sepoys on the occasion alluded to became significant some time thereafter when the great mutiny occurred.

The death of the Czar and accession to the Russian throne of Alexander were the most important items of intelligence brought by the mail arriving early in April; another, his expressed determination to continue the war with vigour. Other items of intelligence noted at the time as having more or less important bearings upon affairs in India, included the withdrawal of Lord Aberdeen from the Ministry and the appointment of Lord Palmerston as his successor; the death of Joseph Hume, who, it was remembered, had begun his career in the Burmese war of 1824-26; and lastly, the cross-fire between Admiral Sir Charles Napier, on his return from Cronstadt, and Sir James Graham, the First Lord of the Admiralty. Then came details of the attacks on the Mamelon and Malakoff Towers, and of the losses incurred by our troops, more especially by the 57th. Following thereon, intelligence arrived of the outbreak of cholera among the allies in the Crimea, and of the death thereby of Lord Raglan.

In the early days of September, the serious illness of my wife at Simla rendered it necessary that I should proceed thither without delay. On the journey all went well, till on arriving at the river Beas—the Hyphasis of the ancients—the palkee in which I was being conveyed across, by means of a boat, was by some mischance permitted to fall into the stream, after which accident, time so pressed that without interruption I continued my journey. Arrived at the foot of the hills, I mounted a horse, and, lantern in hand,—for night had now closed in,—I proceeded along the rough footpath which then was the only representative of a road. Soon the darkness was absolute; the roughness of the pathway had increased; the thick jungle was close to me on either side. Then it was that my steed stumbled and fell; myself and lantern were on the ground; my light extinguished. In this condition of things I perforce remained a considerable time, until a party of pedestrians, having at their head a torch-bearer, came upon me. I was glad to return with them to the nearest staging bungalow, and there remain till morning. Next day I resumed my journey. I reached my destination tired and feeling much indisposed.

Five days thereafter I was seized with what proved to he a most serious illness. One day of intense headache, another of shivering, then prostration, then delirium, after which a blank of more than a couple of weeks. Such were the results of this untoward journey. During those days and nights of delirium, a succession of very horrible dreams, hallucinations or mental wanderings haunted me, one of the most painful being that everything in my room—bed, tables, chairs, etc. —was alive, and that I myself was double; at the same time I was haunted with an intensely strong desire to die. In the third week of my illness my state was so far improved that I was able to sit up in bed, but only for a few minutes in the day. During this trying and anxious time to my dear wife, she had to tend me, not only by day, but also at night; her servant, the wife of a soldier, assisting her. It was in these circumstances that she gave birth to a son on October 7.

Weak in body, and ill as I was, my wife far from recovered, with the additional charge of a baby to that of a sick husband, we left Simla on October 26; in due time arrived at Umballah, and on November 4 joined my regiment there, it being en route to Dinapore. The following day I underwent the ordeal of having the uvula cut off, that organ having become so elongated during the severity of my illness as by constantly irritating the throat to add to the severe cough and lung complication which formed part of my illness. Much of our march was by road already traversed. Our usual hour of starting ranged from three to four in the morning; we had to rise at least an hour before that time, and I well remember how on such occasions my dear wife, herself very ill-fitted by reason of the weak state of her health, prepared for me a cup of egg-flip, and so enabled me to bear removal from my camp bed to the dooly in which I travelled. But as we marched from day to day, health so far recovered that I became able to walk some little distance at a time by means of a stick. My left lower limb was much the weaker of the two, but at first I failed to perceive that it was to some degree paralysed.

On Christmas Day our young infant was observed to be somewhat ill. With great rapidity his symptoms increased in severity, and on the last day of the year death came as a relief to his sufferings. As soon as practicable after the severity of his illness declared itself, we hurried on from camp to the dâk bungalow at Barode, and there the dear innocent babe passed away to his rest. The thought of leaving the remains of our loved one in the jungle was horrible; we accordingly procured such a coffin as could be roughly put together by the bazaar carpenter, and with our melancholy burthen pushed on to Benares, where we arrived at 1 a.m. on New Year's Day. It was not, however, until sunset of the same day that arrangements for the interment were completed, and the remains reverently committed to earth in the Military Cemetery.

Four months elapsed, illness still prostrated me. Recovery was little likely to occur while I remained in India; consequently there was no alternative but to proceed on sick leave to England. On arriving at Calcutta, much difficulty was experienced on obtaining temporary accommodation, the hotels and other establishments being full. After some delay quarters in Fort William were assigned to me; furniture and equipment obtained on hire, and so I waited until official routine had been gone through, and authority granted for my departure.

For some time past the contemplated annexation of Oude was known throughout the military stations of India. The carrying out of that intention was naturally looked forward to as likely to result in a force being assembled, and perhaps engaged on active service. My own incapacity to take part in any such service was a severe disappointment. When, added to my physical condition, the fact that pecuniary affairs had not yet emerged from a state of difficulty, and that prospects were far from bright as to health being ever restored sufficiently to enable me to meet responsibilities attached to me as "bread-winner," the general survey of the position in which I stood was decidedly depressing. In one respect it was a relief to me to learn that all chances of service had been averted; that Oude had been annexed without the necessity for sacrificing life—at that time at least.

In the suite of rooms adjoining ours in Fort William an officer was suddenly seized with cholera, the attack rapidly progressing to his death. After that event his young wife, who had been constant in her attentions to him, observed his fingers move spasmodically, as often happens in such cases; thereupon she rushed to the medical officer in attendance, exclaiming frantically, "He lives, he lives; why say you that he is dead?" Nor was it easy to convince her that her hopes were vain,—that he had gone to his rest. The scene was altogether a very painful one to witness, though one by no means uncommon in India.

Suffering as I was from physical weakness, and conscious of the possibilities that might happen to those dependent upon me, in the probable contingency which now presented itself vividly to my mind, the fact that for some days I became prostrated under the influences then prevailing was no surprise to myself. On the 5th of March the Marlborough, in which we had embarked the previous afternoon, started in tow of a steamer; but what between breakdowns and other mishaps, it was not until the 17th—St. Patrick's Day—that our homeward voyage really began.

The voyage was by no means propitious, for, as noted at the time various causes of discomfort and inconvenience were at work. Scarcely had we got to sea before the woman engaged to attend our children became ill, and so gave up her work; mumps and whooping- cough affected nearly every child on board; my eldest had a tedious attack of fever; my wife became ill, partly from arduous attendance on the children, partly from the unwholesome conditions on board. Gradually there had become perceptible a stench, which in its intensity affected seriously the health of the people on board, and rendered discoloured the white-lead paint throughout the vessel, the plated dishes, and articles in personal wear. Pumps were set to work and kept continually in use; myriads of maggots were thus taken up with the bilge- water, proving the existence in the depths of the vessel of animal matter in a state of decomposition. A formal representation by the officer 1 commanding the invalids on board and myself to the captain was made on the subject, with a request that he would put in at Delagoa Bay. That representation was ignored; and so the remaining portion of the voyage had to be got over, the conditions just mentioned having, as expressed, "to wear themselves out."

On the 1st of July we passed the Azores at so short a distance from them that we were able to enjoy the view of those beautiful islands. Nearing Plymouth, our ship was boarded by a venerable pilot, who, though seventy years of age, was actively employed in his responsible and arduous vocation. On the 14th of that month we reached Gravesend, and there disembarked; my wife infirm in health, two of our children unrecovered from their attacks of illness while on board, myself with one limb disabled, my physical condition to a great extent wrecked. In due course the ordeal of a Medical Board was gone through; the members of that body were able to appraise the significance of that condition, but in accordance with "the system" of the day were unable to recommend leave of absence for any longer period than three months—a period obviously insufficient for restoration to health and activity.

A few weeks were spent in travelling in search of health. The fact being evident that further leave must be applied for in due time, the climate of Aberdeen was selected as one suited to my then condition; in that city, accordingly, we remained for several successive months, with result as anticipated, that the bracing winter air proved to be health-restoring and invigorating, though the period during which I was permitted to enjoy it was insufficient for its full benefit being obtained. In various ways civility was shown to us by residents. On the winter "session" at Marischal College being opened, a kind invitation was sent to me by Dr. Pine to attend his lectures. Little thought I at the time how soon some of the valuable teaching communicated in those lectures was to be practically applied.


 


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