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Recollections of Thirty-nine Years in the Army
Chapter II


Chinsurah—Cholera—Start—Omissions—Relics of mortality—Collision—Fire—Panic —Berhampore—The "garrison "—Crime and punishment—Civilities—Progress resumed—A hurricane—Cawnpore—Attached to 5oth Regiment—The troops —Agra—Sind—Gwalior-39th Regiment.

FIRST impressions of this our first station in India, recorded at the time, were :—Houses of mud, roofs consisting of reeds, fronts open from end to end; members of families within squatting, infants sprawling, in a state of nudity, upon earthen floors made smooth and polished by means of cowdung applied in a liquid state; while to outside walls cakes of the same material are in process of drying, to be thereafter used as fuel by Hindoos. Gardens and cultivated fields abound ; flowering trees and shrubs, cocoa palms, banana bushes, clumps of bamboo, rise above dense undergrowth of succulent plants. A heavy, oppressive atmosphere, pervaded by odours, sweet and otherwise, has a depressing effect, as if conditions were not altogether wholesome. European houses according to Holland model, terraces and gardens giving to them an attractive and elegant appearance, indicating the importance of the place while in the hands of the Dutch, prior to date' of the treaty in accordance with which it was by them exchanged for Java. An extensive range of spacious barracks and supplementary buildings added much to the beauty of the station.

Before many days were over several of our young lads had fallen victims to cholera. In this our first experience of that disease we had access to no one capable of giving aid and advice; we were left to individual judgment, and it altogether astray as to the appropriate method in our emergency. For a time, out of our small party death claimed several daily victims; young wives were thus left widows, young children orphans.

Glad to receive orders of readiness to resume progress by river to next stage of our journey. Then arrived two senior officers,— one to take military command; the other, departmental charge of our detachment. Country boats provided as before, others of better kind for officers. Our unwieldy fleet started at the appointed time; the boats comprising it straggled irregularly across the river, and having gained the opposite bank, there made fast for the night.

Early next morning it was in movement. Mid-day heat became oppressive. One of the soldiers was prostrated by cholera, another by sun fever. Inquiry revealed the unpleasant fact that the "experienced" officer recently appointed for the purpose had made no arrangements whatever for sick. Those fallen ill were now sent in small boats back towards Chinsurah; and so we continued our river progress, steps being taken to have deficient requirements sent on without delay.

Next evening was far advanced ere they arrived. The numbers of our sick had increased, several deaths taken place, some with appalling rapidity in the absence of means of help. The great heat prevailing made early interment necessary. Graves had to be hastily made in groves of trees near the river bank; to them the dead were committed, our fleet continuing its progress, sailing or tracking according to wind and current. After night had fallen, the blaze of funeral pyres on the river banks told their tale of pestilence.

For several days mortality was great in our small party, and among the native boatmen. As deaths occurred among the latter, the bodies were simply left on the bank to be devoured by jackals, dogs, and vultures, numbers of which were in wait for prey. Some of our boats sprung leaks, and so became useless; nor was it an easy matter to get them replaced. Men and stores had to be got out as best they could and disposed of among others—proceedings by no means easy under then present circumstances.

At last there came an interval in which the malign influence of our invisible enemy seemed as if withheld. While gliding upwards against the silent river current, suddenly from one of the men's boats there burst a mass of thick smoke, speedily followed by flame, and within the space of a few minutes nothing except the charred framework remained. How, or by what means, the occupants of the boat escaped did not transpire; that they did so was fortunate for themselves and satisfactory to all, though the accident, subsequently ascertained to have resulted from their own carelessness, destroyed their entire kits and other belongings.

Short was our respite. Suddenly and fatally was our detachment again struck, several deaths by cholera occurring in quick succession. Our somewhat eventful "voyage" was near its end, when in midstream two of our boats came violently in collision with each other, considerable mutual damage being the result. An unfortunate panic occurred among the recruits on board, one of whom leapt overboard and so disappeared. Soon afterwards our journey was at an end, it having occupied eleven days; we arrived at Berhampore.

Near to the spacious range of barracks in which our young soldiers were accommodated were lines occupied by a native regiment,—at that time reputed to be of distinguished loyalty to Jan Kompanee, with whose liberal dealings towards its own proper servants all were so well pleased. In others were invalids, soldiers' wives and children pertaining to regiments employed in the war proceeding against China; many as yet unaware that they had been made widows and orphans by the climate of Chusan and coast generally.

Here the conduct of our lads—for they had scarcely become men —became so reckless that military discipline had to be rigidly enforced, while in many instances severe or fatal illness seemed to be the direct result of their own misconduct. As a ready, and as thought at the time effectual, means of coercion, corporal punishment was awarded by courts-martial. The ordeal of being present during its infliction was nauseating; but constituted as the detachment was, the punishment seemed to have been in all cases well deserved.

General Raper was the officer in political charge of the Nawab of Moorshedabad, then a boy of some ten years old. Several civilians high in rank, and a few non-official residents, for the most part connected with the manufacture of tussar silk, resided at Berhampore. From several of them we young officers received much attention and kindness, not only in their own houses but on excursions organized by them for our special benefit. Prominent among those who thus befriended us, young "griffs" as we were, General Raper and Charles Du Pré Russell are remembered gratefully—even while these notes are penned, many years after the date and incidents referred to.

In due time the order arrived for us to resume our river journey, our destination Cawnpore; again country-made boats our means of transport. In the early days of August we started on what was to be in many respects a monotonous voyage, though not altogether without its excitement and stirring incidents. The general manner of our progress was that with which we were now acquainted. We were doomed, as before, to be at intervals stricken by cholera, which seemed to have its favourite lurking-places, generally at the foot of a somewhat precipitous alluvial bank. Night after night rest was disturbed or altogether banished by the sound of tom-toms, songs, barking of dogs, cries of jackals ; sight and smell offended by funeral fires as they blazed in near proximity to us.

More than half our journey was got over without special mishap. Our boatmen observe that signs of coming storm appear in the sky; they prepare as best they can, but soon the hurricane is upon us. Boats are dashed against each other, and against the river bank; waves break over them, tearing away their flimsy gear, battering some to pieces, their inmates obliged to escape and save themselves as best they could. After a time there came a downpour of rain; then gradually the storm ceased, leaving several of our number boatless, and destitute of greater or smaller portions of our respective kits. Among others, I suffered considerably. A friend in need, more fortunate than myself, gave me hospitality on his boat until sometime thereafter, when, with others similarly situated, I chartered a budgerow. A few days after our mishap news reached us that a similar fleet to our own, with troops, [Of the 50th and 62nd Regiments; more than 100 men were lost at Seckreegullee, that being the place where the typhoon occurred.] some thirty miles ahead of us, suffered very severely from the same hurricane that had struck us, a considerable number of the men in it having perished in the river.

Without further incident of importance we arrived at Cawnpore in the early days of November, our journey by river having occupied more than two months and a half, the date fourteen years before the terrible year 1857, when that station was to acquire the sad memory ever since associated with it. Anticipating the return to India of the force commanded by General Pollock from Jellalabad, the march to which place had restored British prestige from the temporary eclipse at Jugdulluck, Orders were issued to honour that army by an appropriate military display on the left bank of the Sutlej. Among the regiments assembled for that purpose, at Ferozepore, the then frontier station, were the Buffs. Orders had also directed that on completion of that duty they should march towards Allahabad and there occupy the fort, the detachment with which I was connected joining headquarters en route. For the time being we were attached to the 50th Regiment, and so continued during the remaining four months of the cold season.

Here took place the first initiation into their several duties connected with regimental life of the young men belonging to our detachment, myself among them. Among the officers in the "Dirty Half-Hundred" who had served with it during the Peninsular War, when, on account of the continuous severe work performed by it, the corps obtained its honourable soubriquet, three remained, looked up to with the respect due to, and then accorded to, distinguished veterans. Alternate with duties assigned to us, amusements filled up our time pleasantly. Gaiety was in full flow. Many were the joyous gatherings by which were filled the Assembly rooms—some years thereafter to be the scene of very terrible doings. Outdoor games and sports were the order of the day, the tract of jungle in Oude that stretched along the opposite river bank proving our most happy hunting ground. So it was that time passed pleasantly, if in an intellectual sense not very profitably. At the time alluded to traffic and communication with Oude was by means of a long bridge of boats, that bridge from their attack on which in subsequent days the Gwalior mutineers were to be driven by the forces under Sir Cohn Campbell.

A large force, comprising all arms, then occupied that important station. The impression made upon us, as for the first time we beheld the magnificent spectacle presented by general field-day parades and exercises, was never to be forgotten. The swarthy visages of the sepoys; their quaint uniforms attracted our notice. The solidarity of the 5oth gave the impression of irresistible force. The rush of cavalry, as, like a whirlwind, they went at full charge, to a great extent concealed in a cloud of dust raised by their horses' hoofs; the magnificent and unsurpassed Bengal Horse Artillery, in performing the evolutions pertaining to them,—these incidents struck us with amazement and admiration. Little did we think that not many months thereafter we were to be even more struck with admiration at the brilliant performance of some of those very troops in actual fight.

A trip to Agra introduced me to the experiences of palkee dák. Travelling by night, the distance got over was about fifty miles; alongside trotted torch-carriers, the odours from those "pillars of flame" foul and offensive. During the day a halt was made at bungalows provided by Government for the use of travellers. Thus were four days occupied in making a journey of two hundred miles. In and near Agra various excursions were made and places of interest visited. In the fort had recently been deposited the gates of Somnath, in connection with the removal of which from Ghuznee the bombastic proclamation by Lord Ellenborough was still subject of comment. The tomb of Akbar and the exquisite Taj Mahal were visited on several occasions. The scene presented by the latter, more especially as seen by moonlight, was extremely beautiful. The minarets and domes of the mausoleuin, consisting of lure white marble; the long avenue of cypress trees by which it is approached ; the fountains in full play; the ornamental flower pots,—made upon us an impression never afterwards to be forgotten.

With the regiments returned recently from Kandahar, aided by troops from Bombay and Bengal, Sir Charles Napier undertook an expedition against the disaffected Ameers of Scinde. In February, 1843, the battles of Meeanee and Hyderabad ended in defeat of their forces, Hyderabad occupied, the country being conquered during the succeeding month of March. Of that war it was said : "The Muhamadan rulers of Sind, known as the Ameers, whose chief fault was that they would not surrender their independence, were crushed."

In the neighbouring State of Gwalior events were in progress, the issue of which was destined to affect the 39th, the 50th, and the Buffs in a way not at the moment anticipated by either of those regiments. Early in February, the distant boom of heavy guns intimated to us at Agra that the Maharajah of Gwalior was dead, and had been succeeded on his throne by his adopted son in the absence of a lineal heir. In such events there did not appear anything to interfere with the routine of pleasure in which so many young officers indulged; that routine went on uninterruptedly, for as yet with them the serious business of life was in the future.

Those were indeed the days of India's hospitality, alike in respect to individuals and regiments. For example: Three weeks had I been an honorary member of the "Dorsets" mess, when the time of my departure arrived; yet to my request for my mess bill I received the reply, "There is none." Among the officers whose hospitality I had so long unconsciously enjoyed were two, father and son, both of whom I was shortly to meet under circumstances very different from those in which I had made their acquaintance.


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