An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
For several weeks we trained on the Maxim gun, an obsolescent weapon that sat on the shoulder like a hundredweight of coal. Gradually we were sorted according to ability as motorcyclists, machine gunners, mechanics, map-readers, signallers, cooks and so forth. At that time we saw little of our commanding officer, Captain Heilgers, who was fully occupied with handing over his responsibilities in civilian life as head of a well-known Calcutta merchanting house.
As weeks crept slowly by, the unit came up to full complement. Many applicants whose services had been hoped-for changed their minds. More publicity was necessary, via the Calcutta papers and larger businesses. Contributors to the fund which had inaugurated the unit grew impatient at the European community’s evident lack of patriotism. But at last the complement of sixty-six officers and men was reached. There were engineers, planters, banking and insurance men, shipping clerks and, smacking of desperation, three time-serving private from the regular army who had been drafted to us to complete our number.
In the evenings and at weekends we were at liberty to enjoy the sights of Calcutta. Or, as the soldiers-three would have it, “paint the town red”. Meanwhile, much to our disgust, the red paint on our motorcycles was progressively overpainted with khaki. We had fancied the idea of going into battle with beating drums and flying colours. We’d have been the Thin Red Line as of old. But this war, by all accounts, was one to be fought by the man in camouflage, the colour of the mud he was having to crawl through.
Even if, by some quirk of fate, the 25th MMGB (Calcutta Volunteers) never faced the enemy–and we were beginning to wonder if it ever would–joining it helped me to realise one ambition of mine: to be able to say that I knew Calcutta, the former capital of the Peninsula. To that end I was fortunate in making friends with a Volunteer who knew the city well. A young man of a contemplative cast of mind–an insurance clerk in civilian life–he had been born in India of British parents and was thus referred to as CB (country-born). Absurdly this caused him to be seen as inferior to other Britons, and on that account he was shunned by the more class-conscious members. I preferred his company to the rest of them, and since Calcutta was his homeland I could not have wished for a more knowledgeable guide. In the evenings we would sit on a café verandah overlooking the mighty Hooghly and watch the ships go by, a quaint mixture of ocean-going liners, tramp steamers and Arab dhows. We discussed England, which he was dying to see, and its enviable “cool temperate” climate, about which I did my best to disabuse him. Wiggins, whom I soon affectionately labelled “Wyg”, was extremely distressed by the ostracism which both Eurasians and country-born were compelled to endure. He questioned whether, under the British Raj, their status would ever improve. Projecting himself into the distant future, when an Indian government came to power (if it ever did), he sincerely doubted whether he and his kind would be any better off. He admitted to me he had joined the Battery for the chance it would give him of mixing with men from England. If he got through the war, the opportunity might arise to be demobilised in England and there he planned to settle. After all, he argued, he had been employed by the overseas branch of a British insurance company and they would doubtless take him back. Hopefully they would give him a job at head office. Friends though we were, it didn’t strike me as a particularly laudable motive for joining up. But at least he was honest about it and I was confident he would make a good soldier.
At weekends we went off to places like the Jain Temple and the Botanical Gardens. There I was amazed to see a banyan tree which spread its branches over an area 600 ft across: a veritable forest consisting of just one tree. We also saw the Indian Museum and the bathing ghats, not to mention the shops in Chowringhee, and had many a pleasant walk on the Maidan in front of it.
When the time came to leave Calcutta for more intensive training elsewhere, we were paraded in full kit beside our motorbikes to be honoured with an inspection by the Governor of Bengal. The Statesman, Calcutta’s most prominent newspaper, called us the “corps d’elite of Calcutta”. Whilst we privately smirked at this designation, we were relieved to think that the many contributors to the fund which had brought us into being would be pleased to know that their money had not been wasted. Not yet, anyhow.
Up till now, no one knew how to ride a motorbike except the three officers, and no one at all had fired a Maxim gun. Most of us were of the opinion it was high time we began to learn how to use our equipment. Delightful though it was to be based in Calcutta, nobody groaned when plans were put in place to send us to the North West Frontier Province for training. We boarded a special train which took two days to reach Rawalpindi, many tedious hours being spent in sidings. I was the only member of the unit who had ever been there and I basked all too briefly in the prestige this conferred. My vanity was soon punctured when I was forced to confess the reason for my going. Mixed though our unit was, it was not inclined to take much pride in the inclusion of a box-wallah.
With no allowance made for the time spent in Calcutta, or what we were supposed to have been doing there, we were made to do a week’s square-bashing under a sergeant major from a local training school. He was an absolute martinet and it was agony. Our three drafted regulars, drunk as lords each night, boasted they would simply refuse to report for drill next morning. But with the coming of daylight, some measure of discretion returned with their sobriety and they were there on the parade ground with the rest of us.
So far north, as we were, the nights in December were cold. A few of us contracted malaria, at least that was what they called it. There was perhaps nowhere in India better fitted to introducing civilians to the rigours of soldiery, particularly at this stage in the war. There were units here of Sappers and Miners, Supply and Transport, Artillery, Cavalry (both British and Indian), Gurkhas and Territorials: everything likely to be required by a new division or brigade bound for Mesopotamia or the Middle-East. The authorities must have considered that a week in ‘Pindi was guaranteed to knock the last civilian notions out of their heads of the most recalcitrant recruits.
…to be continued.