An extract from:
Charles H.G. Nida, Chota Sahib: you’ve had a busy day (2007), edited by Ian Clark
But once you came to accept the military life, Rawalpindi had its merits. Time spent here was far from being the proverbial round of drill, parades, cleaning equipment, playing cards, drinking beer and waiting for the call to battle. There were facilities to satisfy almost every need you could imagine: canteens, sports pavilions, football grounds and tennis courts, a theatre-cum-cinema, plus plenty of other amenities to help the soldier forget the purpose of his existence: to fight and die for his country.
However the 25th MMGB had not come here to be part of the garrison. In due course Calcutta would want to know what role we had played in winning the war, so it did not do to dally any longer in the completion of our training. So off we went further north to Campbellpur, a small town on the main Rawalpindi-Peshawar road, where a machine gun school had recently been set up. Shooting practice with rifle, gun and revolver became our daily routine for week after week.
To our immense gratitude there came a day when we were told to cross out the word Maxim on our equipment inventory and substitute Vickers. This weapon was air-cooled instead of water-cooled and weighed 45 pounds instead of 60. Life took on new zest. In no time at all, affection for the new contraption, intensified by hatred for the old one, turned me into a proud Number-One: the man who would fire the gun in action. Six of us were appointed and we were given a chevron to wear on our arm, plus the right to style ourselves Bombardier (acting/unpaid–as jealous rivals were keen to point out).
Uncoupling the gun mounting from the motorbike was a simple matter. With its 7-9 horsepower-plus engine, what better conveyance could there have been to give one a sensation of speed? What finer racetrack than the trunk road from Campbellpur to Peshawar on which to master it? 60 miles in 60 minutes? Not a problem.
Our despatch rider, in civilian life a jute engineer, reckoned he could do the journey in slightly less than that, throwing down a challenge to all of us. He used to add (jokingly, of course) that he never wiped out more than a couple of Pathans a trip. The joke gained something in seriousness when one member of the unit had a collision with a beggar and failed to report it. Thereafter the CO put the trunk road beyond Nowshera out-of-bounds and we had to delay our “race meetings” until the weekends, when the CO and the other officers went on shikari, or took the tender to Srinagar where they’d clubbed together to hire a houseboat on the Jhelum river. “As part of the war effort”, we cynically remarked to each other.
In the scheme of things I was not listed as a motorcyclist: my duty lay with the gun. But my confidence in my driver was lacking to such an extent that I prevailed on him to let me do the driving, whilst he gained some proficiency in the use of the Vickers. With gun dismounted but without the carriage being uncoupled, it was possible to use it as a sidecar during leisure hours, to which the section commander raised no objection. Thus we were able to get out and about–which gave me my first sight of an aeroplane. The first, that is, since the days when Grahame White used to perform his weekly exercises round the towers of Crystal Palace. For at Risalpur, the far side of the pontoon bridge across the Kabul River, we came upon India’s first Flying Squadron.
It appeared the unit had been stationed there for almost a year to provide support to ground units of infantry. It was equipped with BB2s–machines that were not in active service anywhere else, having been downgraded to elementary training. It gave me a thrill however just to see the aircraft taking off and landing. The succession of visits I paid to the aerodrome was to have a profound influence on my future war service.
When the winter months were over, the commandant of the Campbellpur Gunnery School deemed us fit for posting to a battle zone. We got the unit ready for departure at a moment’s notice. The universal expectation was that we would go to Karachi and set sail for the Persian Gulf in order to add our bit to the Mesopotamian shambles. In the event, without anyone knowing our ultimate destination except our CO, we entrained for Bombay. No one seemed over-eager to put us to the test of battle, since it took three days in the sweltering heat of June to crawl the route which the Punjab Mail covered in a mere forty hours.
Nevertheless it was clear that my three-and-a-half-years in India were drawing to a close. Was I sorry? Hard to say. Would I ever return? I’d no idea. I suppose such thoughts are natural ones. Would I, if asked, ever recommend another young man from England to follow in my footsteps? Just then it was a question I didn’t care to answer.
In spite of my zeal for pursuing the job in the first place, I admitted to myself that I had been rather young to leave home. I’m not at all certain that a boy of eighteen is strong enough to resist the temptations latent in the free and easy lifestyle of an expatriate unless he’s had the benefit of a strict upbringing. Drink was exceptionally cheap and the climate a thirsty one.
If I have drunk my share of alcohol in my time, it was to some extent on the advice of Mr Hitchcock, the civil engineer I met on the ship out. He maintained that a bottle of Scotch was the best medicine to carry in one’s haversack. Mostly his advice has stood me in good stead, except during an attack of dysentery in Ahmednagar on my first tour, when whisky didn’t help and I needed chlorodyne.
Absence of female company is another snag. Unless the young man is under-sexed–and so few of them are–it takes a lot of restraint to avoid paying frequent visits to the brothels. Most of them did. In consequence several disgraced themselves by catching some filthy disease or other. Remorse was sure to overtake them when they went on leave to get engaged or married. Some firms refused to accept assistants who were not in their early twenties. The reason they gave was that it might “damage young man’s health to face tropical conditions before he was fully developed”. They used to say too that they could judge a man’s character better at that later age.
It took a day or two before the troopship due to embark us was ready to leave. Another delay was caused by the Assamese Labour Corps Battalion, a blend of tea-pickers and Himalayan hill tribesmen. They had to take on board live sheep to satisfy the dietary obligations of their religion. So for one last brief fling, we of the 25th MMGB were free to behave–or misbehave–as we fancied.
Since I was the only member of the unit who knew anything about Bombay, a considerable responsibility devolved upon me. For most of the time it was my pleasure to act as host. We split our off-duty hours between the CMC, the Great Western Hotel and the Commercial Gymkhana. On a soldier’s wage of a shilling a day, my entertainment fund required constant replenishment from the bank. By that time fortunately I was the proud owner of a thousand pounds–the sum I had carefully saved over three years by travelling on the firm’s account. A sum which I felt I had richly earned.
Snatching a brief interlude from my messmates, I took the trouble to call on the firm. Mr Colvin, doubtless still chagrined at my leaving him in the lurch during wartime, as he saw it, made excuses not to see me. The others I did get to see. It was through Brace that I received the message from Laura Peters.
The last person I saw as I mounted the gangway was my ex-servant Sivaji. He arrived sweating and out of breath, too late for a decent chat. But an enormous smile lit up his face as he managed to shout, “Hurry up, sahib-ji! Come back to Bombay. Much India I never see till you take me.”
It must have been a shock for him to see his master, formerly so spick-and-span, dressed as an underdog of a British soldier in shorts, puttees and heavy marching boots, with a rifle slung across his chest. But as I waved cheerily back at him I reflected, with no small gratitude, that there was one person in the great Peninsula who was sad to see me go.