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Chapter 1: 1852

Voyage to India--Life in Calcutta--A destructive cyclone --Home-sickness

Forty years ago the departure of a cadet for India was a much more serious affair than it is at present. Under the regulations then in force, leave, except on medical certificate, could only be obtained once during the whole of an officer's service, and ten years had to be spent in India before that leave could be taken. Small wonder, then, that I felt as if I were bidding England farewell for ever when, on the 20th February, 1852, I set sail from Southampton with Calcutta for my destination. Steamers in those days ran to and from India but once a month, and the fleet employed was only capable of transporting some 2,400 passengers in the course of a year. This does not include the Cape route; but even taking that into consideration, I should doubt whether there were then as many travellers to India in a year as there are now in a fortnight at the busy season.

My ship was the Peninsular and Oriental Company's steamer Ripon, commanded by Captain Moresby, an ex-officer of the Indian Navy, in which he had earned distinction by his survey of the Red Sea. A few Addiscombe friends were on board, leaving England under the same depressing circumstances as myself, and what with wind and weather, and the thought that at the best we were bidding farewell to home and relations for ten long years, we were anything but a cheerful party for the first few days of the voyage. Youth and high spirits had, however, re-asserted themselves long before Alexandria, which place we reached without incident beyond the customary halts for coaling at Gibraltar and Malta. At Alexandria we bade adieu to Captain Moresby, who had been most kind and attentive, and whose graphic accounts of the difficulties he had had to overcome whilst mastering the navigation of the Red Sea served to while away many a tedious hour.

On landing at Alexandria, we were hurried on board a large mast-less canal boat, shaped like a Nile dahabeah. In this we were towed up the Mahmoudieh canal for ten hours, until we arrived at Atfieh, on the Nile; thence we proceeded by steamer, reaching Cairo in about sixteen hours. Here we put up at Shepherd's Hotel for a couple of days, which were most enjoyable, especially to those of the party who, like myself, saw an eastern city and its picturesque and curious bazaars for the first time. From Cairo the route lay across the desert for ninety miles, the road being merely a cutting in the sand, quite undistinguishable at night. The journey was performed in a conveyance closely resembling a bathing-machine, which accommodated six people, and was drawn by four mules. My five fellow-travellers were all cadets, only one of whom (Colonel John Stewart, of Ardvorlich, Perthshire) is now alive. The transit took some eighteen hours, with an occasional halt for refreshments. Our baggage was carried on camels, as were the mails, cargo, and even the coal for the Red Sea steamers.

On arrival at Suez we found awaiting us the Oriental, commanded by Captain Powell. A number of people met us there who had left England a month before we did; but their steamer having broken down, they had now to be accommodated on board ours. We were thus very inconveniently crowded until we arrived at Aden, where several of the passengers left us for Bombay. We were not, however, much inclined to complain, as some of our new associates proved themselves decided acquisitions. Amongst them was Mr. (afterwards Sir Barnes) Peacock, an immense favourite with all on board, and more particularly with us lads. He was full of fun, and although then forty-seven years old, and on his way to Calcutta to join the Governor-General's Council, he took part in our amusements as if he were of the same age as ourselves. His career in India was brilliant, and on the expiration of his term of office as member of Council he was made Chief Justice of Bengal. Another of the passengers was Colonel (afterwards Sir John Bloomfield) Gough, who died not long ago in Ireland, and was then on his way to take up his appointment as Quartermaster-General of Queen's troops. He had served in the 3rd Light Dragoons and on the staff of his cousin, Lord Gough, during the Sutlej and Punjab campaigns, and was naturally an object of the deepest veneration to all the youngsters on board.

At Madras we stopped to land passengers, and I took this opportunity of going on shore to see some old Addiscombe friends, most of whom were greatly excited at the prospect of a war in Burma. The transports were then actually lying in the Madras roads, and a few days later this portion of the expedition started for Rangoon.

At last, on the 1st April, we reached Calcutta, and I had to say good-bye to the friends I had made during the six weeks' voyage, most of whom I was never to meet again.

On landing, I received a letter from my father, who commanded the Lahore division, informing me that the proprietor of Spence's Hotel had been instructed to receive me, and that I had better put up there until I reported myself at the Head-Quarters of the Bengal Artillery at Dum-Dum. This was chilling news, for I was the only one of our party who had to go to a hotel on landing. The Infantry cadets had either been taken charge of by the Town Major, who provided them with quarters in Fort William, or had gone to stay with friends, and the only other Artilleryman (Stewart) went direct to Dum-Dum, where he had a brother, also a gunner, who, poor follow, was murdered with his young wife five years later by the mutineers at Gwalior. I was still more depressed later on by finding myself at dinner tête-à-tête with a first-class specimen of the results of an Indian climate. He belonged to my own regiment, and was going home on medical certificate, but did not look as if he could ever reach England. He gave me the not too pleasing news that by staying in that dreary hotel, instead of proceeding direct to Dum-Dum, I had lost a day's service and pay, so I took care to join early the following morning.

A few years before, Dum-Dum had been a large military station, but the annexation of the Punjab, and the necessity for maintaining a considerable force in northern India, had greatly reduced the garrison. Even the small force that remained had embarked for Burma before my arrival, so that, instead of a large, cheery mess party, to which I had been looking forward, I sat down to dinner with only one other subaltern.

No time was lost in appointing me to a Native Field Battery, and I was put through the usual laboratory course as a commencement to my duties. The life was dull in the extreme, the only variety being an occasional week in Fort William, where my sole duty was to superintend the firing of salutes. Nor was there much in my surroundings to compensate for the prosaic nature of my work. Fort William was not then what it has since become--one of the healthiest stations in India. Quite the contrary. The men were crowded into small badly-ventilated buildings, and the sanitary arrangements were as deplorable as the state of the water supply. The only efficient scavengers were the huge birds of prey called adjutants, and so great was the dependence placed upon the exertions of these unclean creatures, that the young cadets were warned that any injury done to them would be treated as gross misconduct. The inevitable result of this state of affairs was endemic sickness, and a death-rate of over ten per cent. per annum.[1]

Calcutta outside the Fort was but a dreary place to fall back upon. It was wretchedly lighted by smoky oil-lamps set at very rare intervals. The slow and cumbrous palankin was the ordinary means of conveyance, and, as far as I was concerned, the vaunted hospitality of the Anglo-Indian was conspicuous by its absence.

I must confess I was disappointed at being left so completely to myself, especially by the senior military officers, many of whom were personally known to my father, who had, I was aware, written to some of them on my behalf. Under these circumstances, I think it is hardly to be wondered at that I became terribly home-sick, and convinced that I could never be happy in India. Worst of all, the prospects of promotion seemed absolutely hopeless; I was a supernumerary Second Lieutenant, and nearly every officer in the list of the Bengal Artillery had served over fifteen years as a subaltern. This stagnation extended to every branch of the Indian Army.

There were singularly few incidents to enliven this unpromising stage of my career. I do, however, remember one rather notable experience which came to me at that time, in the form of a bad cyclone. I was dining out on the night in question. Gradually the wind grew higher and higher, and it became evident that we were in for a storm of no ordinary kind. Consequently, I left my friend's house early. A Native servant, carrying a lantern, accompanied me to light me on my way. At an angle of the road a sudden gust of wind extinguished the light. The servant, who, like most Natives, was quite at home in the dark, walked on, believing that I was following in his wake. I shouted to him as loudly as I could, but the uproar was so terrific that he could not hear a word, and there was nothing for it but to try and make my own way home. The darkness was profound. As I was walking carefully along, I suddenly came in contact with an object, which a timely flash of lightning showed me was a column, standing in exactly the opposite direction from my own house. I could now locate myself correctly, and the lightning becoming every moment more vivid, I was enabled to grope my way by slow degrees to the mess, where I expected to find someone to show me my way home, but the servants, who knew from experience the probable effects of a cyclone, had already closed the outside Venetian shutters and barred all the doors. I could just see them through the cracks engaged in making everything fast. In vain I banged at the door and called at the top of my voice--they heard nothing. Reluctantly I became convinced that there was no alternative but to leave my shelter and face the rapidly increasing storm once more. My bungalow was not more than half a mile away, but it took me an age to accomplish this short distance, as I was only able to move a few steps at a time whenever the lightning showed me the way. It was necessary to be careful, as the road was raised, with a deep ditch on either side; several trees had already been blown down, and lay across it, and huge branches were being driven through the air like thistle-down. I found extreme difficulty in keeping my feet, especially at the cross-roads, where I was more than once all but blown over. At last I reached my house, but even then my struggles were not quite at an end. It was a very long time before I could gain admittance. The servant who had been carrying the lantern had arrived, and, missing me, imagined that I must have returned to the house at which I had dined. The men with whom I chummed, thinking it unlikely that I should make a second attempt to return home, had carefully fastened all the doors, momentarily expecting the roof of the house to be blown off. I had to continue hammering and shouting for a long time before they heard and admitted me, thankful to be comparatively safe inside a house.

By morning the worst of the storm was over, but not before great damage had been done. The Native bazaar was completely wrecked, looking as if it had suffered a furious bombardment, and great havoc had been made amongst the European houses, not a single verandah or outside shutter being left in the station. As I walked to the mess, I found the road almost impassable from fallen trees; and dead birds, chiefly crows and kites, were so numerous that they had to be carried off in cartloads. How I had made my way to my bungalow without accident the night before was difficult to imagine. Even the column against which I had stumbled was levelled by the fury of the blast. This column had been raised a few years before to the memory of the officers and men of the 1st Troop, 1st Brigade, Bengal Horse Artillery, who were killed in the disastrous retreat from Kabul in 1841. It was afterwards rebuilt.

Dum-Dum in ruins was even more dreary than before the cyclone, and I felt as if I could not possibly continue to live there much longer. Accordingly I wrote to my father, begging him to try and get me sent to Burma; but he replied that he hoped soon to get command of the Peshawar division, and that he would then like me to join him. Thus, though my desire to quit Dum-Dum was not to be immediately gratified, I was buoyed up by the hope that a definite limit had now been placed to my service in that, to me, uninteresting part of India, and my restlessness and discontent disappeared as if by magic.

In time of peace, as in war, or during a cholera epidemic, a soldier's moral condition is infinitely more important than his physical surroundings, and it is in this respect, I think, that the subaltern of the present day has an advantage over the youngster of forty years ago. The life of a young officer during his first few months of exile, before he has fallen into the ways of his new life and made friends for himself, can never be very happy; but in these days he is encouraged by the feeling that, however distasteful, it need not necessarily last very long; and he can look forward to a rapid and easy return to England and friends at no very distant period. At the time I am writing of he could not but feel completely cut off from all that had hitherto formed his chief interests in life--his family and his friends--for ten years is an eternity to the young, and the feeling of loneliness and home-sickness was apt to become almost insupportable.

The climate added its depressing influence; there was no going to the hills then, and as the weary months dragged on, the young stranger became more and more dispirited and hopeless. Such was my case. I had only been four months in India, but it seemed like four years. My joy, therefore, was unbounded when at last my marching orders arrived. Indeed, the idea that I was about to proceed to that grand field of soldierly activity, the North-West Frontier, and there join my father, almost reconciled me to the disappointment of losing my chance of field service in Burma. My arrangements were soon made, and early in August I bade a glad good-bye to Dum-Dum.

[Footnote 1: In the fifty-seven years preceding the Mutiny the annual rate of mortality amongst the European troops in India was sixty-nine per thousand, and in some stations it was even more appalling. The Royal Commission appointed in 1864 to inquire into the sanitary condition of the army in India expressed the hope that, by taking proper precautions, the mortality might be reduced to the rate of twenty per thousand per annum. I am glad to say that this hope has been more than realized, the annual death-rate since 1882 having never risen to seventeen per thousand.]