Let a man, an arrow, and an answer each go straight. Each is his own witness. God is judge.
A SIKH who must have stood about six feet without his turban—and only imagination knows how stately he was with it—loomed out of the violet mist of an Indian morning and scrutinized me with calm brown eyes. His khaki uniform, like two of the medal ribbons on his breast, was new, but nothing else about him suggested rawness. Attitude, grayness, dignity, the unstudied strength of his politeness, all sang aloud of battles won. Battles with himself they may have been—but they were won.
I began remembering ice-polished rocks that the glaciers once dropped along Maine valleys, when his quiet voice summoned me back to India and the convalescent camp beyond whose outer gate I stood. Two flags on lances formed the gate and the boundary line was mostly imaginary; but one did not trespass, because at about the point where vision no longer pierced the mist there stood a sentry, and the grounding of a butt on gravel and now and then a cough announced others beyond him again.
"I have permission," I said, "to find a certain Risaldar*-Major Ranjoor Singh, and to ask him questions."
[* Risaldar—a mid-level rank in cavalry and armoured units of the Indian Army... A Risaldar ranks above a Naib-Risaldar (called a Jemadar in the British Indian Army) and below a Risaldar-Major. Risaldars generally command squadrons. In other arms the equivalent is a Subedar. Wikipedia. Equivalent of a captain. ]
He smiled. His eyes, betraying nothing but politeness, read the very depths of mine.
"Has the sahib* credentials?" he asked. So I showed him the permit covered with signatures that was the one scrap of writing left in my possession after several searchings.
[* sahib (Hindi from Arabic)—lord, master, sir; also formerly used as a term of respect for white Europeans in colonial India. For more information, see the Wikipedia article Sahib. For more information on this term, see the entry Sahib in Platt's Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English. ]
"Thank you," he said gravely. "There were others who had no permits. Will you walk with me through the camp?"
That was new annoyance, for with such a search as I had in mind what interest could there be in a camp for convalescent Sikhs? Tents pitched at intervals—a hospital marquee—a row of trees under which some of the wounded might sit and dream the day through-these were all things one could imagine without journeying to India. But there was nothing to do but accept, and I walked beside him, wishing I could stride with half his grace.
"There are no well men here," he told me. "Even the heavy work about the camp is done by convalescents."
"Then why are you here?" I asked, not trying to conceal admiration for his strength and stature.
"I, too, am not yet quite recovered."
"From what?" I asked, impudent because I felt desperate. But I drew no fire.
"I do not know the English name for my complaint," he said. (But he spoke English better than I, he having mastered it, whereas I was only born to its careless use.)
"How long do you expect to remain on the sick list?" I asked, because a woman once told me that the way to make a man talk is to seem to be interested in himself.
"Who knows?" said he.
He showed me about the camp, and we came to a stand at last under the branches of an enormous mango tree. Early though it was, a Sikh non- commissioned officer was already sitting propped against the trunk with his bandaged feet stretched out in front of him—a peculiar attitude for a Sikh.
"That one knows English," my guide said, nodding. And making me a most profound salaam, he added: "Why not talk with him? I have duties. I must go."
The officer turned away, and I paid him the courtesy due from one man to another. It shall always be a satisfying memory that I raised my hat to him and that he saluted me.
"What is that officer's name?" I asked, and the man on the ground seemed astonished that I did not know.
"Risaldar-major Ranjoor Singh bahadur!"* he said.
[* bahadur (Hindi "hero," "champion")—a title of respect or honor given to European officers in East Indian state papers, and colloquially, and among the natives, to distinguished officials and other important personages. The Hobson Jobson Dictionary (paraphrased. See also the entry Bahadur in Platt's Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English. ]
For a second I was possessed by the notion of running after him, until I recalled that he had known my purpose from the first and that therefore his purpose must have been deliberate. Obviously, I would better pursue the opportunity that in his own way He had given me.
"What is your name?" I asked the man on the ground.
"Hira Singh," he answered, and at that I sat down beside him. For I had also heard of Hira Singh.
He made quite a fuss at first because, he said, the dusty earth beneath a tree was no place for a sahib. But suddenly he jumped to the conclusion I must be American, and ceased at once to be troubled about my dignity. On the other hand, he grew perceptibly less distant. Not more friendly, perhaps, but less guarded.
"You have talked with Sikhs in California?" he asked, and I nodded.
"Then you have heard lies, sahib. I know the burden of their song. A bad Sikh and a bad Englishman alike resemble rock torn loose. The greater the height from which they fall, the deeper they dive into the mud. Which is the true Sikh, he who marched with us or he who abuses us? Yet I am told that in America men believe what hired Sikhs write for the German papers.
"No man hired me, sahib, although one or two have tried. When I came of age I sought acceptance in the army, and was chosen among many. When my feet are healed I shall return to duty. I am a true Sikh. If the sahib cares to listen, I will tell him truth that has not been written in the papers."
So, having diagnosed my nationality and need, he proceeded to tell me patiently things that many English are in the dark about, both because of the censorship and because of the prevailing superstition that the English resent being told—he stabbing and sweeping at the dust with a broken twig and making little heaps and dents by way of illustration,—I sitting silent, brushing away the flies.
Day after day I sought him soon after dawn when they were rolling up the tent-flaps. I shared the curry and chapatis* that a trooper brought to him at noon, and I fetched water for him to drink from time to time. It was dusk each day before I left him, so that, what with his patience and my diligence, I have been able to set down the story as he told it, nearly in his own words.
[* chapati (Hindi)—a flat, unleavened, disk-shaped bread of northern India, made of wheat flour, water, and salt. The American Heritage Dictonary. For more information, see the Wikipedia article Chapati. ]
But of Risaldar-major Ranjoor Singh bahadur in the flesh, I have not had another glimpse. I went in search of him the very first evening, only to learn that he had "passed his medical" that afternoon and had returned at once to active service.
* * * * *
We Sikhs have a proverb, sahib, that the ruler and the ruled are one. That has many sides to it of which one is this: India having many moods and minds, the British are versatile. Not altogether wise, for who is? When, for instance, did India make an end of wooing foolishness? Since the British rule India, they may wear her flowers, but they drink her dregs. They may bear her honors, but her blame as well. As the head is to the body, the ruler and the ruled are one.
Yet, as I understand it, when this great war came there was disappointment in some quarters and surprise in others because we, who were known not to be contented, did not rise at once in rebellion. To that the answer is faith finds faith. It is the great gift of the British that they set faith in the hearts of other men.
There were dark hours, sahib, before it was made known that there was war. The censorship shut down on us, and there were a thousand rumors for every one known fact. There had come a sudden swarm of Sikhs from abroad, and of other men—all hirelings—who talked much about Germany and a change of masters. There were dark sayings, and arrests by night. Men with whom we talked at dusk had disappeared at dawn. Ranjoor Singh, not yet bahadur but risaldar-major, commanding Squadron D of my regiment, Outram's Own,* became very busy in the bazaars; and many a night I followed him, not always with his knowledge. I intended to protect him, but I also wished to know what the doings were.
[* Outram's Own—the 123rd Outram's Rifles, a famous infantry regiment of the British Indian Army. For more information, see the Wikipedia article 123rd Outram's Rifles. ]
There was a woman. Did the sahib ever hear of a plot that had not a woman in it? He went to the woman's house. In hiding, I heard her sneer at him. I heard her mock him. I would have doubted him forever if I had heard her praise him, but she did not, and I knew him to be a true man.
Ours is more like the French than the British system; there is more intercourse between officer and non-commissioned officer and man. But Ranjoor Singh is a silent man, and we of his squadron, though we respected him, knew little of what was in his mind. When there began to be talk about his knowing German, and about his secrecy, and about his nights spent at HER place, who could answer? We all knew he knew German.
There were printed pamphlets from God-knows-where, and letters from America, that made pretense at explanations; and there were spies who whispered. My voice, saying I had listened and seen and that I trusted, was as a quail's note when the monsoon bursts. None heard. So that in the end I held my tongue. I even began to doubt.
Then a trooper of ours was murdered in the bazaar, and Ranjoor Singh's servant disappeared. Within an hour Ranjoor Singh was gone, too.
Then came news of war. Then our officers came among us to ask whether we are willing or not to take a hand in this great quarrel. Perhaps in that hour if they had not asked us we might have judged that we and they were not one after all.
But they did ask, and let a man, an arrow, and an answer each go straight, say we. Our Guru tells us Sikhs should fight ever on the side of the oppressed; the weaker the oppressed, the more the reason for our taking part with them. Our officers made no secret about the strength of the enemy, and we made none with them of our feeling in the matter. They were proud men that day. Colonel Kirby was a very proud man. We were prouder than he, except when we thought of Ranjoor Singh.
Then, as it were out of the night itself, there came a message by word of mouth from Ranjoor Singh saying he will be with us before the blood shall run. We were overjoyed at that, and talked about it far into the night; yet when dawn had come doubt again had hold of us, and I think I was the only Sikh in the regiment ready to swear to his integrity. Once, at least a squadron of us had loved him to the death because we thought him an example of Sikh honor. Now only I and our British officers believed in him.
We are light cavalry. We were first of all the Indian regiments to ride out of Delhi and entrain at a station down the line. That was an honor, and the other squadrons rode gaily, but D Squadron hung its head. I heard men muttering in the ranks and some I rebuked to silence, but my rebukes lightened no man's heart. In place of Ranjoor Singh rode Captain Fellowes, promoted from another squadron, and noticing our lack of spirit, he did his best to inspire us with fine words and manly bearing; but we felt ashamed that our own Sikh major was not leading us, and did not respond to encouragement.
Yet when we rode out of Delhi Gate it was as if a miracle took place. A stiffening passed along the squadron. A trooper caught sight of Ranjoor Singh standing beside some bullock carts, and passed the word. I, too, saw him. He was with a Mohammedan bunnia,* and was dressed to resemble one himself.
[* bunnia, bunya, baniya, baniah, banyan (Hindi from Sanskrit "vanij", a merchant)—a (grain) merchant; also: a money- lender; sometimes used to denote a Hindu is general. For details, see the article Banyan in The Hobson Jobson Dictionary. ]
The trooper who was first to see him—a sharp-eyed man—he died at Ypres—Singh means lion, sahib—now recognized the man who stood with him. "That bunnia," said he, "is surely none other than the European who gave us the newspaper clippings about Sikhs not allowed to land in Canada. See—he is disguised like a fool. Are the police asleep," said he, "that such thieves dare sun themselves?"
It was true enough, sahib. The man in disguise was German, and we remembered again that Ranjoor Singh knew German. From that moment we rode like new men—I, too, although I because I trusted Ranjoor Singh now more than ever; they, because they trusted no longer at all, and he can shoulder what seem certainties whom doubt unmans. No word, but a thought that a man could feel passed all down the line, that whatever our officer might descend to being, the rank and file would prove themselves faithful to the salt. Thenceforward there was nothing in our bearing to cause our officers anxiety.
You might wonder, sahib, why none broke ranks to expose both men on the spot. I did not because I trusted Ranjoor Singh. I reasoned he would never have dared be seen by us if he truly were a traitor. It seemed to me I knew how his heart must burn to be riding with us. They did not because they would not willingly have borne the shame. I tell no secret when I say there has been treason in the Punjab;* the whole world knows that. Yet few understand that the cloak under which it all made headway was the pride of us true ones, who would not own to treason in our midst. Pride and the shadow of shame are one, sahib, but who believes it until the shame bears fruit?
[* Punjab—a historical region of the northwest Indian subcontinent bounded by the Indus and Yamuna rivers ... Muslims occupied the western part of the region by the 8th century, introducing Islam, and although they later conquered the eastern part, Hinduism remained entrenched there. The Moguls brought the region to cultural eminence until their empire declined in the 18th century. The Punjab was controlled by Sikhs from 1799 to 1849, when it was annexed by Great Britain. It was partitioned between India and Pakistan in 1947. The American Heritage Dictionary. ]
Before the last squadron had ridden by, Captain Warrington, our adjutant, also caught sight of Ranjoor Singh. He spurred after Colonel Kirby, and Colonel Kirby came galloping back; but before he could reach Delhi Gate Ranjoor Singh had disappeared and D Squadron was glad to the last man.
"Let us hope he may die like a rat in a hole and bring no more shame on us!" said Gooja Singh, and many assented.
"He said he will be with us before the blood shall run!" said I.
"Then we know whose blood shall run first!" said the trooper nearest me, and those who heard him laughed. So I held my tongue. There is no need of argument while a man yet lives to prove himself. I had charge of the party that burned that trooper's body. He was one of the first to fall after we reached France.
Colonel Kirby, looking none too pleased, came trotting back to us, and we rode on. And we entrained. Later on we boarded a great ship in Bombay harbor and put to sea, most of us thinking by that time of families and children, and some no doubt of money-lenders who might foreclose on property in our absence, none yet suspecting that the government will take steps to prevent that. It is not only the British officer, sahib, who borrows money at high interest lest his shabbiness shame the regiment.
We were at sea almost before the horses were stalled properly, and presently there were officers and men and horses all sick together in the belly of the ship, with chests and bales and barrels broken loose among us. The this-and-that-way motion of the ship caused horses to fall down, and men were too sick to help them up again. I myself lay amid dung like a dead man —yet vomiting as no dead man ever did—and saw British officers as sick as I laboring like troopers. There are more reasons than one why we Sikhs respect our British officers.
The coverings of the ship were shut tight, lest the waves descend among us. The stench became worse than any I had ever known, although I learned to know a worse one later; but I will speak of that at the proper time. It seemed to us like a poor beginning and that thought put little heart in us.
But the sickness began to lessen after certain days, and as the movements grew easier the horses were able to stand. Then we became hungry, who had thought we would never wish to eat again, and double rations were served out to compensate for days when we had eaten nothing. Then a few men sought the air, and others—I among them—went out of curiosity to see why the first did not return. So, first by dozens and then by hundreds, we went and stood full of wonder, holding to the bulwark for the sake of steadiness.
It may be, sahib, that if I had the tongue of a woman and of a priest and of an advocate—three tongues in one—I might then tell the half of what there was to wonder at on that long journey. Surely not otherwise. Being a soldier, well trained in all subjects becoming to a horseman but slow of speech, I can not tell the hundredth part.
We—who had thought ourselves alone in all the sea—were but one ship among a number. The ships proceeded after this manner—see, I draw a pattern—with foam boiling about each. Ahead of us were many ships bearing British troops—cavalry, infantry and guns. To our right and left and behind us were Sikh, Gurkha, Dogra, Pathan, Punjabi, Rajput —many, many men, on many ships. Two and thirty ships I counted at one time, and there was the smoke of others over the sky-line!
Above the bulwark of each ship, all the way along it, thus, was a line of khaki. Ahead of us that was helmets. To our right and left and behind us it was turbans. The men of each ship wondered at all the others. And most of all, I think, we wondered at the great grey war-ships plunging in the distance; for none knew whence they had come; we saw none in Bombay when we started. It was not a sight for the tongue to explain, sahib, but for a man to carry in his heart. A sight never to be forgotten. I heard no more talk about a poor beginning.
We came to Aden, and stopped to take on coal and water. There was no sign of excitement there, yet no good news. It was put in Orders of the Day that the Allies are doing as well as can be expected pending arrival of reinforcements; and that is not the way winners speak. Later, when we had left Aden behind, our officers came down among us and confessed that all did not go well. We said brave things to encourage them, for it is not good that one's officers should doubt. If a rider doubts his horse, what faith shall the horse have in his rider? And so it is with a regiment and its officers.
After some days we reached a narrow sea—the Red Sea, men call it, although God knows why—a place full of heat and sand-storms, shut in on either hand by barren hills. There was no green thing anywhere. There we passed islands where men ran down to the beach to shout and wave helmets —unshaven Englishmen, who trim the lights. It must have been their first intimation of any war. How else can they have known of it? We roared back to them, all of the men on all of the ships together, until the Red Sea was the home of thunder, and our ships' whistles screamed them official greeting through the din. I spent many hours wondering what those men's thoughts might be.
Never was such a sight, sahib! Behind our ships was darkness, for the wind was from the north and the funnels belched forth smoke that trailed and spread. I watched it with fascination until one day Gooja Singh came and watched beside me near the stern. His rank was the same as mine, although I was more than a year his senior. There was never too much love between us. Step by step I earned promotion first, and he was jealous. But on the face of thing's we were friends. Said he to me after a long time of gazing at the smoke, "I think there is a curtain drawn. We shall never return by that road!"
I laughed at him. "Look ahead!" said I. "Let us leave our rear to the sweepers and the crows!"
Nevertheless, what he had said remained in my mind, as the way of dark sayings is. Yet why should the word of a fool have the weight of truth? There are things none can explain. He proved right in the end, but gained nothing. Behold me; and where is Gooja Singh? I made no prophecy, and he did. Can the sahib explain?
Day after day we kept overtaking other ships, most of them hurrying the same way as ourselves. Not all were British, but the crews all cheered us, and we answered, the air above our heads alive with waving arms and our trumpets going as if we rode to the king of England's wedding. If their hearts burned as ours did, the crews of those ships were given something worth remembering.
We passed one British ship quite close, whose captain was an elderly man with a grey beard. He so waved his helmet that it slipped from his grasp and went spinning into the sea. When we lost him in our smoke his crew of Chinese were lowering a boat to recover the helmet. We heard the ships behind us roaring to him. Strange that I should wonder to this day whether those Chinese recovered the helmet! It looked like a good new one. I have wondered about it on the eve of action, and in the trenches, and in the snow on outpost duty. I wonder about it now. Can the sahib tell me why an old man's helmet should be a memory, when so much that was matter of life and death has gone from mind? I see that old man and his helmet now, yet I forget the feel of Flanders mud.
We reached Suez, and anchored there. At Suez lay many ships in front of us, and a great grey battle-ship saluted us with guns, we all standing to attention while our ensigns dipped. I thought it strange that the battle-ship should salute us first, until I recalled how when I was a little fellow I once saw a viceroy salute my grandfather. My grandfather was one of those Sikhs who marched to help the British on the Ridge at Delhi when the British cause seemed lost. The British have long memories for such things.
Later there came an officer from the battle-ship and there was hot argument on our upper bridge. The captain of our ship grew very angry, but the officer from the battle-ship remained polite, and presently he took away with him certain of our stokers. The captain of our ship shouted after him that there were only weaklings and devil's leavings left, but later we discovered that was not true.
We fretted at delay at Suez. Ships may only enter the canal one by one, and while we waited some Arabs found their way on board from a small boat, pretending to sell fruit and trinkets. They assured us that the French and British were already badly beaten, and that Belgium had ceased to be. To test them, we asked where Belgium was, and they did not know; but they swore it had ceased to be. They advised us to mutiny and refuse to go on to our destruction.
They ought to have been arrested, but we were enraged and drove them from the ship with blows. We upset their little boat by hauling at the rope with which they had made it fast, and they were forced to swim for shore. One of them was taken by a shark, which we considered an excellent omen, and the others were captured as they swam and taken ashore in custody.
I think others must have visited the other ships with similar tales to tell, because after that, sahib, there was something such as I think the world never saw before that day. In that great fleet of ships we were men of many creeds and tongues—Sikh, Mohammedan, Dorga, Gurkha (the Dogra and Gurkha be both Hindu, though of different kinds), Jat, Punjabi, Rajput, Guzerati, Pathan, Mahratta—who can recall how many! No one language could have sufficed to explain one thought to all of us—no, nor yet ten languages! No word passed that my ear caught. Yet, ship after ship became aware of closer unity.
All on our knees on all the ships together we prayed thereafter thrice a day, our British officers standing bareheaded beneath the upper awnings, the chin-strap marks showing very plainly on their cheeks as the way of the British is when they feel emotion. We prayed, sahib, lest the war be over before we could come and do our share. I think there was no fear in all that fleet except the fear lest we come too late. A man might say with truth that we prayed to more gods than one, but our prayer was one. And we received one answer.
One morning our ship got up anchor unexpectedly and began to enter the canal ahead of all the ships bearing Indian troops. The men on the other ships bayed to us like packs of wolves, in part to give encouragement but principally jealous. We began to expect to see France now at any minute —I, who can draw a map of the world and set the chief cities in the proper place, being as foolish as the rest. There lay work as well as distance between us and France.
We began to pass men laboring to make the canal banks ready against attack, but mostly they had no news to give us. Yet at one place, where we tied to the bank because of delay ahead, a man shouted from a sand-dune that the Kaiser of Germany has turned Mohammedan and now summons all Islam to destroy the French and British. Doubtless he mistook us for Mohammedans, being neither the first nor the last to make that mistake.
So we answered him we were on our way to Berlin to teach the Kaiser his new creed. One man threw a lump of coal at him and he disappeared, but presently we heard him shouting to the men on the ship behind. They truly were Mohammedans, but they jeered at him as loud as we.
After that our officers set us to leading horses up and down the deck in relays, partly, no doubt, to keep us from talking with other men on shore, but also for the horses' sake. I remember how flies came on board and troubled the horses very much. At sea we had forgotten there were such things as flies, and they left us again when we left the canal.
At Port Said, which looks like a mean place, we stopped again for coal. Naked Egyptians—big black men, as tall as I and as straight— carried it up an inclined plank from a float and cast it by basketfuls through openings in the ship's side. We made up a purse of money for them, both officers and men contributing, and I was told there was a coaling record broken.
After that we steamed at great speed along another sea, one ship at a time, just as we left the canal, our ship leading all those that bore Indian troops. And now there were other war-ships—little ones, each of many funnels—low in the water, yet high at the nose—most swift, that guarded us on every hand, coming and going as the sharks do when they search the seas for food.
A wonder of a sight, sahib! Blue water—blue water—bluest ever I saw, who have seen lake water in the Hills! And all the ships belching black smoke, and throwing up pure white foam—and the last ship so far behind that only masts and smoke were visible above the sky-line—but more, we knew, behind that again, and yet more coming! I watched for hours at a stretch without weariness, and thought again of Ranjoor Singh. Surely, thought I, his three campaigns entitled him to this. Surely he was a better man than I. Yet here was I, and no man knew where he was. But when I spoke of Ranjoor Singh men spat, so I said nothing.
After a time I begged leave to descend an iron ladder to the bowels of the ship, and I sat on the lowest rung watching the British firemen at the furnaces. They cursed me in the name of God, their teeth and the whites of their eyes gleaming, but their skin black as night with coal dust. The sweat ran down in rivers between ridges of grime on the skin of their naked bellies. When a bell rang and the fire doors opened they glowed like pictures I have seen of devils. They were shadows when the doors clanged shut again. Considering them, I judged that they and we were one.
I climbed on deck again and spoke to a risaldar. He spoke to Colonel Kirby. Watching from below, I saw Colonel Kirby nod—thus, like a bird that takes an insect; and he went and spoke to the captain of the ship. Presently there was consultation, and a call for volunteers. The whole regiment responded. None, however, gave me credit for the thought. I think that risaldar accepted praise for it, but I have had no opportunity to ask him. He died in Flanders.
We went down and carried coal as ants that build a hill, piling it on the iron floor faster than the stokers could use it, toiling nearly naked like them lest we spoil our uniforms. We grew grimy, but the ship shook, and the water boiled behind us. None of the other ships was able to overtake us, although we doubted not they all tried.
There grew great good will between us and the stokers. We were clumsy from inexperience, and they full of laughter at us, but each judged the spirit with which the other labored. Once, where I stood directing near the bunker door, two men fell on me and covered me with coal. The stokers laughed and I was angry. I had hot words ready on my tongue, but a risaldar prevented me.
"This is their trade, not ours," said he. "Look to it lest any laugh at us when the time for our own trade comes!" I judged that well spoken, and remembered it.
There came at last a morning when the sun shone through jeweled mist —a morning with scent in it that set the horses in the hold to snorting—a dawn that smiled, as if the whole universe in truth were God's. A dawn, sahib, such as a man remembers to judge other dawns by. That day we came in sight of France.
Doubtless you suppose we cheered when we saw Marseilles at last. Yet I swear to you we were silent. We were disappointed because we could see no enemy and hear no firing of great guns! We made no more commotion than the dead while our ship steamed down the long harbor entrance, and was pushed and pulled by little tugs round a corner to a wharf. A French war-ship and some guns in a fort saluted us, and our ship answered; but on shore there seemed no excitement and our hearts sank. We thought that for all our praying we had come too late.
But the instant they raised the gangway a French officer and several British officers came running up it, and they all talked earnestly with Colonel Kirby on the upper bridge—we watching as if we had but an eye and an ear between us. Presently all our officers were summoned and told the news, and without one word being said to any of us we knew there was neither peace as yet, nor any surpassing victory fallen to our side. So then instantly we all began to speak at once, even as apes do when sudden fear has passed.
There were whole trains of trucks drawn up in the street beside the dock and we imagined we were to be hurried at once toward the fighting. But not so, for the horses needed rest and exercise and proper food before they could be fit to carry us. Moreover, there were stores to be offloaded from the ships, we having brought with us many things that it would not be so easy to replace in a land at war. Whatever our desire, we were forced to wait, and when we had left the ship we were marched through the streets to a camp some little distance out along the Estagus Road. Later in the day, and the next day, and the next, infantry from the other ships followed us, for they, too, had to wait for their stores to be offloaded.
The French seemed surprised to see us. They were women and children for the most part, for the grown men had been called up. In our country we greet friends with flowers, but we had been led to believe that Europe thinks little of such manners. Yet the French threw flowers to us, the little children bringing arms full and baskets full.
Thenceforward, day after day, we rode at exercise, keeping ears and eyes open, and marveling at France. No man complained, although our very bones ached to be on active service. And no man spoke of Ranjoor Singh, who should have led D Squadron. Yet I believe there was not one man in all D Squadron but thought of Ranjoor Singh all the time. He who has honor most at heart speaks least about it. In one way shame on Ranjoor Singh's account was a good thing, for it made the whole regiment watchful against treachery.
Treachery, sahib—we had yet to learn what treachery could be! Marseilles is a half-breed of a place, part Italian, part French. The work was being chiefly done by the Italians, now that all able-bodied Frenchmen were under arms. And Italy not yet in the war!
Sahib, I swear to you that all the spies in all the world seemed at that moment to be Italian, and all in Marseilles at once! There were spies among the men who brought our stores. Spies who brought the hay. Spies among the women who walked now and then through our lines to admire, accompanied by officers who were none too wide-awake if they were honest. You would not believe how many pamphlets reached us, printed in our tongue and some of them worded very cunningly.
There were men who could talk Hindustani who whispered to us to surrender to the Germans at the first opportunity, promising in that case that we shall be well treated. The German Kaiser, these men assured us, had truly turned Mohammedan; as if that were anything to Sikhs, unless perhaps an additional notch against him! I was told they mistook the Mohammedans in another camp for Sikhs, and were spat on for their pains!
Nor were all the spies Italians, after all. Our hearts went out to the French. We were glad to be on their side—glad to help them defend their country. I shall be glad to my dying day that I have struck a blow for France. Yet the only really dangerous man of all who tried to corrupt us in Marseilles was a French officer of the rank of major, who could speak our tongue as well as I. He said with sorrow that the French were already as good as vanquished, and that he pitied us as lambs sent to the slaughter. The part, said he, of every wise man was to go over to the enemy before the day should come for paying penalties.
I told what he had said to me to a risaldar, and the risaldar spoke with Colonel Kirby. We heard—although I do not know whether it is true or not—that the major was shot that evening with his face to a wall. I do know that I, in company with several troopers, was cross-examined by interpreters that day in presence of Colonel Kirby and a French general and some of the general's staff.
There began to be talk at last about Ranjoor Singh. I heard men say it was no great wonder, after all, that he should have turned traitor, for it was plain he must have been tempted cunningly. Yet there was no forgiveness for him. They grew proud that where he had failed they could stand firm; and there is no mercy in proud men's minds—nor much wisdom either.
At last a day came—too soon for the horses, but none too soon for us—when we marched through the streets to entrain for the front. As we had marched first out of Delhi, so we marched first from Marseilles now. Only the British regiments from India were on ahead of us; we led the Indian-born contingent.
French wives and children, and some cripples, lined the streets to cheer and wave their handkerchiefs. We were on our way to help their husbands defend France, and they honored us. It was our due. But can the sahib accept his due with a dry eye and a word in his throat? Nay! It is only ingratitude that a man can swallow unconcerned. No man spoke. We rode like graven images, and I think the French women wondered at our silence. I know that I, for one, felt extremely willing to die for France; and I thought of Ranjoor Singh and of how his heart, too, would have burned if he had been with us. With such thoughts as swelled in my own breast, it was not in me to believe him false, whatever the rest might think.
D Squadron proved in good fortune that day, for they gave us a train of passenger coaches with seats, and our officers had a first-class coach in front. The other squadrons, and most of the other regiments, had to travel in open trucks, although I do not think any grumbled on that score. There was a French staff officer to each train, and he who rode in our train had an orderly who knew English; the orderly climbed in beside me and we rode miles together, talking all the time, he surprising me vastly more than I him. We exchanged information as two boys that play a game—I a move, then he a move, then I again, then he.
The game was at an end when neither could think of another question to ask; but he learned more than I. At the end I did not yet know what his religion was, but he knew a great deal about mine. On the other hand, he told me all about their army and its close association between officers and men, and all the news he had about the fighting (which was not so very much), and what he thought of the British. He seemed to think very highly of the British, rather to his own surprise.
He told me he was a pastry cook by trade, and said he could cook chapatis such as we eat; and he understood my explanation why Sikhs were riding in the front trains and Mohammedans behind—because Mohammedans must pray at fixed intervals and the trains must stop to let them do it. He understood wherein our Sikh prayer differs from that of Islam. Yet he refused to believe I am no polygamist. But that is nothing. Since then I have fought in a trench beside Englishmen who spoke of me as a savage; and I have seen wounded Germans writhe and scream because their officers had told them we Sikhs would eat them alive. Yes, sahib; not once, but many times.
The journey was slow, for the line ahead of us was choked with supply trains, some of which were needed at the front as badly as ourselves. Now and then trains waited on sidings to let us by, and by that means we became separated from the other troop trains, our regiment leading all the others in the end by almost half a day. The din of engine whistles became so constant that we no longer noticed it.
But there was another din that did not grow familiar. Along the line next ours there came hurrying in the opposite direction train after train of wounded, traveling at great speed, each leaving a smell in its wake that set us all to spitting. And once in so often there came a train filled full of the sound of screaming. The first time, and the second time we believed it was ungreased axles, but after the third time we understood.
Then our officers came walking along the footboards, speaking to us through the windows and pretending to point out characteristics of the scenery; and we took great interest in the scenery, asking them the names of places and the purposes of things, for it is not good that one's officers should be other than arrogantly confident.
We were a night and a day, and a night and a part of a day on the journey, and men told us later we had done well to cross the length of France in that time, considering conditions. On the morning of the last day we began almost before it was light to hear the firing of great guns and the bursting of shells—like the thunder of the surf on Bombay Island in the great monsoon—one roar without intermission, yet full of pulsation.
I think it was midday when we drew up at last on a siding, where a French general waited with some French and British officers. Colonel Kirby left the train and spoke with the general, and then gave the order for us to detrain at once; and we did so very swiftly, men, and horses, and baggage. Many of us were men of more than one campaign, able to judge by this and by that how sorely we were needed. We knew what it means when the reinforcements look fit for the work in hand. The French general came and shook hands again with Colonel Kirby, and saluted us all most impressively.
We were spared all the business of caring for our own baggage and sent away at once. With a French staff officer to guide us, we rode away at once toward the sound of firing—at a walk, because within reasonable limits the farther our horses might be allowed to walk now the better they would be able to gallop with us later.
We rode along a road between straight trees, most of them scarred by shell-fire. There were shell-holes in the road, some of which had been filled with the first material handy, but some had to be avoided. We saw no dead bodies, nor even dead horses, although smashed gun-carriages and limbers and broken wagons were everywhere.
To our right and left was flat country, divided by low hedges and the same tall straight trees; but far away in front was a forest, whose top just rose above the sky-line. As we rode toward that we could see the shells bursting near it.
Between us and the forest there were British guns, dug in; and away to our right were French guns—batteries and batteries of them. And between us and the guns were great receiving stations for the wounded, with endless lines of stretcher-bearers like ants passing to and fro. By the din we knew that the battle stretched far away beyond sight to right and left of us.
Many things we saw that were unexpected. The speed of the artillery fire was unbelievable. But what surprised all of us most was the absence of reserves. Behind the guns and before the guns we passed many a place where reserves might have sheltered, but there were none.
There came two officers, one British and one French, galloping toward us. They spoke excitedly with Colonel Kirby and our French staff officer, but we continued at a walk and Colonel Kirby lit a fresh cheroot. After some time there came an airplane with a great square cross painted on its under side, and we were ordered to halt and keep quite still until it went away. When it was too far away for its man to distinguish us we began to trot at last, but it was growing dusk when we halted finally behind the forest—dusky and cloudy, the air full of smoke from the explosions, ill-smelling and difficult to breathe. During the last three-quarters of a mile the shells had been bursting all about us, but we had only lost one man and a horse— and the man not killed.
As it grew darker the enemy sent up star-shells, and by their light we could sometimes see as plainly as by daylight. British infantry were holding the forest in front of us and a road that ran to right of it. Their rifle-fire was steady as the roll of drums. These were not the regiments that preceded us from India; they had been sent to another section of the battle. These were men who had been in the fighting from the first, and their wounded and the stretcher-bearers were surprised to see us. No word of our arrival seemed to reach the firing line as yet. Men were too busy to pass news.
Over our heads from a mile away, the British and French artillery were sending a storm, of shells, and the enemy guns were answering two for one. And besides that, into the forest, and into the trench to the right of it that was being held by the British infantry there was falling such a cataract of fire that it was not possible to believe a man could live. Yet the answering rifle-fire never paused for a second.
I learned afterward the name of the regiment in the end of the trench nearest us. With these two eyes in the Hills I once saw that same regiment run like a thousand hares into the night, because it had no supper and a dozen Afridi* marksmen had the range. Can the sahib explain? I think I can. A man's spirit is no more in his belly than in the cart that carries his belongings; yet, while he thinks it is, his enemies all flourish.
[* Afridi—a Pathan (Pashtun) tribe inhabiting the mountains on the Peshawar border of the North-West Frontier of India. The Afridis are one of the most powerful and independent border tribes... Excerpted from The Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 edition. ]
We dismounted to rest the horses, and waited behind the forest until it grew so dark that between the bursting of the star-shells a man could not see his hand held out in front of him. Now and then a stray shell chanced among us, but our casualties were very few. I wondered greatly at the waste of ammunition. My ears ached with the din, but there seemed more noise wrought than destruction. We had begun to grow restless when an officer came galloping at last to Colonel Kirby's side and gave him directions with much pointing and waving of the arm.
Then Colonel Kirby summoned all our officers, and they rode back to tell us what the plan was. The din was so great by this time that they were obliged to explain anew to each four men in turn. This was the plan:
The Germans, ignorant of our arrival, undoubtedly believed the British infantry to be without support and were beginning to press forward in the hope of winning through to the railway line. The infantry on our right front, already overwhelmed by weight of artillery fire, would be obliged to evacuate their trench and fall back, thus imperiling the whole line, unless we could save the day.
Observe this, sahib: so—I make a drawing in the dust. Between the trench here, and the forest there, was a space of level ground some fifty or sixty yards wide. There was scarcely more than a furrow across it to protect the riflemen—nothing at all that could stop a horse. At a given signal the infantry were to draw aside from that piece of level land, like a curtain drawn back along a rod, and we were to charge through the gap thus made between them and the forest. The shock of our charge and its unexpectedness were to serve instead of numbers.
Fine old-fashioned tactics, sahib, that suited our mind well! There had been plenty on the voyage, including Gooja Singh, who argued we should all be turned into infantry as soon as we arrived, and we had dreaded that. Each to his own. A horseman prefers to fight on horseback with the weapons that he knows.
Perhaps the sahib has watched Sikh cavalry at night and wondered how so many men and horses could keep so still. We had made but little noise hitherto, but now our silence was that of night itself. We had but one eye, one ear, one intellect among us. We were one! One with the night and with the work ahead!
One red light swinging near the corner of the forest was to mean "Be Ready!" We were ready as the fuse is for the match! Two red lights would mean that the sidewise movement by the infantry was under way. Three lights swinging together were to be our signal to begin. Sahib, I saw three red lights three thousand times between each minute and the next!
The shell-fire increased from both sides. Where the British infantry lay was such a lake of flame and din that the very earth seemed to burst apart; yet the answering rifle-fire was steady—steady as the roll of drums. Then we truly saw one red light, and "Ek!" said we all at once. Ek means one, sahib, but it sounded like the opening of a breech-block. "Mount!" ordered Colonel Kirby, and we mounted.
While I held my breath and watched for the second light I heard a new noise behind me, different from the rest, and therefore audible—a galloping horse and a challenge close at hand. I saw in the light of a bursting shell a Sikh officer, close followed by a trooper on a blown horse. I saw the officer ride to Colonel Kirby's side, rein in his charger, and salute. At that instant there swung two red lights, and "Do!" said the regiment. Do means two, sahib, but it sounded like the thump of ordnance. "Draw sabers!" commanded Colonel Kirby, and the rear ranks drew. The front-rank men had lances.
By the light of a star-shell I could plainly see the Sikh officer and trooper. I recognized the charger—a beast with the devil in him and the speed of wind. I recognized both men. I thought a shell must have struck me. I must be dead and in a new world. I let my horse edge nearer, not believing—until ears confirmed eyes. I heard Colonel Kirby speak, very loud, indeed, as a man to whom good news comes.
"Ranjoor Singh!" said he; and he took him by the hand and wrung it. "Thank God!" he said, speaking from the heart as the British do at times when they forget that others listen. "Thank God, old man! You've come in the nick of time!"
So I was right, and my heart leapt in me. He was with us before the blood ran! Every man in the squadron recognized him now, and I knew every eye had watched to see Colonel Kirby draw saber and cut him down, for habit of thought is harder to bend than a steel bar. But I could feel the squadron coming round to my way of thinking as Colonel Kirby continued talking to him, obviously making him an explanation of our plan.
"Join your squadron, man—hurry!" I heard Colonel Kirby say at last, for taking advantage of the darkness I had let my horse draw very near to them. Now I had to rein back and make pretense that my horse had been unruly, for Ranjoor Singh came riding toward us, showing his teeth in a great grin, and Captain Fellowes with a word of reproof thrown back to me spurred on to meet him.
"Hurrah, Major Ranjoor Singh!" said Captain Fellowes. "I'm damned glad to see you!" That was a generous speech, sahib, from a man who must now yield command of the squadron, but Captain Fellowes had a heart like a bridegroom's always. He must always glory in the squadron's luck, and he loved us better than himself. That was why we loved him. They shook hands, and looked in each other's eyes. Ranjoor Singh wheeled his charger. And in that same second we all together saw three red lights swinging by the corner.
"Tin!" said we, with one voice. Tin means three, sahib, but it sounded rather like the scream of a shell that leaves on its journey.
My horse laid his ears back and dug his toes into the ground. A trumpet sounded, and Colonel Kirby rose in his stirrups:
"Outram's Own!" he yelled, "by squadrons on number One—
But the sahib would not be interested in the sequence of commands that have small meaning to those not familiar with them. And who shall describe what followed? Who shall tell the story of a charge into the night, at an angle, into massed regiments of infantry advancing one behind another at the double and taken by surprise?
The guns of both sides suddenly ceased firing. Even as I used my spurs they ceased. How? Who am I that I should know? The British guns, I suppose, from fear of slaying us, and the German guns from fear of slaying Germans; but as to how, I know not. But the German star-shells continued bursting overhead, and by that weird light their oncoming infantry saw charging into them men they had never seen before out of a picture-book!
God knows what tales they had been told about us Sikhs. I read their faces as I rode. Fear is an ugly weapon, sahib, whose hilt is more dangerous than its blade. If our officers had told us such tales about Germans as their officers had told them about us, I think perhaps we might have feared to charge.
Numbers were as nothing that night. Speed, and shock, and unexpectedness were ours, and lies had prepared us our reception. D Squadron rode behind Ranjoor Singh like a storm in the night—swung into line beside the other squadrons—and spurred forward as in a dream. There was no shouting; no war-cry. We rode into the Germans as I have seen wind cut into a forest in the hills—downward into them, for once we had leapt the trench the ground sloped their way. And they went down before us as we never had the chance of mowing them again.
So, sahib, we proved our hearts—whether they were stout, and true, as the British had believed, or false, as the Germans planned and hoped. That was a night of nights—one of very few such, for the mounted actions in this war have not been many. Hah! I have been envied! I have been called opprobrious names by a sergeant of British lancers, out of great jealousy! But that is the way of the British. It happened later, when the trench fighting had settled down in earnest and my regiment and his were waiting our turn behind the lines. He and I sat together on a bench in a great tent, where some French artists gave us good entertainment.
He offered me tobacco, which I do not use, and rum, which I do not drink. He accepted sweetmeats from me. And he called me a name that would make the sahib gulp, a word that I suppose he had picked up from a barrack-sweeper on the Bengal side of India. Then he slapped me on the back, and after that sat with his arm around me while the entertainment lasted. When we left the tent he swore roundly at a newcomer to the front for not saluting me, who am not entitled to salute. That is the way of the British. But I was speaking of Ranjoor Singh. Forgive me, sahib.
The horse his trooper-servant rode was blown and nearly useless, so that the trooper died that night for lack of a pair of heels, leaving us none to question as to Ranjoor Singh's late doings. But Bagh, Ranjoor Singh's charger, being a marvel of a beast whom few could ride but he, was fresh enough and Ranjoor Singh led us like a whirlwind beckoning a storm. I judged his heart was on fire. He led us slantwise into a tight-packed regiment. We rolled it over, and he took us beyond that into another one. In the dark he re-formed us (and few but he could have done that then)—lined us up again with the other squadrons—and brought us back by the way we had come. Then he took us the same road a second time against remnants of the men who had withstood us and into yet another regiment that checked and balked beyond. The Germans probably believed us ten times as many as we truly were, for that one setback checked their advance along the whole line.
Colonel Kirby led us, but I speak of Ranjoor Singh. I never once saw Colonel Kirby until the fight was over and we were back again resting our horses behind the trees while the roll was called. Throughout the fight —and I have no idea whatever how long it lasted—I kept an eye on Ranjoor Singh and spurred in his wake, obeying the least motion of his saber. No, sahib, I myself did not slay many men. It is the business of a non-commissioned man like me to help his officers keep control, and I did what I might. I was nearly killed by a wounded German officer who seized my bridle-rein; but a trooper's lance took him in the throat and I rode on untouched. For all I know that was the only danger I was in that night.
A battle is a strange thing, sahib—like a dream. A man only knows such part of it as crosses his own vision, and remembers but little of that. What he does remember seldom tallies with what the others saw. Talk with twenty of our regiment, and you may get twenty different versions of what took place—yet not one man would have lied to you, except perhaps here and there a little in the matter of his own accomplishment. Doubtless the Germans have a thousand different accounts of it.
I know this, and the world knows it: that night the Germans melted. They were. Then they broke into parties and were not. We pursued them as they ran. Suddenly the star-shells ceased from bursting overhead, and out of black darkness I heard Colonel Kirby's voice thundering an order. Then a trumpet blared. Then I heard Ranjoor Singh's voice, high-pitched. Almost the next I knew we were halted in the shadow of the trees again, calling low to one another, friend's voice seeking friend's. We could scarcely hear the voices for the thunder of artillery that had begun again; and whereas formerly the German gun-fire had been greatest, now we thought the British and French fire had the better of it. They had been reinforced, but I have no notion whence.
The infantry, that had drawn aside like a curtain to let us through, had closed in again to the edge of the forest, and through the noise of rifle- firing and artillery we caught presently the thunder of new regiments advancing at the double. Thousands of our Indian infantry—those who had been in the trains behind us—were coming forward at a run! God knows that was a night—to make a man glad he has lived!
It was not only the Germans who had not expected us. Now, sahib, for the first time the British infantry began to understand who it was who had come to their aid, and they began to sing—one song, all together. The wounded sang it, too, and the stretcher-bearers. There came a day when we had our own version of that song, but that night it was new to us. We only caught a few words—the first words. The sahib knows the words—the first few words? It was true we had come a long, long way; but it choked us into silence to hear that battered infantry acknowledge it.
Color and creed, sahib. What are color and creed? The world has mistaken us Sikhs too long for a breed it can not understand. We Sikhs be men, with the hearts of men; and that night we knew that our hearts and theirs were one. Nor have I met since then the fire that could destroy the knowledge, although efforts have been made, and reasons shown me.
But my story is of Ranjoor Singh and of what he did. I but tell my own part to throw more light on his. What I did is as nothing. Of what he did, you shall be the judge—remembering this, that he who does, and he who glories in the deed are one. Be attentive, sahib; this is a tale of tales!