Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Mouse That Roared

I have to admit that my knowledge of the British Raj in India is probably limited to a single viewing of Richard Attenborough's 'Ghandi' and the first episode of the television series 'The Jewel in the Crown' (I can't remember why I didn't watch the whole series).

Also, last year, I listened to a radio programme about the Indian Mutiny.

This seriously compromises my ability to add pithy, relevant comments to the following photographs, which come from an album featuring a group of British soldiers in India during the years 1917-19. I tried to gen-up on Wikipedia, but it had one of the longest entries I've ever come across.

So here are the photos, minus any pertinent, erudite observations. I may even have to resort to making fun of people's pith helmets and absurd moustaches:

How did a relatively small army of overgrown boy scouts, from a damp little island in northern Europe, manage to successfully govern a vast, densely populated subcontinent in Asia? Several modern commentators have suggested that when we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, we could have done with learning a few lessons in statecraft from the Raj.

He looks like a serious sort of chap, but the short trousers don't really convey the right sense of gravitas. It must have been unbearably hot and humid for the British Army to go these lengths (or lack of).

"See that beautiful bird up there? Ten bob says I can bring it down within two shots..."

"Bingo! I'll get the kitchen wallahs to serve it for dinner."

"Sir, we have run out of fuel in the kitchens. We will call the Coal Wallah..."

One of the greatest (and least controversial) legacies of British rule in India was the rail network.

Rather disturbingly, it looks as if the small boy has some sort of chain around its neck

A rare shot of 'our boys' in long trousers

These were a highly-disciplined body of men, ready to quash any insurrection at a moment's notice, even in their underwear

But beyond their proud military bearing, these soldiers had a more sensitive side

You can insert your own caption here

Sadly, although the album has details of dates and locations, there are no names, otherwise I'd try and locate a living relative of these men (hopefully not the person who threw it out a few weeks ago). Since I launched my project at work, I've only had one success story - this handwritten novel was reunited with the author's relatives, to their delight.

But this album will now join the others, gathering dust in a corner of my office. I know I'll never throw it away.



Maybe it's time you launched a series of 'hilarious' greetings cards featuring images such as these. The caption potential is enormous. I've spent the past 20 minutes dreaming up possible gags.

C.B. James said...

An album in decent condition or better with pictures like those could fetch a pretty good price on the antiques market. But, I would not sell it either. Those are too good.

For a crash course education on the British Raj, try George Orwell's essay "Shooting and Elephant." It's excellent reading and it summs much of the situation in just a few pages.

Paul said...

Can anyone ID the bird? Perhaps an Eastern Imperial Eagle?

MikeP said...

When you think where else these lads might have been in 1917, this begins to look like a rather cushy posting. Paschendaele, for instance. Not much scope for smelling the flowers or larking about in your long johns there...

DJK said...

My grandfather was also in the army (Royal Garrison Artillery) in India (Jubbulpore --- now Jabalpur) in 1917/19. He left a diary, written on odd scraps of paper, sewn together. e.g.

Wednesday 12th March, 1919
... It is verry [sic] hot today. It is fairly putting me off our food. We do not want any covering at nights and we are pestered with mosquitoes. Millions of them last night. I was woke up with them. About 12 had got in my net and were biting lumps out of me; it was 2am if you please. Well I had not mercy for them, I got the lamp & it took me 10 mins to kill them all.
...I went to park enjoyed a couple hours watching the little white & black kiddies playing. The park is simply lovely

Anonymous said...

Your post on the Raj prompted me to write you about a favourite postings sequence (June 2009)which I've only just read - the one about Lord B-P's sex advice to young men. It followed the Customs declaration form where you commented" if you're in Canada we will accept male syrup". I'll have to google "male syrup".Your blog is a great read and I'm working through every posting back to its inauguration. In relation to this posting- I discovered the real pleasure of reading "Kim" for the first time as an adult, and was prompted to read (and enjoy) Kipling's "Plain Tales From the Hills".

The Poet Laura-eate said...

There used to be an old film shown on TV at regular intervals about a nightmare train journey across India at the end of the Raj where at least half the train end up horrifically massacred, the other half in terror of their own lives and it is doubtful whether the train will ever reach its destination and it would leave me sleepless every time I saw it as a young child, but I'm damned if I can remember what it was called and have googled various search terms without success.

The Jewel in The Crown was also very powerful at depicting this nightmare time where human life became so cheap as India half panicked about, half celebrated its newfound freedom/partition and killed up to a million people of all hues and nationalities in the process.

DJK said...

Poet Laura-eate:

Bhowani Junction, from the novel by John Masters (who was a Brigadier in the Indian Army, and whose memoirs are well worth reading).

Resolute Reader said...

There are some excellet books to look out for on the British in India. For the 1857 Rebellion, I would recommend Andrew Ward's book "Our Bones Are Scattered". In terms of novels, I would heartily recommend J G Farrell's absolutely stunning, comic novel about a group of British establishment figures under siege, The Siege of Krishnapur". Probably one of the funniest novels I've ever read. (My review here

The Flashman novel about the event is also worth a read.

Steerforth said...

Thanks for the diary extract DJK - I was hoping that your initials would link to a blog with further material. Have you considered publishing this material online?

Thanks also for the reading recommendations. I'll start with C.B's Orwell for an overview and put the others on my 'to read' list (I read Resolute Reader's recentish review of Troubles and have been meaning to try Farrell ever since).

Paul - my knowledge of birds is even worse than my knowledge of the Raj, so I hope that someone can identify it.

Laura - was it Bhowani Junction?

Lucewoman - what a good idea! I should contact some picture libraries.

Mike - Yes, you're right, and I'm sure that DJK's grandfather was better off facing the mosquitoes than trying to survive the horrors of Paschendaele.

Anonymous - Male juice? I think I'll stick to a cup of tea ;)

I carefully check my blog posts for typos and in spite of this, my wife still finds lots. My oldest son's dyslexic and I sometimes wonder if I am.

Anonymous said...

To answer Paul's question, I'm pretty sure that the bird is an Indian bustard. Bustards were once found in Britain until they were hunted to extinction. There has been a project to reintroduce them to Norfolk.

Simon said...

The "chain" around the child's neck is probably the sacred string worn by Brahmins. The building they are outside is a temple - you can see the idols on the building's walls. So he's a young high caste hindu priest in the making.

Jason said...

I quite like the last photo of the Yeti Infiltration Unit - though the pith helmets would give them away (wrong style for Yetis)

Steerforth said...

I love the idea of a Yeti Infiltration Unit.