Life on board a troopship does not offer much material for graphic description, and none but a Kipling could give to its ordinary incidents an absorbing interest for general readers. Nevertheless, it has charms for those who look at it with eyes fresh to such scenes, and for Lumsden’s Horse, at any rate, there was a novelty in the situation not wholly unpleasant in spite of the many discomforts they had to endure and the distasteful duties necessarily imposed upon them. They were learning there a harder lesson than any of which their experiences in camp on the Maidan could have given the slightest conception. It is one thing to go a long voyage on board a liner as first-, second-, or even third-class passenger, but quite another to be penned up between decks in a crowded transport with native servants and Lascars, eating coarse Government rations served in the roughest fashion, doing the work of grooms and lackeys, and sleeping on bare planks in an atmosphere odorous with exhalations from stables and galleys. They had enlisted for a soldier’s life, however, prepared to take the rough with the smooth, and, being in for it, they made the best of their circumstances after the first rude shock of feeling what military service really means had worn off. Discipline may become a property of easiness anywhere else, but on board ship the line that separates rank from rank must be sharply drawn even in the case of a Volunteer company. Comradeship and interchange of friendly greetings between officers and men may still go on as of old; but they cannot make a trooper forget for a moment that certain privileges follow rank, and disabilities cling to those who have it not, while these facts are thrust upon him insistently at every turn and dinned into his ears by every bugle call to duty or to meals. It is well that we also should remember these things in estimating the sacrifices that Volunteers make when they give up the comforts, if not luxuries, of home life and go forth to fight for country and for empire as private soldiers. The privations, the rough fare, the hard marches in all weather, exposure to rapid alternations of heat and cold, fierce sunshine where there is no shelter by day, and pitiless rain from which there is no escape at night, hunger, wounds, and sickness—all these may be cheerfully borne because they are the lot of all ranks alike. Not so, however, with the petty humiliations and drudgery inseparable from many duties on board a transport, where the mere trooper finds that a soldier’s uniform is a badge of distinction truly, but the distinction at times brings with it something closely akin to a sense of humiliation. The company or regimental officers may do all they can to take the keen point off this goading sentiment, but it will wound where there is the least protection against it and rankle too. One must say to the credit of Lumsden’s Horse that they did not allow such considerations to trouble. There is no trace of discontent in their published contributions to Indian papers, of which some extracts from the ‘Englishman’ may be made by way of giving a picture of the voyage as troopers looked at it. We left the ‘Lindula’ steaming down the Hugli apparently well on her way towards South Africa. Though lost to the view of interested crowds who looked for her soon after dawn on the morning of February 27, she did not pursue an uninterrupted course. At this point a trooper of A Company takes up the story in a lively narrative, writing thus:
The absurd antics which the river Hugli thinks it necessary to go through ere flowing to rest in the bosom of its old mammy Ocean compel mariners to sail on it by day alone, and then to go as cannily as a cat on hot bricks. On Tuesday morning we dashed off letters and telegrams, and with a sigh of relief despatched them by the post boat, thinking we were fairly off for Afric’s sandy shores. But no! We had not reckoned with the lead line, which recorded much the same number of feet and inches that the good ship ‘Lindula’ drew, so with a Heave! Ho! Holly! the anchor fell overboard, and then we were stuck for a whole day.
Fancy getting up at 4.30 in the pitch dark! And no chance of shirking either, for the decks are swabbed down and clean as a child’s plate after a penny dinner by 5 A.M. of the clock. Five-thirty heralds a cup of tea, and 6 o’clock sets every nag aboard neighing and whinnying, for do they not know it to be feeding time, better even than the Sergeant-Major, who marches about with a little stick marking time? Then stables—a pleasant job for the deaf and dumb, but trying to a man who wishes to retain the lily-white unstained purity of his mind. Nine o’clock is the signal for the bugler to tootle ‘Mary! come to the cook-house door,’ and before he gets to the ‘y’ in Mary, A Company is tumbling head over heels down the fore companion.
Spinning down the river with the banks gradually receding from sight raises everybody’s spirits, and a merry lot we are when from the Sandheads comes a telegram announcing the capitulation of Cronjé—news greeted by loud and continuous cheers. A little way more and the pilot brig heaves in sight, and soon we lie to in her neighbourhood, listening to round after round of hoarse cheering from the white-hatted figures aboard. Our pilot drops over the side, accompanied by a great sheaf of our last messages to friends, and we get up steam, waving good-bye to India, and begin our voyage, never a man of us for whom the future does not loom big with adventurous hopes; never a man of us reckoning of the toil or peril. Young British blood, hot and eager, keen to flow more swiftly, keen to taste of the life that has given the world so many great names, so many great deeds. India, au revoir!
The gentle reader must not imagine that we have nothing to do. Breakfast finished at 10 o’clock, the bugles wax busy, and call after call resounds through the ship, summoning sections to various tasks. One of the earliest parades of the voyage was that to practise the fire alarm and ‘boats.’ Every man has his appointed place, and lest any should hurry unduly for the boats, sentries have been told off to guard these, having their rifles loaded with ball cartridges, and orders to shoot the first man who may attempt a rush. This extremely important matter has been thoroughly impressed on our minds by practice, and should the alarm be given in stern reality we all know where to make for.
Needless to say, rifle exercise is one of the chief things to which we must pay attention, and morning and afternoon the words of command ring through the ship as squad after squad is put through its facings. Fatigues are innumerable. Bringing forage and stores on deck is a daily task; oiling and packing away saddlery; cleaning spare arms; painting side arms; marking equipment and a dozen other things. Then a signalling class is terribly busy, and a row of otherwise intelligent-looking lads wave their arms wildly to the accompaniment of strange sounds bellowed by the signalling instructor.
When the rifle exercises have sunk into the minds of men, they are allowed to practise shooting. Every day, at 12 and 2, parties assemble on the quarter-deck and shoot at wine cases, biscuit boxes, bits of paper, anything that affords a mark. In spite of the rolling and pitching of the ship, and, what is worse, the vibration caused by the screw, wonderful practice is made. A bit of paper a few inches square is hit several times at 200 yards, and as the larger obstacles recede they are repeatedly struck. Men firing have to judge their own distances, and the practice on the whole has been marvellously good. The Maxim gun has had a turn, too, and a very terrible weapon it is. In spite of the extreme disadvantage under which it labours when placed on a moving platform, excellent shooting has been made with it. An ordinary beer barrel at 800 and 1,000 yards was douched with spray, and then struck after three or four shots had been fired. The noise is atrocious, but it is grand to see the bullets striking the water, one! two! three! four! ever nearing the mark, and then, five! Plump in.
Though we have lots of work to do we don’t forget to play, and many are the tasks indulged in. One of the favourite amusements is boxing, and morning and evening a ring is formed wherein all may enter for a round or two. A few matches have been got up, and desperate battles have been fought betwixt champions of the various sections. Naturally party feeling runs high on these occasions, and everybody in the ship, from the Colonel and the Captain down to Carpenter Chinaman John, takes up a place outside the ring, watching the fray with bated breath. The end is usually a black eye or blood drawn, neither of which temporary inconveniences prevents furious and friendly handshakings at the finish. Singlestick has supporters, but none so many as the gentle art of boxing. Cockfighting has many votaries, and wrestling a few, for both of these elegant diversions may be partaken of in the comparative dark. Duty and pleasure are combined in tubbing. A sail bath four feet deep and some six square is slung and filled with sea water. The bather, dressed ‘altogether,’ stands well back and runs at the bath, rolling in head over heels. Number one is followed quickly by more, one on top of the other, until the bath is nothing but a struggling mass of arms and legs. Then the hose is turned on, and every man must take his turn or pay the penalty of being thrust underneath.
On our first Saturday night at sea the skipper—Captain Steuart—was kind enough to permit a smoking-concert to be held on the quarter-deck, where the saloon piano had been comfortably ensconced on a raised stage ornamented with flags. Corporal Blair took the public fancy tremendously with some of the comic songs that soldiers delight in. Corporal Skelton’s recitation about the Volunteer Instructor who complains of his squad that ‘They Largifies,’ fairly brought the house down. Among others who gave us pleasure were the brothers Wright and Private Woods, who, à trois, drew much melody from the banjo. The following morning (Sunday) we had service on deck, the Colonel and the Captain reading the Lessons. The little book so thoughtfully presented to every man by Mrs. Pugh was used.
Crossing the line was a most unexciting experience, for no Father Neptune came on board, nor did any of the other time-honoured things befall us. Alas! for the merchant navy! We did not see Ceylon at all, but during the night we passed, in the distance, a light which shone out from somewhere on its coast. That was our last sight of the outside world until we had crossed the great Indian Ocean.
On the whole, the horses have had a good time, very different from that endured by shiploads coming over from Australia. Most of them get a grooming of sorts every day, and many get an hour’s walking exercise round a small circle once or twice in the week. It is wonderful to behold an animal with legs puffed out like tea cosies begin his little tour and finish up with extremities clean cut as those of a racehorse.
Still, there is a good deal of sickness among them in various forms of fever and colic. First, Private Case, from Behar, lost a very clever little horse. Since then two more have died, one a valuable mare, the property of Lieutenant Crane, of Behar, and the other the charger of Private Atkinson, from Mussoorie.
The fifth officer of the ship, a braw lad frae Glescae, finds it very trying to hear us miscall the different parts—‘pairts,’ he says—of his beloved she. ‘A ship’s no like a house, wi’ upstairs an’ doonstairs,’ he plaintively remonstrates. And when any of us join him in a cigar and throw the stump out of the ‘window’ instead of the ‘scuttle,’ the poor man almost cries. One continually finds him gravely pointing out to little knots of men the absurdity of referring to the back or the front of a ship. He explains how it ought to be ‘forrard’ and ‘aft,’ and ‘above’ and ‘below.’ Then someone will mildly query where ‘astarn’ comes in, and how it is possible to distinguish between port and starboard. And he tells. But, all the same, we continue to search for each other upstairs and down; we lie on the floor, forgetting it is deck, and it still passes our comprehension how ‘loo’ard’ can be at one side of the ship one day and the opposite to-morrow. This fifth officer is a bit of a humourist, too, and, finding an appreciative audience, plays off a rich fund of nautical yarns that have gathered raciness in the course of long centuries since they were translated from the Portuguese of Vasco da Gama. The narrator evidently thinks that Lumsden’s Horse are as credulous as ‘the Marines.’ Perhaps he takes them to be a mounted variety of that species, and, being a naturalist among other things, he has a scientific motive for studying their peculiarities.
Colonel Lumsden confirmed the following non-commissioned appointments in A Company, some of which were provisionally made before leaving Calcutta:
Regimental Sergeant-Major: C.M. Marsham (Behar L.H.); Company Sergeant-Major E.N. Mansfield (Punjaub L.H.); Sergeants: H. Fox (Behar L.H.), E.M.S. McNamara (Behar L.H.), R.S. Stowell (Poona V.R.), and W. Walker (Assam V.L.H.); Lance-Sergeants: F.L. Elliott (Assam V.L.H.), D.S. Fraser (Oudh L.H.), J. Lee Stewart (Coorg and Mysore R.), and R.E. Dale (E.I.R.V.C.); Corporals: Percy Jones (Behar L.H.), G. Lawrie (Oudh L.H.), E. Llewhellin (Behar L.H.), and H. Marsham (Behar L.H.); Lance-Corporals: A.M. Firth (Behar L.H.), A.C. Walker (Assam Valley L.H.), E.J. Ballard (Punjaub L.H.), H.F. Blair (Behar L.H.), D.J. Keating (Calcutta Port Defence), W.S. Lemon (Calcutta V.R.), A. Macgillivray (Behar L.H.), and J.W.A. Skelton (Assam V.L.H.).
Transport Establishment: Lance-Corporals R.P. Estabrook, C.T. Power, J. Charles, S.W. Cullen, and G.W. Palmer.
It could not be expected that 150 men would be together on board ship for three weeks without a certain proportion going sick. Lance-Sergeant Lee Stewart, of the Coorg and Mysore Rifles, was struck down with pneumonia. Shortly afterwards Private H.H.J. Hickley, of the Behar Light Horse, was attacked by the same illness aggravated by pleurisy. About this time a large number were bowled over. Blame was laid on the tinned provisions, but, probably, if men had worn the mufflers, so tenderly knitted for us by Calcutta ladies, about their waists instead of round their necks much pain and trouble would have been avoided. The decks at night were covered with sleeping figures, clad and unclad in every degree. At turning in, a gentle zephyr that wouldn’t disturb the ringlets on a fair lady’s neck might be blowing, and in an hour a sharp breeze laden with heavy rain would sweep down and drench the unconscious sleepers. Then one of the immediate results of an order for men to go about barefooted was that Private Clayton-Daubney, of the Behar Light Horse, took a fall when turning a slippery corner and broke his collar-bone.
To Sir Patrick Playfair Colonel Lumsden wrote while at sea a letter that is interesting as a proof of his interest in and care for the men under his command. They paid many glowing tributes to him afterwards, but none that gives a better key to the hold he had on their respect than his own simple words as they appear in the following extract:
I regret to say Hickley, from Behar, is in a very bad way. He had fever and pneumonia to start with, and has now gone clean ‘pāgāl,’ and, though quite quiet and harmless, has to have two men in close attendance day and night. I had him taken into the saloon yesterday, in a cabin near my own. I am intensely sorry for the poor chap, as, unless a sudden recovery takes place, we shall have to make arrangement for the authorities to look after him when we land. We have one more case on board, which I was in hopes it might not be necessary to mention. Stewart, the planter from Mysore, had an attack of pneumonia which has taken a chronic form, and I fear there is small chance of immediate recovery. He may have to go into hospital at Durban—whether we land there or not—and I much doubt his ever being able to join us again. You will remember my telling you about him, a man of independent means (married, with a family), who came for the love of the game. He was a most useful man, knowing a lot about horses, and was made an acting sergeant almost as soon as he arrived, and put on to help Veterinary-Captain Stevenson. He did excellent work on board until he got ill, and I shall miss him much. It is his own wish to land if he is not better.
Beyond this we have had a most delightful voyage, simply perfect weather, and a sea like glass. The men act up to our corps motto ‘Play the game’ like the good chaps they are. You should see them at stable work in the morning, with nothing on but trousers rolled up to their thighs, or pyjamas ditto, and later in the day, washing their kit or making up puddings and cakes of sorts—some of the latter are works of art! We have a lot of musical talent on board, and have had a couple of excellent concerts. Captain Steuart added to the enjoyment of the last by giving a magic-lantern show. He is a very good sort, and has done everything in his power to ensure the comfort of the men. After finishing our daily inspection to-day he confided to me that he had never seen a troopship better kept, as regards order and cleanliness. The men are being practised daily in the use of the rifle, dropping boxes and wisps of straw overboard for targets, and I am more than pleased with the way they are shooting, at a moving target from a moving ship. You might also mention to my friend General Wace that Holmes is making excellent practice with his Maxim gun.
This is one picture of life in a troopship under the happiest conditions. There is another side to the picture, of which we may get glimpses in the experiences of men in Company B, to whom Calcutta’s citizens gave a hearty ‘God speed’ when they embarked in the ‘Ujina’ at Kidderpore Docks on March 3. Before she had cast off from her moorings the troopers had been called to dinner, and that feast was a revelation to them of all they were leaving behind. One corporal described it as ‘a sort of stew in stable-buckets, too filthy for anything’; but that may have been merely a little ebullition of aristocratic prejudice. Nevertheless, he and two comrades hurried on shore, and drove as fast as they could to Madan’s in the town, where they invested 200 rupees in sundry things which they regarded as necessaries for their sustenance during the voyage. They were back in time to hear the Lieutenant-Governor’s and Bishop Welldon’s speeches, and then to join in a parting cheer for their old adjutant, Captain Martin, who only left them to go on shore as the ‘Ujina’ cast off. The subsequent proceedings of that day are not recorded in the corporal’s diary, who contents himself with noting that he ‘had some tea—no milk, and awfully sweet.’ When he awoke next morning, after a restless night on bare planks between decks, the thought of creature-comforts must have been uppermost still, for he was aware of ‘gnawing pains—result of nothing to eat,’ and his morning reflections begin with the disjointed phrases: ‘No knives and forks. No salt. Those who had penknives were lucky. Fortunately we all had fingers.’ Was there in those last words a prophetic suggestion that some of them might not even have fingers for such uses after a while? If so, the gloomy foreboding passed without record, giving place to action, for at 6 o’clock that morning the corporal whose notes throw a glimmer of light on much of the darker side that is too often ignored, found himself in charge of a stable fatigue, wading at the heels of the horses in a foul, dark, unventilated drain about thirty inches wide, from which nothing ran off. He mentions incidentally that the four unfortunate men who had to clear away this accumulated filth were ‘very indignant’; and from this we may gather that they used adjectives to express their opinion of that first stable fatigue on board ship. It does not read like the best possible means of promoting a healthy appetite, but when called to breakfast three hours later they looked with dismay at a loaf that was to last each of them the whole day, and when one small tin of brawn was put before them for division among sixteen men at a table, they came to the conclusion that it ‘seemed very short commons indeed.’ Some of the men found that their carefully-arranged kits had been thrown aside in a confused heap to make room for native followers, and they ventured on a mild remonstrance, but were told, ‘You must look after your own things; you don’t have your bearers here.’ That obvious truth had impressed itself upon them very forcibly some hours earlier, while they were doing stable fatigue, and it needed no rubbing in. Other trials followed, as we gather from a brief but expressive note: ‘Dinner at 1.0. Soup and a messy stew in buckets, as before. Tried to get some salt unsuccessfully, and, returning, found the stew all gone. Beer was served out, which I didn’t drink. Gave my bottle away and drank water, hot and cloudy, out of a bath-tin. No knives or forks yet. Through our mess-room, while we feed, files a long procession of syces, transport wallahs, servants, Candaharis; sometimes a herd of goats, and always Lascars, carrying ropes, hoses, or buckets. Now they have kicked us out from where we were making ourselves comfortable below, and I miss much a corner, even such as my horse has, where I could put my things in safety. At night we throw our straw mattresses wherever we can find a vacant space, and scramble in confusion for our kits out of a heap of exactly similar ones. We would gladly have paid our own expenses for a little more comfort. The last straw came at 7.30, when the “cook-house” bugle went again, but the chef said, “No orders to cook anything more,” and shut the door in the faces of orderlies. The N.C.O.s then went in a body and complained. Result—bread and beer were served out. It was bread and water for me. Lay my mattress down among the horses, and was comfortable in spite of the stuffy smell and stamping about all night.’ Still, his thoughts seem to have dwelt on the idea that there was much to complain of—the coarse tin pots, the tea extremely sweet and without milk, the hot and dirty water—not even a dry canteen from which to supplement the scanty fare, and so on until he dropped into sweet sleep. That sleep must have been very refreshing, or a considerable change had come upon the ship by the next morning, when the food had improved greatly, and at supper the ‘men were merry enough, with great singing of songs.’ Later entries in this diary show that the first highly-coloured outbursts of discontent were due mainly, if not wholly, to a sudden change from the luxury and plenty of a planter’s ménage to the comparative coarseness of a simple soldier’s fare—otherwise Government rations—in necessarily rough circumstances. The additional comforts thoughtfully provided by the Calcutta Committee for consumption on the voyage were by mistake stowed away with baggage and other stores below. Thenceforward matters mended day by day, and, though there were still some discomforts to be endured, they seem to have been relieved by more amusements than appear in the letters sent for publication to the Indian newspapers. On the whole, however, a fairly comprehensive idea of the way in which B Company passed its days on board the ‘Ujina’ may be formed from the following letter, parts of which were published in the ‘Indian Daily News’:
Hard work and plenty of it has been the order of the day ever since we came on board. The greater part of this is in connection with the horses. It is, of course, of very great importance that we should be in a position to move forward as soon as possible after landing, and, bearing this in mind, Major Showers and his officers are doing their utmost to keep the animals fit. For the first day or two bran mashes were given the horses, with as much hay as they could eat. This has been gradually augmented, until they are now getting a mixture of bran and gram or linseed three times a day. The watering and feeding are carried out with the greatest regularity, each section officer personally superintending the work. Our daily routine may prove interesting to the uninitiated in these matters. Awakened by reveillé at 4.30, we have time to put our kits in order before getting a cup of tea at 5.30. Half an hour later the bugle sounds ‘stables,’ and the men immediately assemble on the lower deck, each section separately, to answer the roll. Absentees who are not on the sick-list, or engaged in fatigue or other duties, have their names noted down, and are dealt with afterwards. Each horse is taken out of his stall and thoroughly groomed, and the stall itself cleaned and disinfected daily. The horses are then watered, a certain number of men being told off for this duty; the rest are occupied in drawing and mixing the feeds, which they place in tin troughs, one in front of each horse. As soon as word is passed that watering is completed, the command ‘Feed’ is given, and the troughs are immediately lifted and fixed on the breast-boards attached to each stall. The hay is then served out in bundles, each horse getting six. These are opened and put in the bags hung over the horses’ heads.
The stable picket, consisting of three men from each section, is posted at 7 o’clock in the evening, and is on duty for twenty-four hours—till seven the following evening. Each man takes his turn as stable sentry for eight hours altogether out of the twenty-four—two hours on and four hours off. A non-commissioned officer is in charge of all four section pickets, and he also is on duty for twenty-four hours until relieved when the guard is changed next evening. He is expected to go round the pickets two or three times during the night, and see that the sentries are at their posts all right. The orderly officer also visits the pickets twice during the night. The duties of each sentry are to see that the horses do not get loose, or injure themselves, or ‘savage’ each other, and that they are fed properly.
After breakfast, at 8 o’clock, the men’s time is generally taken up in cleaning rifles and accoutrements, and washing and dressing themselves for a general parade at half-past 10.
The men are then kept busy at the manual and firing exercise for about an hour, and also bayonet exercise occasionally. The inspection of the steamer by the Captain, accompanied by Major Showers and officers, including the doctor and veterinary officer, also takes place at this hour, and Major Showers afterwards inspects the company. For the next hour or two we have little to do bar fatigues until the time comes for watering and feeding horses at midday stables.
During the afternoon the men usually employ themselves in playing cricket, boxing, wrestling, football, and tugs-of-war, until the bugles sound for evening stables at 5.30. Sunday is a day of rest, as far as possible, only necessary work, such as ‘stables,’ being done, and church parade is held at 10.30, the service lasting about half an hour. There are almost daily calls for fatigue parties, a few men being taken from each section to bring up stores or forage from the hold, and this is pretty hot and dirty work. At 9 o’clock every night the ‘last post’ sounds, and half an hour later ‘lights out.’ After that ‘there is naught but the sound of the lone sentry’s tread’ or the squeal of an angry horse to disturb the peaceful slumbers of snoring troopers on board the ‘Ujina,’ until the notes of reveillé, shrill if not always clear, wake them at dawn to another day of similar routine.
Hindustani for ‘off his head.’