Chapter VI: Matabeleland.
FAREWELL TO THE 13TH HUSSARS
When I got home from the Matabele campaign I rejoined my Regiment, the 13th Hussars, in Dublin. I arrived there in the early morning, had a tub, and in stripping for the purpose I took from my neck a little amulet which had been given me by my Irish groom, Martin Dillon, when I started out for the campaign the year before. He had begged me so earnestly to wear it, because it had received special blessing from his priest, that I did so in order to humour him.
I took this off, as I said, in going to my tub, and on proceeding to dress again I could not find it anywhere.
That morning when I met old Dillon I told him of its mysterious disappearance, and he was not in the least surprised but merely remarked that that was quite natural. It had only been given to me to ensure the preservation of my life during the campaign and having performed that duty it had now naturally disappeared.
Anyhow I never saw it again, though a thorough search was made.
I had been with the Regiment just long enough to buy myself a new outfit when suddenly, bang, came another bombshell.
I had been awarded a Brevet Lieutenant-Colonelcy for the Ashanti campaign, and a further Brevet of full Colonel for the Matabele campaign, so although I figured as Major in the Regiment, below the Lieut.-Colonel in Command and the Senior Major, Second in Command, I was actually senior to both of these in rank, which was a bit of an anomaly.
This had not occurred to me until the Colonel sent for me one day and informed me that I was appointed to command the 5th Dragoon Guards.
This was indeed a bombshell, but I waved it off by saying to him: "I don’t want to go. I would rather stop in the Regiment."
However, he then explained to me that as a full Colonel it was impossible for me to remain where I was, and so I had to go.
Leaving my old Regiment was perhaps one of the bitterest moments of my life.
I had served in it for twenty-one years, the very best years of my life, and the going away was a big wrench, especially in the actual departure, which was worse than I expected.
I arranged with my servant that I would slip away in the early morning before breakfast; and, so that it should not be noticed, he was to have a cab round at the back door of my quarters and get it loaded up with all my luggage so that I could nip away unseen.
When all was ready I sneaked out of the back door, there to find my cab, with the Regimental Sergeant-Major sitting on the box and conducting the Band which was also in attendance, every man of my Squadron harnessed in on long ropes, and the whole Regiment there to see me out of the barrack gate
And off we went, the most choky experience I ever had.
My last glimpse of the barracks showed blankets being waved from every window, and all through the slums and streets of Dublin went this mad procession which finally landed me at the station with a farewell cheer.
Thank God I was allowed to come back to the Regiment again a few years later, as its Colonel-in-Chief, which I still remain, and have thus completed over fifty-six years’ connection with the old "Lillywhites."
FIFTH DRAGOON GUARDS
My bombshells had been falling on me in rather rapid succession. No sooner had I got home from Ashanti than I was ordered to Matabeleland, and now I was barely settled at home again when I had this order to go out to India.
I made an appeal to be allowed to go on leave, as two fairly arduous campaigns in succession left one a bit played out.
But I was told that my services with the 5th were urgently required, and I must go at once, but so soon as I had got matters straight there I could ask for as much leave as I wanted.
So off I went.
I soon found after arrival at Meerut that with the excellent lot of officers and non-commissioned officers I should have no difficulty in having the Regiment in tip-top order, so soon as I got to know them and they me.
There is no job on earth, that I know of, as delightful as that of Colonel of a Regiment, especially if, as it was with me under Sir Bindon Blood, your General is sympathetic to your fads.
I found in both officers and men a most responsive team of keen soldiers and between us we took up several new lines of training for the development of efficiency. These were both interesting experiments and productive of useful results.
Horsemastership was naturally developed as it is primarily the great aim of every Cavalry Regiment; but in addition to this we promoted "Manmastership" which was occasionally a subject that was lost sight of, whereas the horse is after all only the instrument for bringing the man into action. It is the man, his fitness, his efficiency, and his spirit, that is important.
A man can only be a good horse-master if he is fond of his horse. He can only be a good soldier if he is fond of soldiering. Similarly an officer can only be a good man-master if he likes his men.
By man-master I don’t mean a slave driver, but one who, like the horse-master, has his men in the best condition for fighting. This involves keeping them fit and fed, but not fed up, and he must give them the spirit that keeps them cheery, keen and loyal.
Any fool can give commands, but to be a successful leader a man must be a man-master.
Knowing the value in my own case of having had responsibility thrust upon me as a young officer by my Colonel, I carried out that principle to the full with the young officers of the Regiment, and by organising the men in small squads responsibility was devolved on to the junior non-commissioned officers, as being the backbone of discipline and efficiency.
When I was a Squadron commander I had made it a practice, though it was strictly contrary to the regulations, to see every man in my Squadron privately and alone in my room. I set him at his ease by giving him something to smoke or letting him have tea with me; and, in ordinary conversation, I got him to tell me what induced him to join the Service, what his past life had been, what were his ambitions, who were his people, and so on. In this way one got into close friendly touch with each individual and by inviting their confidences one secured their confidence.
For one thing I found to what a surprising degree they regarded the opinions and feelings of their parents.
I am absolutely convinced that it is the personal touch between the officer and the individual men that commands the stronger discipline, the discipline that comes from within, rather than any discipline imposed from without by regulations and fear of punishment.
Enteric was playing havoc with the troops in Meerut, and having seen to all the sanitary arrangements in barracks, including the water supply and the all-important item of keeping flies out of the cookhouses and keeping these spotlessly clean under white superintendence, I came to the conclusion that possibly men picked up the germ by buying refreshments in the native shops.
Therefore I addressed the Regiment one day and suggested that as an experiment they might refrain from going into the native bazaar for a fortnight, and see if that had any effect on the general health of the Regiment.
I explained that I did not want to make a general order of it, because they were not children but sensible men, and I left the matter in their hands.
A few days later one man was admitted to hospital badly knocked about but he would not say how he had come by his injuries. It afterwards transpired that he had gone down to the bazaar contrary to the general wish of the Regiment, and the Regiment had consequently given expression to their displeasure.
The result of the experiment, however, seemed to show that we were on the right lines, therefore I started a bakery of our own under a sergeant who had been a pastry cook and knew how to make all sorts of delicacies.
Also we had our own soda water and lemonade factory, and we established a refreshment room where men could get light meals at all times and hot suppers in the evening.
Also, directly in opposition to Regulations, I allowed the men to have a pint of beer with their dinners if they wished to, and thus there was no longer any need for their usual pilgrimage to the canteen and there to stand loafing at the bar sipping.
Indeed our canteen sergeant came to me one day and said that not a single man had been to the place that day and that he could carry on with one instead of two assistants in future. I presented him with a pair of white gloves to mark the occasion.
We also started a Regimental dairy, having our own herd of cows and a sergeant in charge to ensure scrupulous cleanliness. We made our own butter and sterilised the milk and cream. This industry paid us hand over fist. Outsiders came to us for their milk and butter.
Indian milk makes very pale butter, so we used to add a little saffron to give it a creamy appearance. One day the saffron pot upset and the butter came out a rich yellow. This won the hearts of numbers of our clients, who asked for more and more of that lovely yellow butter, and we obliged them by liberal use of the saffron pot, but of course charging twopence a pound more—for exactly the same butter! Not that saffron was so very expensive but since they liked it—well, you know what I mean.
The more important way, however, in which our dairy paid, was in the notable reduction of illness in the Regiment. This stood us in good stead when, at the end of the year, we had to hand in our reports as to the amount of crime, etc., in the Regiment.
There were no cases of drunkenness and only a few minor offences. This disturbed the authorities at the War Office, who told our General that the Regiment was undoubtedly concealing facts.
Our General, fully acquainted with our internal arrangements, wrote back that even if the Regiment might be concealing its crime it could not conceal its deaths, and these were on much the same low level when compared with the returns of other Regiments, in which enteric was claiming its large numbers of victims.
Incidentally I kept record of such cases of enteric as did occur, noting which barrack bungalow they occurred in, whether that bungalow was thatched or tile roofed, how far the floor was above the ground level, and from what direction the wind was blowing, etc. It may have seemed a silly thing to do, but even in the short period of two years’ observation we were beginning to arrive at definite data; and when we left Meerut the General handed these reports of observations on to the Medical Officers to continue.
I started a system of organising and training Scouts in the Regiment, which eventually came to be adopted for the Army generally.
I obtained leave from Army Headquarters for those men who had taken the trouble to go through the training to wear on their arm a distinguishing badge as Scouts. For this I chose the Fleur-de-Lys, which marks the North point on the compass, as the Scout is the man who can show the way like a compass needle.
Lord Haldane informed me later that this scheme of Scouts had been adopted for the Army generally and that to encourage it men who had passed their tests as Scouts would receive twopence a day extra pay. I assured him that twopence a year, in the shape of a badge to wear, would do the trick at less expense. Men will do a lot for a badge—vain creatures that we are.
Our Scout work was done as much by night as by day. In order to give the men practice I obtained permission for them to take part in the Army maneuvers at Attock. They had to go dismounted, as these maneuvers were entirely among the mountains. The Pathan companies of Indian regiments were sent to act as enemy in their own methods of fighting, which on occasion be came very realistic and very nearly the real thing!
On the first day my Scouts were rather astonished to find that operations ceased at nightfall, and the General in Command was equally surprised when they told him that night was just their time for getting on with the job. Up till then he had thought it was the time to rest his men, but on their suggestion he thought it a good thing to give them some night operations and afterwards expressed himself as astonished and pleased at the reconnaissance work done by the Scouts and the good information they were able to supply. He was also struck with their independence in carrying all they needed in a rucksack on their backs and cooking their own meals when rucksack on their backs and cooking their own meals when and where they required them.
As an addition to the Scouts we also trained despatch riders, using regimental bicycles, which enabled them to get about rapidly and silently, to the great saving of horse flesh.
Naturally every Scout had to be able to swim rivers with his horse.
Another innovation we introduced was that of having one Squadron always ready to turn out for active service at a few hours’ notice. Each Squadron took this duty in turn for a month at a time, having the men and horses made up to strength, with the man’s pay sheets and papers all ready, ammunition, supplies, etc., available—and swords sharpened.
This last item roused the ire of the Ordnance authorities, the rule being that swords should be kept blunt until required for active service, when they would be sharpened by the Regimental Armourer.
I estimated that this sharpening, with the staff available, would take from two to three weeks. So I had men trained in each Squadron to be sharpeners and the men themselves were taught how to keep the blades keen after they had been sharpened.
One need only recall the case of the Carbineers at the outbreak of the Mutiny in 1857, when, with blunt swords, they were suddenly called upon to tackle the mutinous Indian Cavalry, who habitually kept their swords as sharp as razors.
"As disgraceful as a blunt sword" is a saying in the Indian Cavalry.
Now and then I would give the alarm for the mobilisation of the "Service Squadron" with the order for it to embark in the train with three days’ supplies, and move off to an unknown destination. This used to be carried out complete with every detail even to the Band playing the Squadron off to the station, to the strains of Auld Lang Syne, as the train moved off.
Sometimes it was only moved along the line a few hundred yards and back again, at others we would send it off for an hour or so down the line, there to disembark and camp out.
In this way the whole Regiment was prepared for rapid mobilisation.
I was lucky enough at this time to command Brigades of Cavalry for different maneuvers, and thereby gained a great liking and admiration for the Indian Cavalry, of which the following Regiments came under my command at different times: the 1st, 4th, 5th, 13th, 14th and 18th Bengal Cavalry, and the 15th Multanis. These latter were splendid wild fellows and I see them now in my mind’s eye breaking the ranks to rush full tilt after a hare which got up in front of the Regiment, troopers hurling their pugarees at them.
I formed a great liking for the Indian officers of the Regiments of my Brigade.
What adds to the zest of soldiering in India is the fact that there are always rows going on on one part or other of the North-West Frontier.
Sir Bindon Blood, who was our General at Meerut, had done some of the heaviest fighting on the frontier and was a great believer in the use of Cavalry even in that mountainous country, for between the ranges there were valleys and plains to be fought over.
Therefore, although I had had over a year’s experience in Afghanistan and Baluchistan, I felt that I ought to learn more about this kind of fighting if possible.
For this reason I attended the frontier maneuvers at Attock. Also, on receiving an invitation from Sir Bindon, who had just completed a hard-fought campaign beyond the Malakand Pass, I hastened to avail myself of it.
I arrived at the Malakand Pass only to find that he was at Dargai, but I was hospitably put up by General Jeffreys, commanding that post. (I little thought that within the year he would have died and I, as senior full Colonel, would have been appointed Major-General in his place. As a matter of fact I only remained a General for four days on appointment from Headquarters at Simla, for my promotion was cancelled by the War Office at home on the ground that I was too young for the position!)
The Malakand Pass, now a very heavily fortified position, had been captured by the British two years previously, and four months before my arrival had sustained a tremendous effort on the part of the tribesmen to retake it.
The fighting went on with scarcely any intermission for four days and nights, in the course of which the enemy were on many occasions hand to hand with our men.
Micky Doyne, formerly Captain in the 13th with me, and afterward promoted to be Colonel of the 4th Dragoon Guards, managed to slip away from his command and to get himself camouflaged as a private in the K.O.S.B. in order to be "in it"
Sir Bindon took me over the site of six different battles fought in this campaign, and showed me where he had used the Cavalry with killing effect in two of them, and where Pincastle and Adams won the Victoria Cross in bringing away the body of Greaves, who had got away ahead of his men in pursuit of the flying enemy.
Sir Bindon then took me to the bridge over the Swat River and its protecting fort, Chakdara, where the heroic defence took place by 300 Sikhs for six days and nights against continuous attack by twelve thousand tribesmen.
At Chakdara were many remains of Buddhist temples and their carvings were evidently Greek sculpture. (I brought away one beautiful little head).
A soldier in digging a rain trench round his tent unearthed a Greek signet ring, and a number of Greek coins were found in the neighbourhood, which tended to show that this was where Alexander the Great crossed the Swat in his invasion of India in 327 B.C.
Shortly after my return to Meerut I got a telegram on the 4th of January from Sir Bindon Blood, saying: "We are having a pheasant shoot on the 7th. Hope you will join us."
I read between the lines and started off then and there for Nowshera, the nearest station to Mardan and Dargai.
I eventually caught up with the General and his column at Sanghao. There I had a warm welcome from many friends.
Next morning we were all astir at an early hour for a very spectacular attack on the Sanghao Pass.
We were in a narrow valley, faced by a steep rocky ridge, some two thousand feet high, along the crest of which could be seen hordes of the tribesmen with their banners, twenty-nine of them, awaiting our attack. They had built little stone forts or sangars, along the top, which afforded beautiful targets for our guns. These kept shelling them heavily while our troops made their attack and scaled the heights at different points.
On our ridge, forming the near side of the valley, were the guns and the Buffs who, with long-range volleys, were able to keep down the fire of the enemy while the advance was proceeding.
The enemy, however, disdained to take cover, and parties of them kept prising up great rocks and rotting them down the precipices on to the attackers below.
In the course of this fight I witnessed the bravest act I ever saw. One of our shells blew up a sangar and out of the burst of stones and dust there emerged three blue-clad figures who apparently were made quite angry by this insult. They seemed to say: "That lets you out!"
They started to charge down the mountain-side to attack the whole British force. A heavy fire was turned on them, when two of them stopped and thought better of it and hurriedly dodged back again over the crest. But the third man came on, a splendid sight, with his loose blue clothes flying out behind him and a big glittering sword in his hand.
He came running and jumping down at a wonderful pace, till he got to a bit of a precipice where he had to pause and seek about before he could find a way across. But he managed to do this and came on again undaunted, leaping from rock to rock. One could see spits of dust jumping up round him, but they did not deter him, till suddenly he stumbled and fell.
But it was only for a moment or two; he was evidently hit but was binding up a wound in his leg. Then he picked up his sword and shaking it at us he came on again limping, but determined to get there. It was a grand and pathetic sight to see this one plucky chap advancing single-handed against the whole crowd. Our men in front of him ceased firing at him, whether out of admiration or under orders I don’t know, but a minute or two later he suddenly tumbled forward and rolled over and lay in a huddled heap—dead.
As we went up the heights afterwards I passed him as he lay, and was glad to see that some of the Indian troops who had gone ahead had, out of admiration for him, laid him straight and covered him over.
Before bombing by airplanes came into vogue our enemies across the frontier and our own forces fought with a mutual liking and admiration.
Waziristan is an example to-day. Formerly the most turbulent country it was forced to become quiet by the establishment of fortified posts commanded by sympathetic, sportsmanlike officers. Roads were made and markets established. But bombing, whereby women and children have been killed, has produced a bitter feeling which will be more difficult to subdue.
After this little busman’s holiday at the Malakand I returned to my Regiment with more up-to-date knowledge of frontier fighting and what might be required of Cavalry there.
Although the Regiment was not the first on the roster for active service in India I felt that if any emergency should arise during the summer in my absence the authorities would realise that the 5th D.Gs. were the most ready and would utilise them accordingly.
I little expected that the preparations I had made exactly filled the bill, when the sudden call came for troops for South Africa a few months later, and the 5th D.Gs. were the first to receive the order to go.
Meantime my leave was granted me and I packed off home in anticipation of a good long rest time. A telegram followed me on my homeward voyage which added to the joy of my homecoming, since it told me that the Commander-in-Chief, Sir George White, had sent his congratulations on the 5th D.Gs. being reported on as the best unit of all arms then stationed in India.
THE ARMY AS A UNIVERSITY
I suppose someone will tell me, as a result of what I have said in the foregoing pages, that I ought to be ashamed of myself for taking a pride in preparing men to be murderers.
I have been told so once, and in my reply I quite agreed that I ought to be ashamed but at the same time I wasn’t.
I pointed out that there was another side to the question. Lord Allenby has said: "Soldiers don’t make war. Politicians make war, soldiers end it."
Shalimar, writing in Blackwood’s Magazine, quotes an American soldier who says: "War is not Hell, and any young fellow who thinks it is is dead from the neck up. I know of no more glorious feeling on land or sea than that of leading—under the sure touch of such a General as Stonewall Jackson—a hundred such men as mine in action,; and in those days I was so proud and happy that I wouldn’t have called the King of England my aunt."
But apart from this glamour of the surface, apart from its comradeship and its sports, apart from the adventure of pioneering and fighting in far-off corners of the world— all of which have their strong appeal to any red-blooded man—there is a higher call and opportunity for the officer, namely the education of the thousands of young men who pass through his hands for future citizenhood for their country.
The German Kaiser once said to me that the value of conscription to Germany was not so much in providing a certain supply of soldiers but in giving the youth of the country a continued education in such qualities as loyalty, patriotism, obedience, self-discipline, self-respect, team sense, punctuality, and sense of duty, all of which contributed to form the best character in their citizens and which could never have otherwise been instilled into them after leaving school.
The Army is the best University we have for the post-school education for a very large number of our future citizens. Here at least they gain, in addition to their school knowledge, a development of physical health and stamina, and a number of valuable qualities with which to face life and to help the community.
Thus it is that an officer has in his hands a valuable power as great as that of any schoolmaster or clergyman for developing among his men the best attributes of good; citizens.
From this you will probably have inferred by this time that my soldiering propensities did not lie entirely in the usual routine of Drill and Tactics, but ran more particularly in the direction of Scouting and Manmastership. Therein is the explanation—and the excuse—for much of my line of action later on.
© Lewis P. Orans, 1997