Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Most of the foregoing that I have written was made known to me as I grew up by my mother, as my grandmother and her husband had both died before I was born, but I have verified all that I could. Now I come to my own life of which I can speak from my memories of more than 70 years; I do not recollect much of what happened before I was 8 or 9 years old and in any case those happenings are of no consequence. I know that I and my two sisters had very happy lives and we were devoted to our parents. We were brought to England occasionally in summer and when I was 9 I was left behind in the care of an extremely good man (and his wife) who was scholarly, a strict disciplinarian but kind. There were two other small boys in the house, one from British Honduras, one from France and myself from India, all of us of English blood. We lived near Wallingford in Berkshire and the River Thames had a great deal to do with our lives in the summer, as we learnt to scull, punt, swim very early on; we were also taught very carefully Latin, English, History, Geography and Mathematics and I can truly say that that groundwork given us between the ages of 8 and 15 has stood us in good stead all my life; when I reached the age of 15, my father decided that I should now be coached for the entrance examination for Coopers Hill Engineering College near Egham Surrey, and eventually pass to the Public Works Department in India, and arrangements were being made for this; when a cable came from my mother to say that I was to go out to India immediately as my father was dying; I was put on a P & O ship and arrived in Calcutta in time to see and talk to my father for a week or two before he died; he was in Hospital there and my mother, sisters and I had lodgings close by. He was buried in the Military Cemetery in Calcutta, and it so happened in 1921 when I was Assistant Commanding Royal Engineer in Fort William, Calcutta, one of my duties being to inspect and maintain the Military Cemetery in good order, I found my father’s grave, with the broken granite shaft in fairly good condition, there had been an interval of 26 years from the day I had seen him buried there and I am afraid I could not recognise any of the features of the place. I believe the now independent Indian Government is giving every facility to the British to maintain their cemeteries in India, and there must be hundreds of thousands of our countrymen and women buried all over India.


After a month or two I was sent back to England with the object of being coached for Coopers Hill, while my mother remained on to settle her affairs and to decide what she would do in the future. As in England and in most other countries, it takes a long time to get probate of a will (as I know having been Executor of two wills having a considerable sum of money each) and so a year passed.


As things were being slowly settled, my mother feared that it was going to be very difficult to pay the fees etc for Coopers Hill and wrote and told me so and asked me what I would like to do if this should be the case. I was now over 16, healthy, agile and fairly strong though not tall nor heavy and looking back I can clearly recall not minding a bit about not going to Coopers Hill (after all this had been my parents’ choice of a career for me not mine) and being full of confidence (born of ignorance!) that whatever I started doing I should soon be getting to the top and I was wondering whether to enlist or go to one of the Colonies – in fact anything which would lead to Adventure; I had read every book of adventure that I could find and those days there were many – Marryat, Henty etc etc. In some respects as I shall narrate I have had my fill of adventure in my long life and it is partly this which makes me look back on a happy life. After a little more than a year after my father’s death, my mother wrote to tell me that she was marrying again – an old friend of my father’s and hers and whom I remembered as being very kind to me when I was a very small boy. He was a Civil Engineer in a good position and in due time, a daughter and then a son were born to them; these children who were both handsome and healthy, the girl being almost beautiful were not fated to live long, the girl (my half sister) died at 17 years of age in England of pneumonia and the boy (my half brother), after doing well at school (Bedford) and becoming a first class Rugby player, was a pupil at the Daimler Motor Works at Coventry when the 1st World War broke out; he and two other pupils one of whom had a brother an officer in the Grenadier Guards suggesting they should enlist in his brother’s regiment; all three of them left for London that August and the next day enlisted in the Grenadier Guards; the training of those six months was so excellent that all three were commissioned in the Special Reserve of Officers and posted to three different regiments, my half brother to the 1st Batt. the Hampshire Regiment. On the 1st July 1916 he was killed in the Somme battle together with 17 other officers of the regiment including the Colonel commanding; he was 20 years old. His father’s name was Nixon and the boy’s name is remembered every 1st of July with the other officers killed, in the Times of that day; thus does this famous regiment keep alive the memory of their officers and men killed in war, not many other regiments do this in this way, but probably they have other methods. Of course these two deaths of these children saddened the last days of my mother and her husband, and I doubt if they ever smiled again. They are both buried in Frimley Churchyard.


In the meantime it was arranged that I should continue in my studies but when I reached 18 my desire to go into the world and do something impelled me to write to my mother and tell her that I should like to go to India, in reply my mother wrote to say that if I was determined about this, she thought that she could get me on a tea plantation at Darjeeling belonging to some friends of hers, which would be a pleasant outdoor life but meant hard work. I was delighted at the prospect and so eventually I sailed for Calcutta in a P & O ship the name of which I have completely forgotten. I was not however destined to go into tea, as at that time tea plantations were not the prosperous concerns that had been and which they again became in after years, so it was decided that I should again return to my studies in England. This was entirely against my inclinations and I inquired why I should not study in India and try and enter one of the Government Services in India. The idea did not displease my mother as she realized that I should remain near her and so after consultation with her and my step-father’s friends, she suggested to me that I should work for the competitive entrance examinations to the Government of India Civil and Military Engineering College at Roorkee in the North Western Provinces (many years later to be known as the United Provinces of Oudh) where young men were trained to become Assistant Engineers in the Public Works Department or the Irrigation Department or Government Railways. The Military Section of the College trained young men to join the Military Works Department under the Army but only with the rank of Warrant Officers, whereas the Assistant Civil Engineers were ranked as officers, though generally at that time the highest posts were held by men from Coopers Hill. There was of course a considerable difference in the curriculum between Civil Engineers’ training and that of the Military Works Section, the former being up to the standard of an English University and the latter more of a practical training without perhaps the higher mathematical and scientific studies. Roorkee had turned out many distinguished Civil Engineers such as Sir ? Willcocks who carried out most of the Irrigation schemes in Egypt and the Sudan and various others who reached high distinction in the government service, among whom were a certain number of Indian gentlemen. The Commandant of the College was a senior Royal Engineer officer and he had under him a number of distinguished men of science, mathematicians and scholarly civil engineering instructors and lecturers from English Universities. In the courseof the next two years I was coached carefully first for the qualifying examination more or less equal to the entrance examination of the London University and a year after for the competitive one for twenty vacancies in the Engineer class of Roorkee College; much to my surprise I passed in, but at the tail end of the successful students, about ten of us Europeans and ten Indians. The Indians were nearly always better than the Europeans in Mathematics especially in Higher Mathematics and in Science, but on the whole the Europeans were better at Civil Engineering and in practical work in the field. I went to Roorkee in my 20th year and began to live an independent life as we had each of us half of a comfortable bungalow completely independent of the other half, with a bedroom, dining room, study room and at the back of the compound were the kitchens for each bungalow and the servants’ quarters – we paid our fees to the College and catered for ourselves separately from the allowances given us by our parents, there being no common dining or study rooms, in short the idea being that we were now young men responsible for ourselves. The European students were enrolled in the Rifle Corps of the College, which was I think a part of the N. W. Province Light Horse and Rifle Corps; our uniform was the Light Horse one with riding breeches and tunics and we had to turn out for all drills and sham fights etc, and to practise rifle shooting at the Butts. Our recreations were tennis and swimming, cricket and football, but personally I played racquets constantly there being a first class racquet court at the College and swam as often as I could. I also used to hire a pony and take long rides in the country. On the whole I had a happy year there, but when the year’s results were published in the Government Gazette I found I had failed in Higher Mathematics, but in consideration of my having done well in Civil Engineering, in Urdu and in Surveying, I was given the choice of returning the next year with the new first year entrants and this I believe was a great concession very seldom given to a student.


Looking back I think I can say that this was a very great blow to my pride, but not so much to my inclinations and in spite of my mother’s advice to go back next year with the 1st years entrants, I determined not to accept this (pride again) and I asked my step father to try and get me a job on a Survey party to do the theodolite work and the levels as I was quite good at making survey maps, which had been a very important part of the first years course at Roorkee, also I looked forward to an outdoor life in camp living in a tent and having a horse to ride and a gun for shooting which I knew was all part of a surveyor’s life; also I could read and write Urdu – the Mahommedan script of Hindi – and of course speak it fluently. I also reasoned the more I learned of practical engineering in the field, and if I studied at the same time I could sooner go in for the examination for the Associate Membership of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and be earning an independent livelihood without having to go to a College or other seat of learning, and without costing my mother and step father anything. Fortunately there was a small survey party being formed by Surveyor from England who had been sent out to survey a wild part of N. Bengal with the object of searching for coal deposits; and my step father approached him as to whether he required a young student civil engineer who knew the use of all survey instruments and could make the necessary maps from the field work information; also he could speak Hindustani and knew how to deal with Indian coolies as with Indian gentlemen; he asked to see me and so I went to an interview with him. When he asked me a lot of searching questions, he then offered me the post of Assistant Surveyor which I accepted, with the reserve in my own mind that if I didn’t like him I should have leave. It turned out that he was very kind to me and explained most carefully the way he wanted the work to be done and told me to go to him on every occasion when I was in difficulty. We set out on the journey with bullock carts, hauling the tents, tools etc and several tongas by small ponies, to convey us and the staff and the coolies. The first night we stopped at a Government Dak bungalow where we re-arranged the loads etc and where I was kept busy interpreting my chief’s desires to the head man of the gang. This survey lasted a year and I think I had absorbed most of what was necessary to know for doing a location and prospecting survey in country partly jungle – and to live in a tent and be active from early morn to dusk in the open air and to withstand the heat and cold and rain.


The survey was finished by the autumn of 1899 and now feeling self confident (a failing of mine when young) I was searching in my mind what to do next. At this time a well known senior Civil engineer called Glass was getting together a large survey party for the Pekin syndicate, to go to China on a survey and prospecting expedition, and a Dr. Bathe who knew Mr Glass and was a friend of my mother and step father, inquired from my mother if I should like to join this expedition, as he had known me from childhood [and I think perhaps had been the doctor who attended my mother at my birth]. Of course this met with my enthusiastic approval – and then the Boer War broke out. The idea of going to the war as a soldier became immediately my intense obsession, but at the moment I could see no way of getting there, and so I reconciled myself to the idea of going to China, which I thought would be the next best thing and more likely to lead to a career as a surveyor and engineer. However “Man proposes and God disposes.” A certain wealthy Scotsman named Lumsden the owner of large tea plantations in Assam and who was the Lieut Colonel commanding the Assam Valley Light Horse, proposed to the Government of India the raising of a Light Horse regiment drawn from young Englishmen all over India members of the many Light Horse regiments. Three fourths of the number required he could recruit from young planters from tea gardens, indigo and coffee plantations (nearly all young men of the English public school type) and one fourth from the young men serving in Light Horse regiments in other parts of India, and he offered to give fifty thousand rupees to start a fund for the equipment of the Corps, saying he felt sure that subscriptions would flow in from the big Merchant Companies and other wealthy industrialists all over India, to equip the Corps with all that was necessary. The Indian Government got in touch with the Home Government and the War Office and his offer was gratefully accepted as the latter had recognised that the kind of troops required in South Africa to contend against the Boers, were light mobile well trained horsemen who could shoot and had military training in Light Horse regiments. The Government nominated Lt Col Lumsden to take command of the Corps to be formed and to proceed to S. Africa with it; as second in command they nominated Major Showers (originally 2nd Life Guards, later tea planter). Two Regular officers were seconded to command each of them a Company, and a Regular Cavalry officer to be Adjutant. Each trooper was to bring his own horse to be first inspected and if suitable accepted for his own use in the Corps. The Government undertook to provide the necessary sea kit for use on board ship only, transport to the seat of war, daily rations as for other soldiers, weapons and munitions of war and pay at the rate of 1 /2 (one shilling and two pence) per day and nothing else. The Corps was to provide uniforms, great coats, saddles and bridles and all horse kit, which meant these were to be bought from the fund raised by public subscription – which was done in a very short time.


I read all this in the Calcutta newspapers and my mother noticed my deep interest in the foundation of Lumsden’s Horse and of course I told her how much I wished I could be chosen for the Corps. The result was that she again spoke to her old friend Dr. Bathe and he inquired whether I would really prefer this to the China expedition; she assured him that this was the case and he said “Well, I admire the boy for that and as I know Col. Lumsden very well, I’ll see what can be done, but I understand there are over a thousand applications from all over India to fill more or less 75 vacancies, it may not be possible.” However in a week or so he informed my mother that I was to go to Calcutta at once for an interview with Col. Lumsden or his Selection Committee. One can imagine my intense joy mixed with trepidation that I left for Calcutta the next day and on arrival duly presented myself to the headquarter offices of the Corps. Col Lumsden himself saw me and put me through an interrogation as to what I could do etc, was I a horseman, and could I use a rifle and had I any military instruction. I answered these questions as modestly as I could, being very certain in my own mind that I could lead a charge with lance and sword on the enemy. I had, as it happened, gone through a strict training in mounted and foot drill, could ride though I said I never played polo which made him smile, as he knew the average young man could not afford to play polo, and that I knew the use of the rifle, but had never scored beyond being “Efficient” and never was a “Marksman”; he asked me about my life in England and how had I been educated, and did not seem to think it was a great disadvantage that I had never been to a Public School; he, as I have said was a Scot from near Aberdeen and so did not think that Eton, Harrow and Winchester gave necessarily the best training for a trooper of Light Horse which is all I aspired to be at the time. However this may be as it may be but in after years I did send my two sons to Stowe and to Cambridge, from where the elder was commissioned into the Berkshire Regiment and the younger qualified as a Civil Engineer. The upshot was that he would accept me and that I was to join as soon as possible and bring my own horse with me. I bought a young country-bred dun coloured gelding, sound in wind and limb and properly broken in, but by no means trained as a troop horse. I paid the equivalent of £40 and this horse was one of only eight which survived the march to Pretoria with Lord Roberts, all the rest, over 100 belonging to troopers in “A” company to which I was assigned, having foundered or been killed on the march. I owe my deep thanks to the Veterinary officer who helped me to buy this horse. Curiously enough we eight who had taken care of and conserved our horses were written down as good horse-masters. In my own case I think my light weight helped me and the fact that my horse was always my first care on the march and in camp and that at every camp and at every halt I dismounted and eased the girths and “made much” of him and when forage ran short as it often did, I would go out and see if I could collect some grass or grain for him. This care and love of my [first] horse has never left me and though in after years I was to own many horses I personally saw my groom clean and feed them, and it is only a few years ago after my 70th birthday that I regretfully had to give up riding, because the Municipal Authorities stopped the keeping of horses, cows and all animals except dogs and cats in the zone where I live it being considered a garden colony, which measure as a matter of fact has eliminated flies and other insects to a great extent. Well! I joined up, was allotted to a tent and to a mess and given a working uniform, boots a flannel shirt etc, a rifle and bayonet and all the other things that a trooper had to have ready for inspection by an officer. I was allotted to No 4 section A Company and in this section we had non-planters, among whom was a doctor (on leave) a schoolmaster, a judge of the Sessions Court of Lahore and his brother, an ex-officer of Egyptian Police, a brewer (son of the owners of a big brewery in the Punjab), a lawyer, an owner of a very large fruit farm in the Punjab and others. I was easily the youngest trooper in the Company and only one trooper in B Company was younger than myself. He was known as “Baby” and I was the Infant, so that probably for this reason, he and I were not dealt with as strictly as were the older men who helped us in our guidance and youth. “Baby” was killed in the First World War, whereas I was fortunate enough to survive from early 1915 in France and Belgium and end up with the rank of Lieut Colonel in 1919 there.

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