Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
In India
Content Page

Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo


THE Inspector-General of Cavalry had his camp under the further side of the Ridge. Its flawless order was a joy to see — the unswerving straight lines of the roads, the exact set of the tents, with the occupant's name on each and his servants' tent behind, the abundance of fodder in the horse-lines, the spreading office- and mess-tents. These were floored with matting and furnished with desks and easy-chairs. In the smaller officers' tents you saw writing-tables and dressing-tables perfectly set out. In India your tent is more than half a home, and what India does not know of camping is misleading heresy.

A mile beyond was encamped the Southern Division, five miles beyond that the Northern. In this winter weather — and, oh, how wintry it is, once you get out of the sun! — English hours rule: we get up comfortably at daybreak, eat a lordly breakfast at nine, and jog off in the dust at ten to see the day's fight. The Inspector-General rides off With about a dozen of a staff: such luxuries as D.A.Q.M.G.'s are never stinted in India. With them rides a young maharajah in khaki, very frank and manly, carrying good-comradeship to the point of larking with British officers, but eating his sandwich and plain soda alone like a self-respecting Hindu — not at all your idea of the oriental potentate. The leaf-fringed road is lively with horsemen and horsewomen, dogcarts, and the miraculous native cabs of Delhi. They look half jaunting-car, half ice-cream barrow — a gay-painted box, on whose lid two or four people squat cross-legged, back to back, under a shabby canvas awning. Also any number of natives on foot pad out to see the sahibs play at war.

Just past the Northern camp we came to the line of the East Indian Railway, at a point where its embankment was pierced by a bridge. Roughly parallel to the line was the road; between, the ground was level, but for two or three hillocks to the left of the bridge, and covered with rough grass. The other side of the line was similar ground for the best part of a mile, only broken by a mass of tumble-down walls just opposite the debouch from the bridge, and finally ringed in by a semicircle of thick trees. This was the scene of the day's work. The bridge represented a defile, and was the only way from one side of the line to the other; the rule was that, though dismounted men might line the railway bank, nobody was to cross it.

Beyond the line we saw the black ranks of nine squadrons of cavalry and a horse-battery. It was just eleven o'clock, and as We saw, they formed into column and started to pass through to our side of the bridge. They were going to look for the enemy, who was advancing from somewhere the other side of the road. When they found him, they would reconnoitre him; and if he proved too strong to be fought in the open, would retire and attack him as he passed the defile. As it happened, everybody knew he would be too strong; he had thirteen squadrons of the twenty-two — six regiments,. two British and four native — which made up the whole division. Then the weaker commander, knowing the ground on his side of the bridge, might attack the stronger force as they came in column through the defile, and roll them up before they had time to deploy and make their numbers tell. It was a very pretty problem.

Out came the weaker force from the railway bridge. "Hang the men!" muttered the Inspector-General. "Why don't they come faster? They'll get jammed under the bridge." The general is a great race-rider and pig-sticker, and a very hot man all round, and especially he realises the vital value of pace in war as in sport. Next instant they quickened to a trot; a scrunching roar showed that the guns were coming through, and the long columns were half-way to the road.

It was my first sight of Indian cavalry, and I looked curiously. Bigger than the down-country natives I had seen hitherto, they were very light men compared with Europeans — small-boned and spare. That was the first idea; the second was that they would be bad men to pursue and worse still to run from. Dark-skinned, black-bearded, keen-eyed, swinging easily in the body and gripping the horse hermetically with the legs, they looked born troopers all over — swift and fierce and tireless. Their uniform was in their character — huge turbans, blue, blue and white, blue and red or crimson, lowering over bushy brows and wild eyes, and dancing in the breeze behind long tunics of dark blue or khaki, relieved by brilliant kummerbunds, breeches like divided skirts, and tight putties below. It was almost startling to see white officers in such a kit — a brick-burned face with yellow eyebrows and moustache looking out from under a peaked cap of scarlet velvet with a vast blue turban wound round it; a huge chest under a khaki tunic, whose long tails proclaim it first cousin of the oriental shirt; a broad scarlet kummerbund under the regulation belt; orange breeches, and long black boots. It was one more revelation of the wonderful Englishman who can make himself into half a savage to make savages into half-civilised men.

By this time the force was across the road, and before it stretched miles and miles of yellow grass, sparsely tufted with a few bushes — the ideal of cavalry ground. Already, far ahead of the long lines that walked warily forward, groups of little ant-like creatures trailed swiftly over this plain: they were officers' patrols, an officer and a man or two going forward to feel for the enemy. They went on, till from ants they became black dots, then stopped. On the bushy horizon appeared other dots — the enemy's patrols. Then all the dots moved again, — going on? — coming back? — yes, coming back at a racing gallop. The dot came back to an ant, and the ant suddenly leaped into a tearing horse and man, bringing the kind of news which in the real thing may mean life or death to regiments or armies or nations. The hindmost were dodging pursuers; one or two were taken; but before there was time to watch the last, the first had reported: the lines of riders and the guns whipped round and moved briskly back towards the road and the defile.

A belch of smoke from the plain and a muffled thud, another, another: the superior force's guns had seen the retreating masses and opened fire. Then a grating bang close by: the opposing battery had unlimbered and was replying. But that will not do for long when you are retreating with cavalry at your heels: after two or three rounds the teams clattered up, the guns swung round, and were off again; and the next thing was that the plain was black with the advancing squadrons of the stronger side, and the weaker had disappeared off the earth.

Slowly, cautiously, the attackers crept up, straining their eyes, moving behind huts or hillocks, edging off flankwards among trees. They had need of all their caution: a squadron was moving across the front along the road when — crack, crack, crack-k-kle — dismounted squadrons were firing at it from the embankment on both sides of the bridge. The guns opened, too, from beyond the line. The weaker force was there, prepared to show his teeth. The thing to do was to contain his fire with artillery and dismounted men, and then slam in the rest of cavalry through the defile. In the mouth of the bridge we waited and waited; but for the carbine-fire on the line the place seemed empty. Then suddenly on the attacking side guns appeared behind the mounds, separated into teams and pieces, and fired. Khaki figures were kneeling under cover on either side the guns, firing. The whole place was a roar and a rattle — till dashed out a cloud of wild horsemen, tossing lance-points, flying puggaris, steaming towards the bridge.

Now! Beyond the bridge the dismounted squadrons of the defenders were hurrying down the bank to their horses. For the rest, the plain seemed empty. The head of the on-coming lancers thrust through the bridge, and swung rightward in a lengthening column. But all in an instant a squadron in line burst from behind the ruined walls, then another, and bore down at a thundering gallop. The first met the first squadron of the assailants, which had wheeled into line; the second caught the second squadron still in column, and would have crumpled it up. Now more and more riders were pouring through the defile, more pouring down to meet them.

Cease fire! It is the annoying thing about manoeuvres that they have to stop just at the exciting point. All you could say of this fight was that in real life the best men would probably have won. So now back to lunch in the sumptuous mess-tent of a hussar regiment. Think of it! War till lunch-time — then pâté-de-foie-gras, champagne, and ladies. In the afternoon the Southern Division went through the same exercise, only this time it was the superior force dismounted men on the bank, and hammered away with carbines and with guns — at nothing. Of the defenders, not one sign! The assailants came through and deployed — one squadron straight forward, one half-right, one half-left. Still nothing; till, all at once — bang, bang, bang! — three guns, wide apart, fired full into the centre squadron, and the plain came to life. At each squadron that had come through galloped a squadron from out of the trees. The arena was a thunder of hoofs, a criss-cross of rigid lines — khaki, blue, crimson, steel — hurling themselves straight at each other from every point; then — cease fire!

Again the best men would have won, though the first squadron through would have been knocked to pieces. But the next day we won — we all won — for we were the British-India army fighting an imaginary enemy. On each flank of a ridge one division formed up. Guns opened from our ridge and from the enemy's opposite; in the dip between our infantry and theirs were seen mutually advancing with a splutter of fire. The idea was that the Russians — I mean the enemy — were too strong for our infantry and guns, and that the cavalry was to retrieve the day: what more congenial? The left flank division was to get behind the enemy's right rear, take his guns, crumple up his reserves, and then come on to support the right division, which was meanwhile to crumple up his cavalry and then pursue. A few minutes we watched the skeleton infantry blaze away; then the cavalry went. Going forward to the enemy's left, we saw the troopers of our leftward division galloping up behind his right flank — single riders, groups, lines black and fast and terrible filling up the ground. Then came our right division at the charge against the flags that marked the imaginary squadrons — officers well ahead, dark masses behind them extending and quickening, extending and quickening, over rock and furrow and fissure. Then a furious thudding — and they were on us, manes flying, horse-heads tossing, knife-edged shrieks from the sowars and breathless "Damns!" from the British — a thunder, a whirl, a cloud of dust — and they were tearing up the earth a quarter of a mile beyond. It was as thick and yellow with dust as a London fog: you were lost in it — and then, before you could see ten yards, another thunder. The other division whirlwinded past in support and pursuit — an overtaking blur in the dust-fog, a rushing phantom of manes and leaping puggaris and gleaming white eyeballs, and then a diminishing thunder in the dust again.

In the pursuit I should prefer to be on the side of the British-India cavalry.

That was the last day of active operations. For the wind-up there was a grand open-air Military Tournament between the camps, with jumps, and tent-pegging, and guns minuetting at the gallop, and all the other joys; also — lest they forget — native women peeping through the closed shutters of carriages, and native men standing on their horses to see over the crowd. It was all very fine and enjoyable — only to read it now you naturally think it a little dull. Perhaps; but still you may be glad to know what the British army — the real British army — looks like and does and is in the country where it exists for business. For to find the real British army you must go to India. Thousands of our people at home pass their lives without ever seeing a soldier, millions without ever seeing a brigade. Perhaps one , in ten thousand of home-keeping Britons has seen more than one regiment of cavalry together. India is otherwise. Here also, it is true, there are broad countries — Bengal, for instance, with three-fourths of the area of France, and nearly twice the population of the British Isles — which hardly ever see a bayonet or a lance. But to other districts — the great cantonments and the garrisons of the North-West Frontier — the sight of regiments and brigades is as familiar as that of policemen to you.

So that it was nothing for India to have twelve regiments of cavalry, with four batteries of horse artillery, assembled for the camp of exercise. It would be difficult to assemble this force in England — there only are fourteen regiments in Great Britain — and when it was assembled it would have no room to move; even Salisbury Plain hardly supplies reconnoitring ground for a single day. But the whole of Northern India consists of one single alluvial plain, nearly as large as France, Germany, and Austria put together, with hardly a hill and hardly a stone throughout the length and breadth of it. You can find tracts as large as English countries with scarcely a crop to ride over. Not that crops would stop the manoeuvres, or anything else; for in India the army is taken seriously.

If you do not find good cavalry and lifelike cavalry manoeuvres in India, therefore, you may despair of British military organisation at once. But you do find them. Every year the Inspector-General of Cavalry fixes the time when regiments are marching across country changing stations, selects his force, and then sets them to march at each other. This year part of the force took the field at Umballa and part at Aligarh — two hundred miles apart. By easy marches, but making up good days' work with manoeuvres by the way, they converged on Delhi. When the Southern Division was within a dozen miles or so of the city, it was met by a skeleton force holding a village and railway junction, which it had to dislodge. Next day the Northern regiments were reconnoitred by a similar skeleton force, which it was their business to push back without revealing their strength. The day after that the two divisions came into collision and fought, after which each went into standing camp. Next came another couple of engagements between them; then the two fights at the defile you have just heard of; then the combined attack on the skeleton enemy. Upon each day's operations the Inspector-General delivered brief but complete criticisms. Everything was business-like, thorough; in India — except perhaps in the Government offices — they realise that the army exists to fight, and give their minds to fit it for fighting.

You would be surprised to find how much thinking out, and what lightning-rapid thinking out, a cavalry action requires. It is not at all just a matter of slamming your men at the enemy, and hoping they will be too good for him. For instance, if your cavalry is masking your own guns while your enemy's are knocking holes out of your line just before the moment of collision, the best men in the world will be hardly good enough for the worst. Points like this will take a deal of study, and it seems that even now there is room for new ideas. The Inspector-General's is that cavalry advancing in three lines ought to throw their guns right forward. It sounds almost blasphemous to put precious, tender guns in the forefront of everything. But then you must remember that horse artillery can move quickly, if necessary, and especially that cavalry can move quickly enough to come up in effective support at the shortest notice of danger; and the forward position of the guns may give vast advantages. The guns that are up in front are likely to come first into action, and may cripple, sometimes actually defeat, the enemy before he can retaliate. They are more likely to have him in effective range at the moment when the cavalry shock comes. Especially this formation may often give the leader who adopts it the choice of ground. Suppose your enemy gets into attack formation on the left of his guns, you will probably move forward your cavalry to the left of your own guns. Then the enemy can only get at you either by moving across behind his guns under fire of yours, or else in front of them, and masking them while you pound him. On the other hand, if the ground suits you better on the right of the guns, you move to that side: in any case you dictate the ground.

That is the theory; it must take a quick eye and a quick hand to bring it successfully into practice. With the view of giving officers the best chance of bringing off such rapid movements, the new idea in India is that the commander should ride well to the front of his main body, and with him the leaders of his three lines of cavalry and of his artillery. When the enemy's strength, formation, and line of advance are observed, there is still time for these leaders to gallop back to their men with verbal orders from the commander; which, having seen the enemy at his side, they are certain to understand. The commander remains in front .to see whether the enemy changes his tactics at the last moment; if he does, the subordinate leaders, having seen, are still in a better position to understand their final orders.

Another point insisted on is the importance of sending forward selected officers on selected horses to observe the enemy at the earliest possible moment. Your ordinary eye might not take in the situation instantly; your ordinary horse might be caught by the enemy. As the advanced patrols are the eyes of the cavalry, and the cavalry is the eye of the whole army, you cannot have men or beasts too good for such work.

For example, they must usually be British officers. The native officer, with all his many fine qualities, has not, as a rule, the trained intelligence, observation, and self-control necessary for such work. It has been urged by a few good judges, and many bad ones, that the present status of the native officers is unsatisfactory, because they have no opportunities of rising to the highest commissioned ranks. At the time of the camp of exercise we were hearing a good deal of this from London and Calcutta, but not, curiously, from the native regiments at Delhi. The complaint is loudest — need it be said? — among Bengalis, who do not, and never will, furnish a single native officer or sepoy to the whole Indian army. The manlier races make no such claim for themselves: the native officer is content with his present position, and finds his present duties sufficiently honourable and responsible. Three distinctions the native officer receives, and dearly prizes, from his white superior. The Briton shakes hands with him — it breaks a Hindu's caste, but still he likes it — calls him Sahib, and acknowledges his right to sit on a chair. He can rise to resaldar- or subadar-major, which is a grade between captain and major. In the cavalry — where prompt and unswerving decision is especially required — the squadrons are led by Europeans; the company commanders of the infantry are native subadars. With these privileges and duties, the fighting races — being simple-minded, and conceiving the British to be in most points a superior race — are well satisfied. The Prime Minister of Nepal has actually made it a condition of the supply of Ghurka recruits that they must always be led by Englishmen.

It is true that the limited field of ambition may disincline some of the best elements among the ruling classes from the military career, which would be their natural vocation. But the general view appears to be that this is inevitable. In the first place, it is none so certain that the ruling classes want commissions. The flower of Indian chivalry, the Rajputs, certainly prefer the soldiering they get in their own Imperial Service Corps to a life which, after all, whatever prospects might be opened to native officers, must always bring them into direct subordination to a British officer of one rank or another. A maharajah will usually be loath to obey even a major-general. The practical difficulties, too, would be great, not to say insuperable. It would be difficult to mix British and native officers in one regiment; when a man's religion forbids him to eat with you or touch your hand, it must needs militate against corporate spirit in a mess. To officer battalions and regiments wholly with natives would be equally difficult: the more warlike races have not as yet made much progress in education, and they are apt to lose their heads in action through untempered gallantry. Left to himself, the native officer will sometimes forget to give his men the range, or charge at large on sight. With British officers he remains cool, having no more responsibility than he is equal to, and plays an invaluable part. You must remember that fighting in these latter days is becoming as complex as quadratic equations, with a good deal more to flurry the operator. When a Sikh or a Pathan or a Ghurka passes into Sandhurst it will be time to consider the question further.

Certainly the native officers did not look a discontented class. As they marched past Sir George Luck at the end of the manoeuvres, stiff yet easy in the saddle, and flashed their tulwars in the salute, they bristled with pride in their position — behind the sahibs, ahead of the men.

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.