To my amazement I learned there was between 5 and 10 retainers and camp followers for every soldier. But why should I be surprised? I found myself packed up and prepared to go by my Indian family who was also packed up and ready to go! All 13! No. Not lucky! The family cow makes it 14! Naturally! Plus the thermantidote! In a queue of bullock carts, cow, horse, mule, and camel! Soon to join a queue of over 20,000 souls on the march north including over 15,000 farting camels, 200 trumpeting elephants, plus 8000 shitting horses served by 200 farting camels just carrying food for the shitting horses, plus a few thousand stoic bullocks, countless braying mules, crisp horse artillery, officer VIP corteges and retinue. The horizontal pecking order was very particular! Woe be the laddie who rode ahead and kicked dust on the VIP!
The day before the march we all assembled in an chaotic mass of veterans and griffins and beasties. I could not see how such as mass of humanity could move! It was like a second exodus! Then at 3:00 AM the bugles brayed and the spectacle started by the light of burning torches! The Quartermaster and his Advance Party rode off ahead, illuminated by torches to reach the destination of the camp and stake down the next cantonment. One hour late off went the Treasury Guard with steel boxes mounted and chained to camels with a retinue of armed guards. Carrying the heaviest, the camels of the Treasury would arrive dead last! But oh! What those farting camels carried! Half a lakh of rupees in 14 steel boxes! 9 boxes carried whole rupees! 5000 per steel box in sealed bags of 1000 rupees each. There would a box of 45000 rupees too! Plus other boxes of diverse currency! And the officer’s treasure! And the Mess Silver! Top secret stuff! The dreams of lowly grunts fantasying they could be kings while marching wearily, eating the dust of Treasury camels!
Meanwhile everyone scampered, shaving (or in my case not!), washing, dressing, eating a hasty cold breakfast of hot chai or coffee plus last evening’s dinner by lantern as the camp equipment was stored in the bullock carts. My Indian mother had a kettle full of last night’s boiled water boiling again along with chai and cups for everyone. My Indian Father helped me dress, holding the tiny mirror as I wacked my hair with a comb while he inspected my tunic before nodding that I was ok to sally forth to great the world. Then he checked my gear: rifles, revolver, sword, boot knife, cummerbund knife. Then he carried my brush, shaving, and toiletries kit back to the bullock cart under his arm and there the box would stay! My Indian family guarded all of my needful things, members perched in each of my ration of canvas covered bullock carts!
Then at 5:00 AM the torches marched off, followed by the regimental band. Then Artillery. Only a fool did not know who was the most important! Artillery! Then VIP corteges. Some of the bigwigs even had elephants! Then the cavalry and then the infantry. Then the camels carrying the camp gear including tents, stores, canteens, hospital, camp furniture, food stuffs, cavalry stores, followed by bheesties ie the water carriers, private baggage, servants, camp followers, orphans, nautch girls, bazaar merchants and their floating bazaar. The latter was a mobile department store up to and including regimental whores who were licenced to each regiment on the provision they submitted to month health tests and practiced hygiene ie condoms. The pace is set by the bullocks harnessed to their rumbling carts with those massive ,crude looking wooden wheels. And then it is tramp! Tramp! Tramp!
By sunrise the band played out ‘Polly Put The Kettle On!’ and everyone cheered! That meant we had reached one of the Quartermaster’s teams which had set up a Coffee Stop Canteen. Distressingly, this team were hairy Jocks, ‘Ladies From Hell’ in kilts. But I could damn near kiss each hairy lady from hell as they ladled out a cold breakfast of hot chai or coffee and cold sandwiches or else chappatis for anyone with the brains the night before to pay the color guard sergeant their two pennies! I did! Plus pennies to feed my Indian family when they reach the canteen. I grinned as I wolfed down my ‘second’ breakfast’ as greenhorns stared dazed. Jock and Syn had given me a whole list of do’s and don’ts so I knew. They didn’t. Poor griffins! “You bastard Nicholson! Why didn’t you tell us?”
“Fuck you too!”
Then the army marched in a great line forward into the far horizon as the dust caked our faces and the heat dried our skin until it cracked like old boot leather. I was lucky to have a camel. It took me a month to learn how to ride the damn thing but camels were crucial to survival. I also bought a mule. If I lost my horse a mule was better than nothing and of course my Indian Family could use it! One should not have pride! I bought a shotgun to give to my Indian family. Brother # 1 was armed to kill to protect my horse and mule! But each day’s march was on the hump of a farting camel. Only a fool overworked his precious horse. I smirked at the griffins. They would kill their fancy horses before they reached Ferozepore.
The dust filled the air. I put a pebble in my mouth and then wore my silk scarf around my face. I was also lucky to have my own bheestie or water boys. Son 2 and Son 3. They took turns riding on my mule. That way I could make sure last night they boiled and cooled the rations of water for me. Most water was polluted. People were beginning to connect the dots and nowadays tried to keep drinking water separated from latrines but everything was polluted. You might look into a river and see dead cattle floating down, or half burned corpses of the dead, or any mass of unspeakable garbage or feces . Hogg Number 1 swore by boiling water! So I boiled water!
The regimental bheesties carried huge skins full of warm, fetid water for man and animal alike. The bheesties were low caste but my NCO’s told me to always be friends with the bheesties because in the middle of hell on the battlefield they might be the only friend you have! Each man carried a canteen or brass drinking bowl. The Hindu guarded their caste religiously. They would rather die than drink from water which a Britisher grabbed a ladle to drink from.
The Hindu said we Brits were arrogant sods but the Hindu were just as keen to keep their distance as we Brits. I tried to get to know my NCO’s socially but failed utterly. They were extraordinarily kind but nevertheless my ‘Once Born’ Caste polluted their ‘Twice Born’ Caste. I could not eat or drink with Brahmins or Rajputs. The companionship I had with Jock or Syn the Gurkha was impossible. Even the Muslim sowar cavalry officer had taboos about mixing with kafirs. We British might be ‘sahibs’ but we were still only ‘Once Born’ Kafirs and therefore on par with the Bheesties and the Untouchables. So the Bengal Army marched together but kept to rigid castes and religions.
There had been discussions about integrating the Bengal Army. The Madras and Bombay Regency Armies ere fairly integrated. But even the mere whiff of ‘integration’ chilled the air of the elite Bengal Army. Which was a shame. I for one thought Sikhs and Gurkhas were swell people. You could talk around the campfire with them. You could eat with them. You could shake their hands.
By mid afternoon as the dust and heat became killing the band kicked up a rumpus alerting everyone we had arrived at last to the new camp. We marched into the tidy staked out square in the open field about half a mile from the village on the road. By now the Great Trunk Road, newly metaled in tarmac, had formed predictable stops based on the normal day’s journey by bullock. So the villages along the predictable stops had long ago reserved open fields for big or small travelers. The army was welcomed with open arms. Why? The Army brought money! That was why! Butchers! Greengrocers! Local merchants! Tarts! Whatever! They knew they could buy and sell with the travelers up and down the Great Trunk Road! Some villages basically generated half of their income from supplying travelers traveling the Great Truck Road.
The Quartermaster and his men had staked out the layout of the cantonment half a mile out of the village on a broad field that could be a ‘killing ground’ if the cantonment was attacked. Cantonments were nought but wide open rectangles neatly filled with more rectangles of tents by rank and function lined on three sides with beasties and encircled by continuous pickets of guards. Soon the VIP and artillery elephants were settled down in their digs, ditto the advance camels, ditto the horses, ditto the humans. Campfires appeared. There was a quick ‘rifle and foot inspection’ but that was it for the day. The Advance Guard Forward Canteen was cooking the midday meal, the big meal of the day. We caught our breaths, pulled off our boots, sloshed ourselves down, the Brahmins up river, then the Rajputs, then the Muslims, then us Brits, then the Bheesties, then the absolute bottom of the social barrel, then the animals. Then we all queued for dekshies of rice with curry and lentils with local vegetables. Because of the diverse castes and religions the meals had to be kosher for everybody. If you wanted meat you had to buy in the village and pool for a special meat mess. That was quaintly referred to as ‘Road Kill’.
The officers rode off to hunt partridge, deer, wild boar, lions, or tigers if any tigers were terrorizing the village. The villages knew they could both get rid of dangerous pests, and be paid as guides or beaters to hunt game. Officer mess ‘Road Kill’ was needless to say, much better than soldier mess ‘Road Kill’. But I did not rank in the officer club and I did not plan on joining the mess so why bother? I ate Indian Kosher. My Indian ‘Sister’ was a good cook too. Indian curry cooked by an Indian beat Brit curry any day of the week. Sometimes I cooked with my Indian Sister sharing my Uncle Hogg’s curry recipes. I checked with the traffic police and then I marked my tent’s location in the grid of lowly lieutenants. Then I sat down on my camel saddle and opened my sister’s umbrella. I could wait. Bhisti Water Son # 2 and # 3 brought me water and then Son # 3 rode the mule back to the bullock carts. After this first day every greenhorn would know their spot in the cantonment and queue and I would not have to do this. It was a sort of first day hazing.
The slowest part of the long parade arrived at their bullock 2 mile an hour leisure: the bullocks and camels with their carts of supplies. The advancing dust, stink, and noise alerting you long before your eyes could see them coming. As each party lumbered into the cantonment the quartermaster’s men would direct traffic. As a surly griffin I watched in admiration as the veterans of past marches expertly parked their beasties with such speed it was amazing! Within one half hour the veterans erected the whole camp! The only mess-ups naturally were the griffins! So I waited for my Indian ‘Family in the hot sun!