Neel Mukherjee’s 2008 novel, Past Continuous [i] is a many-stranded story, set partly in Calcutta (now Kolkata [ii]) and partly in Oxford and London (I should add that the book shared the Crossword Prize with my Sea of Poppies that year; since then Neel and I have become good friends).
The Calcutta sections of Past Continuous are powerful and disturbing: they depict Bengali family life as being riven with violence, repression, abuse, manipulation and perversion.
In his new novel The Lives of Others Neel returns to the fictional terrain of middle-class Bengali family life. The novel is in some ways a saga: the narrative unfolds around a Calcutta joint family; its principal setting is their house, which is in Bhowanipore, a neighbourhood of leafy streets and handsome pre-war mansions, many of them now crumbling.
The family’s patriarch, Prafullanath Ghosh, is a successful entrepreneur with several paper mills; the family is relatively affluent, with two cars and many servants. But this is not an English-educated family of the kind that so often features in Anglophone novels about Calcutta. As daal is to lentil soup, so are the Ghoshes of Bhowanipore to the Westernized denizens of Kolkata’s sahiby neighbourhoods. They are a solidly middle-class family, and their inner life is lived wholly in Bengali: not the least of Neel’s achievements in this book is his vivid and precise rendering of the textures, idioms and rhythms of the language in which his characters speak and write.
The novel touches briefly on some notable moments in the city’s history – the Bengal famine of 1943; the ‘Great Calcutta Killing’ of 1946; Partition, and the rise to power of the Left Front. But most of the action takes place in the years 1968-72, the period in which Calcutta was convulsed by the Maoist uprising known as the Naxalite movement. The novel’s most important character is a Naxalite: Supratik Ghosh, a grandson of the patriarch.
I was in my teens in the early 1970s, and in those years I viewed Calcutta largely through the prism of an extended family that lived in a rambling house not far from Bhowanipore (there, fortunately, the parallels end). Neel is too young to have any first-hand memories of that time, but his account of the period certainly jibes closely with my memories, especially in the details – the magazines that used to lie around the house, the films that everyone went to see, the popular shops and eating-places. But the accuracy goes beyond the details: Neel’s portrayal of Supratik and his Naxalite comrades is, I think, correct also in its basic premise, which is that the urban student radicalism of that time was in large part a response to the stifling repressiveness of Bengali family life.
The scholar Rabindra Ray, who was himself once a fellow-traveler, has written very perceptively about the phenomenon of middle-class student Naxalism (it is important to note that this kind of radicalism was very different from the Naxalism of dispossessed farmers and forest people). As Ray sees it, the radicalism of the urban college-going Naxalite was often a response to the ‘disjunction between enlightenment in public life and orthodoxy in private.’
This indeed is how Supratik’s radicalization begins, while he is a student at Presidency College (alma mater to Amartya Sen and many other luminaries). Supratik finds it impossible to reconcile the ideas he is exposed to in college with the suffocating hypocrisies and casual cruelties that he observes at home. Along with a group of comrades he slips away to Medinipur district, where West Bengal converges with Jharkhand and Odisha, in the hope of fomenting a revolutionary uprising of the peasantry.
The Ghosh family does not hear from Supratik while he is in Medinipur. But during his years there he composes a series of letters to a widowed aunt with whom he is in love. The letters are never sent but it is through them – in other words through Supratik’s first-person voice, translated from Bengali into English – that we learn of his revolutionary activities.
To attempt to recreate a voice like Supratik’s, through his translated letters, is a high-wire act: it would be all too easy to slip and fall, to lapse into sentimentalism. It is a tribute to Neel’s skill as a writer (and also as a translator) that he is able to pull it off – and he does so mainly by creating a rich, thick layering of detail. Here is Supratik’s description of harvesting:
‘I bracketed the sickle around the base of a sheaf of stalks and cut using the ‘towards me’ motion that they’d taught me. The sickle was very sharp and there was no effort involved in the actual cutting. The cut stalks fell over my head. This was the thing I was failing to master, the way the left hand gathered the cut plants into a bundle, the bundle increasing in girth and the hand adjusting to accommodate that as you moved forward, cutting more stalks, until you had enough and you turned around and threw the harvested sheaves behind you and moved on. Even that flinging backward of the sheaves – even that required the mastery of a trick, a particular motion of the hand and wrist so that the stalks all fell with their bases aligned to the bases of the others already harvested, the tips to the tips. Mine fell in a fanned mess. How was I ever going to reach the end of the field? And then I noticed: my palms and fingers were a mad criss-cross of little cuts from the sharp, dry edges of the rice leaves and stalks. Shame rose in me like bile. Hands that revealed instantly that I hadn’t done a day’s honest work in my life. The only thing I could do was ignore the sting, grit my teeth and keep cutting and advancing with all the strength and endurance I had. I wanted to make the cuts worse, deeper, my hands really bloody. It was the only way I would learn how to harvest properly and the only way my hands could stop being the shamefully middle-class hands they were now. ‘Change yourself, change the world.’
And of transplanting rice:
‘I watched the transplanting process, hypnotised. Kanu told me that I should study it carefully. It was not something I could be taught hands-on because there was no margin for error here, as there was in ploughing the soil. It was mostly women who did the transplanting. The uprooted saplings, all about four to six inches high – Kanu said ‘one-hand tall’ – and bundled into bunches of a dozen or so, were dotted all over the plots that we had prepared. Then it began. The women, their short saris hitched up nearly to their calves, stood ankle-deep in the mud in the inundated plots, bent low from their waist, leaned down, picked up a bundle, separated it into individual saplings, then fixed each in the mud, making sure the roots remained underwater. The next one was planted about four inches away. The women worked with speed, precision and what I could only call a kind ofchoreography – the whole thing looked like a disciplined dance. And then it struck me that it was probably as physically trying; bending down so that your top half made, at the waist, a variable angle between forty-five and sixty degrees with your bottom half and maintaining that for hours without interruption was a visual illustration of the process that had given us the term ‘back-breaking labour’.
Reflecting on his experiences Supratik writes:
‘I can hear you asking if it was truly so hard. Yes, it was. Rats bit us – some of them could be as big as kittens – while we were asleep; the rice fields were full of them. In desperate times, I was told the Santhals caught and ate them. Snakes came into the huts during the monsoon. Upset stomachs and a mild dysentery were our doggedly faithful companions – we knew they would go away, but also that they would be back before we could fully appreciate their absence. Then there was the business of eating once a day, if you were lucky (rice, a watery dal, a little bit of fried greens of some kind); of days of eating puffed rice only, or water-rice with chillies and salt; or not eating, days of fast followed by a half-meal, that instantly set you running into the bushes. There was the lack of bathroom or any kind of sanitation. Above all, there was the slow pace of life, with nothing happening and nothing to do for enormous chunks of time, nowhere to go, nothing to read, no one to speak to.
‘I try not to write about these because I can hear you taunting – Aha re, my cream doll! Besides, I feel ashamed to admit to feeling the bite of those hardships; really, a middle-class cream-doll, that’s what I am. It hurts to acknowledge this.’
Except for Supratik’s letters The Lives of Others is focused very closely, almost claustrophobically, on the Ghosh family’s house, in Bhowanipur, Calcutta. Neel is both pitiless and perceptive in his observations of the dynamics of the extended family. He understands very well its theatrical quality: ‘The opera of Bengali life, already pitched so high, had begun… In this world of overheated reactions and hysteria, words spoken carried with them the unearthable charge of honour and insult; they remained crackling and alive for generation after generation. Another boundary was crossed, this time without the possibility of return.’ (186)
Neel chronicles, in unsparing detail, the Ghosh family’s hypocrisies, cruelties, sadism, acquisitiveness and perversions (one member is a coprophiliac – and yes, the details of his fetish are described in meticulous detail). Slowly under the combined weight of their own dysfunction and the changing political dynamics of Bengal the family’s fortunes go into a downward slide. And at just that moment, Supratik, the Naxalite grandson, returns.
Let it be noted that Neel is no less harsh on the Naxalites than he is on his other characters: he chronicles in detail their grotesque relish for blood-letting, their self-serving delusions, their endangerment of the very people whose cause they profess to champion. I don’t want to give the plot away but suffice it to say that Supratik leaves a long trail of disaster behind him; his revolutionary zeal brings ruin and death upon many of those he is fighting for. In the end he dooms himself as well – and this part of the book is so graphic that it is difficult to read. But of course to write passages like these is far more difficult than to read them: I am sure it was an ordeal, but then one of Neel’s great strengths as a writer is that he is as unsparing of himself as he is of the reader.
The Lives of Others is an impassioned, dystopic, despairing book: its darkness is relieved by only two glimmers of light. One is the story of a boy called Sona, Supratik’s cousin, who turns out to be a mathematical genius, ‘the next Ramanujan’. His abilities are such that Stanford University whisks him away from India at the age of 15; he eventually goes on to win the Fields Medal for his work in number theory.
The boy-genius serves as a resolution of the great paradox of middle-class Bengali life: that despite the dysfunction, deprivation and repression, Calcutta does, against all the odds, somehow produce people of unusual talent and ability (such as Neel himself). But in Neel’s portrayal these people owe their achievements solely to their own gifts: Sona’s relatives have nothing to do with his mathematical abilities; he is a freak, a singularity, a flash in the pan.
This is to my mind, too easy a resolution. As Ashish Nandy has shown in his brilliant essay on Ramanujan, the great mathematician was not swayambhu or ‘self-created’ as certain gods are said to be; that is to say he was not a being whose abilities were unrelated to his begetting. Ramanujan’s mother was a traditional numerologist and astrologer, and an abiding intimacy with numbers was one of the many gifts he received from her. In The Lives of Others Sona’s mother is allowed no such role in her son’s thought-world; a widow of one of the patriarch’s sons she is a virtual captive in the house, a perfect victim whose contribution to her son’s advancement consists only of the redemptive power of her sorrow and suffering.
Neel cites the example of Ramanujan repeatedly, in order perhaps to shore up the conceit that a ‘genius’ can appear in the most unpromising circumstances. But the reiteration left me unpersuaded. It doesn’t surprise me that Matt Damon, David Leavitt and Robert Kanigel are unable to perceive connections between modern mathematics and un-modern forms of thought; but that a writer as perceptive as Neel should also fail to do so is, to me, very surprising indeed.
In a more general sense, can it really be said that the pressures of Indian (read ‘Asian’) family life have no bearing on individual abilities and successes? To the contrary it is often these very pressures that enable – even force – many gifted individuals to escape their circumstances. Calcutta (like every Indian city) is filled with parents whose ambitions for their children drive them to the brink of bankruptcy and insanity. Yet the true pathos of their plight reveals itself only when they succeed: their brilliant, high-achieving children go away, leaving yawning chasms behind them. Is it fair for these shooting stars to vanish into the firmament without acknowledging that their families’ neuroses and dysfunction are almost always rooted, even amongst the relatively affluent, in a profound economic anxiety (‘study hard or you’ll be pulling rickshaws all your life’, is the mantra I remember from my own childhood)? The truth moreover is that it is these very anxieties and neuroses that often catapult those shooting stars into flight. Those successes are emphatically not flashes in the pan: a better metaphor is that of water-liles blooming upon a muddy pond.
In Past Continuous Neel explored these ambiguities with great empathy; not so in The Lives of Others which makes no acknowledgement either of the contexts that breed domestic dysfunction in India, or of the redeeming features of Bengali family life: the fun, the laughter, the conviviality.
The novel’s second glimmer of light relates to Supratik, the Naxalite. At the very end of the book we find out that while living in Medinipur he had invented a means of derailing trains: this technique has been passed on to present-day Maoists in central and eastern India who are now using it to devastating effect. ‘Someone had come from Chhatitisgarh to show them the ropes, and he had mentioned that according to local Maoist lore it was a Bengali invention, the work of a man known as Pratik-da in the late Sixties in some district bordering West Bengal and Bihar. Or was it West Bengal and Orissa?’
This then is the legacy that Neel ascribes to Supratik: a method of derailing trains and killing unwary passengers: ‘his gift to his future comrades survived and for those who cared to or were old enough to remember, he lived on in his bequest.’
In other words, what Neel chooses to celebrate about Supratik’s life is not the transmission of a spirit of resistance – something that is more than ever necessary at a time when the environment and the poor are being subjected to devastating violence in the name of ‘growth’ – but rather a particular means of resisting: in this instance a technique of mass murder. This is troubling, for it was precisely the means adopted by the student-Naxals of the 1970s that doomed their movement. Violence and bloodletting became so essential to their methods as to suggest that the movement was not, in its essence, a social program at all but rather a cult of ritualistic killing, like thuggee. This is why the movement aroused widespread revulsion, even among those who sympathized with its professed social aims. Its trajectory was a perfect illustration of that deadly elision that often occurs when violence is embraced as a means to an end: ultimately the one displaces the other and the means becomes the end.
Indeed Rabindra Ray has argued, very persuasively, that the true core of 1970s Naxalite student-radicalism was constituted not by utopianism but rather by nihilism. To endorse that nihilism – which is what the coda to Supratik’s life suggests – is, to me, both incomprehensible and indefensible. It is the last thing one would wish upon those who find themselves compelled to resist the land-grabs and repression that are being inflicted upon them today.
But none of this detracts from Neel’s achievement in this passionate, angry book: a novel is successful precisely when it forces its readers to engage with its themes, ideas and its characters, and in this The Lives of Others succeeds in ample measure.
The Lives of Others is searing, savage and deeply moving: an unforgettably vivid picture of a time of turmoil.
The Lives of Others
by Neel Mukherjee
- ISBN-13: 978-0701186296.
[i] Published under the title A Life Apart in the UK.
[ii] I have used ‘Calcutta’ in this review because most of the events referred to take place before the renaming of the city.
On April 10 I met with a ‘World Cultures and Literature 2351‘ class at the University of Houston. Last week Prof Anne Reitz, who teaches the course, forwarded me a letter the students had written me. It is reproduced here with their permission.
Thanks guys! I think you’re mad cool too.
4th April, 2014
Dear Mr. Amitav Ghosh,
Thanks very much for this thoughtful letter. It’s good to know that you love Kishore Kumar and Mohd Rafi – so do I!
I really enjoyed my meeting with your class. The title ‘Ghat of the Only World’ is taken from one of Shahid’s poems.
I don’t know if you’ve ever looked my blog. I often post letters from people who write to me. If you like I would be glad to post your letter (I can leave your name out if you prefer). Let me know.
The jacket copy describes the book as: ‘… a stunning new work set among families of those who lost loved ones in the 1985 Air India bombing, registering the unexpected reverberations of this tragedy in the lives of its survivors. A book of post-9/11 Canada, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao demonstrates that violent politics are all-too-often homegrown in North America but ignored at our peril.‘
Padma is also the author of The Toss of a Lemon.
Padma sent me this letter on April 12, 2o14.
Dear Amitav,I’m not sure whether you’ll recall having met me many years ago at Merrily Weisbord‘s place in Quebec. She wanted to introduce us because I had reviewed THE GLASS PALACE for the Montreal Gazette, and was such a fan of that book and your earlier ones.
I’m writing to you now to let you know that my second novel, THE EVER AFTER OF ASHWIN RAO, has just been published by Random House Canada and will be out from Westland India late this year.In the book, a cranky Indian psychologist comes to Canada to do what he calls “a study of comparative grief” on people who lost loved ones in the Air India bombing of 1985. (Incredibly, no such study has ever been done.) Ashwin, however, finds himself unexpectedly embroiled in one such family, and, in telling us their stories, is made to reveal his own.The reason I wanted to let you know is that I make reference, at some length, to an essay, “The Ghosts of Mrs. Gandhi,” which you wrote for The New Yorker many years ago. I couldn’t talk about the bombing of AI182 without talking about the long chain of violence that led up to it, including the anti-Sikh pogroms of 1984. As you say in the essay, remarkably few people have written about the riots. Your piece was a very welcome first-person account of the time, though also I very much appreciated your analysis of the reasons it took you so long before you could write about what you witnessed. My narrative draws to an extent on your descriptions, but my narrator also cites your essay in discussing how to think about what happened.You might also be interested to know that another Canadian writer, Jaspreet Singh, whose home in Delhi was attacked in 1984, has just published a novel, HELIUM which takes up the pogroms. I have been waiting for the book for some time, and just read this glowing review.Hoping this finds you well!Warmly,
Animal Madness: How Anxious Dogs, Compulsive Parrots and Elephants in Recovery Help Us Understand Ourselves
Simon & Schuster
[to be published June 10, 2014]
Rare indeed is it to come upon a work of non-fiction as compelling as Laurel Braitman’s Animal Madness.
The book is in part a memoir of the writer’s evolving relationship with animals: at its heart is the story of Oliver, a pet dog. Oliver is a Bernese Mountain Dog: ‘Bred to guard livestock and pull carts of cheese and milk through the Swiss Alps, Berners are handsome, broad, and regal, with an air of accessible friendship.’
Berners are very desirable but also very expensive; unable to afford a puppy Laurel and her then husband decide to adopt an adult dog at the suggestion of a vet. ‘[Oliver] carried his white-tipped tail like a flag raised high and arching over his back. His white paws were lion-like, huge and spreading, and his coat glossy and feathered like a 1970s haircut.’
They adopt the dog on impulse: ‘We’d fallen for Oliver at first sight. It felt more like a physical sensation than a conscious decision. It certainly wasn’t rational. We brought him home that same afternoon.’
But soon enough they realize that they should have asked a few questions.
‘The first real sign of trouble I discovered by accident… I said goodbye to Oliver and locked the house, only to realize as soon as I reached my car that I’d left the keys in our apartment. As I headed back up the block to our building I heard a plaintive yowling – not feline nor human … it was a bark that shounded like the squeak of an animal too large to squeak (this was before I knew any elephants), and it was coming from our apartment.’
It turns out that Oliver’s behaviour is very much like that of human being who is possessed by uncontrollable anxieties. ‘If we didn’t return home by five or six in the evening, we knew he would have destroyed pillows and towels or chewed on wooden moldings. He scratched so hard at our floorboards that it looked as if we lived with giant termites… If we were with him… Oliver was the picture of calm. Alone he was a tornado.’
But things get worse.
‘On a warm May afternoon in 2003, a little boy I’d never met was doing his homework in the sunroom off his family’s kitchen in Mount Pleasant, a leafy neighbourhood in Washington, D.C. The back of our apartment building faced the boy’s house, and as he worked, he looked out to the row of urban yards along the alley, separated by chain link or small planks of sagging wooden fencing, dotted with trash cans. He happeneed to look up that Saturday just as Oliver … jumped through the kitchen window of our fourth-floor apartment.
‘No one had seen Oliver at the window, even though it had to have taken him a long time to push the air-conditioning unit out of the way and rip a hole through the wire mesh of the screen that was big enough for his 120-pound body to fit through. The pet sitter that we’d left him with had gone to the farmer’s market, leaving Oliver by himself for two hours. He must have begun to slash and chew through the screen as soon as he realized he was alone. Once he made the hole large enough, Oliver hauled himself through the opening, more than fifty feet above the ground.
‘‘Mom!’ the boy screamed, ‘a dog fell out of the sky’.’
Oliver survives the fall and lives on for another two years, during which time his owners desperately seek treatment for him, from many different experts. But to no avail; one day, after working himself into a panic Oliver chews and swallows so much wood that he gives himself an awful case of bloat – ‘a horrid and probably excruciatingly painful predicament’. The attack is so bad that he has to be put down.
Oliver’s death changes Laurel’s life: ‘We divorced the year after Oliver died, and a few years after that he stopped taking my calls. I can’t say that we broke up because of what happened with Oliver. That would be a lie, or at least it wouldn’t be the whole truth. I do believe however, that if Oliver had lived, we may not have broken up when we did. Dogs have a way of gluing people together, even ones who are already coming unglued.
‘Now it feels like I walk around with a few different drafty spaces in my chest. One is in the shape of a dog, and there’s at least one more in the shape of a man. And in the years since Oliver died, I’ve fallen in love again anyway – with a half dozen elephants, a few elephant seals, a troop of gorillas, one young whale, a couple of long-dead squirrels, and a handful of men and women who came into my life as if they’d been tugged there by invisible leashes… Losses and disappointment can do that if you’re lucky. Before you know it your pain has welcomed the world. That’s what happened to me anyway. One anxious dog brought me the entire animal kingdom. I owe him everything.’
Could it be said that Oliver’s afflictions were ‘emotional’ or ‘mental’? The intellectual core of the book consists of a quest for an answer to this question.
The difference between a ‘happy’ dog and an ‘angry’ one is perfectly apparent to most human beings. But to ascribe emotions to animals is to affront one of the foundational tenets of Enlightenment thought. This is how Laurel puts it: ‘In 1649, the French philosopher René Descartes argued that animals were automatons, lacking feeling and self-awareness and operating unconsciously, like living machines. For Descartes and many other philosophers, capacities for self-consciousness and feeling were the sole province of humanity, the rational and moral tethers that tied humans to God and proved we were made in his image. This idea of animal machines proved to be sturdy and enduring, revisited time and again for hundreds of years to prop up arguments for humanity’s superior intelligence, reasoning, morality, and more. Well into the twentieth century, identifying human-like emotions or consciousness in other animals tended to be seen as childish or irrational.’
Not every scientist subscribed to this view. Darwin for one took a very different position. In 1872 he published On the Epression of the Emotions in Man and Animals; here, as elsewhere, he argued ‘that humans were just another kind of animal. He believed that the similar emotional experiences of people and other creatures, such as sad chimps, dejected dogs, or happy horses, further demonstrated the existence of our shared animal ancestors.’
But in this matter at least Darwin was in a minority among scientists. For a long time the attribution of a mind or consciousness to animals and plants was anathema in the sciences as well as the humanities (in the latter it could even be said that the matter is pre-judged by the very word, which in itself defines a boundary between the human and all else).
Today there are few in either the sciences or the humanities who would perhaps openly confess to subscribing to the Cartesian notion of animal as automaton. Yet, in practice, as Laurel points out, a mechanistic view of the non-human world is often institutionalized in a different doctrine – one that anathemizes anthropomorphism (i.e. ‘the projection of human emotions, characteristics, and desires onto nonhuman beings or things).
‘Like a heavy leash that drags along behind nearly all twentieth-century efforts to understand the emotional lives of other animals, anthropomorphism has tended to be resented and feared. Radical behaviourists like B.F.Skinner, comparative psychologists, ecologists, and many ethologists warned against sentimentalizing other animals and rejected Darwin’s ideas on animal emotions, working to suppress what they considered subpar science. For a long time anthropomorphism was a dirty word in the behavioural sciences, despite the fact that experimental animals were busy acting as models for human psychobiological phenomena inside laboratories worldwide.’
Fortunately things have changed: ‘In many ways the past forty to fifty years of research on animal emotion and behavior represents a long, slow, scientific U-turn back to Darwin and his arguments on the shared nature of emotional experience.’ There is now a great wealth of research into animal ‘consciousness’ and Laurel (who has a PhD in the history of science from MIT) provides us with some fascinating glimpses of this rapidly-expanding body of work. In the process it becomes clear that not only do animals suffer from many of the mental and emotional disorders that afflict human beings – anxiety, depression and so on – but they also respond in similar ways to medication. Indeed, most of the psychotropic drugs that are now prescribed for human beings were first tested on animals. ‘You could argue,’ Laurel writes, ‘that this is not the story of animals taking human drugs but of humans taking animal drugs. Almost all of the contemporary psychopharmaceuticals – from antipsychotic drugs like Thorazine to minor tranquilizers like Valium to the antidepressants – were developed in the mid-twentieth century, and animals were test subjects from the very beginning.’ This is of course, nothing short of a ‘tacit acknowledgement of emotional (and neurochemical) parallels between humans and other animals.’
Laurel also presents plenty of material to suggest that like human beings, animals can hate, forgive, grieve, despair – and even commit suicide. But is it possible to say that these words, when used of animals, refer to an exact counterpart of what they refer to in human beings? Of course not. For that matter it isn’t possible to say that psychic states are exactly the same in different human cultures – or even in different people.
This is how Laurel sums up her own position: ‘all human thinking about animals is, in some sense, anthropomorphic since we’re the ones doing the thinking. The challenge is to anthropomorphize well… this means avoiding anthropocentrism: the belief that humans are unique in our abilities and that our intelligence is the only one that counts.’
Animal Madness is compulsively readable and thoroughly engaging: Laurel has the rare gift of being able to combine ideas, research and personal experience into a compelling narrative. Yet behind the engaging tone and the lightness of touch there is a deep seriousness, as indeed there should be. For the ideas that animate Animal Madness are of the greatest urgency and importance, especially in this era of climate change: to acknowledge that all living things exist within a continuum of consciousness is a vital first step towards the dissolution of that human-centred world view that has, ironically, led humanity as well as millions of other species to the brink of disaster.
There was a time, many years ago, when I used to conduct occasional seminars at Harvard. In the process I met many talented young writers – several have since gone on to write successful and highly-regarded books. Laurel Braitman was among the most gifted of that group: I never doubted that she would write an exceptional book some day. And so she has – may it be the first of many!
I recently posted an exchange of letters between myself and Chris Howell, who wrote to me after reading my posts on the Mesopotamia campaign of 1915-16 in the First World War. Chris then sent me some excerpts from his book No Thankful Village: The Impact of the Great War on a Group of Somerset Villages – A Microcosm.
Somerset Guardian Page 16
15th May, 1914
A movement is afoot to raise a half-company of Territorials at Radstock. At present it is understood there are but four young men living in Radstock who belong to the Territorial Force, and this is not considered creditable for a place the size and population of Radstock.
Lt. Arthur Coombs Page 16
4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry
Four, you say. Well, I was one of them. I’d already joined them. At that time the powers that be must have known that the war was coming and they were having great recruiting campaigns all round the country. I thought it was a good idea so I joined and was commissioned that April. My first recollection of the Terriers was years earlier when they had had a show – a field day – up at the Clandown coal pit, all dressed in their red coats.
When I joined them as an officer I knew as little as any recruit. I was 18 then, and you can imagine me, looking very young for my age and put in charge of coal miners and knowing less than they did about military matters. Sergeant Ashman used to drill the men in the field opposite Radstock Church and I joined in with them. This is us: G Company of the 4th Battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry – Prince Albert’s own – at Norton Hill Station that Summer. They were a grand crowd. I knew them all and where they came from and so on. And they seemed to accept me all right. They nicknamed me ‘Our Boy’! By the way, our Company had nine of the 11 in the Battalion football team. I was inside right.
Lt. Leslie Pollard Page 17
I always wanted to be a soldier – and I wanted to soldier in India. Father was then Commandant of the 4th Battalion of the Somerset Territorials and it was his view that if Mother wanted me to go, then all well and good, because he couldn’t afford to keep me in a British regiment where you had to have two or three hundred a year in order to live. All you got as a second lieutenant was five bob a day. Mother had been born in India, daughter of a Major General, so it pleased her that I should go there.
At the end of my first term at Sandhurst I was made a lance corporal and by the time I passed out I was the Senior Colour Sergeant in charge of all the cadets and all the parades. I put that down to a good upbringing in Midsomer Norton. So, I was commissioned from Sandhurst in January 1911, and left for a year’s attachment to the West Kent Regiment in Peshawar.
After my year with the West Kents I was posted to the Hasara. It was all a matter of knowing someone in order to get on – someone in Simla, someone in Delhi. My father, who was Dr George Pollard, happened to know someone – a patient – in Farrington Gurney, who had a relation commanding an Indian Battalion and so it was all arranged for me to join his battalion when I’d finished with the West Kents. And that was that.
I joined my Indian regiment at Quetta – though they had nothing to do with India, really. They were Hasarists from Afghanistan. Well, I reported to the guardroom. Second in Command was sent for. ‘See those men over there?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Go and take charge.’ A curt reception, but no more than I expected. We subalterns were a damn nuisance – conceited young men – we were bottle-washers. Well, by that time I spoke Hindustani pretty well so I went out and started talking. No reaction. They spoke Persian.
I’d been at Quetta about a year when the Battalion had orders to leave. Go out by rail for about six hours – to the end of the railway line, where the desert started. We then had 28 days’ marching out to the Persian border, averaging 20 miles a day. All over desert – there was no road. I was acting as Quartermaster at that time so I had to stay behind each morning to see each camp was cleaned up. I had a camel to catch up with the Battalion which marched steadily till it came to mid-day – luncheon time – when I would catch up with them and have breakfast and lunch togcthcr.
We were at the border for a year, stopping gun-running. There was a telegraph line which worked occasionally but no other communication except once a month when a convoy came through with stores. That’s where I found myself in 1914, when war broke out in Europe.
Lt. Arthur Coombs Page 33
1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry
9th October, 1914
After a few weeks in camp on Salisbury Plain we went to Plymouth to guard the bridges and so forth. G Company had the task of guarding Saltash Bridge for three or four days until the Special Reserve was mobilised to take over from us. While we were there, half the company was also detailed to go out with Sappers to dig trenches in case we were attacked. Well, word came back to us that our fellows were refusing to dig and the CO told me to go and sort things out. Me! A kid of eighteen! Well, I went out in fear and trembling, and luckily – well I think it was lucky – as I arrived their time was up, and they were falling in. But I still had to make enquiries and I went up to the Sapper officer who was there and it seemed that our lads, who’d only been mobilised for ten days or so, felt that it was the Sappers’ job to do the digging but they maintained that they were there to supervise the infantry. Anyway, it all ended peacefully!
People everywhere were quite convinced that it was going to be over soon and that this was the war to end wars. There’s no doubt about it. Everybody thought that. It was the general idea that it would be over by Christmas and when we were going down to Plymouth people came out and cheered us as we marched past – and the day we came away the number of girls who came to see the men off was nobody’s business.
One thing we had always been told was that we were only for Home Service, but then, in September, the Divisional General of the Wessex Division – a Major General called Donald – was called in by Kitchener and we were being asked to go abroad, to India. I’ve got his account of it here:
Towards the end of September I received a telegram saying that Lord Kitchener wanted to see me at the War Office next day. I went to the War Office and was taken into Lord Kitchener’s room, and you can imagine that I got a little bit of a shock when he said: ‘I want you to take your Division to India. Will they go?’ You must remember that at that time the Imperial obligation did not apply to the Territorials. I said, ‘Well, Sir, I do not think anybody has had much thought about it, but I am perfectly certain that if you want them to go to India they will go there right enough.’ He replied, ‘Very well, go back to your Division now, get hold of them tomorrow morning on Salisbury Plain, use your personal influence and tell them from me that I want them to go to India and that by going to India they will be performing a great Imperial duty. I have to bring white troops back from India and I must replace them there by white troops from home.’
And we were very lucky that we were sent – if we’d gone to France we’d probably all have been killed.
Pte. Laurence Eyres Page39
1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry
We arrived in Bombay on November 9th and the following day we were allowed to land but not go outside the dockyards. Still, we found a very nice army store within the precincts and bought tea and cake and fresh butter, which were a great treat. None of us were very sorry to set foot on dry land once more, though the voyage was quite enjoyable, if long. It took 32 days.
On Wednesday we marched off the ship and onto a train. We left Bombay dock station and very soon got into the country, so saw little of Bombay. The railway carriages were a
pleasant surprise. We had expected to sleep sitting up but instead of that they put 14 of us into a carriage with seating accommodation for 46. There was loads of room for us to put our kitbags and everything and every man could lie full length on a seat.
The railway journey was intensely interesting. At all the stations of any size you could see an Englishman in charge, or rather two or three, sometimes more. Soon we were looking down 1000 feet on either side on rice fields and there was a small river running through them. That was about sunset time and the light was reflected on the river. It was exquisite.
We always got out at a station for our meals. Arrangements were made beforehand by the Indian Government and they had bread, meat, jam and tea waiting for us at various places. We went through Poonah at midnight that night and woke up to lovely scenery. We were glad of our blanket at night, and the early morning from seven to 10 was as cool as an ordinary spring morning in England.
We travelled on three railways, the Great Indian Peninsula, The Madras and Southern Manratta, and the South Indian Railway followed by a mountain railway whose name I have forgotten. We passed several troop trains on the way; they were all itching for a scuffle with the enemy after training so long. Some had fought in the Boer War or had been in South Africa or India ever since.
On Sunday morning, November 15th, we reached Metapataiyam and began our climb to Wellington. There is one mountain railway more wonderful and that is in the Himalayas, but this is supposed to be the second in the world. We climbed 5000 feet in two hours. Then at last we reached our destination after 37 hours of travelling. It is 6000 feet above the sea, and a perfect paradise . . .
Lt. Geoffrey Bishop Page 40,
1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry
May – December, 1915
I knew Laurence Eyres well – he was an extraordinary chap. I’d joined the Battalion in September 1914, when I was 17. Father was already in it, so obviously I knew G Company – largely Midsomer Norton and Radstock men – very well and a tough company they were, too. Very fine soldiers – nearly all miners. But Eyres was of a different breed. An intelligent man. A Cambridge graduate, I think. He had been going into the church. Used to say his prayers in the barrack room every night and the men obviously respected him. A lot of them used to call him Mr Eyres – but not in any way unkindly. He was in the draft I took with me to Mesopotamia.
I was on detachment at Amritsar when we had a call for volunteers to go to re-inforce the 2nd Battalion of the Dorsets in Mespot. They already had a draft of one officer and 29 men
undergoing a month’s special training in Jullunder but they had an outbreak of scarlet fever there and they couldn’t go, so all the draft came from Amritsar. The Second in Command asked if I would like to go. The next day I got a signal saying that I was going.
We left about the second week in May and I took a draft of 30 men, including myself and, as I’ve already said, Private Eyres. The second draft of 15 arrived about the end of August. The official history says it was a total of 75, which is entirely wrong. Thirty and 15, according to my arithmetic, makes 45. The history books are wrong.
We got there in early June, just before the battle that was called Townshend’s Regatta. This was a largely waterborne affair in which General Townshend with a few officers and 100-odd soldiers and sailors captured the town of Al Amarah and a crack Turkish regiment – ‘The Constantinople Fire Brigade’ – as well as hundreds and hundreds of other Turkish prisoners. Townshend’s ultimate target was Baghdad and in September we captured Kut-al-Amarah for the first time in awful physical conditions. The temperature was well over 100 in the shade and the men had no water. They were totally dehydrated and exhausted. But we took Kut.
On November 22nd we again went into battle. This time it was the Battle of Ctesiphon, an indecisive to-do. It was a strange battle which was very nearly won, but in fact we didn’t owing to lack of any reserves at all. The battle was a very bloody affair with 4,500 British and Indian casualties, and not unnaturally they were largely infantry. I had six chaps in my platoon killed in about five minutes and more were killed later. There was no-one else to put in and when the Turks came back at us we retreated to Kut, a tremendously arduous march of about 120 miles, which, broadly speaking we did in about three days.
The Turks caught up with us about half way back to Kut and were given a bloody nose after which we hardly stopped. The Turks came closer and closer to us but we got back to Kut on December 5th and they arrived a day or so later. The siege had begun.
Lt. Arthur Coombs Page 97/98
1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry
Our Company had been in Amritsar since late August – it was always a centre of sedition and a hot-bed of unrest and there had been riots there. We joined the rest of the Battalion here, in Peshawar, about six weeks later. Peshawar in the winter was a delightful spot. Those are the barracks in the picture. It was taken by a man called Lewis, from Bath, who was up on the roof of one of the blocks. That’s me at the tip of the Colonel’s shadow and our company is at the back. By that time we’d become a double company, commanded by the Honourable Edward Strachey.
Strachey was great man – been in the Grenadier Guards. A delightful man. All the troops loved him. We always thought ours was the best company cause we had him there and he knew what soldiering was. I always remember how he taught us to drill our men properly. There were deep drains – three or four feet deep – all around the parade ground and he’d have us out chatting about our platoon when the men were marching and suddenly he’d say, ‘Take command of the Company’. He taught us to think – and quickly!
Geoffrey Bishop is not in this picture, of course. He and his men had left Amritsar for Mesopotamia several months earlier. Theycould very well have been fighting at Ctesiphon when this was taken, before their incarceration in Kut-el-Amarah. They were beseiged there for three months from early December – in quite appalling conditions – despite two abortive attempts to get them out.
In February, 1916, we sailed up the Tigris from Karachi to Mesopotamia in an attempt to get them out. We were just under 800 strong and our Company went with B Company on Puffing Billy, the steamer in the other picture I’ve given you. There were two of them with huge barges attached to either side. We disembarked at a place called Sheik Sa’ad and set up a camp at Orah where we stayed for a day or so before setting off.
On March 7th we left Orah on a remarkable night march of about twenty miles. We must have been the leading company because I was beside Captain Strachey – who had the compass – when he was being told that he was going to guide us all out. The regulars who were with us didn’t think much of the territorials and they didn’t know that Strachey had been in the Grenadiers. One of the Staff Officers said, ‘I take it that you do know how to read a compass?’ Pompous ass. Strachey passed it to him. ‘You set it.’ But he knew perfectly well how to do it.
The march was quite an astonishing achievement – an absolutely incredible achievement – 20,000 of us, moving over unknown territory counting the turns of bicycle wheels to work out our distances. But it was completely successful, and when we arrived next morning we found ourselves in front of our objective, the Dujailah Redoubt. Ours wasn’t the first attempt to relieve Kut but this redoubt hadn’t been attacked before. Actually there were very few Turks in the trenches because for the previous few days our people had been moving English troops about on the other side of the river to make the Turks think the assault would take place there.
We had been told the brigade we were with was not to attack but that we would give covering fire when the brigade to the left of us went forward. One didn’t hear very much but from what I could gather the people on our left were either late or missed their way and didn’t attack. I think we could have gone into the redoubt with little trouble or opposition but, presumably, the place was mined so we’d have been blown up in any case.
In the afternoon we had orders to move and about four o’clock we attacked, but by that time the Turks had got wind of us and were there in considerable numbers and able to drive us back. As we moved forward we found them just sitting there – waiting, and then they opened up with their rifle fire and shells. They killed three of my own platoon pretty instantly. Woods was one, he was a Midsomer Norton cricketer. Then young Bailey, another Norton man, and Seymour who was a porter on the Great Western Railway station at Radstock. I know there were at least a couple more Norton men who died.
Well, the long and the short of it was that our efforts to get into Kut failed and Townshend’s – and Geoffrey Bishop’s – awful sojourn continued.
9 Page 99
History of The Somerset Light Infantry 1914-1918
8th March, 1916
A and B Companies of the Somersets were ordered to retire and it was during this retirement, carried out slowly and with great steadiness, that the Battalion sustained severe casualties. Captain E. Lewis had already fallen as he was gallantly leading his men to the attack. A little later 2/Lieut Lillington was also killed, (Capt. Baker had fallen earlier) In other ranks the Battalion lost, during the day’s fighting, 9 killed, 50 wounded and 4 missing. When darkness had set in the whole force was withdrawn a considerable distance from the Dujailah Redoubt to the sand-hills. The following day, after it had been ascertained that it was impossible for the force to maintain its positions, owing principally to lack of water, a further withdrawal was ordered to Orah. The 1st/4th Somersets formed part of the rear-guard, the general
retirement beginning in the early afternoon. Thus ended the Second Attempt to relieve Kut – a gallant though unsuccessful effort.
Lt. Geoffrey Bishop Page 99/100
1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry
9th March, 1916
The day after the nearly successful attempt to relieve Kut, which Arthur has told you about, the Turks sent in a flag of truce and I was told to go out and meet this chap. I suppose I was sent because I was last at school and probably spoke French better than anyone else. The fellow was riding with an orderly and had a letter from Khalil Pasha, who was the Turkish C in C. I also had an orderly and sent him in with the message and told the Turkish chap to return the next day, but he insisted on waiting. Our lines were then anything from 500 to 600 yards apart and I was out there in the middle, with him, for a couple of hours. Nice chap – a captain. He was Kahlil’s A.D.C., or one of his junior staff officers. We spoke in French and he gave me a packet of cigarettes which I hadn’t had for some time. We talked about the war and the Germans – and he didn’t go a lot on the Germans. He said his uncle had a villa on the Bosphorus and he’d like me to go and stay there after the war – that sort of thing. They were good soldiers, good fighters. Not unpleasant really.
We had quite an interesting conversation with the result that the following day, when I’d
finished my report, I was seen by my Brigadier and sent in to Townshend to tell him about it. That’s his house in the picture, incidentally. I spent about an hour with him, but that was the only time I saw him. Then he sent this chap a message telling him to stuff it. However, rations were steadily being reduced and during the last few weeks we were each down to a quarter pound of bread and some horse-meat. We got relatively more and more hungry as time went on, until we were permanently hungry. Men were getting a lot of dysentery and that unpleasant deficiency disease called beri-beri.
The white flag went up on 29th April – about mid-day, I suppose it was. We went off late the following day and then the officers were taken off to Baghdad, away from the men. I was then a prisoner for the next two and a half years. Of a strength of 15,000 men, 1,800 were killed or died of disease and 1,900 were wounded. Of the 45 men I’d had with me, only four, of whom I was one, survived. The rest were all killed in action or died as P.o.W.s.
11 Page 109
Lt. Arthur Coombs
1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry
We lost a number of officers and men at Kut. And we lost more a while later at Beit Aisa, and I’ll tell you who was wounded there; a chap from Midsomer Norton called Bill Withers. His mother was a wonderful woman who ran the isolation hospital there. I well remember when Withers got hit. He knew it would mean him going home and he called out, ‘I’ve got a Blighty one!’ but unfortunately he was a cripple in a wheel chair for the rest of his life. The family had already lost another son fighting with the Somersets in France. I am given to understand that he had two other brothers – called Pharaoh and Noah. After our failed attempt on Kut we’d gone back to Basra and from there went on to Shaiba where we spent most of the summer in training and building up our numbers. One of the first officers to visit us there was Allan Thatcher, from Midsomer Norton, who was out in India with the 2nd/4th Somersets.
12 Page 109
Lt. Allan Thatcher
2nd/4th Somerset Light Infantry
Yes, I did join them at Shaiba – soon after their disastrous action at Kut. I’d arrived in Bombay in January ’15 and from there I’d gone down to Bangalore where we had to find detachments for different places. When war had first broken out we lived in Silva House, next door to Evelyn Waugh’s family. I knew him quite well although he was younger than we were – I remember that he used to wander round the garden in a white smock when we knew him. I knew his brother Alec better than Evelyn – I was at Sherborne with him. When I left there I studied at home for my law finals. And then war was declared and I was launched into the world.
My father had been in the 1st Battalion of the Somerset Volunteers and he thought it would be a good idea if I joined the Territorials. We went up to Borden Camp on Salisbury Plain and saw Lord Strachey who was in command and who knew my father, and I was accepted. I was commissioned on 7th October, 1914, and at the beginning of December went off to India with the 2nd/4th Somersets.
My first trip was to the Andeman Islands. There was a lot of naval activity going on there at the time and I understand that the Germans were filling up boats in Batavia – which was a convict settlement – and arming them and landing them in these islands. I went on one patrol in the islands with my platoon. Went up north on a Royal Indian Marine ship to inspect the bays to see if there had been any disturbance of the sand on the beaches. That took about six days but we found nothing. Quite a pleasant trip, though. Enjoyed it.
Another thing I did while I was with the 2nd/4th was guard the Viceroy of India for 48 hours while he was staying at Government House in Bankipur. I was in charge of an Officer’s Guard. Myself and 30 men. I had a tent in the garden of Government House. Dined with him both evenings. I didn’t have full dress uniform so I had to send for my tail coat and waistcoat and white tie to dress up for the dinner. He gave me a silver cigarette case for that duty. Still got it. It was quite an interesting thing to do. Quite interesting. I stayed with Arthur and company and the 1st/4th for a year or so, and then I joined the 10th Gurkhas in October, 1917.
13 Page 110
9th June, 1916
Last week I published a note on behalf of some of the lads who were formerly in the G Company of Territorials and lived in Midsomer Norton, Radstock and the neighbourhood, asking that their friends at home might kindly supply them with some cigarettes. I then stated that the lads were having a rough time with little in the shape of comforts. This is pretty evident as the Captain of the Company – the Hon. Edward Strachey – could not write directly to the relatives of the men who fell in the action on March 8th because he only had one envelope in his possession. He used it to write to his mother, Lady Strachey, and enclosed in it, on bits of flimsy paper, messages he asked her to transmit to the relatives of the men who had served under him. I have seen some of these and they certainly seem to bear out my statement that the men are short of necessities, much less luxuries.
14 Page 132
Lt. Leslie Pollard
I was actually at Kut when it was finally re-taken in February but I didn’t take any part in the attack. By that time I’d become a junior officer in the Signals, looking after signalling for the brigade of the 3rd Division to which I was seconded. My signalling then consisted of flags and heliograph, oil lamps and so on with some wireless thrown in. But when I started, flag waving was the main thing – semaphore and Morse – one flag for Morse and two for semaphore.
We left Basra, at the bottom of the Persian Gulf, and went up the Tigris as far as Kut. When we got there we lined up with the 3rd Lahore Division on one side of us and the 7th Meeruts on the other. As I was free from duties I was able to get my horse and rode out to a ridge where I sat and watched the troops moving about over the river. Watched the Turks disappearing from round the town and the Indian troops – Ghurkas I think they were – going in to re-occupy the place. A happier outcome to what happened when Arthur Coombs and his lot were there.
The brigade I was with then moved north and two weeks later we captured Baghdad. After that we moved on up to the Persian border where we joined up with a Russian Cavalry unit which proceeded to eat all our food.
Pte. Jim Peppard Page 171/172
1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry
When we got out to Indial we were just doin’ ordinary work – guard duties, lookin’ out to
magazines an’ the like. I were a young chap an’ full o’ life, but I’ll tell you this – an’ you can tell who you like – I were a dunce, not too bad mind ‘cos I could read an’ count, but I knew out there that I ‘ad to do somethin’, an’ I did. I learnt more in the army than ever I did goin’ tuh school. There were a lad out there along wi’ me from Radstock, Jack he were called, an’ he were called to the office one day ‘cos there was an enquiry from home from his people who were worried about him – they never heard from him ‘cos he couldn’t read nor write. He should ‘ave said. I used to write home fer a couple of ‘em, Harry Hughes, the gypsy, an’ another chap.
I got on all right out there an’ I used to like to treat everybody else right, don’t matter if they were black or white or yellow, but some of our boys used to really lay into those Indian fellows tuh make ‘em clean their kit. That used tuh make I wild. Thass not the way tuh treat anybody. I always got on very well wi’ ‘em, they’d do anythin fer me. All’s I had tuh do was take my equipment off – boots or anythin’ – an’ put it down, an’ there was one of them would come to see if I wanted it done. He’d clean my drill, blanco, do all me buttons – I never had tuh do anythin’. An’ d’you know how much I did give’n a week? Four annas – fourpence a week.
Mind you, none of us had much to spend out there an’ I certainly didn’t. When my sister’s ‘usband were killed up at Emborough quarry she were left wi’ a little girl an’ no compensation – nothin’ whatsoever – an’ when I wen’ in the army I allowed half my money to her – that were three an’ sixpence each week – an’ I had the rest to play with. She ‘ad that all the time I were away. It were a close family we ‘ad.
There you are, thass us, G?Company out in Wellington Barracks, in Indial. We’m a smart lot, ain’t we! See Mr Coombs? The officer sitting there by Captain Strachey – on the left. This other photo is yours truly, 203853 Private Peppard, J. 1st/4th S.L.I. Old Jim out in Indial. Yeah. I borrowed the uniform fer tuh have me photo took – that were the Somersets’ Regulars’ peace time suit – an’ I had those two pictures of Father an’ Mother put in those hearts up in the corners. Don’t you think my Agnes picked a nice boy?
Somerset Guardian Page 173
8th March, 1918
STATION MASTER OF BAGHDAD
A Wellow porter, Sgt Albert Pritchard, Somerset Light Infantry, mentioned in General Sir Stanley Maude’s Mesopotamia De spatch, is Station Master of Baghdad. He was a porter on the Somerset and Dorset Railway at Wellow station and went to India with the 1st/4th Somersets.
Pte. Jim Peppard Page 201
1st/4th Battalion, The Somerset Light Infantry
I stayed out in India on general duties. Poonah, it were. Then I got taken ill. I led out on the sand an’ thought I were gonna die. They said t’were a touch o’ cholera, or sim’lar the same – an’ they sent me up in the hills to Wellington, for convalescence. We did go up the mountain in an engine on cogs – ever so steep, an’ when we got to the top we could look down an’ see the cattle an’ that, ever so small, down on the plain. T’were beautiful. I must have stayed there two or three months an’ I got back to the depot the same afternoon as our lads left in the morning fer Russia – what fer I could never find out. But I found out that Maurice Baber had been transferred to the ’Ampshires then were taken ill an’ died. There he sittin’ alongside me in the picture there. He were always so healthy.
Captain Arthur Coombs Page 210
1st/4th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry
In Mesopotamia we didn’t know when we were going to get home and the rules came that the men would be returned as they were needed. The coal miners went off first, then various other people – students and things like that – and I, being nothing, stayed to the last with about 50 others. I found myself in charge of the cadre coming home on the troopship. There was a fog in the Channel so we were two hours late getting into Bath Station – at eight in the evening instead of six.
There were absolute crowds there to greet us and all of the people who had been out in India with us had paraded to meet us. I think the whole of Bath must have turned out to line the streets. I’ve never seen such masses. The police made a passage for us to get through the crowds and I gave the order to march, but then I turned round and there was only a young lieutenant and the C.S.M. behind me – nobody else. The crowd had scuppered them. Well, the police formed a rugby scrum and we got the men up to the Y.M.C.A. where they were taken care of. We were then taken to the Fernley Hotel. It was eleven at night by then, and the first thing I did was to order a whisky. ‘Very sorry, Sir. This is a teetotal hotel.’ I have never found out who was responsible for that.
Geoffrey Bishop Page 214/215
‘Like his father who was a doctor – and in the 4th Somersets before the war – Geoffrey decided that he would become one too, so he went off to Bristol University and the Bristol Royal Infirmary to qualify. He then became a country doctor and practiced in Shepton Mallet for the whole of his career with the exception World War Two. He always stayed with the Somersets and was commanding them when war broke out. He spent the first year of the war with them in England up until the call came for him to stop playing soldiers and join the RAMC.
He served with them in forward Casualty Clearing Stations in North Africa and Italy, and was eventually made up to full Colonel with a staff job in the Area High Command, near Salerno – which is where I was serving as a Red Cross Welfare Officer, and where I met him. We moved here to Bath when he retired in 1964. Geoffrey died in 1987.’ (Sheila Bishop)
Arthur Coombs Page 216
In 1920 I went out to the tea and rubber plantations in Ceylon. Stayed for 32 years. At one point I was running a tea plantation and someone commented that I was far too young to be in charge. I was 38! It was pointed out that I’d been a major in the last war – which I was for a while, standing in for someone for a couple of months. When I retired I came to Bath to live and I now lunch every Wednesday and Friday with Geoffrey Bishop. Once a year those of us who are left from the 1st/4th get together for our Braemar Association dinner. We had a good crowd once: Cox and Nifton and Openshaw – the doctor’s son from Cheddar – Clutterbuck, Willie Moger, Humphrey Tanner who was Frome – Butler and Tanner, you know – he was wounded out there, as was Sir Charles Miles. Lewis, whose father ran the paper in Bath – he was also wounded. Worger from Radstock always came. Charey died last year. Stourman – he’s dead. Not everyone made it back of course: Baker, of Weston super Mare, and Lillington from Shepton Mallet, and the other Lewis were all killed out there. Only a few of us left now. Only a few.
Jim Peppard Page 218
My nerves went after the war – absolutely gone. An’ that wen’ on fer two year. I got so low. I just wanted to be on me own – didn’t want to see nobody. Go in the garden. Hide. Once I’d got over that I learnt the mason’s trade. I told you how I volunteered fer everything during the first war, well I done the same in the second. First thing I done was build a hostel for land workers on Bodmin, then I went in to Bath to clean up fer the blitz, same in Bristol and then t’were London – I were up there when the first two rockets come over, in Forest Hill and the building I were in copped it. You never seen such a mess. But I’ve always been the lucky one. It’s bin a good life!’
Leslie Pollard Page 219
‘He stayed in India for the whole of his military career and retired as a Brigadier in 1939 (did you know, the Indian Army’s Corps of Signals still holds its reunions at the Pollard Arena in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh). At the outbreak of WWII he went back into uniform as Commandant of Catterick Camp, the garrison town in Yorkshire. After that war he and his wife Patricia then settled here in Stone Allerton with the Brigadier’s batman, MacDonald, and their much loved Jersey house-cow, Jemima. He died in 1983.’ (Joan Stevens)
March 17, 2014
Dear Mr Ghosh,
Earlier today I came across your ‘On to Baghdad’ page on the net.
Ten years ago I wrote and published a book called No Thankful Village that included the first hand accounts of three officers I had previously interviewed. It includes the following spoken by Lt Geoffrey Bishop of the 1st/4th Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry, concerning March 9th, 1916:
“The day after the nearly successful attempt to relieve Kut, which Arthur has told you about, the Turks sent in a flag of truce and I was told to go out and meet this chap. I suppose I was sent because I was last at school and probably spoke French better than anyone else. The fellow was riding with an orderly and had a letter from Khalil Pasha, who was the Turkish C in C. I also had an orderly and sent him in with the message and told the Turkish chap to return the next day, but he insisted on waiting.
“Our lines were then anything from 500 to 600 yards apart and I was out there in the middle with him for a couple of hours. Nice chap – a captain. He was Kahlil’s A.D.C., or one of his junior staff officers. We spoke in French and he gave me a packet of cigarettes which I hadn’t had for some time. We talked about the war and the Germans – and he didn’t go a lot on the Germans. He said his uncle had a villa on the Bosphorus and he’d like me to go and stay there after the war – that sort of thing. They were good soldiers, good fighters. Not unpleasant really.
“We had quite an interesting conversation with the result that the following day, when I’d finished my report, I was seen by my Brigadier and sent in to Townshend to tell him about it.
That’s his house in the picture, incidentally. I spent about an hour with him, but that was the only time I saw him. Then he sent this chap a message telling him to stuff it.”
I do have more, including a detailed account by Lt Arthur Coombs (also of the SLI) who took part in the second attempt to relieve Kut, and Lt Leslie Pollard, Indian Army, who, in February 1917 “. . . left Basra, at the bottom of the Persian Gulf, and went up the Tigris as far as Kut. When we got there we lined up with the 3rd Lahore Division on one side of us and the 7th Meeruts on the other. As I was free from duties I was able to get my horse and rode out to a ridge where I sat and watched the troops moving about over the river. Watched the Turks disappearing from round the town and the Indian troops – Ghurkas I think they were – going in to re-occupy the place. A happier outcome to what happened when Arthur Coombs and his lot were there.”
I understand that the Indian Army’s Corp of Signals still holds its annual reunions in the Pollard Arena, Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, named for Leslie Pollard, later a Brigadier.
I hope this is of some interest. If it is – and you give me a bit of time – I’ll happily send the rest of the material (two or three pages) that I have relating to the Kut story.
March 17, 2014
Thank you very much indeed for this. The information is fascinating. Please do send me the rest of your material – I would be glad to post it on my blog. I am sure it will be of interest to many.
By the way would you mind if I posted your letter as well?
Thanks again and all best
Dear Mr Ghosh,
I’m honoured by your interest in No Thankful Village and would of course be delighted for you to include my original letter on your blog.
According to Arthur Mee, who created the Children’s Encyclopaedia and the Children’s Newspaper, there were in Britain, at the end of the First World War, only 32 Thankful Villages (his phrase) to which all the men who had fought came home alive (though in what condition was irrelevant). Remarkably a quarter of those villages were in Somerset, though there was no Thankful Village in the area of Somerset that I have written about.
My book is an account of the effects that the war had on that part of the County that is centered on Midsomer Norton. I had previously compiled a series of books about Somerset and, in doing so, had amassed material about the war as told to me by men who had taken part, as well as by those men, women and children who remained on the home front.
I then spent 22 years building on their accounts and eventually interviewed about 100 former servicemen who had served in many regiments and corps, but mainly with the Somersets and the Coldstream Guards. I also included contemporary newspaper reports; trench diaries; military histories, letters and so on. One of the strands I followed was that of the local territorial Battalion, the 1st/4th Somerset Light Infantry which was, early on, dispatched to India.
In my earlier email I mentioned that I’d be pleased to forward you more about this force; two or three pages, I think I said – well it turns out that it’s rather more than that. I’ll probably send what I have in three batches, the first of which is attached above.
I’m also taking the liberty of sending a flier with some of the reviews the book received. Because I was also the publisher it seemed a good idea to print on the cover an early review that I’d received privately from Ian Hislop, who at the time wrote for the Sunday Telegraph. I actually though it was a canny move – but it had the opposite effect. All the national newspapers (with the exception of The Observer) took Hislop’s comment on the cover to mean that the book was a second edition – and did not review it. Fortunately for me, The Observer did, giving it 22 column inches.
No Thankful Village is now all but out of print, and as I have no more than 50 copies left it will no longer be available from Amazon or similar outlets. Instead, I’m letting a local shop have all that remain. If you would be good enough to let me have a forwarding address I’d be very happy to send you a copy with my compliments. (I’ve included page 173 for your amusement – the actual village of Wellow, where Sgt. Pritchard was a railway porter, had at that time a population of about 400.)
Please forgive this ramble – it’s a hurried attempt to put a few things in context.
Dear Chris Howell
Thanks very much for your emails. I will certainly post our entire correspondence on the site. Unfortunately I can’t post text in jpg format so I will not be able to include the attachments.
I’d be glad to have a copy of ‘No Thankful Village’ – I did look it up on Amazon and saw that it was not available. I’m traveling a lot these days so it might be best to send it to me c/o my UK publisher.
As a student at Oxford, 35 years ago, I hitchhiked through Somerset and had a wonderful time. It was shocking to read about the terrible floods.