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My Grandfather's Wars

Part I

by Peter Hunt

I never knew any of my grandparents, they all died before I was born.  I cannot even remember photographs of them, so I have no mental image of what they were like.  However, last year I received some photographs of my paternal grandfather’s service medals that he earned in the British Army.  Although these do not tell me anything about what he was like as a man, they do tell a surprising amount about what he did, and the events that must have formed his personality.  I do not even know basic things about my Granddad, like when he was born, when he died, what he did for a living, when he married etc., but the amount of information that can be gleaned from these little pieces of silver has only whetted my appetite, and imagination, to find out even more.

Whilst I can understand that you, gentle reader, will not share my enthusiasm for the Hunt family tree, I trust that what the medals tell us of life and death in the British army 100 years ago will be of interest to most club members.  This article will be in two parts, in this issue I will discuss his life in the army in general and his campaigns in India.  Next issue will cover his part in the Boer War.

Granddad had three campaign medals:

      -The India Medal, with bars for The Punjab Frontier, 1897-1898; and for The Tirah,1897-1898;

      -The Queen’s South Africa Medal, with bars for The Defence of Ladysmith and  Belfast; and,

      -The King’s South Africa Medal, with bars for 1901 and 1902.  

All three medals are inscribed: “3356 PTE. G.A.HUNT DEVON REGT.”  The obverse carry depictions of Queen Victoria and King Edward respectively, whilst the reverse look like that shown above.  

This already tells us much about Granddad.  He was a regular “soldier of the Queen” who fought on the North West Frontier of India and in the Second Boer War.  He would have enlisted for six years with the colours and six years with the reserve.  I do not know when he signed up but it must have been no earlier than 1896.  Thus he had completed his service well before the outbreak of World War One in 1914 and was too old to be called back to the colours or to be conscripted later.  The medals show at least five years service with no promotion.  This is indicative of the way the army worked at the time with most NCOs being “long service men” who signed on for further tours with the colours, after their initial six years were up.

Grandfather could look back on his career as a soldier who was well seasoned and had “got his knees brown”.  When Kipling wrote of the five hardest enemies that a British soldier had to face his list included:

“We took our chanst among the Kyber ills,

The Boers knocked us silly at a mile,

The Burman give us Irriwady chills,

An’ a Zulu impi dished us up in style.”

He could not have faced the fifth enemy, the Dervishes of the Sudan, because his regiment was busy on the North West Frontier at the time.  Even so, facing two of the five would have been enough for Grandfather to hold his head up in the company of most old soldiers.  Indeed, it is rather fortunate for the Hunt DNA that Granddad’s chances amongst the Khyber Hills worked out all right, and he did not become a notch on the stock of a Boer sniper’s Mauser.

As a private Grandfather was paid a shilling a day, or about HK$18 a month in today’s money.  On leaving active service after six years he received a bounty of 18 pounds and five shillings, (about HK$230,) with a third extra if he had “kept his nose clean” and earned his good conduct badges.

In the field his daily food ration was 1.25lb of bread, 1.25lb of meat, 0.5oz tea, 2.5oz sugar, 0.5oz salt, 0.5oz rice and a pinch of pepper.  To prevent scurvy he was issued with 0.5lb of fresh vegetables or 3oz of onions.  Before you conjure up an image of Granddad living on a diet of steak sandwiches, it must be remembered that the meat was usually bad and often consisted of 75% bone.  The introduction of tinned “corned beef” to the army in the Sudan and South Africa was welcomed by the troops even though, since there was no refrigeration, it could often be poured from the tin.

As an infantryman Grandfather marched everywhere, unless he could be moved by train in enclosed wagons marked: “Horses 8, Men 40.”  Anyway there were no railways on the North West Frontier.  When he marched he carried his kit, rations and weapons which weighed in at 58lbs.  With this on, an average march would be, according to the “Field Service Pocket Book” carried by his officers, 15 miles a day which could include fording rivers up to three feet deep or climbing gradients of 20% as a matter of course.  This being the case it was unfortunate that the standard infantryman’s boot simply fell apart under South African conditions.  Before better boots were issued later in the Boer War, Granddad must have spent a lot of time with very sore feet.

Granddad would have been armed with the 1895 pattern Lee-Enfield .303 inch rifle.  This weapon was sighted to 2800 yards and could be effective out to 1500 yards.  However 500 to 800 yards were regarded as the normal engagement range.  The British habitually employed “volley-firing by sections”, which proved demoralising to native opponents at long range and devastating when the same natives closed the range in the open.  Although the rifle had a magazine, this was supposed to be kept as a last reserve and individual bullets were chambered after each shot.  This was intended to cut down on the wasteful use of ammunition but it also affected accuracy, as the soldier tended to lose his sight picture when reloading.  Even if the magazine was used it could only be recharged with individual bullets.  Consequently the Boers, who were usually good marksmen anyway, firing from cover and using magazine fed Mausers which could be reloaded with clips, consistently outshot the British at the beginning of the Boer War.  A five round clip for the Lee-Enfield was introduced later in the Boer War and this brought the weapon into its own, for it had the smoothest mechanism of any bolt action rifle and thus there was the minimum of disruption to sight picture between shots.

To go on the end of his rifle Granddad had a “Pattern -/88 Mark II” sword bayonet which had a 12” Wilkinson blade.  I rather hope that he never had to use it for anything more serious than grilling the rather bony meat ration that he received.

Granddad’s time, “in Injia’s sunny clime” must have been interesting because, to use the well-worn cliché, the Frontier was ablaze!  Trouble had started in Waziristan in June 1896 and by mid-1897 the Pathan tribes had risen in a Jihad, holy war, along most of the mountainous North West Frontier between British India and Afghanistan.  In August 1897 the Afridis and Orakzai tribesmen sortied from their homes in the Tirah Maidan, or valley, and captured the British forts in the famed Khyber Pass.  British prestige was at low ebb.  Something had to be done.  Send for my Granddad!

Well Granddad and 34,505 other British and Indian troops like him under Sir William Lockhart.  For the plan was to invade the homeland of the Afridi and Orakzai Pathans and dictate peace at their hearths.  Before this was done however the formalities had to be observed and a proclamation was issued.  This, as the American historian Byron Farwell puts it, “nakedly announced with no nonsense about improving the lot of the tribesmen or installing good government,” that the British were marching to the heart of Pathan country to punish the Pathans for their attacks, to dictate peace on any terms the British liked, and to mark the power of the British to advance if and when they chose.

To get into the valley the British had to storm the mountains around it.  This they did in the peculiarly British way with hills, of marching up the hill, marching back down it, and then marching back up it again when the Pathans had had a chance to get really ready this time.  The second attack on the Dargai Heights, where Grandfather’s regiment was in a reserve brigade, cost the British dear but eventually the crests were cleared.  This battle is also notable because Piper Findlater of the Gordon Highlanders received a Victoria Cross for continuing to play “Cock o’ the North” on the pipes despite being shot through both legs. Later, in retirement, Mr. Findlater turned re-enactments of this feat into a popular music hall act.  Proof, if it was ever needed, that you cannot underestimate the taste of the British public.

After receiving a drubbing in the set piece battle at Dargai, the wily Pathan did what wily Pathans did best and resorted to guerrilla warfare for the rest of the campaign.  Sniping from the hills and attacking small detachments.  The British possessed the valley but could do nothing with it so they set it to the torch, consigning the Pathans to a cold and hungry winter.  According to Farwell “this destruction of private property and of food supplies by Lockhart’s army was the most devastating vandalism ever perpetrated by the British in India.”  Whilst this may be an overstatement, simply because the British did some pretty unspeakable things in India, especially in the aftermath of the Mutiny, the fact is that Granddad would be considered a war criminal these days.  But a hundred years ago, although this policy had its critics, most British regarded it as essential.  “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”  

Before winter came to the mountains the British withdrew from the Tirah.  The Pathans were cowed but not defeated.  Although my Grandfather’s brigade got out with little trouble, the army rearguard was roughly handled.  Although the British had not won a decisive battle, the unrelenting pressure on the Pathans and the winter hardships caused by the wanton destruction brought the tribesmen round.  In March 1898 the Pathans accepted the Government terms.  The British policy on the North West Frontier, of which my Grandfather was an instrument, was not intended to win the “hearts and minds” of the tribesmen.  It was intended to win their respect.  This I believe it did.  I would like to think that Sir Olaf Caroe was thinking about someone like my Grandfather when he said:  “Englishmen and Pathans looked each other between the eyes, and there they found - a man.”

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