honours for staying
WHAT are called "Battle Honours; are cherished symbols in all our army’s regiments which served the Raj. They are enshrined in the ‘Colours’ that have an iconic importance to regiments, often enough they find a place in regimental insignia and even in oddities of dresswear and they invariably enrich the embroidery of military histories.
The perplexing fact is that these ‘honours’ are not necessarily earned by glorious military victories, but even as a reward for endurance and loyal service under horrifyingly adverse conditions. As such, a Battle Honour may be earned as the outcome of a humiliating military setback.
In the officers’ mess of the regiment to which I belonged, the Marathas, one of the most hallowed objects was a flag on which were emblazoned the ‘Battle Honours’ which had been won in British wars in which the regiment had participated; The Siege of Kut was prominent among them.
That’s right. Kut-al-Amara. It is in Iraq, on the banks of the river Tigris. So what were the Marathas doing in Iraq?
Fighting the Empire’s
wars — that’s what! This was during World War I. Turkey had become
a German ally, and thus an enemy of the British. There was no
strategic reason to attack Iraq except that the British in those days
did not need valid reasons to seize whatever country they wanted to.
The Government of India decided that "all advantages, political
and strategical, point to a move on Baghdad."
If the reasoning behind this operation was unsound, its planning haphazard, its execution was Quixotic swashbucklery. It was commanded by a Major General Charles Townshend, a romantic fire-eater. It ended in disaster. James Morris, the celebrated historian of the Raj has described it as "the most abject capitulation in Britain’s military history."
The entire force soon found itself compelled to give up all thought of seizing Baghdad or Basra, and had to unker down for a back-to-the-wall defence in a loop of the Tigris river called Kut Al-Amara.
Trapped in "malodorous wastes of marsh, tormented by fleas, mosquitoes and sandflies" making do on bare-subsistence rations which, because they included horse-meat, the Marathas seldom touched, in surroundings of unimaginable foulness which made typhus and dysentery endemic, they held on for ten months. "My comrades, you can only be proud of yourselves, "General Townshend told them "Done your duty to King and Empire." Don Quixote himself could not have done better. Then they surrendered, to be made to march to Turkish prisons designed to house criminals — a distance of 900 miles — there to spend another two-and-a-half years.
Here, according to the regimental history, are the casualty figures. Of the 551 men who had been caught up in Kut, 307 had died. Four out of seven.
And so earned another Battle Honour.
What all this brings out is that, in those days soldiers were romantics, prepared to die for upholding abstract concepts such as honour, glory, faith, patriotism. True, they often died in blind obedience to misguided or stupid commanders, but that was all part of the game.
But the sad fact of long-range campaigning was that more soldiers died of cold and hunger and disease and deprivations than by enemy action. If Napoleon’s campaign in Russia was routed by ‘General’ Winter, so were Imperial India’s expeditions to Malaya and Burma during World WarII, defeated by the jungles and jungle fevers. Indeed it is perhaps true of all stagnated wars of attrition, that more soldiers die in them by sickness than by bombs and bullets.
And even those who come through are never quite the same again. They rarely spring back into full bodily and mental vigour and most of them have to give up soldiering as a career. Not many of those 244 who had come out after their Turkish imprisonment could have been retained in the army after their return, but unceremoniously retired on disability pensions.
Ironically as it might seem, England’s most celebrated war poet, Rupert Brooke, in the manner of his death, highlights this stark reality of warfare that is generally glossed over in military histories: that a professional soldier is more likely to die from disease than as the result of military action.
Rupert Brooke’s sonnet, The Soldier encapsulates the very spirit of what makes an Englishman take up the profession of arms. Brookes in this poem expresses the hope that, by his dying in some foreign field its soil would become "a richer dust", because it was the dust of someone whom England bore, shaped, made aware.
Tear-jerking sentiment; but true of its time. Well, it so happened that Rupert Brooke did die, as a soldier and in a foreign field, Turkey. But he died of fever, in a sickbed.
As indeed the Raj’s Indian soldiers died at Kut, of typhoid and dysentery; or their sons, of malaria in the steamy jungles of Burma and Malaya, to be commemorated by the addition of an extra battle honour to their regimental colours.
Perhaps these values are still cherished in some armies. But in their country of origin they have been uncreremoniously booted out. Today’s British soldier is a tougher, hard-nosed person; he has no truck with sentimental junk. He has joined the army to fight the nation’s enemies — in military actions. Not to risk his life or health to such things as typhoid or malaria.
A news item on the BBC’s radio broadcast in early February revealed that some British soldiers who had returned from an assignment in Sierra Leone were suffering from malaria which they had contracted there which had permanently impaired their capacity to lead a full and active life. They are claiming enormous sums in compensation.
Oh, yes, they were given tablets to swallow and told how and when and how many of them they would have to swallow every day to achieve immunity, but this was all done in a hurry, and only a day or so before their departure to Sierra Leone. Just not good enough.
So what about the troops, Indians as
well as British, who fought in Burma and Malaya and died in their
hundreds of malaria and dysentery? The latest thinking on soldiering
seems to be: We joined the forces to fight the enemy, dammit; not to
die of malaria or typhoid. If our service conditions expose us to such
diseases you will just have to compensate us — military glory? —
huh! Battle honours! Ok, but not if it means malaria, too!