Advice to Officers in India/Chapter 7

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CHAPTER VII.


1. CANTONMENTS.— It is time that I should introduce the stranger to the life of cantonments in the interior; and I cannot do that better than by following the career of an Assistant-surgeon.

The disposition of the Bengal army consists of eight divisions,each under a general officer, viz., that of the Presidency, Dinapore, Benares, Cawnpore, Meerut, Sirhind, Lahore, and Peshawur, subdivided into minor brigades, regiments, wings, or companies, cantoned at convenient distances apart from the head quarters of the division.

The European troops are all quartered in barracks erected by Government, the native in huts of mud and mats and thatch, partly at their own expense, partly at that of Government. The officers live in houses, either their own property,or rented at from thirty to sixty rupees a month; but in garrisons they have public quarters assigned them at a moderate rate. The extent of a large cantonment is surprising to a stranger, being from six to eight miles in extent.

2. EUROPEAN BARRACKS.— The European barracks and hospitals are all of the most spacious size, with walls of brick and mortar, floors of tiles or flags of stone, or of a composition of mortar and brick dust, beat up when wet into a consistence as hard as stone, called puckah; the roofs flat, and made of the same material—puckah—sometimes tiled and sometimes thatched. The consumption of timber in such buildings is enormous, requiring a whole forest of saul and teak; and the destruction by the white-ant is so great and so rapid that annual surveys to detect their ravages, annual withdrawal of beams, and substitution of new ones are necessary; thus entailing an immense expense to Government that might be avoided.

When making a recent tour in Palestine where timber fit for building is unknown, I was struck with the ease and economy with which the roofs of houses were arched over with pottery—little conical pots, about six inches long and two to three inches in diameter, being used in the construction of the arches, and covered over with puckah and made waterproof.

It struck me that the roofs of all houses in India ought to be constructed of such materials; they would be impregnable to the white-ants. Good clay is everywhere abundant. The original construction would be much less than buildings of timber roofs and the annual repairs would be avoided; the roof would be a better non-conductor with such a series of air cells. It will be said that the rampart barracks of Fort William, with its arched roofs, are the least desirable quarters in the fort, the echo alone being an intolerable nuisance; but the echo might be easily avoided by facading the arches in the Moorish or Italian style, thus combining elegance with economy.

No barrack better adapted to India could be constructed than one with a centre line of archway and two side ones—a nave and two aisles, combining strength and elegance,light and ventilation, coolness and convenience, and no roof could be constructed, combining greater coolness and economy.

3. NATIVE BARRACKS.—These are of a very inferior description, being long lines of mud huts, covered with thatch or tiles, just high enough to stand in, and just long enough and broad enough for a bed either way. Being on a level with the ground, the floors and walls are excessively damp, and the unhealthiness is increased by exuberance of vegetation in the lines.

The penurious economy of the native character is carried to the utmost extent by the sepoys. Every pice is begrudged in the construction of their huts; and though Government, on every change of a regiment,grant what is called hutting money to repair the lines, yet this does not seem to be expended on the houses. The present system of cantoning native troops is an antiquated one, and Government would save the expense of better accommodation by reducing their invalid and pension list.

4. MODE OF LIFE.—On arriving at a large station, such as Agra, Meerut, or Umballa, he must wait upon the Superintending-surgeon,the General commanding the division,and the Brigadier commanding the station, and report his arrival; and will most likely be ordered to do duty in the hospital of some European corps. The medical staff generally attached to a European regiment is a Surgeon and two or three Assistants. At such division stations there may be four or six .or more regiments cantoned, a European regiment of the line, a regiment of native cavalry, two, three or more regiments of native infantry, and a considerable body of artillery, each having its own medical establishment. The mode of life is rather monotonous; duty is in general very light and occupies but a small portion of the day; and balls,concerets, races, hunts and theatricals are valuable resources for spending time. There is less general sociality than might be expected. Each regiment forms its own little section of society; and it often happens that one half of the residents remain strangers to one another, though meeting daily, for months or years. Nor is this much to be wondered at, considering the great extent of a large cantonment; the houses being scattered over an extent of six or eight miles, and the difficulty of keeping up acquaintance in hot weather at such distances; for all visits, even in the hottest weather, are made during the heat of the day, and all new arrivals are expected to make the first visit.

The signal for rising is the morning gun which is fired at day-break. Then every one starts to his feet, performs a hasty toilet, has his cup of coffee, or tea, or chocolate, mounts his horse, and takes his constitutional ride, goes to parade, or visits his hospital. About eight the officers of the regiment assemble at the mess-house, have a cup of coffee, read the newspapers, discuss the politics of the day, or the events of cantonments, or play billards. About nine o'clock they retire to their own quarters,have a cold bath and breakfast. During the day they may have to attend courts-martial, courts of requests, courts of enquiry, courts of inquest, boards of survey, committees of examination, &c., &c.; or should none of these require their attendance,they spend their time at home. About sunset every one, ladies and all, turn out upon some public course well watered on purpose, and exchange recognizances with their friends; or assemble round some regimental band; then, at dusk, home to dinner, and about ten o'clock retire to bed.

The expence of living, compared with that of England, is very considerably greater. Though income, and window, and road tax, and wheel, and horse, and dog taxes are unknown; and though the staple articles of food are extremely cheap, yet every article of European produce is at least cent. per cent. above the home tariff, and it requires considerable economy for any officer, under the rank of captain, and not of the Staff, to live well on his pay.

5. EUROPEAN REGIMENTS.—On joining a European regiment the Assistant-surgeon will be issued into an extensive society of officers, have the entrée to a well found mess; sit down to an excellent dinner, served up in elegant style, where politeness and decorum preside. He will not be long connected with the regiment until he learns that the majority of cases in hospital are directly or indirectly caused by intoxication, induced in many cases, by the dull, listless, routine of a barrack life. There is, in fact, a constant struggle between the men rushing to their graves and the Surgeon trying to keep them out of it—and his best intentions are often defeated.

If officers, with all the resources of a refined education, and all the indulgences of easy circumstances, so often fall victims to ennui, what must be the situation of the private soldier, whose life during half the year, is little better than solitary confinement; whose duty is little more than a plausible pretext to keep him out of idleness; whose idle hours are wearisome and monotonous to an excessive degree, owing to a general incapacity for intellectual pursuit. It is not surprising that men so situated become listless, gloomy, and melancholy; that they should cultivate the seeds of disease;chop off their fingers;put out their eyes; and malinger incorrigibly, in the hopes of getting invalided;that they should drown their senses in intoxication and die of delirium tremens; that they should commit some act of felony with the express object of being emancipated from military duty by transportation; or, failing in attaining their object by any of the above means, that they should put an end to their sufferings by committing suicide.

Much has been done to improve their condition. Excellent barracks have everywhere been erected without regard to expense; supplied with both punkahs and tatties; cricket grounds, racket courts, and skittle alleys, are open for the playful, schools for the illiterate,libraries for the learned, temperance societies for the temperate; theatres for the comic; chapels for the devout; promotion and rewards for the well conducted, and dry rooms and solitary cells for all offenders. The best hospitals are open to the sick, supplied with every comfort that science or humanity could suggest for their recovery, and when these fail, the sanataria on the hills are had recourse to.

With all these, much still remains to be done to render the life of a soldier in India an agreeable one. The canteen system is, by many, looked upon as the source of many miseries, but its abolition would, I fear, be more correct in theory than in practice. Many of the men have learned intemperate habits before joining the army, and, needing more stimulus in India than at home, will get spirits somewhere; and if they cannot get good grog from the canteen they can always contrive some means of getting bad grog from natives about the lines. Even in the canteens a great improvement has been made by the introduction of wholesome beer and porter, which has greatly reduced the consumption of ardent spirits, and improved the tone of health and the conduct of the men. But the grandest field for improving the condition of the soldier remains still untilled, and that is their mind. An effective medical establishment is, no doubt, a good thing, but a prophylactic mental establishment would be a better. Exercise is valuable, but when combined with what is agreeable and interesting, it would be doubly more so. A system of recreation should be organized as regular as their regimental drill. Some may say that amusement, when compulsory, is no longer amusement; but there is a wide difference between being compelled to amuse ones'self and having no amusement at all. Every European regiment should have its gymnasium under cover and protected from sun and rain, where the men might play rackets, bowls, billiards, concerts, comedies, &c., at all hours of the day. If the racket courts, in almost every cantonment, were covered with roofs, they might be made much more useful than they are at present when without roofs.

Soldiers in all countries assist in the construction of public works; more especially those connected with their own cantonments or barracks. Fatigue duty is common in other British colonies, even in hot ones, as Malta, Corfu, and Gibraltar; but in India, unless at some urgently required field-work, it is unknown. There the British soldier does nothing for himself but clean his accoutrements—every thing else is done for him—whilst,like an unused musket, he becomes rusty and enervated by sheer idleness.

6. SOLDIERS' GARDENS.—Perhaps the best way of giving exercise and occupation to the soldier would be the establishment of regimental vegetable gardens, and telling off a certain number to gardener it. These institutions would be useful in two ways; they would afford healthy exercise to a large number, and wholesome vegetables to the whole regiment; and where vegetables are scarce, as in the Punjaub, would check the predisposition to scurvy, a disease more common in India than is generally believed. A very excellent example of what may be done by such gardens is to be seen at Lahore, constructed under the superintendence of Sir Henry Lawrence, C. B., where an extensive native garden, overgrown with weeds and brushwood, was converted into a place of public resort for the amusement and instruction of the European soldier; where they could spend the day in the shade, or read or play at all sorts of gymnastic games according to their tastes.

I had lately an opportunity of seeing what soldiers could do, and I have no doubt did of their own accord, especially in the camp of the Royals at Komara, and in the French camp before Sebastopol; ornamental, and even useful, little gardens filled with flowers and wholesome vegetables were common amongst their bell tents; and in the fertile valley of the Tchernya, the Zouaves had very extensive ones of a more substantial character. Many a weary hour must have been pleasantly beguiled in the construction of such gardens, though the sowers had so many chances against then surviving to reap the fruits of their labour. If, under such difficulties, such recreations could be found, and such works constructed, what might not be done in a quiet cantonment in India. There is abundance of waste land in the neighbourhood of every European cantonment. The only expense would be the wells and the tools.

7. NATIVE REGIMENT.—After doing duty with an European regiment for a few months the Assistant-surgeon may expect to be posted to the medical charge of a native regiment at some out station. This is a desirable change for a young officer, and he may now,for the first time after his arrival, consider himself settled; he will become a member of the regimental community, an adopted son in a large family, and consider the commanding officer as his father, and each other officer as his brother; and lucky will he be if he finds all things going on harmoniously. But he may find all things the very reverse;he may find many of the officers at variance with one another, a civil war raging in the cantonment, and find it no easy matter to preserve his neutrality. But this he must do if possible, and it is possible, by great discretion, listening to all but repeating nothing. Everything should be confidential where all sides tell their complaints; as confidential as the professional complaints of his patients, which should be sacred.

A regiment of Native Infantry consists of 1,000 men, partly Hindoos, partly Mussumien, —the former preponderating,—all men of high caste, and proud of their profession. The European officers attached to it are, 1 colonel, 1 lieutenant-colonel, 1 major, 6 captains, 10 lieutenants, 5 ensigns, 1 surgeon, or assistant. Such is merely the nominal strength; there are seldom more present than 1 lieutenant-colonel or major, commanding; 2 or 3 captains, 3 or 4 and 4 or 5 ensigns; the rest being absent on staff employment. There are corresponding grades of rank amongst the natives as among the Europeans. Sepoy corresponds with private, naik with corporal, havildar with sergeant, jemmadar with lieutenant, and subadar with captain, the last two are called commissioned officers,but rise from the ranks, and are subordinate to the junior ensign. A European quarter-master, sergeant, and sergeant major are also attached to each regiment and a numerous band.

In most regiments there is a well regulated mess, at which most of the bachelors dine; also a good book club, a band, and a billiard table. It is somewhat remarkable that it is not compulsory on all officers, when present, to join the mess, for nothing contributes so much to the good-fellowship of a regiment as a well ordered mess, and when there is no mess, or when that is attended by only a few, there must be something wrong. A great reform has of late years been effected in the convivial habits of messes; and it is a very rare thing to see an officer in a state of intoxication; and he who so far forgets the respect due to himself and others as to get drunk at the mess table, will, sooner or later, be called to account. What is not tolerated in general, will be unpardonable in a medical officer, who may at any moment be called upon to save a patient from death, and, if drunk on such an emergency, nothing can save his commission.

In the interior, especially at small stations, there are no barracks, but each officer rents a house of his own, or buys one; the latter is the best system, as the owner may inmost cases sell it for as much as it cost him, and thus live rent free. However, in the event of the station being abolished, the owners of houses are allowed no compensation for the loss of property, the allowance for tentage being considered equivalent to meet all contingencies.

There is one part of the establishment of a house which newcomers find very annoying, that is, being obliged to entertain one or two watchmen to prevent being robbed. These are called chokeydars, in most cases members of a caste of thieves; their wages are a sort of black mail imposed upon the residents, and, provided that is paid regularly, there is very little risk of being robbed. When such is the custom, I would advise every one to follow it. The natives, when inclined,are the most expert thieves in the world; to remove the contents of the bed-room in which the master is sleeping is considered an easy matter, to steal the sword from his side,or the revolver from under his pillow requires but the dexterity of a journeyman, and an accomplished artist will succeed in stealing the very bed clothes from under him, leaving the chill of the night to apprise him of his loss.

The uniform of officers of Native Infantry is almost the same as that of H. M.service,the chief distinction being in the button and the red stripe of the trouser. That of the medical officers was formerly the same as other officers of the regiment, but of late a fixed uniform has been assigned the service,the same in all branches, a great improvement upon the old system, which imposed a new uniform upon every change of regiment, and a great extra expense. Still there is something wanting in the dress of medical officers to identify them in action;but of this anon.

8. IMPORTANCE OF MEDICAL OFFICERS.—To a right thinking man, few positions in life are more serious or more responsible than that of a medical officer in charge of an out station, with the lives of two or three thousand individuals entrusted to his care, where he may, at any moment, be called to attend cases of imminent danger without time for deliberation, with no other to consult or assist him with advice, or aid him in an operation. Nevertheless, the doctor, under ordinary circumstances,is sometimes looked on as an idler—as one that does but little for his allowances. His pursuits, private as well as professional, remarkably different though not the less important,meet with but little sympathy; nay, in some degree isolate him from the rest of the officers; and though linked in the same regimental chain, he often forms an extreme link—as a hook or an eye. The young surgeon must not expect to get on without occasional annoyances. He will be importuned for sick certificates when his own conscience tells him such were not required, and if they are refused resentment may follow. He may detect a skulker in malingering, and his commanding officer may shield him from punishment. He may give a certificate to an officer to go to the hills, and the commanding officer, jealous of such power,may vent his jealousy in petty spite. The commanding officer may be so indiscreet as to meddle in the performance of his medical duties, and this he must respectfully decline. He must not expect to please all parties, but the mens conscia recti must console him for such rare exceptions.

However, opportunities will arise when he will be amply repaid for occasional petty annoyances; to rescue the young, the brave, and the beautiful, from an untimely tomb, and restore them to the society of their afflicted friends; and their usefulness to the world is no small source of self-congratulation; and it is the most gratifying retrospect of my service in India, that I never lost a lady patient, and that I passed through the late Burmese war without losing an officer of my charge. When some scourging epidemic crosses the frontier, enters the camp or the cantonment, panic strikes the little community, thins the ranks of the soldiers, crowds the hospitals with sick, and threatens to sweep away the native and the European, indiscriminately, to an unexpected grave, the doctor will be looked up to as the guardian of the public health, as the protector, to whose skill one and all may soon be indebted for the preservation of their lives. Then is the time to have his merits duly appreciated; then all his professional science is called into action; then all his physical energy, and all his moral courage, find full scope;—then is the time to gather in a rich harvest of good opinions, that will afford food for envy, malice, and all uncharitableness for years thereafter, and lay a solid foundation for his professional character. Should he himself be attacked by the malady, fortunate will it be for him if he retain his reasoning powers unimpaired, and be able to conduct his own case to a successful issue. And if it should be his fate to fall a victim, he will have the consolation of dying in the cause of humanity, in the protection of his friends, and the service of his country.

No small share of courage is required to encounter an attack of cholera; yet the world seldom give medical men credit for it. The officer who heads a successful attack against a powerful enemy, or sustains their charge unflinchingly, is looked upon as a hero, and rewarded, as he deserves, with honour and promotion. The physician, who with no less courage encounters the assault of death, when scores of stronger men than himself fall around him, is too often passed over unheeded, unhonoured and forgotten.

9, HOSPITAL ATTENDANCE.—The hospital visits are made at sunrise and sunset. All medicines should, if possible, be taken in presence of the surgeon; and, with proper arrangement, this, in the majority of cases can be done, by having a stock of doses likely to be required ready prepared and carried round in a tray, each patient having his lota or katora ready to receive it. Sepoys have a prejudice against drinking out of a glass; but they will not object to the contents of the glass if poured into their own vessel, and by a man of good caste.

The authority of the Surgeon is paramount in his hospital, and though the commanding officer may inspect, yet he is forbidden by standing orders from any official interference in medical duty.

Sepoys are in general very tractable patients, and the best possible subjects for either physic or surgery. Their diseases are fewer than those of European troops, much more manageable, uncomplicated with excess in either eating or drinking. The low state of their constitutions is most favourable for the treatment of bodily injuries, and their recoveries are quite wonderful. They are quiet, orderly men, most temperate in their living, cleanly in their habits, well-formed and well-featured, and far above the standard height of Europeans; respectful to their officers, proud of their profession, but most bigotted to their religion and most intolerant of all interference. The young Surgeon must therefore learn to respect their prejudices and their superstitions, for they are the fundamental principles of their faith, and as sacred in their own eyes as the Ten Commandments are in his. He must even consider himself an unclean being, and not venture to touch with his own hands the medicines he prescribes. Of all things, he must guard against coming near them when cooking. Every man cooks his food with his own hands, generally out of doors; and to guard against contamination, marks out a circle about six feet in diameter, in the centre of which he cooks and eats. Even in the hospital, the sepoys make their own arrangements for their meals; and if too sick to cook for themselves,one of their comrades is allowed to wait upon him. Medical comforts only, such as wine, sago, arrow-root, sugar or tea, &c., are supplied at the public expense. A greater outrage could not be offered them, than by stepping into this tabooed circle; and were even the commanding officer of the corps to do so, a strict Hindoo would consider his meal polluted and cast it to the dogs. I have seen a poor villager stop in the midst of his repast and scatter his morsel of rice upon the ground, because I inadvertently passed so near that my shadow fell upon it; and I have witnessed an old woman returning from the Ganges with a jar of water on her head, pour it out as an abomination, because I suddenly met her on the foot-path. He must not be annoyed,if now and then some patient, in articulo mortis, distrusts his prescriptions and prefers being treated by charms and sacrifices in his own way; for in extreme cases they are very apt to return to their birth-right notions, and invoke the aid of some of their numerous deities.

In fatal cases, the Surgeon must dispense with autopsy, as sepoys have the most inveterate pre-judice to that being done; and consider such an act an affront and disgrace inflicted upon the surviving relations.

When change of air is thought necessary, the Surgeon's recommendation for leave to visit his home for six or more months is almost always granted; and the invalid generally returns to his regiment in robust health.

10. RECRUITING.—One of the most important duties of medical officers is the examination of recruits, for without their certificate of efficiency no sepoy is enrolled in a regular regiment; and his firmness will often be put to the test by the men of his regiment trying to pass inefficient youths, their relations, into the service. Every recruit should therefore be stripped and carefully examined from head to foot, in private, of course. The natives of the upper provinces from which recruits are chiefly drawn, are not liable to many constitutional disorders unfitting them for arms. Scrofula, that blight of British climate, is little known amongst them. Few races have so little deformity;and young lads of fourteen or sixteen, though tall, slender, and even feminine, provided they are straight and have well-developed chests, will improve wonderfully after having eaten the Company's salt for a year, and turn out effective men.

11. MALINGERING.— This is not a commonpractice amongst sepoys. When such is suspected, the state of the pulse, the temperature of the skin, the colour of the eyes, or of the tongue, (if not a pawn eater) are good guides to a diagnosis. One should, when any obscurity exists, give the man the benefit of the doubt, for it is better to be imposed upon for a time than run the risk of refusing admission to a man actually unwell,and who might die in the lines. The sepoy is at no period of his service so apt to malinger as when he has served long enough to be entitled to his pension, for he has perseverance enough to induce stiff joints, contraction of muscles and tendons, and shrivelled limbs, by sitting doggedly in one posture. On such occasions, I have seen both natives and Europeans convicted of gross malingering by chloroform, the contracted joints that resisted all means of extension immediately becoming relaxed. Eck mussuck thunda panee, prescribed a posteriori, is with sepoys a fundamental cure for many doubtful ailments, and can do no harm.

12. GENERAL CHARACTER OF SEPOYS.—I believe I am correct in saying that in no army of the world is there less crime and less punishment than in a regiment of native infantry. Courts martial are therefore very rare. Flogging, though at one time abolished and since made legal, is so uncommon that I have never seen a sepoy flogged. Their fidelity to their colours is as conspicuous as their good conduct in cantonments and their courage in the field. During the late Punjaub war, the strongest temptations were held out to them to desert; but, I believe, not, half-a-dozen men went over to the enemy. The sepoy is born a soldier, and the esprit de corps grows with him as he grows; his father has, perhaps, died in battle, and his mother and his sisters are comfortably pensioned by Government. He looks to the Company's service as the means of an easy and honourable livelihood, to his pension as the support of his old age, and to his old regiment as the sphere in which his sons and his sons' sons may follow Ids example. Such men are, therefore, worthy of our respect and esteem!

13. RELIEFS.— Regiments seldom remain longer at one station than three years, when they are removed to some other, two or three months' march distant. The order for the relief of all troops for the season generally appears in August, and few subjects give rise to so much speculation and excitement. In Bengal all marches,unless on emergencies, are made in the cold weather, the 15th November being the general time for breaking ground and the 15th March as late as is found agreeable in tents. Most officers look forward to a long march, not as an inconvenience, but as an agreeable tour and a welcome release from the dull monotony of a life in cantonment. Probably the regiment may be ordered to take the field, and form part of a grand army against some powerful enemy.