Part 1 out of 5
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WHEN INDIA CAME TO FIGHT IN FLANDERS
BY TALBOT MUNDY
King--of the Khyber Rifles, The Winds of the World, etc.
ILLUSTRATED BY J. CLEMENT COLL
I take leave to dedicate this book to Mr. Elmer Davis, through whose
friendly offices I was led to track down the hero of these
adventures and to find the true account of them even better than the
daily paper promised.
Had Ranjoor Singh and his men been Muhammadans their accomplishment
would have been sufficiently wonderful. For Sikhs to attempt what
they carried through, even under such splendid leadership as Ranjoor
Singh's, was to defy the very nth degree of odds. To have tried to
tell the tale otherwise than in Hira Singh's own words would have
been to varnish gold. Amid the echoes of the roar of the guns in
Flanders, the world is inclined to overlook India's share in it all
and the stout proud loyalty of Indian hearts. May this tribute to
the gallant Indian gentlemen who came to fight our battles serve to
remind its readers that they who give their best, and they who take,
One hundred Indian troops of the
British Army have arrived at Kabul,
Afghanistan, after a four months'
march from Constantinople. The men
were captured in Flanders by the
Germans and were sent to Turkey in the
hope that, being Mohammedans, they
might join the Turks. But they
remained loyal to Great Britain and
finally escaped, heading for Afghanistan.
They now intend to join their
regimental depot in India, so it
New York Times, July, 1915
Let a man, an arrow, and an answer each go straight. Each is his own
witness. God is judge.
A Sikh who must have stood about six feet without his turban--and
only imagination knows how stately he was with it--loomed out of the
violet mist of an Indian morning and scrutinized me with calm brown
eyes. His khaki uniform, like two of the medal ribbons on his
breast, was new, but nothing else about him suggested rawness.
Attitude, grayness, dignity, the unstudied strength of his
politeness, all sang aloud of battles won. Battles with himself they
may have been--but they were won.
I began remembering ice-polished rocks that the glaciers once
dropped along Maine valleys, when his quiet voice summoned me back
to India and the convalescent camp beyond whose outer gate I stood.
Two flags on lances formed the gate and the boundary line was mostly
imaginary; but one did not trespass, because at about the point
where vision no longer pierced the mist there stood a sentry, and
the grounding of a butt on gravel and now and then a cough announced
others beyond him again.
"I have permission," I said, "to find a certain Risaldar-major
Ranjoor Singh, and to ask him questions."
He smiled. His eyes, betraying nothing but politeness, read the very
depths of mine.
"Has the sahib credentials?" he asked. So I showed him the permit
covered with signatures that was the one scrap of writing left in my
possession after several searchings.
"Thank you," he said gravely. "There were others who had no permits.
Will you walk with me through the camp?"
That was new annoyance, for with such a search as I had in mind what
interest could there be in a camp for convalescent Sikhs? Tents
pitched at intervals--a hospital marquee--a row of trees under which
some of the wounded might sit and dream the day through-these were
all things one could imagine without journeying to India. But there
was nothing to do but accept, and I walked beside him, wishing I
could stride with half his grace.
"There are no well men here," he told me. "Even the heavy work about
the camp is done by convalescents."
"Then why are you here?" I asked, not trying to conceal admiration
for his strength and stature.
"I, too, am not yet quite recovered."
"From what?" I asked, impudent because I felt desperate. But I drew
"I do not know the English name for my complaint," he said. (But he
spoke English better than I, he having mastered it, whereas I was
only born to its careless use.)
"How long do you expect to remain on the sick list?" I asked,
because a woman once told me that the way to make a man talk is to
seem to be interested in himself.
"Who knows?" said he.
He showed me about the camp, and we came to a stand at last under
the branches of an enormous mango tree. Early though it was, a Sikh
non-commissioned officer was already sitting propped against the
trunk with his bandaged feet stretched out in front of him--a
peculiar attitude for a Sikh.
"That one knows English," my guide said, nodding. And making me a
most profound salaam, he added: "Why not talk with him? I have
duties. I must go."
The officer turned away, and I paid him the courtesy due from one
man to another. It shall always be a satisfying memory that I raised
my hat to him and that he saluted me.
"What is that officer's name?" I asked, and the man on the ground
seemed astonished that I did not know.
"Risaldar-major Ranjoor Singh bahadur!" he said.
For a second I was possessed by the notion of running after him,
until I recalled that he had known my purpose from the first and
that therefore his purpose must have been deliberate. Obviously, I
would better pursue the opportunity that in his own way He had given
"What is your name?" I asked the man on the ground.
"Hira Singh," he answered, and at that I sat down beside him. For I
had also heard of Hira Singh.
He made quite a fuss at first because, he said, the dusty earth
beneath a tree was no place for a sahib. But suddenly he jumped to
the conclusion I must be American, and ceased at once to be troubled
about my dignity. On the other hand, he grew perceptibly less
distant. Not more friendly, perhaps, but less guarded.
"You have talked with Sikhs in California?" he asked, and I nodded.
"Then you have heard lies, sahib. I know the burden of their song. A
bad Sikh and a bad Englishman alike resemble rock torn loose. The
greater the height from which they fall, the deeper they dive into
the mud. Which is the true Sikh, he who marched with us or he who
abuses us? Yet I am told that in America men believe what hired
Sikhs write for the German papers.
"No man hired me, sahib, although one or two have tried. When I came
of age I sought acceptance in the army, and was chosen among many.
When my feet are healed I shall return to duty. I am a true Sikh. If
the sahib cares to listen, I will tell him truth that has not been
written in the papers."
So, having diagnosed my nationality and need, he proceeded to tell
me patiently things that many English are in the dark about, both
because of the censorship and because of the prevailing superstition
that the English resent being told--he stabbing and sweeping at the
dust with a broken twig and making little heaps and dents by way of
illustration,--I sitting silent, brushing away the flies.
Day after day I sought him soon after dawn when they were rolling up
the tent-flaps. I shared the curry and chapatties that a trooper
brought to him at noon, and I fetched water for him to drink from
time to time. It was dusk each day before I left him, so that, what
with his patience and my diligence, I have been able to set down the
story as he told it, nearly in his own words.
But of Risaldar-major Ranjoor Singh bahadur in the flesh, I have not
had another glimpse. I went in search of him the very first evening,
only to learn that he had "passed his medical" that afternoon and
had returned at once to active service.
* * * * * * *
We Sikhs have a proverb, sahib, that the ruler and the ruled are
one. That has many sides to it of which one is this: India having
many moods and minds, the British are versatile. Not altogether
wise, for who is? When, for instance, did India make an end of
wooing foolishness? Since the British rule India, they may wear her
flowers, but they drink her dregs. They may bear her honors, but her
blame as well. As the head is to the body, the ruler and the ruled
Yet, as I understand it, when this great war came there was
disappointment in some quarters and surprise in others because we,
who were known not to be contented, did not rise at once in
rebellion. To that the answer is faith finds faith. It is the great
gift of the British that they set faith in the hearts of other men.
There were dark hours, sahib, before it was made known that there
was war. The censorship shut down on us, and there were a thousand
rumors for every one known fact. There had come a sudden swarm of
Sikhs from abroad, and of other men--all hirelings--who talked much
about Germany and a change of masters. There were dark sayings, and
arrests by night. Men with whom we talked at dusk had disappeared at
dawn. Ranjoor Singh, not yet bahadur but risaldar-major, commanding
Squadron D of my regiment, Outram's Own, became very busy in the
bazaars; and many a night I followed him, not always with his
knowledge. I intended to protect him, but I also wished to know what
the doings were.
There was a woman. Did the sahib ever hear of a plot that had not a
woman in it? He went to the woman's house. In hiding, I heard her
sneer at him. I heard her mock him. I would have doubted him forever
if I had heard her praise him, but she did not, and I knew him to be
a true man.
Ours is more like the French than the British system; there is more
intercourse between officer and non-commissioned officer and man.
But Ranjoor Singh is a silent man, and we of his squadron, though we
respected him, knew little of what was in his mind. When there began
to be talk about his knowing German, and about his secrecy, and
about his nights spent at HER place, who could answer? We all knew
he knew German.
There were printed pamphlets from God-knows-where, and letters from
America, that made pretense at explanations; and there were spies
who whispered. My voice, saying I had listened and seen and that I
trusted, was as a quail's note when the monsoon bursts. None heard.
So that in the end I held my tongue. I even began to doubt.
Then a trooper of ours was murdered in the bazaar, and Ranjoor
Singh's servant disappeared. Within an hour Ranjoor Singh was gone,
Then came news of war. Then our officers came among us to ask
whether we are willing or not to take a hand in this great quarrel.
Perhaps in that hour if they had not asked us we might have judged
that we and they were not one after all.
But they did ask, and let a man, an arrow, and an answer each go
straight, say we. Our Guru tells us Sikhs should fight ever on the
side of the oppressed; the weaker the oppressed, the more the reason
for our taking part with them. Our officers made no secret about the
strength of the enemy, and we made none with them of our feeling in
the matter. They were proud men that day. Colonel Kirby was a very
proud man. We were prouder than he, except when we thought of
Then, as it were out of the night itself, there came a message by
word of mouth from Ranjoor Singh saying he will be with us before
the blood shall run. We were overjoyed at that, and talked about it
far into the night; yet when dawn had come doubt again had hold of
us, and I think I was the only Sikh in the regiment ready to swear
to his integrity. Once, at least a squadron of us had loved him to
the death because we thought him an example of Sikh honor. Now only
I and our British officers believed in him.
We are light cavalry. We were first of all the Indian regiments to
ride out of Delhi and entrain at a station down the line. That was
an honor, and the other squadrons rode gaily, but D Squadron hung
its head. I heard men muttering in the ranks and some I rebuked to
silence, but my rebukes lightened no man's heart. In place of
Ranjoor Singh rode Captain Fellowes, promoted from another squadron,
and noticing our lack of spirit, he did his best to inspire us with
fine words and manly bearing; but we felt ashamed that our own Sikh
major was not leading us, and did not respond to encouragement.
Yet when we rode out of Delhi Gate it was as if a miracle took
place. A stiffening passed along the squadron. A trooper caught
sight of Ranjoor Singh standing beside some bullock carts, and
passed the word. I, too, saw him. He was with a Muhammadan bunnia,
and was dressed to resemble one himself.
The trooper who was first to see him--a sharp-eyed man--he died at
Ypres--Singh means lion, sahib--now recognized the man who stood
with him. "That bunnia," said he, "is surely none other than the
European who gave us the newspaper clippings about Sikhs not allowed
to land in Canada. See--he is disguised like a fool. Are the police
asleep," said he, "that such thieves dare sun themselves?"
It was true enough, sahib. The man in disguise was German, and we
remembered again that Ranjoor Singh knew German. From that moment we
rode like new men--I, too, although I because I trusted Ranjoor
Singh now more than ever; they, because they trusted no longer at
all, and he can shoulder what seem certainties whom doubt unmans. No
word, but a thought that a man could feel passed all down the line,
that whatever our officer might descend to being, the rank and file
would prove themselves faithful to the salt. Thenceforward there was
nothing in our bearing to cause our officers anxiety.
You might wonder, sahib, why none broke ranks to expose both men on
the spot. I did not because I trusted Ranjoor Singh. I reasoned he
would never have dared be seen by us if he truly were a traitor. It
seemed to me I knew how his heart must burn to be riding with us.
They did not because they would not willingly have borne the shame.
I tell no secret when I say there has been treason in the Punjab;
the whole world knows that. Yet few understand that the cloak under
which it all made headway was the pride of us true ones, who would
not own to treason in our midst. Pride and the shadow of shame are
one, sahib, but who believes it until the shame bears fruit?
Before the last squadron had ridden by, Captain Warrington, our
adjutant, also caught sight of Ranjoor Singh. He spurred after
Colonel Kirby, and Colonel Kirby came galloping back; but before he
could reach Delhi Gate Ranjoor Singh had disappeared and D Squadron
was glad to the last man.
"Let us hope he may die like a rat in a hole and bring no more shame
on us!" said Gooja Singh, and many assented.
"He said he will be with us before the blood shall run!" said I.
"Then we know whose blood shall run first!" said the trooper nearest
me, and those who heard him laughed. So I held my tongue. There is
no need of argument while a man yet lives to prove himself. I had
charge of the party that burned that trooper's body. He was one of
the first to fall after we reached France.
Colonel Kirby, looking none too pleased, came trotting back to us,
and we rode on. And we entrained. Later on we boarded a great ship
in Bombay harbor and put to sea, most of us thinking by that time of
families and children, and some no doubt of money-lenders who might
foreclose on property in our absence, none yet suspecting that the
government will take steps to prevent that. It is not only the
British officer, sahib, who borrows money at high interest lest his
shabbiness shame the regiment.
We were at sea almost before the horses were stalled properly, and
presently there were officers and men and horses all sick together
in the belly of the ship, with chests and bales and barrels broken
loose among us. The this-and-that-way motion of the ship caused
horses to fall down, and men were too sick to help them up again. I
myself lay amid dung like a dead man--yet vomiting as no dead man
ever did--and saw British officers as sick as I laboring like
troopers. There are more reasons than one why we Sikhs respect our
The coverings of the ship were shut tight, lest the waves descend
among us. The stench became worse than any I had ever known,
although I learned to know a worse one later; but I will speak of
that at the proper time. It seemed to us like a poor beginning and
that thought put little heart in us.
But the sickness began to lessen after certain days, and as the
movements grew easier the horses were able to stand. Then we became
hungry, who had thought we would never wish to eat again, and double
rations were served out to compensate for days when we had eaten
nothing. Then a few men sought the air, and others--I among them--
went out of curiosity to see why the first did not return. So, first
by dozens and then by hundreds, we went and stood full of wonder,
holding to the bulwark for the sake of steadiness.
It may be, sahib, that if I had the tongue of a woman and of a
priest and of an advocate--three tongues in one--I might then tell
the half of what there was to wonder at on that long journey. Surely
not otherwise. Being a soldier, well trained in all subjects
becoming to a horseman but slow of speech, I can not tell the
We--who had thought ourselves alone in all the sea--were but one
ship among a number. The ships proceeded after this manner--see, I
draw a pattern--with foam boiling about each. Ahead of us were many
ships bearing British troops--cavalry, infantry and guns. To our
right and left and behind us were Sikh, Gurkha, Dogra, Pathan,
Punjabi, Rajput--many, many men, on many ships. Two and thirty ships
I counted at one time, and there was the smoke of others over the
Above the bulwark of each ship, all the way along it, thus, was a
line of khaki. Ahead of us that was helmets. To our right and left
and behind us it was turbans. The men of each ship wondered at all
the others. And most of all, I think, we wondered at the great gray
war-ships plunging in the distance; for none knew whence they had
come; we saw none in Bombay when we started. It was not a sight for
the tongue to explain, sahib, but for a man to carry in his heart. A
sight never to be forgotten. I heard no more talk about a poor
We came to Aden, and stopped to take on coal and water. There was no
sign of excitement there, yet no good news. It was put in Orders of
the Day that the Allies are doing as well as can be expected pending
arrival of re-enforcements; and that is not the way winners speak.
Later, when we had left Aden behind, our officers came down among us
and confessed that all did not go well. We said brave things to
encourage them, for it is not good that one's officers should doubt.
If a rider doubts his horse, what faith shall the horse have in his
rider? And so it is with a regiment and its officers.
After some days we reached a narrow sea--the Red Sea, men call it,
although God knows why--a place full of heat and sand-storms, shut
in on either hand by barren hills. There was no green thing any-
where. There we passed islands where men ran down to the beach to
shout and wave helmets--unshaven Englishmen, who trim the lights. It
must have been their first intimation of any war. How else can they
have known of it? We roared back to them, all of the men on all of
the ships together, until the Red Sea was the home of thunder, and
our ships' whistles screamed them official greeting through the din.
I spent many hours wondering what those men's thoughts might be.
Never was such a sight, sahib! Behind our ships was darkness, for
the wind was from the north and the funnels belched forth smoke that
trailed and spread. I watched it with fascination until one day
Gooja Singh came and watched beside me near the stern. His rank was
the same as mine, although I was more than a year his senior. There
was never too much love between us. Step by step I earned promotion
first, and he was jealous. But on the face of thing's we were
friends. Said he to me after a long time of gazing at the smoke, "I
think there is a curtain drawn. We shall never return by that road!"
I laughed at him. "Look ahead!" said I. "Let us leave our rear to
the sweepers and the crows!"
Nevertheless, what he had said remained in my mind, as the way of
dark sayings is. Yet why should the word of a fool have the weight
of truth? There are things none can explain. He proved right in the
end, but gained nothing. Behold me; and where is Gooja Singh? I made
no prophecy, and he did. Can the sahib explain?
Day after day we kept overtaking other ships, most of them hurrying
the same way as ourselves. Not all were British, but the crews all
cheered us, and we answered, the air above our heads alive with
waving arms and our trumpets going as if we rode to the king of
England's wedding. If their hearts burned as ours did, the crews of
those ships were given something worth remembering.
We passed one British ship quite close, whose captain was an elderly
man with a gray beard. He so waved his helmet that it slipped from
his grasp and went spinning into the sea. When we lost him in our
smoke his crew of Chinese were lowering a boat to recover the
helmet. We heard the ships behind us roaring to him. Strange that I
should wonder to this day whether those Chinese recovered the
helmet! It looked like a good new one. I have wondered about it on
the eve of action, and in the trenches, and in the snow on outpost
duty. I wonder about it now. Can the sahib tell me why an old man's
helmet should be a memory, when so much that was matter of life and
death has gone from mind? I see that old man and his helmet now, yet
I forget the feel of Flanders mud.
We reached Suez, and anchored there. At Suez lay many ships in front
of us, and a great gray battle-ship saluted us with guns, we all
standing to attention while our ensigns dipped. I thought it strange
that the battle-ship should salute us first, until I recalled how
when I was a little fellow I once saw a viceroy salute my
grandfather. My grandfather was one of those Sikhs who marched to
help the British on the Ridge at Delhi when the British cause seemed
lost. The British have long memories for such things.
Later there came an officer from the battle-ship and there was hot
argument on our upper bridge. The captain of our ship grew very
angry, but the officer from the battle-ship remained polite, and
presently he took away with him certain of our stokers. The captain
of our ship shouted after him that there were only weaklings and
devil's leavings left, but later we discovered that was not true.
We fretted at delay at Suez. Ships may only enter the canal one by
one, and while we waited some Arabs found their way on board from a
small boat, pretending to sell fruit and trinkets. They assured us
that the French and British were already badly beaten, and that
Belgium had ceased to be. To test them, we asked where Belgium was,
and they did not know; but they swore it had ceased to be. They
advised us to mutiny and refuse to go on to our destruction.
They ought to have been arrested, but we were enraged and drove them
from the ship with blows. We upset their little boat by hauling at
the rope with which they had made it fast, and they were forced to
swim for shore. One of them was taken by a shark, which we
considered an excellent omen, and the others were captured as they
swam and taken ashore in custody.
I think others must have visited the other ships with similar tales
to tell, because after that, sahib, there was something such as I
think the world never saw before that day. In that great fleet of
ships we were men of many creeds and tongues--Sikh, Muhammadan,
Dorga, Gurkha (the Dogra and Gurkha be both Hindu, though of
different kinds), Jat, Punjabi, Rajput, Guzerati, Pathan, Mahratta--
who can recall how many! No one language could have sufficed to
explain one thought to all of us--no, nor yet ten languages! No word
passed that my ear caught. Yet, ship after ship became aware of
All on our knees on all the ships together we prayed thereafter
thrice a day, our British officers standing bareheaded beneath the
upper awnings, the chin-strap marks showing very plainly on their
cheeks as the way of the British is when they feel emotion. We
prayed, sahib, lest the war be over before we could come and do our
share. I think there was no fear in all that fleet except the fear
lest we come too late. A man might say with truth that we prayed to
more gods than one, but our prayer was one. And we received one
One morning our ship got up anchor unexpectedly and began to enter
the canal ahead of all the ships bearing Indian troops. The men on
the other ships bayed to us like packs of wolves, in part to give
encouragement but principally jealous. We began to expect to see
France now at any minute--I, who can draw a map of the world and set
the chief cities in the proper place, being as foolish as the rest.
There lay work as well as distance between us and France.
We began to pass men laboring to make the canal banks ready against
attack, but mostly they had no news to give us. Yet at one place,
where we tied to the bank because of delay ahead, a man shouted from
a sand-dune that the kaiser of Germany has turned Muhammadan and now
summons all Islam to destroy the French and British. Doubtless he
mistook us for Muhammadans, being neither the first nor the last to
make that mistake.
So we answered him we were on our way to Berlin to teach the kaiser
his new creed. One man threw a lump of coal at him and he
disappeared, but presently we heard him shouting to the men on the
ship behind. They truly were Muhammadans, but they jeered at him as
loud as we.
After that our officers set us to leading horses up and down the
deck in relays, partly, no doubt, to keep us from talking with other
men on shore, but also for the horses' sake. I remember how flies
came on board and troubled the horses very much. At sea we had
forgotten there were such things as flies, and they left us again
when we left the canal.
At Port Said, which looks like a mean place, we stopped again for
coal. Naked Egyptians--big black men, as tall as I and as straight--
carried it up an inclined plank from a float and cast it by
basketfuls through openings in the ship's side. We made up a purse
of money for them, both officers and men contributing, and I was
told there was a coaling record broken.
After that we steamed at great speed along another sea, one ship at
a time, just as we left the canal, our ship leading all those that
bore Indian troops. And now there were other war-ships--little ones,
each of many funnels--low in the water, yet high at the nose--most
swift, that guarded us on every hand, coming and going as the sharks
do when they search the seas for food.
A wonder of a sight, sahib! Blue water--blue water--bluest ever I
saw, who have seen lake water in the Hills! And all the ships
belching black smoke, and throwing up pure white foam--and the last
ship so far behind that only masts and smoke were visible above the
sky-line--but more, we knew, behind that again, and yet more coming!
I watched for hours at a stretch without weariness, and thought
again of Ranjoor Singh. Surely, thought I, his three campaigns
entitled him to this. Surely he was a better man than I. Yet here
was I, and no man knew where he was. But when I spoke of Ranjoor
Singh men spat, so I said nothing.
After a time I begged leave to descend an iron ladder to the bowels
of the ship, and I sat on the lowest rung watching the British
firemen at the furnaces. They cursed me in the name of God, their
teeth and the whites of their eyes gleaming, but their skin black as
night with coal dust. The sweat ran down in rivers between ridges of
grime on the skin of their naked bellies. When a bell rang and the
fire doors opened they glowed like pictures I have seen of devils.
They were shadows when the doors clanged shut again. Considering
them, I judged that they and we were one.
I climbed on deck again and spoke to a risaldar. He spoke to Colonel
Kirby. Watching from below, I saw Colonel Kirby nod--thus, like a
bird that takes an insect; and he went and spoke to the captain of
the ship. Presently there was consultation, and a call for
volunteers. The whole regiment responded. None, however, gave me
credit for the thought. I think that risaldar accepted praise for
it, but I have had no opportunity to ask him. He died in Flanders.
We went down and carried coal as ants that build a hill, piling it
on the iron floor faster than the stokers could use it, toiling
nearly naked like them lest we spoil our uniforms. We grew grimy,
but the ship shook, and the water boiled behind us. None of the
other ships was able to overtake us, although we doubted not they
There grew great good will between us and the stokers. We were
clumsy from inexperience, and they full of laughter at us, but each
judged the spirit with which the other labored. Once, where I stood
directing near the bunker door, two men fell on me and covered me
with coal. The stokers laughed and I was angry. I had hot words
ready on my tongue, but a risaldar prevented me.
"This is their trade, not ours," said he. "Look to it lest any laugh
at us when the time for our own trade comes!" I judged that well
spoken, and remembered it.
There came at last a morning when the sun shone through jeweled
mist--a morning with scent in it that set the horses in the hold to
snorting--a dawn that smiled, as if the whole universe in truth were
God's. A dawn, sahib, such as a man remembers to judge other dawns
by. That day we came in sight of France.
Doubtless you suppose we cheered when we saw Marseilles at last. Yet
I swear to you we were silent. We were disappointed because we could
see no enemy and hear no firing of great guns! We made no more
commotion than the dead while our ship steamed down the long harbor
entrance, and was pushed and pulled by little tugs round a corner to
a wharf. A French war-ship and some guns in a fort saluted us, and
our ship answered; but on shore there seemed no excitement and our
hearts sank. We thought that for all our praying we had come too
But the instant they raised the gangway a French officer and several
British officers came running up it, and they all talked earnestly
with Colonel Kirby on the upper bridge--we watching as if we had but
an eye and an ear between us. Presently all our officers were
summoned and told the news, and without one word being said to any
of us we knew there was neither peace as yet, nor any surpassing
victory fallen to our side. So then instantly we all began to speak
at once, even as apes do when sudden fear has passed.
There were whole trains of trucks drawn up in the street beside the
dock and we imagined we were to be hurried at once toward the
fighting. But not so, for the horses needed rest and exercise and
proper food before they could be fit to carry us. Moreover, there
were stores to be offloaded from the ships, we having brought with
us many things that it would not be so easy to replace in a land at
war. Whatever our desire, we were forced to wait, and when we had
left the ship we were marched through the streets to a camp some
little distance out along the Estagus Road. Later in the day, and
the next day, and the next, infantry from the other ships followed
us, for they, too, had to wait for their stores to be offloaded.
The French seemed surprised to see us. They were women and children
for the most part, for the grown men had been called up. In our
country we greet friends with flowers, but we had been led to
believe that Europe thinks little of such manners. Yet the French
threw flowers to us, the little children bringing arms full and
Thenceforward, day after day, we rode at exercise, keeping ears and
eyes open, and marveling at France. No man complained, although our
very bones ached to be on active service. And no man spoke of
Ranjoor Singh, who should have led D Squadron. Yet I believe there
was not one man in all D Squadron but thought of Ranjoor Singh all
the time. He who has honor most at heart speaks least about it. In
one way shame on Ranjoor Singh's account was a good thing, for it
made the whole regiment watchful against treachery.
Treachery, sahib--we had yet to learn what treachery could be!
Marseilles is a half-breed of a place, part Italian, part French.
The work was being chiefly done by the Italians, now that all able-
bodied Frenchmen were under arms. And Italy not yet in the war!
Sahib, I swear to you that all the spies in all the world seemed at
that moment to be Italian, and all in Marseilles at once! There were
spies among the men who brought our stores. Spies who brought the
hay. Spies among the women who walked now and then through our lines
to admire, accompanied by officers who were none too wide-awake if
they were honest. You would not believe how many pamphlets reached
us, printed in our tongue and some of them worded very cunningly.
There were men who could talk Hindustanee who whispered to us to
surrender to the Germans at the first opportunity, promising in that
case that we shall be well treated. The German kaiser, these men
assured us, had truly turned Muhammadan; as if that were anything to
Sikhs, unless perhaps an additional notch against him! I was told
they mistook the Muhammadans in another camp for Sikhs, and were
spat on for their pains!
Nor were all the spies Italians, after all. Our hearts went out to
the French. We were glad to be on their side--glad to help them
defend their country. I shall be glad to my dying day that I have
struck a blow for France. Yet the only really dangerous man of all
who tried to corrupt us in Marseilles was a French officer of the
rank of major, who could speak our tongue as well as I. He said with
sorrow that the French were already as good as vanquished, and that
he pitied us as lambs sent to the slaughter. The part, said he, of
every wise man was to go over to the enemy before the day should
come for paying penalties.
I told what he had said to me to a risaldar, and the risaldar spoke
with Colonel Kirby. We heard--although I do not know whether it is
true or not--that the major was shot that evening with his face to a
wall. I do know that I, in company with several troopers, was cross-
examined by interpreters that day in presence of Colonel Kirby and a
French general and some of the general's staff.
There began to be talk at last about Ranjoor Singh. I heard men say
it was no great wonder, after all, that he should have turned
traitor, for it was plain he must have been tempted cunningly. Yet
there was no forgiveness for him. They grew proud that where he had
failed they could stand firm; and there is no mercy in proud men's
minds--nor much wisdom either.
At last a day came--too soon for the horses, but none too soon for
us--when we marched through the streets to entrain for the front. As
we had marched first out of Delhi, so we marched first from
Marseilles now. Only the British regiments from India were on ahead
of us; we led the Indian-born contingent.
French wives and children, and some cripples, lined the streets to
cheer and wave their handkerchiefs. We were on our way to help their
husbands defend France, and they honored us. It was our due. But can
the sahib accept his due with a dry eye and a word in his throat?
Nay! It is only ingratitude that a man can swallow unconcerned. No
man spoke. We rode like graven images, and I think the French women
wondered at our silence. I know that I, for one, felt extremely
willing to die for France; and I thought of Ranjoor Singh and of how
his heart, too, would have burned if he had been with us. With such
thoughts as swelled in my own breast, it was not in me to believe
him false, whatever the rest might think.
D Squadron proved in good fortune that day, for they gave us a train
of passenger coaches with seats, and our officers had a first-class
coach in front. The other squadrons, and most of the other
regiments, had to travel in open trucks, although I do not think any
grumbled on that score. There was a French staff officer to each
train, and he who rode in our train had an orderly who knew English;
the orderly climbed in beside me and we rode miles together, talking
all the time, he surprising me vastly more than I him. We exchanged
information as two boys that play a game--I a move, then he a move,
then I again, then he.
The game was at an end when neither could think of another question
to ask; but he learned more than I. At the end I did not yet know
what his religion was, but he knew a great deal about mine. On the
other hand, he told me all about their army and its close
association between officers and men, and all the news he had about
the fighting (which was not so very much), and what he thought of
the British. He seemed to think very highly of the British, rather
to his own surprise.
He told me he was a pastry cook by trade, and said he could cook
chapatties such as we eat; and he understood my explanation why
Sikhs were riding in the front trains and Muhammadans behind--
because Muhammadans must pray at fixed intervals and the trains must
stop to let them do it. He understood wherein our Sikh prayer
differs from that of Islam. Yet he refused to believe I am no
polygamist. But that is nothing. Since then I have fought in a
trench beside Englishmen who spoke of me as a savage; and I have
seen wounded Germans writhe and scream because their officers had
told them we Sikhs would eat them alive. Yes, sahib; not once, but
The journey was slow, for the line ahead of us was choked with
supply trains, some of which were needed at the front as badly as
ourselves. Now and then trains waited on sidings to let us by, and
by that means we became separated from the other troop trains, our
regiment leading all the others in the end by almost half a day. The
din of engine whistles became so constant that we no longer noticed
But there was another din that did not grow familiar. Along the line
next ours there came hurrying in the opposite direction train after
train of wounded, traveling at great speed, each leaving a smell in
its wake that set us all to spitting. And once in so often there
came a train filled full of the sound of screaming. The first time,
and the second time we believed it was ungreased axles, but after
the third time we understood.
Then our officers came walking along the footboards, speaking to us
through the windows and pretending to point out characteristics of
the scenery; and we took great interest in the scenery, asking them
the names of places and the purposes of things, for it is not good
that one's officers should be other than arrogantly confident.
We were a night and a day, and a night and a part of a day on the
journey, and men told us later we had done well to cross the length
of France in that time, considering conditions. On the morning of
the last day we began almost before it was light to hear the firing
of great guns and the bursting of shells--like the thunder of the
surf on Bombay Island in the great monsoon--one roar without
intermission, yet full of pulsation.
I think it was midday when we drew up at last on a siding, where a
French general waited with some French and British officers. Colonel
Kirby left the train and spoke with the general, and then gave the
order for us to detrain at once; and we did so very swiftly, men,
and horses, and baggage. Many of us were men of more than one
campaign, able to judge by this and by that how sorely we were
needed. We knew what it means when the reenforcements look fit for
the work in hand. The French general came and shook hands again with
Colonel Kirby, and saluted us all most impressively.
We were spared all the business of caring for our own baggage and
sent away at once. With a French staff officer to guide us, we rode
away at once toward the sound of firing--at a walk, because within
reasonable limits the farther our horses might be allowed to walk
now the better they would be able to gallop with us later.
We rode along a road between straight trees, most of them scarred by
shell-fire. There were shell-holes in the road, some of which had
been filled with the first material handy, but some had to be
avoided. We saw no dead bodies, nor even dead horses, although
smashed gun-carriages and limbers and broken wagons were everywhere.
To our right and left was flat country, divided by low hedges and
the same tall straight trees; but far away in front was a forest,
whose top just rose above the sky-line. As we rode toward that we
could see the shells bursting near it.
Between us and the forest there were British guns, dug in; and away
to our right were French guns--batteries and batteries of them. And
between us and the guns were great receiving stations for the
wounded, with endless lines of stretcher-bearers like ants passing
to and fro. By the din we knew that the battle stretched far away
beyond sight to right and left of us.
Many things we saw that were unexpected. The speed of the artillery
fire was unbelievable. But what surprised all of us most was the
absence of reserves. Behind the guns and before the guns we passed
many a place where reserves might have sheltered, but there were
There came two officers, one British and one French, galloping
toward us. They spoke excitedly with Colonel Kirby and our French
staff officer, but we continued at a walk and Colonel Kirby lit a
fresh cheroot. After some time there came an aeroplane with a great
square cross painted on its under side, and we were ordered to halt
and keep quite still until it went away. When it was too far away
for its man to distinguish us we began to trot at last, but it was
growing dusk when we halted finally behind the forest--dusky and
cloudy, the air full of smoke from the explosions, ill-smelling and
difficult to breathe. During the last three-quarters of a mile the
shells had been bursting all about us, but we had only lost one man
and a horse--and the man not killed.
As it grew darker the enemy sent up star-shells, and by their light
we could sometimes see as plainly as by daylight. British infantry
were holding the forest in front of us and a road that ran to right
of it. Their rifle-fire was steady as the roll of drums. These were
not the regiments that preceded us from India; they had been sent to
another section of the battle. These were men who had been in the
fighting from the first, and their wounded and the stretcher-bearers
were surprised to see us. No word of our arrival seemed to reach the
firing line as yet. Men were too busy to pass news.
Over our heads from a mile away, the British and French artillery
were sending a storm, of shells, and the enemy guns were answering
two for one. And besides that, into the forest, and into the trench
to the right of it that was being held by the British infantry there
was falling such a cataract of fire that it was not possible to
believe a man could live. Yet the answering rifle-fire never paused
for a second.
I learned afterward the name of the regiment in the end of the
trench nearest us. With these two eyes in the Hills I once saw that
same regiment run like a thousand hares into the night, because it
had no supper and a dozen Afridi marksmen had the range. Can the
sahib explain? I think I can. A man's spirit is no more in his belly
than in the cart that carries his belongings; yet, while he thinks
it is, his enemies all flourish.
We dismounted to rest the horses, and waited behind the forest until
it grew so dark that between the bursting of the star-shells a man
could not see his hand held out in front of him. Now and then a
stray shell chanced among us, but our casualties were very few. I
wondered greatly at the waste of ammunition. My ears ached with the
din, but there seemed more noise wrought than destruction. We had
begun to grow restless when an officer came galloping at last to
Colonel Kirby's side and gave him directions with much pointing and
waving of the arm.
Then Colonel Kirby summoned all our officers, and they rode back to
tell us what the plan was. The din was so great by this time that
they were obliged to explain anew to each four men in turn. This was
The Germans, ignorant of our arrival, undoubtedly believed the
British infantry to be without support and were beginning to press
forward in the hope of winning through to the railway line. The
infantry on our right front, already overwhelmed by weight of
artillery fire, would be obliged to evacuate their trench and fall
back, thus imperiling the whole line, unless we could save the day.
Observe this, sahib: so--I make a drawing in the dust. Between the
trench here, and the forest there, was a space of level ground some
fifty or sixty yards wide. There was scarcely more than a furrow
across it to protect the riflemen--nothing at all that could stop a
horse. At a given signal the infantry were to draw aside from that
piece of level land, like a curtain drawn back along a rod, and we
were to charge through the gap thus made between them and the
forest. The shock of our charge and its unexpectedness were to serve
instead of numbers.
Fine old-fashioned tactics, sahib, that suited our mind well! There
had been plenty on the voyage, including Gooja Singh, who argued we
should all be turned into infantry as soon as we arrived, and we had
dreaded that. Each to his own. A horseman prefers to fight on
horseback with the weapons that he knows.
Perhaps the sahib has watched Sikh cavalry at night and wondered how
so many men and horses could keep so still. We had made but little
noise hitherto, but now our silence was that of night itself. We had
but one eye, one ear, one intellect among us. We were one! One with
the night and with the work ahead!
One red light swinging near the corner of the forest was to mean BE
READY! We were ready as the fuse is for the match! Two red lights
would mean that the sidewise movement by the infantry was under way.
Three lights swinging together were to be our signal to begin.
Sahib, I saw three red lights three thousand times between each
minute and the next!
The shell-fire increased from both sides. Where the British infantry
lay was such a lake of flame and din that the very earth seemed to
burst apart; yet the answering rifle-fire was steady--steady as the
roll of drums. Then we truly saw one red light, and "EK!" said we
all at once. EK means ONE, sahib, but it sounded like the opening of
a breech-block. "Mount!" ordered Colonel Kirby, and we mounted.
While I held my breath and watched for the second light I heard a
new noise behind me, different from the rest, and therefore audible-
-a galloping horse and a challenge close at hand. I saw in the light
of a bursting shell a Sikh officer, close followed by a trooper on a
blown horse. I saw the officer ride to Colonel Kirby's side, rein in
his charger, and salute. At that instant there swung two red lights,
and "DO!" said the regiment. DO means TWO, sahib, but it sounded
like the thump of ordnance. "Draw sabers!" commanded Colonel Kirby,
and the rear ranks drew. The front-rank men had lances.
By the light of a star-shell I could plainly see the Sikh officer
and trooper. I recognized the charger--a beast with the devil in him
and the speed of wind. I recognized both men. I thought a shell must
have struck me. I must be dead and in a new world. I let my horse
edge nearer, not believing--until ears confirmed eyes. I heard
Colonel Kirby speak, very loud, indeed, as a man to whom good news
"Ranjoor Singh!" said he; and he took him by the hand and wrung it.
"Thank God!" he said, speaking from the heart as the British do at
times when they forget that others listen. "Thank God, old man!
You've come in the nick of time!"
So I was right, and my heart leapt in me. He was with us before the
blood ran! Every man in the squadron recognized him now, and I knew
every eye had watched to see Colonel Kirby draw saber and cut him
down, for habit of thought is harder to bend than a steel bar. But I
could feel the squadron coming round to my way of thinking as
Colonel Kirby continued talking to him, obviously making him an
explanation of our plan.
"Join your squadron, man--hurry!" I heard Colonel Kirby say at last,
for taking advantage of the darkness I had let my horse draw very
near to them. Now I had to rein back and make pretense that my horse
had been unruly, for Ranjoor Singh came riding toward us, showing
his teeth in a great grin, and Captain Fellowes with a word of
reproof thrown back to me spurred on to meet him.
"Hurrah, Major Ranjoor Singh!" said Captain Fellowes. "I'm damned
glad to see you!" That was a generous speech, sahib, from a man who
must now yield command of the squadron, but Captain Fellowes had a
heart like a bridegroom's always. He must always glory in the
squadron's luck, and he loved us better than himself. That was why
we loved him. They shook hands, and looked in each other's eyes.
Ranjoor Singh wheeled his charger. And in that same second we all
together saw three red lights swinging by the corner.
"TIN!" said we, with one voice. Tin means three, sahib, but it
sounded rather like the scream of a shell that leaves on its
My horse laid his ears back and dug his toes into the ground. A
trumpet sounded, and Colonel Kirby rose in his stirrups:
"Outram's Own!" he yelled, "by squadrons on number One--"
But the sahib would not be interested in the sequence of commands
that have small meaning to those not familiar with them. And who
shall describe what followed? Who shall tell the story of a charge
into the night, at an angle, into massed regiments of infantry
advancing one behind another at the double and taken by surprise?
The guns of both sides suddenly ceased firing. Even as I used my
spurs they ceased. How? Who am I that I should know? The British
guns, I suppose, from fear of slaying us, and the German guns from
fear of slaying Germans; but as to how, I know not. But the German
star-shells continued bursting overhead, and by that weird light
their oncoming infantry saw charging into them men they had never
seen before out of a picture-book!
God knows what tales they had been told about us Sikhs. I read their
faces as I rode. Fear is an ugly weapon, sahib, whose hilt is more
dangerous than its blade. If our officers had told us such tales
about Germans as their officers had told them about us, I think
perhaps we might have feared to charge.
Numbers were as nothing that night. Speed, and shock, and
unexpectedness were ours, and lies had prepared us our reception. D
Squadron rode behind Ranjoor Singh like a storm in the night--swung
into line beside the other squadrons--and spurred forward as in a
dream. There was no shouting; no war-cry. We rode into the Germans
as I have seen wind cut into a forest in the hills--downward into
them, for once we had leapt the trench the ground sloped their way.
And they went down before us as we never had the chance of mowing
So, sahib, we proved our hearts--whether they were stout, and true,
as the British had believed, or false, as the Germans planned and
hoped. That was a night of nights--one of very few such, for the
mounted actions in this war have not been many. Hah! I have been
envied! I have been called opprobrious names by a sergeant of
British lancers, out of great jealousy! But that is the way of the
British. It happened later, when the trench fighting had settled
down in earnest and my regiment and his were waiting our turn behind
the lines. He and I sat together on a bench in a great tent, where
some French artists gave us good entertainment.
He offered me tobacco, which I do not use, and rum, which I do not
drink. He accepted sweetmeats from me. And he called me a name that
would make the sahib gulp, a word that I suppose he had picked up
from a barrack-sweeper on the Bengal side of India. Then he slapped
me on the back, and after that sat with his arm around me while the
entertainment lasted. When we left the tent he swore roundly at a
newcomer to the front for not saluting me, who am not entitled to
salute. That is the way of the British. But I was speaking of
Ranjoor Singh. Forgive me, sahib.
The horse his trooper-servant rode was blown and nearly useless, so
that the trooper died that night for lack of a pair of heels,
leaving us none to question as to Ranjoor Singh's late doings. But
Bagh, Ranjoor Singh's charger, being a marvel of a beast whom few
could ride but he, was fresh enough and Ranjoor Singh led us like a
whirlwind beckoning a storm. I judged his heart was on fire. He led
us slantwise into a tight-packed regiment. We rolled it over, and he
took us beyond that into another one. In the dark he re-formed us
(and few but he could have done that then)--lined us up again with
the other squadrons--and brought us back by the way we had come.
Then he took us the same road a second time against remnants of the
men who had withstood us and into yet another regiment that checked
and balked beyond. The Germans probably believed us ten times as
many as we truly were, for that one setback checked their advance
along the whole line.
Colonel Kirby led us, but I speak of Ranjoor Singh. I never once saw
Colonel Kirby until the fight was over and we were back again
resting our horses behind the trees while the roll was called.
Throughout the fight--and I have no idea whatever how long it
lasted--I kept an eye on Ranjoor Singh and spurred in his wake,
obeying the least motion of his saber. No, sahib, I myself did not
slay many men. It is the business of a non-commissioned man like me
to help his officers keep control, and I did what I might. I was
nearly killed by a wounded German officer who seized my bridle-rein;
but a trooper's lance took him in the throat and I rode on
untouched. For all I know that was the only danger I was in that
A battle is a strange thing, sahib--like a dream. A man only knows
such part of it as crosses his own vision, and remembers but little
of that. What he does remember seldom tallies with what the others
saw. Talk with twenty of our regiment, and you may get twenty
different versions of what took place--yet not one man would have
lied to you, except perhaps here and there a little in the matter of
his own accomplishment. Doubtless the Germans have a thousand
different accounts of it.
I know this, and the world knows it: that night the Germans melted.
They were. Then they broke into parties and were not. We pursued
them as they ran. Suddenly the star-shells ceased from bursting
overhead, and out of black darkness I heard Colonel Kirby's voice
thundering an order. Then a trumpet blared. Then I heard Ranjoor
Singh's voice, high-pitched. Almost the next I knew we were halted
in the shadow of the trees again, calling low to one another,
friend's voice seeking friend's. We could scarcely hear the voices
for the thunder of artillery that had begun again; and whereas
formerly the German gun-fire had been greatest, now we thought the
British and French fire had the better of it. They had been re-
enforced, but I have no notion whence.
The infantry, that had drawn aside like a curtain to let us through,
had closed in again to the edge of the forest, and through the noise
of rifle-firing and artillery we caught presently the thunder of new
regiments advancing at the double. Thousands of our Indian infantry-
-those who had been in the trains behind us--were coming forward at
a run! God knows that was a night--to make a man glad he has lived!
It was not only the Germans who had not expected us. Now, sahib, for
the first time the British infantry began to understand who it was
who had come to their aid, and they began to sing--one song, all
together. The wounded sang it, too, and the stretcher-bearers. There
came a day when we had our own version of that song, but that night
it was new to us. We only caught a few words--the first words. The
sahib knows the words--the first few words? It was true we had come
a long, long way; but it choked us into silence to hear that
battered infantry acknowledge it.
Color and creed, sahib. What are color and creed? The world has
mistaken us Sikhs too long for a breed it can not understand. We
Sikhs be men, with the hearts of men; and that night we knew that
our hearts and theirs were one. Nor have I met since then the fire
that could destroy the knowledge, although efforts have been made,
and reasons shown me.
But my story is of Ranjoor Singh and of what he did. I but tell my
own part to throw more light on his. What I did is as nothing. Of
what he did, you shall be the judge--remembering this, that he who
does, and he who glories in the deed are one. Be attentive, sahib;
this is a tale of tales!
Can the die fall which side up it will? Nay, not if it be honest.
Many a league our infantry advanced that night, the guns following,
getting the new range by a miracle each time they took new ground.
We went forward, too, at the cost of many casualties--too many in
proportion to the work we did. We were fired on in the darkness more
than once by our own infantry. We, who had lost but seventy-two men
killed and wounded in the charge, were short another hundred when
the day broke and nothing to the good by it.
Getting lost in the dark--falling into shell-holes--swooping down on
rear-guards that generally proved to have machine guns with them--
weary men on hungrier, wearier horses--the wonder is that a man rode
back to tell of it at dawn.
One-hundred-and-two-and-seventy were our casualties, and some two
hundred horses--some of the men so lightly wounded that they were
back in the ranks within the week. At dawn they sent us to the rear
to rest, we being too good a target for the enemy by daylight. Some
of us rode two to a horse. On our way to the camp the French had
pitched for us we passed through reenforcements coming from another
section of the front, who gave us the right of way, and we took the
salute of two divisions of French infantry who, I suppose, had been
told of the service we had rendered. Said I to Gooja Singh, who sat
on my horse's rump, his own beast being disemboweled, "Who speaks
now of a poor beginning?" said I.
"I would rather see the end!" said he. But he never saw the end.
Gooja Singh was ever too impatient of beginnings, and too sure what
the end ought to be, to make certain of the middle part. I have
known men on outpost duty so far-seeing that an enemy had them at
his mercy if only he could creep close enough. And such men are
Gooja Singh led the grumbling now--he who had been first to prophesy
how we should be turned into infantry. They kept us at the rear, and
took away our horses--took even our spurs, making us drill with
unaccustomed weapons. And I think that the beginning of the new
distrust of Ranjoor Singh was in resentment at his patience with the
bayonet drill. We soldiers are like women, sahib, ever resentful of
the new--aye, like women in more ways than one; for whom we have
loved best we hate most when the change comes.
Once, at least a squadron of us had loved Ranjoor Singh to the
death. He was a Sikh of Sikhs. It had been our boast that fire could
not burn his courage nor love corrupt him, and I was still of that
mind; but not so the others. They began to remember how he had
stayed behind when we left India. We had all seen him in disguise,
in conversation with that German by the Delhi Gate. We knew how busy
he had been in the bazaars while the rumors flew. And the trooper
who had stayed behind with him, who had joined us with him at the
very instant of the charge that night, died in the charge; so that
there was none to give explanation of his conduct. Ranjoor Singh
himself was a very rock for silence. Our British officers said
nothing, doubtless not suspecting the distrust; for it was a byword
that Ranjoor Singh held the honor of the squadron in his hand. Yet
of all the squadron only the officers and I now trusted him--the
Sikh officers because they imitated the British; the British because
faith is a habit with them, once pledged, and I--God knows. There
were hours when I did distrust him--black hours, best forgotten.
The war settled down into a siege of trenches, and soon we were
given a section of a trench to hold. Little by little we grew wise
at the business of tossing explosives over blind banks--we, who
would rather have been at it with the lance and saber. Yet, can a
die fall which side up it will? Nay, not if it be honest! We were
there to help. We who had carried coal could shovel mud, and as time
went on we grumbled less.
But time hung heavy, and curiosity regarding Ranjoor Singh led from
one conjecture to another. At last Gooja Singh asked Captain
Fellowes, and he said that Ranjoor Singh had stayed behind to expose
a German plot--that having done so, he had hurried after us. That
explanation ought to have satisfied every one, and I think it did
for a time. But who could hide from such a man as Ranjoor Singh that
the squadron's faith in him was gone? That knowledge made him
savage. How should we know that he had been forbidden to tell us
what had kept him? When he set aside his pride and made us
overtures, there was no response; so his heart hardened in him.
Secrecy is good. Secrecy is better than all the lame explanations in
the world. But in this war there has been too much secrecy in the
wrong place. They should have let him line us up and tell us his
whole story. But later, when perhaps he might have done it, either
his pride was too great or his sense of obedience too tightly spun.
To this day he has never told us. Not that it matters.
The subtlest fool is the worst, and Gooja Singh's tongue did not
lack subtlety on occasion. He made it his business to remind the
squadron daily of its doubts, and I, who should have known better,
laughed at some of the things he said and agreed with others. One is
the fool who speaks with him who listens. I have never been rebuked
for it by Ranjoor Singh, and more than once since that day he has
seen fit to praise me; but in that hour when most he needed friends
I became his half-friend, which is worse than enemy. I never raised
my voice once in defense of him in those days.
Meanwhile Ranjoor Singh grew very wise at this trench warfare,
Colonel Kirby and the other British officers taking great comfort in
his cunning. It was he who led us to tie strings to the German wire
entanglements, which we then jerked from our trench, causing them to
lie awake and waste much ammunition. It was he who thought of
dressing turbans on the end of poles and thrusting them forward at
the hour before dawn when fear and chill and darkness have done
their worst work. That started a panic that cost the Germans eighty
I think his leadership would have won the squadron back to love him.
I know it saved his life. We had all heard tales of how the British
soldiers in South Africa made short work of the officers they did
not love, and it would have been easy to make an end of Ranjoor
Singh on any dark night. But he led too well; men were afraid to
take the responsibility lest the others turn on them. One night I
overheard two troopers considering the thought, and they suspected I
had overheard. I said nothing, but they were afraid, as I knew they
would be. Has the sahib ever heard of "left-hand casualties"? I will
We Sikhs have a saying that in fear there is no wisdom. None can be
wise and afraid. None can be afraid and wise. The men at the front,
both Indian and British-French, too, for aught I know--who feared to
fight longer in the trenches were seized in those early days with
the foolish thought of inflicting some injury on themselves--not
very severe, but enough to cause a spell of absence at the base and
a rest in hospital. Folly being the substance of that idea, and most
men being right-handed, such self-inflicted wounds were practically
always in the hand or foot and always on the left side. The
ambulance men knew them, on the instant.
Those two fools of my squadron wounded themselves with bullets in
the left hand, forgetting that their palms would be burned by the
discharge. I was sent to the rear to give evidence against them (for
I saw them commit the foolishness). The cross-examination we all
three underwent was clever--at the hands of a young British captain,
who, I dare swear, was suckled by a Sikh nurse in the Punjab. In
less than thirty minutes he had the whole story out of us; and the
two troopers were shot that evening for an example.
That young captain was greatly impressed with the story we had told
about Ranjoor Singh, and he called me back afterward and asked me a
hundred questions more--until he must have known the very color of
my entrails and I knew not which way I faced. To all of this a
senior officer of the Intelligence Department listened with both
ears, and presently he and the captain talked together.
The long and short of that was that Ranjoor Singh was sent for; and
when he returned to the trench after two days' absence it was to
work independently of us--from our trench, but irrespective of our
doings. Even Colonel Kirby now had no orders to give him, although
they two talked long and at frequent intervals in the place Colonel
Kirby called his funk-hole. It was now that the squadron's
reawakening love for Ranjoor Singh received the worst check of any.
We had almost forgotten he knew German. Henceforward he conversed in
German each day with the enemy.
It is a strange thing, sahib,--not easy to explain--but I, who have
achieved some fluency in English and might therefore have admired
his gift of tongues, now began to doubt him in earnest--hating
myself the while, but doubting him. And Gooja Singh, who had talked
the most and dropped the blackest hints against him, now began to
take his side.
And Ranjoor Singh said nothing. Night after night he went to lie at
the point where our trench and the enemy's lay closest. There he
would talk with some one whom we never saw, while we sat shivering
in the mud. Cold we can endure, sahib, as readily as any; it is
colder in winter where I come from than anything I felt in Flanders;
but the rain and the mud depressed our spirits, until with these two
eyes I have seen grown men weeping.
They kept us at work to encourage us. Our spells in the trench were
shortened and our rests at the rear increased to the utmost
possible. Only Ranjoor Singh took no vacation, remaining ever on the
watch, passing from one trench to another, conversing ever with the
We dug and they dug, each side laboring everlastingly to find the
other's listening places and to blow them up by means of mining, so
that the earth became a very rat-run. Above-ground, where were only
ruin and barbed wire, there was no sign of activity, but only a
great stench that came from bodies none dared bury. We were thankful
that the wind blew oftenest from us to them; but whichever way the
wind blew Ranjoor Singh knew no rest. He was ever to be found where
the lines lay closest at the moment, either listening or talking. We
understood very well that he was carrying out orders given him at
the rear, but that did not make the squadron or the regiment like
him any better, and as far as that went I was one with them; I hated
to see a squadron leader stoop to such intrigues.
It was plain enough that some sort of intrigue was making headway,
for the Germans soon began to toss over into our trench bundles of
printed pamphlets, explaining in our tongue why they were our best
friends and why therefore we should refuse to wage war on them. They
threw printed bulletins that said, in good Punjabi, there was
revolution from end to end of India, rioting in England, utter
disaster to the British fleet, and that our way home again to India
had been cut by the German war-ships. They must have been ignorant
of the fact that we received our mail from India regularly. I have
noticed this about the Germans: they are unable to convince
themselves that any other people can appreciate the same things they
appreciate, think as swiftly as they, or despise the terrors they
despise. That is one reason why they must lose this war. But there
are others also.
One afternoon, when I was pretending to doze in a niche near the
entrance to Colonel Kirby's funk-hole, I became possessed of the key
to it all; for Colonel Kirby's voice was raised more than once in
anger. I understood at last how Ranjoor Singh had orders to deceive
the Germans as to our state of mind. He was to make them believe we
were growing mutinous and that the leaven only needed time in which
to work; this of course for the purpose of throwing them off their
My heart stopped beating while I listened, for what man hears his
honor smirched without wincing? Even so I think I would have held my
tongue, only that Gooja Singh, who dozed in a niche on the other
side of the funk-hole entrance, heard the same as I.
Said Gooja Singh that evening to the troopers round about: "They
chose well," said he. "They picked a brave man--a clever man, for a
desperate venture!" And when the troopers asked what that might
mean, he asked how many of them in the Punjab had seen a goat tied
to a stake to lure a panther. The suggestion made them think. Then,
pretending to praise him, letting fall no word that could be thrown
back in his teeth, he condemned Ranjoor Singh for a worse traitor
than any had yet believed him. Gooja Singh was a man with a certain
subtlety. A man with two tongues, very dangerous.
"Ranjoor Singh is brave," said he, "for he is not afraid to
sacrifice us all. Many officers are afraid to lose too many men in
the gaining of an end, but not so he. He is clever, for who else
would have thought of making us seem despicable to the Germans in
order to tempt them to attack in force at this point? Have ye not
noticed how to our rear all is being made ready for the defense and
for a counter-attack to follow? We are the bait. The battle is to be
waged over our dead bodies."
I corrected him. I said I had heard as well as he, and that Colonel
Kirby was utterly angry at the defamation of those whom he was ever
pleased to call "his Sikhs." But that convinced nobody, although it
did the colonel sahib no harm in the regiment's opinion--not that he
needed advocates. We were all ready to die around Colonel Kirby at
any minute. Even Gooja Singh was ready to do that.
"Does the colonel sahib accept the situation?" one of the troopers
"Aye, for he must," said Gooja Singh; and I could not deny it.
"Ranjoor Singh went over his head and orders have come from the
rear." I could not deny that either, although I did not believe it.
How should I, or any one, know what passed after Ranjoor Singh had
been sent for by the Intelligence officers? I was his half-friend in
those days, sahib. Worse than his enemy--unwilling to take part
against him, yet unready to speak up in his defense. Doubtless my
silence went for consent among the troopers.
The end of the discussion found men unafraid. "If the colonel sahib
is willing to be bait," said they, "then so be we, but let us see to
it that none hang back." And so the whole regiment made up its mind
to die desperately, yet with many a sidewise glance at Ranjoor
Singh, who was watched more carefully than I think he guessed in
those days. If he had tried to slip back to the rear it would have
been the end of him. But he continued with us.
And all this while a great force gathered at our rear--gathered and
grew--Indian and British infantry. Guns by the fifty were brought
forward under cover of the night and placed in line behind us.
Ranjoor Singh continued talking with the enemy, lying belly downward
in the mud, and they kept throwing printed stuff to us that we
turned in to our officers. But the Germans did not attack. And the
force behind us grew.
Then one evening, just after dusk, we were all amazed by the news
that the assault was to come from our side. And almost before that
news had reached us the guns at our rear began their overture,
making preparation beyond the compass of a man's mind to grasp or
convey. They hurled such a torrent of shells that the Germans could
neither move away the troops in front of us nor bring up others to
their aid. It did not seem possible that one German could be left
alive, and I even felt jealous because, thought I, no work would be
left for us to do! Yet men did live--as we discovered. For a night
and a day our ordnance kept up that preparation, and then word went
Who shall tell of a night attack, from a trench against trenches?
Suddenly the guns ceased pounding the earth in front of us and
lifted to make a screen of fire almost a mile beyond. There was
instant pitch darkness on every hand, and out of that a hundred
trumpets sounded. Instantly, each squadron leader leaped the
earthwork, shouting to his men. Ranjoor Singh leaped up in front of
us, and we followed him, all forgetting their distrust of him in the
fierce excitement--remembering only how he had led us in the charge
on that first night. The air was thick with din, and fumes, and
flying metal--for the Germans were not forgetting to use artillery.
I ceased to think of anything but going forward. Who shall describe
Once in Bombay I heard a Christian preacher tell of the Judgment Day
to come, when graves shall give up their dead. That is not our Sikh
idea of judgment, but his words brought before my mind a picture
riot so much unlike a night attack in Flanders. He spoke of the
whole earth trembling and consumed by fire--of thunder and lightning
and a great long trumpet call--of the dead leaping alive again from
the graves where they lay buried. Not a poor picture, sahib, of a
night attack in Flanders!
The first line of German trenches, and the second had been pounded
out of being by our guns. The barbed wire had been cut into
fragments by our shrapnel. Here and there an arm or a leg protruded
from the ground--here and there a head. For two hundred yards and
perhaps more there was nothing to oppose us, except the enemy shells
bursting so constantly that we seemed to breathe splintered metal.
Yet very few were hit. The din was so great that it seemed to be
silence. We were phantom men, going forward without sound of
footfall. I could neither feel nor think for the first two hundred
yards, but ran with my bayonet out in front of me. And then I did
feel. A German bayonet barked my knuckles. After that there was
fighting such as I hope never to know again.
The Germans did not seem to have been taken by surprise at all. They
had made ample preparation. And as for holding us in contempt, they
gave no evidence of that. Their wounded were unwilling to surrender
because their officers had given out we would torture prisoners. We
had to pounce on them, and cut their buttons off and slit their
boots, so that they must use both hands to hold their trousers up
and could not run. And that took time so that we lagged behind a
little, for we took more prisoners than the regiments to right and
left of us. The Dogra regiment to our left and the Gurkha regiment
to our right gained on us fast, and we became, as it were, the
center of a new moon.
But then in the light of bursting shells we saw Colonel Kirby and
Ranjoor Singh and Captain Fellowes and some other officers far out
in front of us beckoning--calling on us for our greatest effort. We
answered. We swept forward after them into the teeth of all the
inventions in the world. Mine after mine exploded under our very
feet. Shrapnel burst among us. There began to be uncut wire, and men
rushed out at us from trenches that we thought obliterated, but that
proved only to have been hidden under debris by our gun-fire.
Shadows resolved into trenches defended by machine guns.
But we went forward--cavalry, without a spur among us--cavalry with
rifles--cavalry on foot--infantry with the fire and the drill and
the thoughts of cavalry--still cavalry at heart, for all the weapons
they had given us and the trench life we had lived. We remembered,
sahib, that the Germans had been educated lately to despise us, and
we were out that night to convert them to a different opinion! It
seemed good to D Squadron that Ranjoor Singh, who had done the
defamation, should lead us to the clearing of our name. Nothing
could stop us that night.
Whereas we had been last in the advance, we charged into the lead
and held it. We swept on I know not how far, but very far beyond the
wings. No means had been devised that I know of for checking the
distance covered, and I suppose Headquarters timed the attack and
tried to judge how far the advance had carried, with the aid of
messengers sent running back. No easy task!
At all events we lost touch with the regiments to right and left,
but kept touch with the enemy, pressing forward until suddenly our
own shell-fire ceased to fall in front of us but resumed pounding
toward our rear. They call such a fire a barrage, sahib. Its purpose
is to prevent the enemy from making a counter-attack until the
infantry can dig themselves in and secure the new ground won. That
meant we were isolated. It needed no staff officer to tell, us that,
or to bring us to our senses. We were like men who wake from a
nightmare, to find the truth more dreadful than the dream.
Colonel Kirby was wounded a little, and sat while a risaldar bound
his arm. Ranjoor Singh found a short trench half full of water, and
ordered us into it. Although we had not realized it until then, it
was raining torrents, and the Germans we drove out of that trench
(there were but a few of them) were wetter than water rats; but we
had to scramble down into it, and the cold bath finished what the
sense of isolation had begun. We were sober men when Kirby sahib
scrambled in last and ordered us to begin on the trench at once with
picks and shovels that the Germans had left behind. We altered the
trench so that it faced both ways, and waited shivering for the
Let it not be supposed, however, sahib, that we waited unmolested.
The Germans are not that kind of warrior. I hold no brief for them,
but I tell no lies about them, either. They fight with persistence,
bravery, and what they consider to be cunning. We were under rifle-
fire at once from before and behind and the flanks, and our own
artillery began pounding the ground so close to us that fragments of
shell and shrapnel flew over our heads incessantly, and great clods
of earth came thumping and splashing into our trench, compelling us
to keep busy with the shovels. Nor did the German artillery omit to
make a target of us, though with poor success. More than the half of
us lived; and to prove that there had been thought as well as
bravery that night we had plenty of ammunition with us. We were
troubled to stow the ammunition out of the wet, yet where it would
be safe from the German fire.
We made no reply to the shell-fire, for that would have been
foolishness; so, doubtless thinking they had the range not quite
right, or perhaps supposing that we had been annihilated, the enemy
discontinued shelling us and devoted their attention to our friends
beyond. But at the same time a battalion of infantry began to feel
its way toward us and we grew very busy with our rifles, the wounded
crawling through the wet to pass the cartridges. Once there was a
bayonet charge, which we repelled.
Those who had not thrown away their knapsacks to lighten themselves
had their emergency rations, but about half of us had nothing to eat
whatever. It was perfectly evident to all of us from the very first
that unless we should receive prompt aid at dawn our case was as
hopeless as death itself. So much the more reason for stout hearts,
said we, and our bearing put new heart into our officers.
When dawn came the sight was not inspiriting. Dawn amid a waste of
Flanders mud, seen through a rain-storm, is not a joyous spectacle
in any case. Consider, sahib, what a sunny land we came from, and
pass no hasty judgment on us if our spirits sank. It was the
weather, not the danger that depressed us. I, who was near the
center of the trench, could see to right and left over the ends, and
I made a hasty count of heads, discovering that we, who had been a
regiment, were now about three hundred men, forty of whom were
I saw that we were many a hundred yards away from the nearest
British trench. The Germans had crept under cover of the darkness
and dug themselves in anew between us and our friends. Before us was
a trench full of infantry, and there were others to right and left.
We were completely surrounded; and it was not an hour after dawn
when the enemy began to shout to us to show our hands and surrender.
Colonel Kirby forbade us to answer them, and we lay still as dead
men until they threw bombs--which we answered with bullets.
After that we were left alone for an hour or two, and Colonel Kirby,
whose wound was not serious, began passing along the trench, knee-
deep in the muddy water, to inspect us and count us and give each
man encouragement. It was just as he passed close to me that a hand-
grenade struck him in the thigh and exploded. He fell forward on me,
and I took him across my knee lest he fall into the water and be
smothered. That is how it happened that only I overheard what he
said to Ranjoor Singh before he died. Several others tried to hear,
for we loved Colonel Kirby as sons love their father; but, since he
lay with his head on my shoulder, my ear was as close to his lips as
Ranjoor Singh's, to whom he spoke, so that Ranjoor Singh and I heard
and the rest did not. Later I told the others, but they chose to
Ranjoor Singh came wading along the trench, stumbling over men's
feet in his hurry and nearly falling just as he reached us, so that
for the moment I thought he too had been shot. Besides Colonel
Kirby, who was dying in my arms, he, and Captain Fellowes, and one
other risaldar were our only remaining officers. Colonel Kirby was
in great pain, so that his words were not in his usual voice but
forced through clenched teeth, and Ranjoor Singh had to stoop to
"Shepherd 'em!" said Colonel Kirby. "Shepherd 'em, Ranjoor Singh!"
My ear was close and I heard each word. "A bad business. They did
not know enough to listen to you at Headquarters. Don't waste time
blaming anybody. Pray for wisdom, and fear nothing! You're in
command now. Take over. Shepherd 'em! Good-by, old friend!"
"Good-by, Colonel sahib," said Ranjoor Singh, and Kirby sahib died
in that moment, having shed the half of his blood over me. Ranjoor
Singh and I laid him along a ledge above the water and it was not
very long before a chance shell dropped near and buried him under a
ton of earth. Yes, sahib, a British shell.
Presently Ranjoor Singh waded along the trench to have word with
Captain Fellowes, who was wounded rather badly. I made busy with the
men about me, making them stand where they could see best with least
risk of exposure and ordering spade work here and there. It is a
strange thing, sahib, but I have never seen it otherwise, that spade
work--which is surely the most important thing--is the last thing
troopers will attend to unless compelled. They will comb their
beards, and decorate the trench with colored stones and draw names
in the mud, but the all-important digging waits. Sikh and Gurkha and
British and French are all alike in that respect.
When Ranjoor Singh came back from his talk with Captain Fellowes he
sent me to the right wing under our other risaldar, and after he was
killed by a grenade I was in command of the right wing of our
The three days that followed have mostly gone from memory, that
being the way of evil. If men could remember pain and misery they
would refuse to live because of the risk of more of it; but hope
springs ever anew out of wretchedness like sprouts on the burned
land, and the ashes are forgotten. I do not remember much of those
There was nothing to eat. There began to be a smell. There was worse
than nothing to drink, for thirst took hold of us, yet the water in
the trench was all pollution. The smell made us wish to vomit, yet
what could the empty do but desire? Corpses lay all around us. No,
sahib, not the dead of the night before's fighting. Have I not said
that the weather was cold? The bombardment by our own guns preceding
our attack had torn up graves that were I know not how old. When we
essayed to re-bury some bodies the Germans drove us back under
That night, and the next, several attempts were made to rush us, but
under Ranjoor Singh's command we beat them off. He was wakeful as
the stars and as unexcited. Obedience to him was so comforting that
men forgot for the time their suspicion and distrust. When dawn came
there were more dead bodies round about, and some wounded who called
piteously for help. The Germans crawled out to help their wounded,
but Ranjoor Singh bade us drive them back and we obeyed.
Then the Germans began shouting to us, and Ranjoor Singh answered
them. If he had answered in English, so that most of us could have
understood, all would surely have been well; I am certain that in
that case the affection, returning because of his fine leadership,
would have destroyed the memory of suspicion. But I suppose it had
become habit with him to talk to the enemy in German by that time,
and as the words we could not understand passed back and forth even
I began to hate him. Yet he drove a good bargain for us.
Instead of hand-grenades the Germans began to throw bread to us--
great, flat, army loaves, Ranjoor Singh not showing himself, but
counting aloud as each loaf came over, we catching with great
anxiety lest they fall into the water and be polluted. It took a
long time, but when there was a good dry loaf for each man, Ranjoor
Singh gave the Germans leave to come and carry in their wounded, and
bade us hold our fire. Gooja Singh was for playing a trick but the
troopers near him murmured and Ranjoor Singh threatened him with
death if he dared. He never forgot that.
The Germans who came to fetch the wounded laughed at us, but Ranjoor
Singh forbade us to answer, and Captain Fellowes backed him up.
"There will be another attack from our side presently," said Captain
Fellowes, "and our friends will answer for us."
I shuddered at that. I remembered the bombardment that preceded our
first advance. Better die at the hands of the enemy, thought I. But
I said nothing. Presently, however, a new thought came to me, and I
called to Ranjoor Singh along the trench.
"You should have made a better bargain," said I. "You should have
compelled them to care for our wounded before they were allowed to
take their own!"
"I demanded, but they refused," he answered, and then I wished I had
bitten out my tongue rather than speak, for although I believed his
answer, the rest of the men did not. There began to be new murmuring
against him, led by Gooja Singh; but Gooja Singh was too subtle to
be convicted of the responsibility.
Captain Fellowes grew aware of the murmuring and made much show
thenceforward of his faith in Ranjoor Singh. He was weak from his
wound and was attended constantly by two men, so that although he
kept command of the left wing and did ably he could not shout loud
enough to be heard very far, and he had to send messages to Ranjoor
Singh from mouth to mouth. His evident approval had somewhat the
effect of subduing the men's resentment, although not much, and when
he died that night there was none left, save I, to lend our leader
countenance. And I was only his half-friend, without enough merit in
my heart truly to be the right-hand man I was by right of seniority.
I was willing enough to die at his back, but not to share contempt
The day passed and there came another day, when the bread was done,
and there were no more German wounded straddled in the mud over whom
to strike new bargains. It had ceased raining, so we could catch no
rain to drink. We were growing weak from weariness and want of
sleep, and we demanded of Ranjoor Singh that he lead us back toward
the British lines.
"We should perish on the way," said he.
"What of it?" we answered, I with the rest. "Better that than this
vulture's death in a graveyard!"
But he shook his head and ordered us to try to think like men. "The
life of a Sikh," said he, "and the oath of a Sikh are one. We swore
to serve our friends. To try to cut our way back would be but to die
for our own comfort."
"You should have led us back that first night, when the attack was
spent," said Gooja Singh.
"I was not in command that first night," Ranjoor Singh answered him,
and who could gainsay that?
At irregular intervals British shells began bursting near us, and we
all knew what they were. The batteries were feeling for the range.
They would begin a new bombardment. Now, therefore, is the end, said
we. But Ranjoor Singh stood up with his head above the trench and
began shouting to the Germans. They answered him. Then, to our utter
astonishment, he tore the shirt from a dead man, tied it to a rifle,
and held it up.
The Germans cheered and laughed, but we made never a sound. We were
bewildered--sick from the stink and weariness and thirst and lack of
food. Yet I swear to you, sahib, on my honor that it had not entered
into the heart of one of us to surrender. That we who had been first
of the Indian contingent to board a ship, first to land in France,
first to engage the enemy, should now be first to surrender in a
body seemed to us very much worse than death. Yet Ranjoor Singh bade
us leave our rifles and climb out of the trench, and we obeyed him.
God knows why we obeyed him. I, who had been half-hearted hitherto,
hated him in that minute as a trapped wolf hates the hunter; yet I,
We left our dead for the Germans to bury, but we dragged the wounded
out and some of them died as we lifted them. When we reached the
German trench and they counted us, including Ranjoor Singh and
three-and-forty wounded there were two-hundred-and-three-and-fifty
of us left alive.
They led Ranjoor Singh apart. He had neither rifle nor saber in his
hand, and he walked to their trench alone because we avoided him. He
was more muddy than we, and as ragged and tired. He had stood in the
same foul water, and smelt the same stench. He was hungry as we. He
had been willing to surrender, and we had not. Yet he walked like an
officer, and looked like one, and we looked like animals. And we
knew it, and he knew it. And the Germans recognized the facts.
He acted like a crowned king when he reached the trench. A German
officer spoke with him earnestly, but he shook his head and then
they led him away. When he was gone the same officer came and spoke
to us in English, and I understanding him at once, he bade me tell
the others that the British must have witnessed our surrender.
"See," said he, "what a bombardment they have begun again. That is
in the hope of slaying you. That is out of revenge because you dared
surrender instead of dying like rats in a ditch to feed their
pride!" It was true that a bombardment had begun again. It had begun
that minute. Those truly had been ranging shells. If we had stayed
five minutes longer before surrendering we should have been blown to
pieces; but we were in no mood to care on that account.
The Germans are a simple folk, sahib, although they themselves think
otherwise. When they think they are the subtlest they are easiest to
understand. Understanding was reborn in my heart on account of that
German's words. Thought I, if Ranjoor Singh were in truth a traitor
then he would have leaped at a chance to justify himself to us. He
would have repeated what that German had urged him to tell us. Yet I
saw him refuse.
As they hurried him away alone, pity for him came over me like warm
rain on the parched earth, and when a man can pity he can reason, I
spoke in Punjabi to the others and the German officer thought I was
translating what he told me to say, yet in truth I reminded them
that man can find no place where God is not, and where God is is
courage. I was senior now, and my business was to encourage them.
They took new heart from my words, all except Gooja Singh, who wept
noisily, and the German officer was pleased with what he mistook for
the effect of his speech.
"Tell them they shall be excellently treated," said he, seizing my
elbow. "When we shall have won this war the British will no longer
be able to force natives of India to fight their battles for them."
I judged it well to repeat that word for word. There are over ten
applicants for every vacancy in such a regiment as ours, and until
Ranjoor Singh ordered our surrender, we were all free men--free
givers of our best; whereas the Germans about us were all
conscripts. The comparison did no harm.
We saw no more of our wounded until some of them were returned to us
healed, weeks later; but from them we learned that their treatment
had been good. With us, however, it was not so, in spite of the
promise the German officer had made. We were hustled along a wide
trench, and taken over by another guard, not very numerous but
brutal, who kicked us without excuse. As we went the trenches were
under fire all the time from the British artillery. The guards swore
it was our surrender that had drawn the fire, and belabored us the
more on that account.
At the rear of the German lines we were herded in a quarry lest we
observe too much, and it was not until after dark that we were given
half a loaf of bread apiece. Then, without time to eat that which
had been given to us, we were driven off into the darkness. First,
however, they took our goatskin overcoats away, saying they were too
good to be worn by savages. A non-commissioned officer, who could
speak good English, was sent for to explain that point to us.
After an hour's march through the dark we were herded into some
cattle trucks that stood on a siding behind some trees. The trucks
did not smell of cattle, but of foul garments and unwashed men. Two
armed German infantrymen were locked into each truck with us, and
the pair in the truck in which I was drove us in a crowd to the
farther end, claiming an entire half for themselves. It was true
that we stank, for we had been many days and nights without
opportunity to get clean; yet they offered us no means of washing-
only abuse. I have seen German prisoners allowed to wash before they
had been ten minutes behind the British lines.
We were five days in that train, sahib--five days and nights. Our
guards were fed at regular intervals, but not we. Once or twice a
day they brought us a bucket of water from which we were bidden
drink in a great hurry while the train waited; yet often the train
waited hours on sidings and no water at all was brought us. For food
we were chiefly dependent on the charity of people at the wayside
stations who came with gifts intended for German wounded; some of
those took pity on us.
At last, sahib, when we were cold and stiff and miserable to the
very verge of death, we came to a little place called Oeschersleben,
and there the cruelty came to an unexpected end. We were ordered out
of the trucks and met on the platform by a German, not in uniform,
who showed distress at our predicament and who hastened to assure us
in our own tongue that henceforward there would be amends made.
If that man had taken charge of us in the beginning we might not
have been suspicious of him, for he seemed gentle and his words were
fair; but now his kindness came too late to have effect. Animals can
sometimes be rendered tame by starvation and brutality followed by
plenty and kindness, but not men, and particularly not Sikhs--it
being no part of our Guru's teaching that either full belly or
tutored intellect can compensate for lack of goodness. Neither is it
his teaching, on the other hand, that a man must wear thoughts on
his face; so we did not reject this man's advances.
"There have been mistakes made," said he, "by ignorant common
soldiers who knew no better. You shall recuperate on good food, and
then we shall see what we shall see."
I asked him where Ranjoor Singh was, but he did not answer me.
We were not compelled to walk. Few of us could have walked. We were
stiff from confinement and sick from neglect. Carts drawn by oxen
stood near the station, and into those we were crowded and driven to
a camp on the outskirts of the town. There comfortable wooden huts
were ready, well warmed and clean--and a hot meal--and much hot
water in which we were allowed to bathe.
Then, when we had eaten, doctors came and examined us. New clothes
were given us--German uniforms of khaki, and khaki cotton cloth from
which to bind new turbans. Nothing was left undone to make us feel
well received, except that a barbed-wire fence was all about the
camp and armed guards marched up and down outside.
Being senior surviving non-commissioned officer, I was put in charge
of the camp in a certain manner, with many restrictions to my
authority, and for about a week we did nothing but rest and eat and
keep the camp tidy. All day long Germans, mostly women and children
but some men, came to stare at us through the barbed-wire fence as
if we were caged animals, but no insults were offered us. Rather,
the women showed us kindness and passed us sweetmeats and strange
food through the fence until an officer came and stopped them with
overbearing words. Then, presently, there was a new change.
A week had gone and we were feeling better, standing about and
looking at the freshly fallen snow, marking the straight tracks made
by the sentries outside the fence, and thinking of home maybe, when
new developments commenced.
Telegrams translated into Punjabi were nailed to the door of a hut,
telling of India in rebellion and of men, women and children
butchered by the British in cold blood. Other telegrams stated that
the Sikhs of India in particular had risen, and that Pertab Singh,
our prince, had been hanged in public. Many other lies they posted
up. It would be waste of time to tell them all. They were
foolishness--such foolishness as might deceive the German public,
but not us who had lived in India all our lives and who had received
our mail from home within a day or two of our surrender.
There came plausible men who knew our tongue and the argument was
bluntly put to us that we ought to let expediency be our guide in
all things. Yet we were expected to trust the men who gave us such
Our sense of justice was not courted once. They made appeal to our
bellies--to our purses--to our lust--to our fear--but to our
righteousness not at all. They made for us great pictures of what
German rule of the world would be, and at last I asked whether it
was true that the kaiser had turned Muhammadan. I was given no
answer until I had asked repeatedly, and then it was explained how
that had been a rumor sent abroad to stir Islam; to us, on the other
hand, nothing but truth was told. So I asked, was it true that our
Prince Pertab Singh had been hanged, and they told me yes. I asked
them where, and they said in Delhi. Yet I knew that Pertab Singh was
all the while in London. I asked them where was Ranjoor Singh all
this while, and for a time they made no answer, so I asked again and
again. Then one day they began to talk of Ranjoor Singh.
They told us he was being very useful to them, in Berlin, in daily
conference with the German General Staff, explaining matters that
pertained to the intended invasion of India. Doubtless they thought
that news would please us greatly. But, having heard so many lies
already, I set that down for another one, and the others became all
the more determined in their loyalty from sheer disgust at Ranjoor
Singh's unfaithfulness. They believed and I disbelieved, yet the
result was one.
At night Gooja Singh held forth in the hut where he slept with
twenty-five others. He explained--although he did not say how he
knew--that the Germans have kept for many years in Berlin an office
for the purpose of intrigue in India--an office manned by Sikh
traitors. "That is where Ranjoor Singh will be," said he. "He will
be managing that bureau." In those days Gooja Singh was Ranjoor
Singh's bitterest enemy, although later he changed sides again.
The night-time was the worst. By day there was the camp to keep
clean and the German officers to talk to; but at night we lay awake
thinking of India, and of our dead officer sahibs, and of all that
had been told us that we knew was lies. Ever the conversation turned
to Ranjoor Singh at last, and night after night the anger grew
against him. I myself admitted very often that his duty had been to
lead us to our death. I was ashamed as the rest of our surrender.
After a time, as our wounded began to be drafted back to us from
hospital, we were made to listen to accounts of alleged great German
victories. They told us the German army was outside Paris and that
the whole of the British North Sea Fleet was either sunk or
captured. They also said that the Turks in Gallipoli had won great
victories against the Allies. We began to wonder why such conquerors
should seek so earnestly the friendship of a handful of us Sikhs.
Our wounded began to be drafted back to us well primed, and their
stories made us think, but not as the Germans would have had us
Week after week until the spring came we listened to their tales by
day and talked them over among ourselves at night; and the more they
assured us Ranjoor Singh was working with them in Berlin, the more
we prayed for opportunity to prove our hearts. Spring dragged along
into summer and there began to be prayers for vengeance on him. I
said less than any. Understanding had not come to me fully yet, but
it seemed to me that if Ranjoor Singh was really playing traitor,
then he was going a tedious way about it. Yet it was equally clear
that if I should dare to say one word in his behalf that would be to
pass sentence on myself. I kept silence when I could, and was
evasive when they pressed me, cowardice struggling with new
conviction in my heart.
There came one night at last, when men's hearts burned in them too
terribly for sleep, that some one proposed a resolution and sent the
word whispering from hut to hut, that we should ask for Ranjoor
Singh to be brought to us. Let the excuse be that he was our
rightful leader, and that therefore he ought to advise us what we
should do. Let us promise to do faithfully whatever Ranjoor Singh
should order. Then, when he should have been brought to us, should
he talk treason we would tear him in pieces with our hands. That
resolution was agreed to. I also agreed. It was I who asked the next
day that Ranjoor Singh be brought. The German officer laughed; yet I
asked again, and he went away smiling.
We talked of our plan at night. We repeated it at dawn. We whispered
it above the bread at breakfast. After breakfast we stood in groups,
confirming our decision with great oaths and binding one another to
fulfillment--I no less than all the others. Like the others I was
blinded now by the sense of our high purpose and I forgot to
consider what might happen should Ranjoor Singh take any other line
than that expected of him.
I think it was eleven in the morning of the fourth day after our
decision, when we had all grown weary of threats of vengeance and of
argument as to what each individual man should do to our major's
body, that there was some small commotion at the entrance gate and a
man walked through alone. The gate slammed shut again behind him.
He strode forward to the middle of our compound, stood still, and
confronted us. We stared at him. We gathered round him. We said
"Fall in, two deep!" commanded he. And we fell in, two deep, just as
"'Ten-shun!" commanded he. And we stood to attention.
Sahib, he was Ranjoor Singh!
He stood within easy reach of the nearest man, clothed in a new
khaki German uniform. He wore a German saber at his side. Yet I
swear to you the saber was not the reason why no man struck at him.
Nor were there Germans near enough to have rescued him. We, whose
oath to murder him still trembled on our lips, stood and faced him
with trembling knees now that he had come at last.
We stood before him like two rows of dumb men, gazing at his face. I
have heard the English say that our eastern faces are impossible to
read, but that can only be because western eyes are blind. We can
read them readily enough. Yet we could not read Ranjoor Singh's that
day. It dawned on us as we stared that we did not understand, but
that he did; and there is no murder in that mood.