5 – A Passage to India

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Quetta Valley and the Sulaiman Mountains,  North Western India, 1917

 

A week prior to Will Grummett’s receipt of his commission, in July of 1916, the Allied armies began an assault on the Western Front referred to as the Somme Offensive or the Battle of the Somme. What was planned as an all out assault in an effort to end the war became a protracted battle lasting from July to November of 1916. This battle would mark perhaps the lowest point of the war for British soldiers and citizens. To this day the Battle of the Somme ranks as one of the bloodiest of battles in the history of mankind, consuming 1.2 million lives. The final outcome amounted to a few hundred yards advance and was, little more than continued stalemate on the Western Front.

This was the nature of the theatre of war to which I am certain Will Grummett thought he was going: a killing field in which British soldiers and their officers, “had enthusiasm and little else” (Taylor, 1985). Officers in particular were trained to, “expose themselves recklessly – hence officer casualties were often six times greater than those of other ranks.” (Taylor, 1985) By assuming the role of a junior officer and therefore a platoon commander, Will had put himself in the, “most dangerous position in the British Army.” (Hughes-Wilson, 2014).

He, was narrowly saved from the Western Front by a military disaster that had recently unfolded far away in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq). In December of 1915, the British Army was in full retreat from an attempt to take Baghdad and had fortified their position at Kut-Al-Amara on the Tigris River, south and east of Baghdad, as means of defense against the pursuing Turks.

kut siege map
The siege at Kut-Al-Amara – British troops retreated from Baghdad to Kut (red circled on the map above) defending the town for 5 months before surrendering to the Turks in April of 1916.

What was a moving battle became a siege that ended on April 29th, 1916 with a British surrender. Thirteen thousand British soldiers were taken prisoner. The siege and eventual surrender at Kut Al-Amara became a national embarrassment, particularly so when considered with the disaster that was Gallipoli. The British Army had been soundly beaten at great cost in lives and material – not once but twice. To restore Britain’s honour and shore up its credibility in the near east, Britain committed troops and supplies to a renewed and re-designed campaign against the Turkish forces in Mesopotamia.

Despite the rapacious need for men on the Western Front, and because of the disaster at Kut,  Mesopotamia had become a British priority.  Consequently, it was to this theatre of the war that Will’s superiors saw fit to send him: although not directly.  He was given notice in early September, while at the Harwich Garrison in Essex, of  his impending transfer to Indian Expeditionary Force “D” bound for Mesopotamia or India.  The transfer was necessary because the war effort in Mesopotamia was the responsibility of the British Indian Army based in India.  What would be his first port of call for this new duty was settled with the arrival in early October of 1916, of an order marked “Secret” informing him that,“Passage to India having been provided” he was thereby ordered to proceed to Devonport and embark in the above named vessel (the name has been obscured or omitted on the order sheet probably for security reasons – a section of the order sheet is reproduced below) on the 11th of October, 1916.

passage to India
Order issued at Harwich Garrison, October 1916 directing 2nd Lieutenant Grummett to embark for India.

He was on his way to join the British Indian Army in India and was moving as far away from the fight in Europe, the fight he had committed himself to, as could be imagined.  He must have felt trapped in some Homeric current of fate, his desire, being part of the fight against the German war machine, seemingly thwarted with each effort to purposefully move toward it.

Although I am sure Will was frustrated, I am also sure he came quickly to the realization that this journey, this “adventure of a lifetime” had suddenly expanded, giving him the opportunity to travel yet further and to see places he thought he would only read about in Kipling’s stories and poems and the exotic tales of The Arabian Nights . He simply had to accept the fact that he would never make it to the Western Front,  that his fight would be with Germany’s ally, The Turkish Empire. There was consolation, however, in the fact that he would do so by first witnessing the awesome and terrible beauty of India and then the grandeur of the land where civilization began.

Two other young officers, whose names appear in the left margin of the order sheet (see above), were given the same order; I suppose the intention being that the three should travel together in a sort of “buddy system”. Lieutenants G.F. Boddy and L.G.B. Sacre received that same piece of paper, and despite any preference or desire that they may have harboured to join the fight in France or Belgium, they did what soldiers must: they assembled the necessary equipment, packed their kit and reported for embarkation as ordered.   Somewhere along the way the three paused and posed for a  photo in newly acquired “warm weather” uniforms including shorts and pith helmet.

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Will Grummett with Lieutenants Sacre and Boddy, prepared for duty in India, 1916 (Will Grummett is standing at right)

(Boddy and Sacre, are not common names.  They are the kind of surnames that make you stop and think about origin and meaning if you’ve a temperament like mine.  The way they pop up in this story already had me thinking of them as characters not unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.   As it turns out, their surnames, and the meanings attached, look like they were invented for the purpose by a romantic dramatist.   Sacre is of French origin and means “consecrated”, and Boddy comes from the Norse meaning “messenger”.    Was Will travelling in the company of a “consecrated messenger”?  That he was saved from so much that was horrific in this World War makes even a skeptic like me pause to wonder.)

They boarded their troopship at Devonport understanding that the trip would be dangerous: plying waters patrolled by German U-boats at least up until Gibraltar; it would be long: three weeks at a minimum, and; that they would find the increasingly hot weather difficult even into late November.  To ease the potential effect of the hot weather,  the ship departed within what was known as the “India trooping Season”.  Long experience in the middle east and India had ingrained a respect on the part of the British Army for the killing power of the weather to such a degree that  troops were transported to India only between late September and  March.  During the war, on at least one occasion, this rule was broken with disastrous effect.  The result was the death of 19 British soldiers from heat stroke  on a train from Karachi to Lahore, and a national scandal known as the Karachi Troop Train Incident.  The incident occurred just 5 months before Will departed on a similar journey through some of the same country.

From Devonport the ship would have departed in convoy, protected by British warships. The threat of German warships and U-boats was too significant in these waters to allow troopships to sail without protection.  It seems that the escort brought Will’s ship at least as far as Malta, due south of the Island of Sicily, where a change of escort may have taken place.  They may have had to wait for that escort for some days in the Port at Malta.  Of course, there could be no shore leave given the uncertainty of the schedule and the difficulty of rounding men up to leave on short notice, so they very likely waited on board.  A similar escort change probably happened at Port Said in Egypt. By this time, and with Port Said’s notorious reputation as the most dangerous city in the world, releasing several thousand young, bored and restless men for shore leave was probably out of the question, and so again they remained on board.

While en route, there seems to have been some effort to make the men’s forced idleness a bit more bearable.  Among Will’s memorabilia is a concert programme dated October 21st, 1916. They may have been at Malta or perhaps between Malta and Port Said by this time.  On the bill that evening were: a piccolo solo, a pianoforte solo,  several songs (for male voice of course) and, much I am sure to everyone’s relief, two comic songs by one Corporal Sharpe.

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Programme for a Concert held en route to India, 1916

From Port Said there would be the need to queue for passage through the Suez Canal at the Port of Suez.  Once on the other side of the canal there may have been yet another escort change that would take them through the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.  At Aden (Yemen) there could have been yet more waiting, confined to the now extremely hot and uncomfortable ship, while a new escort and perhaps other ships gathered for the run to India across the Arabian Sea.

Lacking a journal or letters,  I have no way of knowing how the trip really went for Will and his fellow travellers, Lieutenants Boddy and Sacre.  Fortunately, a similar trip in November of 1914 was briefly described, in a letter written by Quarter Master Sergeant, H. Beaumont of the East Surrey Regiment to his civilian employer (H. Beaumont, 1914. “Five Weeks on Board”, UK National Archives).  In the letter,  Beaumont confirms that at each port the soldiers waited on-board while new escorts and other ships arrived to form an escort group. The letter contains a significant amount of the British “stiff upper lip”, probably because it was written to an employer to whom Beaumont would be unlikely to complain and yet it manages to convey some of the magnitude of  the difficulties aboard.  Describing the effect of the heat Beaumont says,

“It has been a most delightful and interesting voyage and the weather is now so hot that hundreds of troops are compelled to sleep on deck nightly as the heat is much too great below.”   H. Beaumont

Later he manages to go so far as to refer to the 5 weeks on board in the heat as “irksome”,

“Shall be very glad to get there as five weeks on board a crowded troop ship with little opportunity for exercise is getting rather irksome..”   H. Beaumont

I would think that “irksome” was a significant understatement given the tight quarters, the heat, limitations on fresh water, and the pent-up energy of so many young soldiers.

Will,  Boddy and Sacre disembarked at the Port at Karachi (see map below), now in Pakistan but then still part of India, on November 30, 1916 after six weeks on board.  I think, between them, having spent a week longer than Quarter Master Sergeant Beaumont had, they would have come up with several and more colorful adjectives besides “irksome” to describe the journey.

 

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Western India, 1909, showing relative location of Karachi and Quetta

From Karachi they were bound for the British Garrison at Quetta, 500 miles due north at the foot of the Sulaiman Mountains near the border with Afghanistan (see map above).  To get there, they took the train through Sindh province and on, steadily rising, from the hot moist air of the coast to comparatively cooler, drier weather as they made their way north.   At Sindh,  Will took what may be his very first wartime photo,  a blurry shot of a train station. He must have purchased the camera ( a Vest Pocket Kodak) while in Karachi, overcome by the wonder of the place in which he found himself and determined to bring home images to share with friends and family.

 

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The Station at Sindh, November, 1916.  This photo is either the first or one of the first photos Will Grummett took during the war.

Once at Quetta, Will and his travelling companions were absorbed into the routine of military life, their names coming up regularly on Battalion order sheets (a sort of summary of the days events and orders which Will retained during this period) as the  Duty Officer of the day. The circle of friends expanded to include Lieutenants Snow, Browne and Landon.  Training continued, and included proficiency in the use of firearms and judging by Will’s photos a bit of messing around, now captured on film.

 

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Lt. Landon striking a “cowboy” pose, Barack Hill, Quetta, India, 1917
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Will Grummett and friend, taking target practice on Barrack Hill, Quetta, India, 1917
W. J. Grummett on K. Hill (2)
Will Grummett, multi tasking, Barrack Hill, Quetta, India, 1917
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Lt. Boddy to the rescue?, Barrack Hill, Quetta, India, 1917

 

Wanting to make the best of the situation the friends took advantage of days off, getting out into the country on foot and by bicycle.   They went to nearby Hanna Valley, to the entrance of the Dharwaza Gorge, the Rock of Murdaar and Will got some great shots of the Quetta Valley.

 

quetta valley
Quetta Valley, India, 1917
43 Quetta Valley (1 of 1)
Quetta Valley, India, 1917
Landon, Brown & Boddy (2)
Lts. Landon, Brown and Boddy, Hanna Valley, India, 1917
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Lts. Snow and Boddy, Quetta, India,1917
34 Darwaza Gorge (1 of 1)
In the Dharwaza Gorge, India, 1917
Murdar
Murdaar, at Quetta, India,1917
Boddy in Hanna Valley
Lt. Boddy, Hanna Valley, India, 1917
Boddy Before Bungalow
Lt. Boddy, lodgings, Quetta, India, 1917
Boddy Before Murdar
Lt. Boddy, at Murdaar, India, 1917

 

The question that must have been at the forefront of Will’s mind was, how long would he remain in India?  When would he go to Mesopotamia and the front lines?  As it turns out, it took much longer than he probably expected. The reasons are found in the effort, already well underway,  to ensure British success in Mesopotamia through rethinking, resupplying and rebuilding the campaign – literally from the ground up. It would seem that Will found himself, once again, part of an army “under construction” or more accurately “re-construction”.  A significant part of the British Indian Army’s preparation was ensuring that the men and officers were well and sufficiently trained and prepared for the task.  As part of this effort,  Will left Quetta for Ambala  in north central India in early February of 1917 for three months of intensive training at The School of Instruction for Young Officers.

Next installment coming in May,  The School of Instruction for Young Officers.

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