6 – The School of Instruction for Young Officers

ambala junior officers b
Junior officers in training at the School of Instruction for Young Officers, Ambala, India, 1917

Will Grummett had been with the British Garrison at Quetta for about two months and had passed his second Christmas far from home, when he was ordered – not to join in the fight in Mesopotamia –  but to attend the School of Instruction for Young Officers at Ambala, Haryana province in central, northern India early in February of 1917. This insistence on yet more training was part of a larger strategy to ensure the absolute success of a planned second attempt to push the Turkish Army out of Mesopotamia and break Turkish hold on the region.

Following  the British defeat at the siege of Kut-Al-Amara in 1916, the British High Command’s review of the conduct of the war in Mesopotamia found significant shortcomings.  These included: no suitably modern ports to receive men and material, and poor transportation linkages within the country. These, in turn, lead to shortages of everything for the soldier at the front, including food and water. Incidents of diseases such as cholera were particularly high, as poorly supplied troops were left to search for potable water wherever they could find it.

In a rare but sensible act, the entire command structure was sacked and replaced. General Frederick Stanley Maude was given the task of re-organizing and re-fitting the campaign and restoring British prestige. Maude seems to have received the message, clearly understood what was needed, and was given most of what he asked for. He started the improvements focusing on efforts to ensure adequate supply through the building of a modern port at Basra and by connecting that port via usable roads, rail lines, and improved steam-powered river boats that could effectively navigate the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (Rogan, 2015). Several hundred Ford model T type trucks were ordered and received to make use of the newly improved roads, roads that remained, for the most part, effective even during the rainy season (Rogan, 2015).

Ford trucks crossing a pontoon bridge, Persian Front, Mesopotamia, 1917/18.  An example of Maude’s noted improvements  to transshipment of supply in support of the advancing army.
A narrow gauge railway under construction or repair, Persian Front, Mesopotamia, 1917/1918.
Ford truck (1 ton version) navigating the mud, Persian Front, Mesopotamia, 1917/1918

Hospitals and other medical aid facilities nearer the front were improved with greater manpower, material support and by making use of the latest science. Bacteriological laboratories were added to the medical facilities. The new laboratories played a significant role in reducing the spread and consequent impact of  diseases to such a degree that General Maude was able to report that by July of 1917, “many of the diseases from which we suffered in previous years – such as cholera, enteric fever and scurvy (of course this last was a function of food supply) – were either non-existent or negligible in their extent.” (Dispatch, October 15th , 1917).  (In a tragic and darkly ironic twist, General Maude himself would die a month after writing the dispatch quoted, having contracted cholera in unpasteurized milk.)

As infrastructure and logistics were being improved, two full divisions were added to the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force (MEF) – improving the fighting strength to 160,000 men. General Maude seems also to have placed considerable emphasis on training his soldiers and officers so that they might be as prepared as the system that supported them. New officers and men sent from training in England or Egypt were typically found wanting by their British Indian Army commanders in many respects and one in particular – knowledge of and training in local conditions. Of course, Will and his circle of young officer friends, Boddy, Sacre, Browne and Landon, were no exception.   And so, they would be educated and trained to perform in the harsh desert environment of Mesopotamia and not in a cursory way: for Will this meant three months of intensive training in both the classroom and the field at Ambala.

The order to attend at Ambala also meant  an opportunity to see more of India; the train journey from Quetta to Ambala is about 700 miles.  The journey would take Will to the very heart of India, crossing the northern end of the Great Thar Desert to the Sivalik Hills, a mountain range of the Outer Himalayas, where the plain of the sacred Ganges River begins and where the former summer capital of British India was located at nearby Simla.  It was to Simla that the British Viceroy moved his administration in summer months to escape the heat of Calcutta ( known as Kolkata since 2001) and from which, just as the Ganges finds it’s source in the nearby mountains, British rule flowed.

Western British Indiabw 1909
North Western India showing the relative positions of Karachi, Quetta and Ambala

In 1917, India was still firmly under the command of British military might in a close alliance with British economic interests referred to collectively as the British Raj. The British Viceroy’s (as the representative of the British Monarch) rule in India was unchecked by the uniquely British invention that was the representative parliament. Democracy was not a notable export of the British Empire and as a result, Indians were entirely disenfranchised in their own country.

Had Will any romantic notions of British India leftover from boyhood readings of  Kipling’s Gungha Din or the Rout of the White Hussars, I am sure these evaporated quickly, identifiable as he was in his uniform as part of the ruling elite. However uncomfortable that may have been for an Ontario farm boy, he betrays his interest in the people and the customs of this country in the subject and composition of his photographs. Many times he takes pictures of Indian people, hard at work or in candid moments of real life: here are the water drawers, launderers and servants of the British Raj, street performers, and ordinary men and women, parents and children. He seems to have taken a special interest in the clothing and manners of the people and tried to capture some of the feel of the culture in his portraits. All this at a time when the notion of casual photography was quite new, taking a “snapshot” was uncommon – the word and the notion only recently finding its way into western vernacular. Requesting a photo could be a complicated process given language, culture and implied and real class barriers. And yet he did it, and he got some splendid shots.

The following slide show contains 15 of the best (duration 2:52). All of the photo locations are either known or thought to be in and around Ambala, India.

From texts and notes Will kept, the training at the School of Instruction for Young Officers involved things one would expect from military training: assault techniques and strategy, the function of the platoon, methods for the use of various weapons including the Lewis Gun (a light fully automatic rifle), the rifle grenade, the bayonet and the sidearm.  There were lectures and practical exercises in navigation, using map and compass and techniques for accurate map rendering. Of course, no military training is ever complete, it seems, without a session or more of digging – an activity Will captured in the photos below.


Young Officers take instruction in the construction of trench works, The School of Instruction for Young Officers, Ambala,  India, 1917

To be certain that the men would be ready to fight in a hostile and unfamiliar land the training went further. They, at least the officers, were also immersed in language study, learning phrases in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Kurdish. They were provided with information about the cultures and the history, both ancient and recent, of Mesopotamia, Persia and Turkey. The principal text seems to have been a 300 page, waterproof edition, entitled, “Field Notes: Mesopotamia” (prepared by the General Staff based in India and dated 1917), issued to each officer. A glance at the Table of Contents reveals sections on history, geography (including climate), population, natural resources, government and administration. A chapter is devoted to the make up of the Turkish Army in the region including notes on alliances with local Arab tribesmen.  The point is, that the training appears to have been quite detailed and even comprehensive. In this respect it seems entirely in keeping with the state of preparations underway in this theatre of war and entirely atypical of what is generally described as the, far less than well prepared, experience of soldiers and  young officers everywhere else in this, nearly global, conflict.

Since he couldn’t be training around the clock and he wasn’t confined to a barracks, not all of Will’s life during this time in India was consumed by things military. This part of his life might be forever lost but for Will’s habit of  keeping a monthly list of expenditures in a small notebook which ended up among his papers and photos. Looking to his expense notebook in detail, we can get some idea of the life he was leading as he prepared for the role of combat officer.

To begin with, as an officer, he was expected to maintain himself from his pay while in training. Both food and lodging were his expenses – even his furniture was rented, costing him 5 rupees each month. He seems to have taken most of his meals in the Regimental Mess hall, this costing him on average 85 rupees per month (just under 20 shillings or one pound stirling – 20 shillings make a pound) that’s less than 1 shilling a day for food.  Will’s daily pay rate was 11 shillings/6 pence (12 pence= 1 shilling).

Will was also expected to be outfitted in a fashion befitting an officer and to assume certain behaviours. This meant he had to supply his own uniforms, of course, but it also meant purchasing and using items and services of a class defining character. These included a cigarette case, a cane, a “suit of mufti” (“mufti” being used here as a slang term indicating a suit of civilian clothes worn by one normally in uniform) and the services of servants and bearers, a thing expected by his Senior Officers and his peers and by the people who relied on this work for their living.  Regularly, in the lists of expenses for the week, scattered throughout the days, is the entry for a sum spent on a  “tum-tum” which is a two-wheeled cart pulled by a man (or more than one man) on foot or bicycle.  Given what I know of Will’s character, although he was proud to be in uniform, he must have felt, riding about in tum-tums and affecting the use of a cane, more than a bit self-conscious.

He had something of a social life away from the training, occasionally going to a local cinema, standing drinks at the “club”  (Officers Mess) and on at least one occasion he went horse back riding,  paying 3 rupees which he dutifully recorded in the expense book.

W.J. Grummett (holding “Peggy”) and G.F. Boddy , at the School for Instruction of Young Officers, Ambala, India, 1917
Tea Party
A cool one in the Officer’s Mess, at the School for Instruction of Young Officers, Ambala, India, 1917

At one point, the expense book records, he was either trying to improve himself or perhaps simply to fill the hours by purchasing a violin, a case, bow, rosin, sheet music and a music stand. Things may not have gone as well as he liked given the need later in that same week to replace both the A and E string and the necessity for the purchase of more rosin (typically a block of rosin will last months for even the most dedicated of students). Further signs of wrestling with this most difficult of instruments are suggested with the recorded purchase during the following week of a copy of the “Young Violinists Tutor”.  After this entry there is an abrupt cessation of any notation in the expense notebook of purchases related to the instrument or music of any sort.  Not surprisingly the violin was not included among Will’s wartime memorabilia.

It’s probably a fortunate thing that the violin didn’t work out.  This allowed him to focus on photography and the picture record he was building.  A glance through the record of expenses reveals several entries for film, new attachments for his camera, film tanks, and developing chemicals, and, at one point the addition of  a new camera. His ability to develop the film and at least view the negatives must have given him the necessary feedback that lead to the continuous improvement of his compositions.  From the first tentative and blurry picture of the Train Station at Sind (see post #5) he improves dramatically, producing the captivating images in the slide show (above) in a few short months of trial and error.

Near the end of April the course of study at the School of Instruction came to an end.  Will was transferred to the Garrison at Belgaum, Karnataka province, southern India. Belgaum served as the embarkation point for soldiers of the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force: from here the next journey would be to the front.

Getting to Belgaum involved another long journey and yet another opportunity to see India:  a 1200 mile trip by train, passing through the city of Bombay (now Mumbai the capital of post colonial India).

belgaum map
Railway Map of India, 1909, showing the relative positions of Ambala and Belgaum.

Will secured leave and stopped for a day and a night at Bombay to take in what he could of the city.  He stayed a night in a hotel, sampled the food, and attended a theatre performance.  The quick visit seems to have afforded little time for photography.  The photograph below of a scaffold covered building is, disappointingly, the only photo of Bombay in Will’s collection.

bombay 2
Building under repair, Bombay, India, 1917

He arrived at Belgaum, reporting for duty on the 18th of April (1917) and assumed duties, in a regular rotation, as Orderly Officer. The principal  job was to aid in the organization and preparation of drafts of men, non-commissioned officers and private soldiers, bound for the Mesopotamian front. At the same time, officers, like himself , were receiving orders to embark for Mesopotamia.  It was a matter of weeks, perhaps even days, until his name came up in the rotation; finally, after more than two years of training and preparation Will was about to embark for the front lines.

Fate, however, intervened yet again.  Sometime, toward the end of April of 1917, Will woke to the racking pain, alternating chills and stifling, disorienting fever that would be diagnosed as malaria.  Joining the fight in Mesopotamia slipped away in fevered dreams and no one could say, with certainty, whether he would recover and if so, would recover well enough, to be considered fit again for active duty.

Next installment coming in June, Mesopotamia

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