Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Classics #11

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

Bugles and a Tiger: My Life in the Gurkhas - John Masters

John Masters was a soldier before he became the popular novelist of the best-selling Nightrunners of Bengal, the WWI novel The Ravi Lancers, and the light entertainment The Venus of Kompara. In 1933, at the age of eighteen, he attended Sandhurst, where all officers in the British Army are trained. He was commissioned into the 4th Gurkha Rifles in time to take part in some of the last campaigns on the turbulent north-west frontier of India before WWII.

Granted not all readers will be sympathetic with the subjects of Sandhurst vigilantes enforcing The Code savagely and of violent young men fighting massive brawls with each other. His hypothetical realist replies to charges of hooliganism among cadets:

War is a dirty business, and we are training these young men for war; we are not running a kindergarten; we do not intend to snoop around seeing whether the cadets treat one another like Little  Lord Fauntleroys; we have learned that a wild young man  can learn wisdom as he grows older — if he survives — but a  spiritless young man cannot learn the dash that wins battles.  And, finally, we believe that a man’s contemporaries are his fairest judges.

Nor will all readers relish the blunt stories that illustrate why the Gurkhas have the legendary reputation that they do:

During World War II a Gurkha patrol went out in the vicinity of Cassino to locate German positions. After slipping by two enemy sentries in the dark of the night, they found  the other four Germans of the post asleep in a row in a barn.  They beheaded the two men on the inside, but left the two  on the outside to sleep — to wake up, to try to rouse their  comrades ... It was a brilliant improvisation, which went  straight to the unlovely heart of psychological warfare.

Though we have all had superiors we were loyal to despite their silence, moodiness, micromanaging, and procrastination, it’s still a challenge to meet a mind with a different sense of responsibility, of loyalty, of discipline:

Burbury said, ‘Loyalty means backing up a man even when he’s in the wrong. Even if he’s stupid and inefficient. That’s why it’s so hard to be loyal. ….

Still better to be wary, I think, of bosses that are especially sensitive to disloyalty – to them, the best obedience is exacted when the subordinate is submitting against her better judgement.

And Masters was certainly a man of his generation. Imagine what grad students in World Civilizations would do to this aside on mid-19th century English attitudes in Inja:

There was also an increasingly strong colour bar, though I get the impression from reading old books and memoirs that the Englishman’s initial aversion was from Indian customs and habits, especially those connected with Hinduism, and that he gradually transferred this feeling to the colour of the  Indians’ skin because, whereas the former could be explained, the latter could not, and was thus indefensible.

Indeed, customs such as animal sacrifice do take up more pages than we post-modern readers like to read. Suffice to say, even the British in Indian quite blanched.

The morning wore steadily on and the smell of blood grew thicker in the dust and glare. One of the British wives turned green and went away, escorted by her husband, who was almost audibly saying, ‘I told you so.’ The row of heads, each crowned with a live coal, lengthened. The smell of burned hair grew stronger, and I was glad of those brandies. At last the sacrifices came to an end. We hardly had time for a cigarette before we were on our feet as the pipes began to wail and the drums to thud

But there are incredible stories of bee attacks and other natural disasters endured:

That night we established camp at Ghariom, half-way to the Faqir’s cave, and waited for more troops to arrive. The wait was marked by a storm of appalling violence. In the afternoon the sky began to darken over, and dust devils hurried down the valley. A drizzle of rain set in, and after a few minutes changed to light hail. The hail quickly strengthened and was soon coming down like a barrage from a million machine-guns, I measured a hailstone 1.6 inches in diameter. The hail cracked tent poles, tore canvas, and flattened every tent. It stunned five sepoys caught in the open, though they were wearing turbans, and maddened all our thousand animals so that they jerked up heel ropes and halters and crashed in snorting, frantic panic through the shattered camp, leaped the low walls, burst in tethered droves through the gates and scattered over the countryside. The hail changed to sleet, back to rain, and for an hour fell like Niagara. It became dark. Thunder volleyed across the low sky, and below our feet, under the earth, the mountains shook and grumbled. Lightning flashes sent searing shafts of ruin through the black rain. In one towering burst I saw four  linked horses galloping abreast over fallen tents and broken  boxes, their eyes rolling white, teeth bared, coats shining wet,  a soldier in front of them. The riderless four of the Apocalypse vanished through the sudden wall of darkness

Readers into coming of age stories, the British in India, and unique military memoirs will like this memoir. This volume goes up to WWII. He chronicled his command of one of the Chindit columns behind enemy lines in Burma in The Road Past Mandalay, a classic WWII memoir available in many editions.

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