WHEN INDIA CAME TO FIGHT IN FLANDERS
BY TALBOT MUNDY
King—of the Khyber Rifles, The Winds of the World, etc.
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, are one.
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 is reported.
New York Times, July, 1915
Let a man, an arrow, and an answer each go straight. Each is his own witness. God is judge.—EASTERN PROVERB.
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 no fire.
"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 me.
"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 are one.
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, too.
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 Ranjoor Singh.
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 British officers.
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 hundredth part.
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 sky-line!
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 beginning.
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 anywhere. 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 closer unity.
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 answer.
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 all tried.
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 late.
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 baskets full.
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 many times.
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 it.
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 none.
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 plan:
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 comes.
"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 journey.
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 them again.
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 night.
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.—EASTERN PROVERB.
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 always grumblers.
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 men.
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 explain.
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 enemy.
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 guard.
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 asked.
"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 around.
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 it?
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 dawn.
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 wounded.
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 disbelieve me.
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 listen.
"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 trench.
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 three days.
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 cover.
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!"