Memoirs & Diaries - The Best 500 Cockney War Stories - Sir Ian Hamilton's Introduction
Published in London in 1921, The Best 500 Cockney War Stories comprised, in the words of its newspaper publisher (The London Evening News) "a remembering and retelling of those war days when laughter sometimes saved men's reason".
The collection of short memoirs, some 500 in total, is divided into five categories - Action, Lull, Hospital, High Seas and Here and There. This page contains the text of Sir Ian Hamilton's introductory memoir, recalling an episode from early in his career.
Sections within the collection can be accessed using the sidebar to the right.
Sir Ian Hamilton's Story
The Great War was a matrix wherein many anecdotes have sprouted. They are short-lived plants - fragile as mushrooms - none too easy to extricate either, embedded as they are in the mass.
To dig out the character of a General even from the plans of his General Staff is difficult; how much more difficult to dig out the adventures of Number 1000 Private Thomas Atkins from those of the other 999 who went "like one man" with him over the top?
In the side-shows there was more scope for the individual and in the Victorian wars much more scope. To show the sort of thing I mean I am going to put down here for the first time an old story, almost forgotten now, in the hopes that it may interest by its contrast to barrages and barbed wire. Although only an old-fashioned affair of half a dozen bullets and three or four dead men it was a great event to me as it led to my first meeting with the great little Bobs of Kandahar.
On the morning of September 11, 1879, I lay shivering with fever and ague at Alikhel in Afghanistan. So sick did I seem that it was decided I should be carried a day's march back to G.H.Q. on the Peiwar Kotal to see if the air of that high mountain pass would help me to pull myself round. Polly Forbes, a boy subaltern not very long from Eton, was sent off to play the part of nurse.
We reached the Peiwar Kotal without any adventure, and were allotted a tent in the G.H.Q. camp pitched where the road between the Kurram Valley and Kabul ran over the high Kotal or pass. Next morning, although still rather weak in the knees, I felt game for a ride to the battlefield.
So we rode along the high ridge through the forest of giant deodars looking for mementoes of the battle. The fact was that we were, although we knew it not, in a very dangerous No Man's Land.
We had reached a point about two miles from camp when we were startled by half a dozen shots fired in quick succession and still more startled to see some British soldiers rushing down towards us from the top of a steep-sided knoll which crowned the ridge to our immediate front.
Close past us rushed those fugitives and on, down the hillside, where at last, some hundred yards below us, they pulled up in answer to our shouts. But no amount of shouts or orders would bring them up to us, so we had to get off our ponies and go down to them.
There were seven of them - a Corporal and three men belonging to one of the new short service battalions and three signallers - very shaky the whole lot. Only one was armed with his rifle; he had been on sentry-go at the moment the signalling picquet had been rushed - so they said - by a large body of Afghans.
What was to be done? I realised that I was the senior. Turning to the Corporal I asked him if he could ride. "Yes, sir," he replied rather eagerly. "Well, then," I commanded, "you get on to that little white mare up there and ride like hell to G.H.Q. for help. You others go up with him and await orders."
Off they went, scrambling up the hill, Forbes and I following rather slowly because of my weakness. When we got up to the path, ponies, syces, all had disappeared except that one soldier who had stuck to his rifle.
All was as still as death in the forest where we three now stood alone.
"Where are the others?" I asked the man. "I think they must be killed." "Do you think they are up there?" "Yessir!"
So I turned to Forbes and said, "If there are wounded or dead up there we must go and see what we can do."
Where we stood we were a bit far away from the top of the wooded hill for a jezail shot to carry and once we began to climb the slope we found ourselves in dead ground. Nearing the top, my heart jumped into my mouth as I all but put my foot on a man's face. Though I dared not take my eyes off the brushwood on the top of the hill, out of the corner of my eye I was aware he was a lascar and that he must be dead, for his head had nearly been severed from his body.
At that same moment we heard a feeble cry in Hindustani, "Shabash, Sahib log, chello!" "Bravo, Gentlemen, come along!"
This came from another lascar shot through the body - a plucky fellow. "Dushman kahan hain?" "Where are the enemy?" I whispered. "When the sahibs shouted from below they ran away," he said, and at that, side by side with the revolvers raised to fire, Forbes and I stepped out on to the cleared and levelled summit of the hill, a space about fifteen feet by twenty.
All was quiet and seemed entirely normal. There stood the helio and there lay the flags. Most astonishing of all, there, against a pile of logs, rested the priceless rifles of the picquet guard with their accoutrements and ammunition pouches lying on the ground beside them.
Making a sign to Forbes we laid down our revolvers ready to hand, took, each of us, a rifle, loaded it, fixed the bayonet and stood at the ready facing the edge of the forest about thirty yards away.
Even in these days when my memory is busy chucking its seventy years or so of accumulations overboard, the memory of that tense watch into the forest remains as fresh as ever. For the best part of half an hour it must have lasted.
At last we heard them - not the Afghans but our own chaps, coming along the ridge and now they were making their way in open order up the hill - a company of British Infantry together with a few Pathan auxiliaries, the whole under command of Captain Stratton of the 22nd Foot, head Signaller to the Force.
In few words my story was told and at once bold Stratton determined to pursue down the far side of the hill. Stratton had told me to go back to camp, but I did not consider that an order and, keeping on the extreme left of the line so that he should not see me, I pushed along.
I noticed that the young soldier of the picquet who had stuck to his rifle was still keeping by me as the long line advanced down the slope, which gradually bifurcated into two distinct spurs. The further we went the wider apart drew the spurs and the deeper became the intervening nullah.
Captain Stratton, Forbes, and the Regimental Company commander were all on the other or eastern spur and the men kept closing in towards them, until at last everyone, bar myself and my one follower, had cleared off the western spur. I did not want to cross the nullah, feeling too weak and tired to force my way through the thick undergrowth. Soon we could no longer hear or see the others.
Suddenly I heard Click! "Take cover!" I shouted and flung myself behind a big stone. Sure enough, the moment often imagined had come! Not more than twenty paces down the slope an old, white-bearded, wicked-looking Enemy was aiming at me with his long jezail from behind a fallen log.
Click! again. Another misfire.
Now I was musketry instructor of my regiment, which had been the best shooting regiment in India the previous year. My revolver was a rotten little weapon, but I knew its tricks. As the Afghan fumbled with his lock I took aim and began to squeeze the trigger. Another instant and he would have been dead when bang! went a rifle behind me; my helmet tilted over my eyes, my shot went where we found it next day, about six feet up into a tree.
The young soldier had opened rapid fire just over my head.
At the same time, I saw another Afghan come crouching through the brushwood below me towards a point where he would be able to enfilade my stone. I shouted to my comrade, "I'm coming back to you," and turned to make for his tree.
Luck was with me. At that very moment bang went the jezail and when we dug out the bullet next morning and marked the line of fire, it became evident that had I not so turned I would never have sat spinning this yarn.
That shot was a parting salute. There were shouts from the right of the line, and as I was making for my tree the Afghans made off in the other direction. I shouted to Stratton and his men to press down to the foot of the hill, working round to the north so as to cut off the raiders. Then, utterly exhausted, I began my crawl back to the camp.
Soon after I had got in I was summoned into the presence of the redoubtable Bobs. Although I had marched past him at Kohat this was my first face-to-face meeting with one who was to play the part of Providence to my career.
He made me sit in a chair and at once performed the almost incredible feat of putting me entirely at my ease. This he did by pouring a golden liquid called sherry into a very large wine-glass. Hardly had I swallowed this elixir when I told him all about everything, which was exactly what he wanted.
A week later the Commander of the Cavalry Brigade, Redan Massy, applied to Headquarters for an Aide-de-Camp. Sir Fred Roberts advised him to take me. That billet led to unimaginable bliss. Surrounding villages by moonlight, charging across the Logar Valley, despising all foot sloggers - every sort of joy I had longed for.
The men of the picquet who had run away were tried by Court Martial and got long sentences, alas - poor chaps! The old Mullah was sent to his long account by Stratton.
But that is the point of most war stories; when anyone gets a lift up it is by the misfortune or death of someone else.
"Drum Fire" was an artillery barrage fired not in salvo but by each gun in succession.
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