Monday, 17 February 2020

How to Skin a Crocodile—part 1

Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?
The death of a parent can throw what we don’t know about them into painfully sharp relief. My father, James Annan Wilson always known as Jim, died in March 1985 and, like many sons, I could fill a book with detailed, never-asked and probably unanswerable queries. Fortunately, Jim loved to tell stories of his life in India. Unfortunately, for much of my childhood there was only one question I wanted to ask. 
I was that eager kid in the First World War poster, steeped in stories from a later war and certain that my dad must have done brave and extraordinary things.
“What did you do in the war, Dad?” I eventually asked.
“Nothing much.”
“But you were a captain.”
“Acting captain,” he said, setting his book aside. “I was really only a lieutenant. Everybody on the railways had to join.” He smiled at me. “The Bengal and North Western Railway Battalion.”
“And you’ve got a gun,” I persisted, referring to the heavy oiled pistol in its metal box in the bottom of the wardrobe in my parent’s bedroom
“You mustn’t touch it.”
“I just look,” I lied. I loved how I could barely lift the gun and how cold its steel felt even on the hottest summer day.
“One day, when you’re older, I’ll show you how it works.”
The thought of that wonderful day-to-come distracted me for a while. Then I remembered something else I could use. “You won a medal.”
“It was just an MBE. Everybody got one.”
I have the medal in its velvet-lined case, and the scroll signed by the king, dated 12 June, 1947 and beginning, “George the Sixth by the Grace of God of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India and Sovereign of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire to Our trusty and well-beloved James Annan Wilson Esquire Greeting.…We have thought fit to nominate and appoint you to be a Member of the Civil Division of Our said Most Excellent Order of the British Empire…” etc. etc.
Years later, looking at the medal and the scroll, I thought, “No, Dad. Not everybody got one.” But if they were uncommon, what did James Annan Wilson Esquire do to become “trusty and well-beloved”?
I have some clues. I do know that the railway workshops Jim was in charge of were turned over to the production of munitions and the building of three ambulance trains. My sister told me that, in the spring of 1944, one of the trains needed to be driven as close as possible to Kohima and Imphal where desperate fighting was going on to halt the Japanese invasion. No one wanted to undertake the hazardous trip so Jim volunteered and took the train. 
Perhaps that journey was enough for the Most Excellent Order, but I have one other intriguing, isolated piece of information relating to that time. It is from the archives at Fettes College. Fettes keeps track of the activities and achievements of its old pupils after they have left and were very helpful in confirming several details that I already knew about Jim. However, their records added something startlingly new: “1939-45 War; Capt. Punjabis; POW”. Since I can find no confirmation from military records or family of his being either in the Punjabis or a prisoner of war, it is almost certainly an error, but…
As Jim told me, European engineers and administrators working on the railways of the Raj automatically became officers in the Auxiliary Forces of India. In another fancy document from the time of George VI’s dad, although this one’s not signed, Jim, already “trusty and well-beloved”, is made a 2nd Lieutenant in the Bengal and North Western Railway Battalion. He became a full Lieutenant two years later on 1st June, 1934 and was a Captain by the time the battalion was disbanded in 1947.
The job of the railway battalions was simple, keep the peace. The Bengal and North Western Railway Battalion, with a strength in 1939 of 110 Europeans and 180 Anglo-Indians (as the children of mixed Indian and British parentage were designated in those days), was tasked with “providing armoury guards during periods of civil unrest”, although as “civil unrest” increased in India during the 1930s and 40s, I suspect that many of the Auxiliary Forces were used for other purposes. What those other purposes might have been is suggested by one of the stories Jim told me about his military career in India.
Not the BNWRB,
but how they would have looked on formal occasions.
One evening, we were watching an old movie on television. I don’t remember the details but there was a scene where a small group of brave British lads were faced by an angry mob of locals in some far corner of the British Empire. The soldiers fire over the heads of the advancing crowd and are then overwhelmed by it.
“Nonsense,” my dad said. “That’s not how you handle a riot.”
“But how can you?” I asked. “There are a lot more rioters than soldiers.”
“Yes, but your squad is disciplined and armed. The idea is to use the least amount of force necessary to quell the riot. If you fire over the heads of the crowd the leaders will simply say ‘See, their bullets cannot harm us’ and you’re no better off. First you blow the bugle to get the crowd’s attention and then read the riot act.”
“Does that stop them?”
“If it doesn’t stop them?” I asked, trying to tease out more of the story. 
“Every crowd has leaders: the man with the megaphone, the man leading the chanting. While the riot act is being read, you get the two or three best shots in the platoon and point out the major ringleaders in the crowd. If the crowd keeps coming, you order those men to fire at the targets you’ve given them. That beheads the crowd and without leaders to give it focus a crowd is much more easily dispersed.”
As I pondered this, Jim went on. “The problem was that permission to fire on a crowd had to be given in writing by the local magistrate. Local magistrates were Indian and could hardly ever be found when trouble was brewing.”
I loved the story of facing down an enraged mob but it was only years later and too late, that I wondered how my dad knew in so much detail what to do with a squad of soldiers amid the chaos of a riot, and regretted missing the opportunity to ask him.
I was told other stories to the soundtrack of clinking ice in a crystal glass. “I remember once in the rebellion of 1942, Jock MacIntosh was alone when he was faced in the railway yards by a hostile crowd. A young Indian in the crowd harangued him with, ‘Bloody Englishman. We don’t want you here.’ Jock shouted back, ‘I’m no an Englishman. I’m a Scotchman.’ While the mob wondered at this, Jock jumped onto a nearby train and escaped.”
"Troopers from the Bihar Light Horse were once paraded before a visiting senior officer. They were a scruffy bunch and the officer wasn't impressed by the lack of spit and polish. He gestured at the lined up men and pointedly asked the Sergeant Major, 'What is that?' Without missing a beat, the Sergeant Major replied, 'They’re a corps of gentleman, sir. They owns their own horses, don’t clean nothing and salutes nobody.’”
"I felt bloody helpless during the Bengal famine of 43/44. It was dreadful, bodies in the streets, no more than skeletons. And it was all made worse by the merchants stocking full granaries to drive up prices.”
“Explosions are strange things. One time in 1944 a munitions ship, the SS Fort Stikine, blew up in Bombay harbour. A man I knew, a railway man, Bob Scott, was walking along a street near the docks with a friend. The explosion knocked him out. When he came to, he was unharmed, but his friend was down the street, naked, without a mark on him, but stone dead."
Jim at Fettes,
training to be a soldier.
Not all Jim's stories were about the war. One day he returned to the bungalow to learn that the family dog, Mac, had been behaving oddly and had been locked in the shed. My dad peered through the window and saw Mac, tearing wildly around, snarling, foaming at the mouth and obviously rabid. He got his shotgun, opened the door a crack and pushed the gun through. In a frenzy, Mac seized the barrel and my dad pulled the trigger. When he withdrew the gun he noticed that the dog had left teeth marks on the tempered steel.
Much as I loved Jim's stories, I never made any attempt to fit them into a reconstruction of his pre-me life. It's impossible now but I have snippets of information from other sources.
My sister remembers our father being very drunk one night shortly after he came back from India for good. He was wildly waving a gun around and shouting, “They’re coming to get me.” Who?
Once, in the bookcase in Paisley, amidst the tomes on religion and philosophy, I unearthed a well-worn book in a stained brown paper cover. It dealt with living with alcoholism. 
On another occasion, shortly before I married, my fiancee and I went to visit my parents. My mom took my fiancee aside and advised her that I would have affairs and that she should ignore them. Do these three events suggest horrific war experiences, alcohol problems and affairs? Certainly, war time India was not calm, heavy drinking was a part of the colonial culture and Jim must have been excruciatingly lonely for long periods.
It’s tempting to build a story out of all this, but that would be mere speculation, and this is not a novel. All I can do is accept the stories for what they were, isolated anecdotes that were powerful enough to punch through my self-involved childhood. And that they certainly did. I loved all of Jim’s tales, but my absolute favourite was the one about the time he went crocodile hunting on the Ganges River.

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