Adventures of a Soldier in India and Tibet. Part 1.
Life begins in poverty
He was born in 1881 in Fulham, a grubby London suburb. He was fifth child of a family of eight children and much loved and spoiled by his older sisters. His father had migrated from the coalfields in south Wales some years earlier to give his then, new family a better chance in life.
But life was really hard for a large family in those days. Toms education left much to be desired and he often skipped school to go and help in the local tannery where he could earn a few pennies to help out with the endless bills. So as soon as Tom was old enough to leave home, he did so, leaving behind the daily grind of life. He wanted excitement. He wanted a life away from the daily grind and grime of Fulham. He wanted a place to lay his head that he didn’t have to share with three brothers. He wanted to eat a decent meal. He wanted adventure. He wanted to live. The life of a soldier held the promise of great romance and the chance to travel to all corners of the great British Empire for free. Despite his poor education, he was an avid reader and had devoured all the books he could find about the great British Empire over the seas. Queen Victoria was the Queen of the whole world it seemed to a young, impressionable 13 year old boy.
He just disappeared! No word to his mother or to his siblings. He saw a recruitment poster dangling from an old warehouse wall and followed the trail to the recruitment office. A dingy little office down Thames Lane, some thirty minutes walk from his home held the promise of great adventure. The place smelt of old toilets, the dirty old Thames and dead animals, but Tom was too entranced by his very own decision to escape. At thirteen a lot of his friends were tied to a working day and week of drudgery and boredom. But that was their lot in life. Or so they thought. Tom wasn’t so convinced that his lot in life revolved around boredom and drudgery. His mind was filled with images of the famous, brave British soldier, fighting campaigns in every part of the Queens’ Empire to keep it intact and safe. He wanted to be part of that grand dream.
So the small statured, red, curly haired, cheeky lad confronted the recruiting Sergeant and told him he wanted to join the famous British Army. The Sergeant, never one to be nonplussed by a mere brash boy, eyed him over and handed him a form.
‘He thinks I can’t read’, thought Tom. And proceeded to fill in the form without hesitation, lying about his date of birth, as was expected of any impetuous youth falling into that office. The Sergeant barked a few obvious questions at him, but he was full of confidence and the answers came easily.
It was that effortless although he had to go through a few hoops before gaining his uniform. The medical was a bit harrowing because of his age, his voice had barely broken and his physique was undersized. But it seemed perfunctory and he now had to report to the barracks of the Queens Royal Fusiliers on the 7th of the next month to begin his career defending the great Empire of his beloved Queen Victoria. He also had to face up to his formidable mother, but her reaction was one of happy relief. Until the day of departure, when this usually garrulous lady became very quiet. He was one of her brood, and although it would be one less burden in those hard times, she would miss his quick wit and happy demeanor.
Oh an age away. Did his courage ever wain? Did he ever think he’d done the wrong thing? No, of course he didn’t, he was British through and through. He had a mission! He was off to do the Queen’s bidding, wherever that may take him.
How he kept his enormous secret in those following weeks was hard to imagine. His footsteps had wings, he flew everywhere, never missing a beat and carrying out his duties with the tannery with enthusiasm seldom witnessed by the workers in that awful place. They all knew Tom had a reason to be euphoric, but try as they might, they could not pries the reason from this headstrong, delightful young boy. His heart was happy and had wings.
For Queen and Country
He never looked back. From the day he signed up, to the first day with the regiment, to the many campaigns, to the day he was wounded, to the day he came out of the army, his euphoria never left him. He was the Queens’ man, prepared to defend her and her great Kingdom to the last breath in his body.
The first few months were not so hard for him as for many of his compatriots. He was one of a big family and used to doing his share of all the menial chores a large family necessitates. He was used to discipline – his father, Aldred, was a singularly blunt Welshman, used to being the head of his own family, and used to dishing out discipline as and when necessary. No-one, not girl, not boy, escaped his wrath if he felt they deserved it. But he was fair and the children knew it. They loved and respected him, knowing him for a hard working and unsentimental man. He had a large family and was determined to keep them out of the dreaded ‘workhouse’. An ever present threat in those desperate days. People took jobs they hated, for the few shillings it provided to sustain the household. Aldred had escaped the Welsh coalmines and come to London in the hope of educating his brood so that they wouldn’t have to experience the poverty he’d been born into. He worked a 14 hour day in the tannery and often wondered if it was a better life than the life he’d left in that dingy mining town in Wales. But importantly, the money was better. The house was adequate for his growing family and they all seemed content with their daily lot in life.
So, from this poor background, our hero, Tom Pratten emerged from his chrysalis to become a fully fledged, proud soldier in the Queens’ RoyalFusiliers. The motto of whom is Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense - Evil to him who evil thinks.
His first assignment in 1896 was to India. Now that really was an exotic location. What did he know of India. The Queen was the ‘Empress of India’ and he’d tried to read as much as he could find about this amazing continent. The Indian Mutiny of some 40 years previous, figured largely in his imagination. It sounded horrific. He didn’t think it would happen in this day and age. The Empire was too savvy now. But it made his spine tingle to think of the ever-present dangers of this assignment.
His Father came to see him off at the docks at Tilbury. For an unsentimental man, he used his handkerchief rather frequently to Toms’ amazement. He could be wrong of course. The dusty old docks could have been the reason. But many years later, reminiscing with his father, Tom knew it was tears of parting he’d witnessed that day.
It took 8 long weeks on a troop ship to reach Bombay. Tom was ill! Tom was very, very ill! He’d never been on a ship before. Yes, fishing off the old barges on the Thames of course. But nothing prepared him for this horrific journey. He cried, mostly in private, but often openly with his comrades – they all felt the same. He wanted to go home. He didn’t want to be the ‘soldier of the Queen’ – he wanted his Mum and his old job at the tannery. He wanted to walk on stable ground. He didn’t want to see those waves that threatened to swamp the ship and kill them all. He wanted to see the calm, dirty old Thames with all its rubbish and bad odours. He didn’t want to heave up watching those great grey waves above him. What did they call this bit? The Cape of Good Hope? What a strange name for such a wretched piece of the planet! Eight weeks of unimaginable terror!
But at long, long last Bombay heaved on the horizon. The first impression was the smell! This cannot be the Exotic East of my tales and dreams! This is a very hot version of the tannery! It stinks! It’s putrid!
But it was mystical India. And that wasn’t the end of Toms’ nightmares. No amount of reading and imagination could prepare him for the horrors of India. The streets were a cesspool of human excrement and death. Everywhere were decaying bodies of animals and humans, excrement, rotting vegetables, fruit and detritus of everyday living. The constant puddles were fetid. They were full of mosquitoes and they reeked. His guts wanted to extrude through his mouth because the nose just could not cope with the horrors of the smells. It made the tannery seem like a floral paradise! Okay. Take a deep breath Thomas Pratten and get on with it he chided himself. You are not stationed in Bombay, you’re stationed at Simla. Now pass though this nightmare city with your comrades and find the train to Simla.
The camaraderie of his fellow soldiers was such a comfort. Tom knew he would have given up instantly after disembarking the troopship had his friends not been beside him. The comradeship born of a common experience by men of a similar nature, and destined for a similar objective. But remember, Tom was by this time, only a few months short of his 15th birthday. A child in reality, albeit a boisterous one at that. But soon to be catapulted into full manhood quite rapidly.
Life With the Indian Army 1896
The next seven years passed all too quickly. The Royal Fusiliers was an infantry regiment and part of the Indian Army. Amongst his fellow soldiers were stern Pathans from the North West Frontier region of India. Always a dark and brooding area. He grew to respect and trust their instincts implicitly, and it saved his life on more than one occasion. The other formidable comrades where the ‘little’ Ghurkas from Nepal (the 8th Ghurka Regiment). Ever cheerful and the most courageous of people in battle. And the famous warriors of India, the Sikhs in the 32nd Sikh Pioneer Regiment. For Tom, an enormous mountain of a learning curve ensued. India was thrilling in its spectacles of festivals, colour, scenery, culture, people, food and customs. There was a colossal amount Tom needed to assimilate in this strange land of exotic food, people and culture. Nothing prepared him or his fellow soldiers for the heat of the plains or for the beauty of its mountains and wildlife. He was enthralled. He’d fallen in love with this strange land within months of entering it, and never lost that first irresistible surge of joy.
Five years passed rapidly. Tom was a great athlete and took part in all the activities offered within the regiment. His greatest delight was his prowess on the polo field. He’d gain the skills of a horseman with the regiment in England, as did most of his regiment. It was an essential requirement for the work in India, and one he found most enjoyable. Often they were required to traverse the great mountain foothills of the Himalayas, and this required their skills on horseback, despite being an infantry regiment. Tom loved every minute of these recces and became very familiar with the mountains, valleys, roads and passes across the mountains. Regimental life had its amazing sides, not least the drinking side in the towns and bazaars they passed through.
It was to Toms every lasting chagrin that having scaled the dizzy heights and worked so hard to become Sergeant, he could be so easily busted to Private again because of his unacceptable antics when drunk! It seemed so unfair. Everyone had to have a little burst of silliness didn’t they? And the nightlife of India enticed a young man in his prime to seduce many of the ‘ladies of the night’ – a practice much frowned upon by the ‘Memsahibs’ of the regiment – a dowdy, boorish group of frustrated females if ever Tom saw any. They really were priggish in the extreme. Too much time on their bored hands and too little to do.
There is a saying ‘ Women lost the British their Empire’. And in Toms opinion, this was totally and absolutely correct. They were a nightmare and best avoided at all costs.
The handsome and elegant women of India were just beautiful to Tom and his contemporaries and they lost no time in ‘entertaining’ them whenever they could.
This young man was my own Grandfather, Thomas Pratten, and sadly, I only knew him for a few brief years. He died when I was just seven years old at the age which I’m at now – 72. But his influence has followed me throughout my life. I have no real recollection of him telling me tales from his military days, but a host of memories seem to come unbidden to the surface of my mind when I least expect them. And the very fact that I so love travelling and the East seem to stem directly from his tales of adventure.