"It was exciting going to India, a new life. There wasn't
much doing in England then. We were going from a rather dull
career in England to something exciting in India."
- Colonel C.A.K. Innes-Wilson
The Lure of the East
Really there wasn't a great deal of financial inducement. I remember when I was at Oxford, the then Secretary of State for India came down to give us all a pep talk, the undergraduates, to try and get people to go into the Indian Civil Service, because -- that was in 1924 or thereabouts, with the Congress movement going strongly -- there was a sort of feeling that the ICS was finished. You would never see your time out -- which in fact we didn't. I remember being absolutely shocked by the cynical attitude he took. He said, "Well if you've got hereditary soap in your family, go into that. Don't dream of going to India. But if you go out to India, you can always look forward to a pension of a thousand a year." I thought reducing it all to financial terms was absolutely horrible.
I went out in an entirely different spirit, and I think most of us did. We didn't go out for the money. In fact, there wasn't any wealth in it at all. You just scraped by, and you got a decent pension at the end. But it was the life. It was a splendid life, and we went out with a certain sort of sense of dedication, I think. In those days, the climate of opinion was so different from what it is now. We really believed in the British Empire. We thought we had a mission to perform. It sounds a little bit naive now, but we really did feel that it was the right thing for a young Englishman to do to go out and rule over a lot of people. If I was back again, in the present climate of opinion, I don't think I'd dare to go out and at the age of thirty suddenly become the district officer of a district of a million inhabitants and throw my weight about as I did, but it was a natural thing in those days. That was the spirit we went out in. One should say we went out there to India not really because thought we were going to make a heck of a lot of money or anything like that, but because we genuinely believed that we could render a service. I'm not trying to be blase', here in any way. I certainly didn't go out and the other people didn't go out there thinking we were going to make a fortune, because we knew exactly what our pay would be.
In this I'm not talking only about the ICS, I'm talking about the other groups of Britishers as well, the police, the railway people, particularly the forestry people, the Indian Medical Service. And I have been involved with British missionaries out there. I don't myself believe in the missionary concept, but nevertheless you could admire those people who went out there knowing they had nothing in front of them, very poor living conditions. And I've met some really wonderful missionaries in India. I don't think you can say that any of us, in whatever sphere we were moving or operating, went out there because we thought we'd make fortune, because we jolly well knew we wouldn't.
The feeling, I think, was that if you wanted to spread your wings a bit, it was easier to do it overseas, and India was a big part of the Empire, an enormous country where one got responsibility at an early age, and adventure.
India appealed to the sort of country gentleman in England, the type that liked to have an estate of his own and that sort of thing. Most of us never had a chance of having a country estate in England.
The tradition was very much the public school tradition based on the English squire's idea of looking after his tenants. Arnold's Rugby, which was the inspiration for the English public schools, was based on the idea that if you had special privileges, you also had responsibilities. The English country gentleman who had his big estates looked after his tenants. That sort of spirit went on through the type of people who went out as district officers in the Empire, in the Colonial Service and in India. We were expected to take over our districts and run them in much that sort of spirit. The district was our preserve. We were not expected to ask what we were to do and what we were not to do. We were expected to take responsibility and look after our people and take anything that came. We were supposed to deal with any kind of thing whether we were trained for it or not. That did appeal to a man who'd been brought up with those ideals and ideas. The same standards were adopted by people even if they hadn't been of the type I mean. The Indians adopted the same standards.
One of the great joys of India was that responsibility was thrust upon you at a relatively early age. Looking back sometimes it's almost ludicrous. A great friend of mine who was probably at that time about twenty-five was sent up as a district officer to a place south of Darjeeling and I used to go up and spend time with him whenever I could get away, and here he would be, presiding in various villages over local disputes, virtually holding court and dispensing justice at the age of twenty-five.
I think one reason that the British liked India on the whole -- got on quite well there -- is that we're rather a small country here. And we don't really have much of a chance of blossoming out until we find ourselves somewhere where there's a much wider canvas to function against, or on. And I mean that obviously happened in America. And it was the same in India. We're rather bad in this country at big projects.
I liked the life; the shooting of course is a very big thing because I could never have afforded to shoot at home in those days. I had two years' experience at Chatham before I was posted to India, and Army life at home wasn't too interesting in those days. I never had much use for tennis parties, going out to tea and that sort of thing.
You see, the Indian Army had an attraction for the British officer because it was the poor man's army. You didn't have to have private means. You could get a marvellous life in India with a chance of active service, fighting Pathans on the Frontier. That was the attraction of the Indian Army, and there was always quite a lot of competition to get into it.
My father was in the Indian Army. My parents were very reluctant that I should go out to India. They thought that India had had its day, but I chose to go into the Army and I went to Sandhurst and in those days -- I went to Sandhurst in 1932-1934 -- the British Army was very thin on the ground and where adventure was was the Indian Army. I chose to go to go to the Indian Army, which was very popular -- you had to pass out very high in order to get in. I chose to go out to India, really, because it was the only place where you had fully equipped and fully up to establishment units and where there was still adventure. My first posting in India, in fact -- my choice -- was Landi Kotal, which is the top end of the Khyber Pass. That was a fascinating, primitive existence, because we were living in tents up there, and huts, in fact. It was surrounded by barbed wire and you had to have about a third of the units on guard each night. We had little miniature forts -- sangars, made of rock -- and proper forts, where we had to have pickets every night. Shooting was going on continuously. The Pathans were raiding the camp and trying to pinch rifles and things like that. It was quite a Beau Geste sort of thing.
So the moment you went to India, you joined a live show. Everything was right up to establishment, and if anybody was to be short, they could be short in England, but not in India. And so anyboby who was at all keen on his job or his profession looked forward to going to India, to be able to have a real man's job -- as well as knowing that it was a wonderful place for the impecunious subaltern to enjoy sport very much more cheaply than he could at home -- shooting, fishing, pigsticking. And also it was a good social life, and it was great fun, and everybody loved it. Worked hard, played hard.
Well, when I went down to see him, he said, "Look, I commend you for saying you want to go to India. Not that I don't want to have you in the battalion. I asked for you to be posted, but still, that's where the soldiers go, overseas. I'm glad that you're taking your profession seriously and I'm not goin to stand in your way, but, my dear boy, do learn to go about it the right way. Now it's perfectly fair to say to another officer that you'll take his place, but you don't volunteer, as you have done. You say 'Now, how much is it worth your while for me to take your place?' That young man has got plenty of money and I think you will go back to him now and you will say you won't do so unless he pays you a sufficient sum." I said, "Oh, yes, sir. What shall I ask?" He said, "Well, he's got plenty of money. Ask him for two thousand pounds." Two thousand pounds in those days was a heck of a lot of money. We compromised on fifteen hundred. Of course the thing against was, even then in 1930, you remained in India, perhaps, for the whole of your career. The only things that could get you home were if you were invalided out and posted homesick, if the battalion itself were posted home or elsewhere out of India, or if you were given promotion into a vacancy in the home service.
My father was in the Indian Civil Service, and his father was out there in the army, and my father's maternal grandfather was a general in the Madras Army. My mother was the daughter of a colonel in the Madras Army. And so it went on. We had a family tradition, and from the time I started there was never any idea that I should do anything else. I mean it was really my home, almost. I was born in India, I was born down in Ooty. And all my brothers and sisters, all my uncles and aunts were there and so it was just the natural thing to do. And of course I very soon began to believe that there was no better career open to a young Englishman. The sheer scope of the work was absolutely fantastic. There were only 1300 in the ICS altogether at any time, and so you had to do a man's job from the start. There were many families who just went out, one after another. There were a lot with older connections than mine.
On my mother's side the tradition of service in India goes back a very long time, because her father was in the Indian Police, and all her brothers were in the Indian Army. And his father, the policeman's father, was also in India in the Education Department, and he was headmaster of a school called La Martiniere, in Calcutta. And his father went out as a soldier in the 8th Hussars. They've become the Royal Irish Hussars. He rose to be the Quartermaster of the 8th Hussars in India. And he had two children, a boy and a girl, and the boy became the headmaster of La Martiniere, and the girl eventually married an ICS Commisioner. But my great grandfather, who was the schoolmaster, he married a girl called Louisa Crow -- she was my great grandmother -- and her grandmother was an Indian lady from Lucknow. So my "three greats" grandmother was a Muslim. So there's obviously a very long family connection on my mother's side. My mother had four brothers, and they all went into the Indian Army. My father was in the Public Works Department. He was the first generation of the Edges to go there. One of his older brothers also went there, under rather strange circumstances because he went out with some people called the Theosophists. He studied at the peak of it with a lady called Mrs. Annie Besant. But he got fed up with it in the end.
But, yes, we were very much aware of the fact that we had a lot of Indian connections, and we always looked back on India as a kind of blissful place.
I think I started remembering from the time I was about two and a bit, probably. My father was stationed at a place called Arrah, which is in Bihar, and it was somewhat famous for the fact that it was one of these places in the Mutiny, where one of the houses was defended for a long time by a very small company of people. We used to spend a lot of time in camp, because he was always touring, going around to see various things he was responsible for. He was responsible, incidentally, for some of the earliest coal mines in India, in Bihar. And I remember watching these being operated. They didn't have any lift shafts. They had a sort of sloping shaft going down, and the coolies used to walk up and down these with baskets of coal on their heads. All women. And I used to think this was rather an inhuman way to treat women. However, it was quite the normal thing.
We all came home in 1920. I was eight and my brother was ten, and the two girls had already come home one or two years earlier. But we all, as always seemed to happen, after having spent your childhood in India, you always wanted to go back. And I was determined to go back, and so I went into the Royal Engineers. I tried for India -- India was very popular as a posting, so I was very lucky.
I was the only member of my famiy who wasn't born in India. My mother was born on the Frontier and my sister was born in Karachi and I was born in Dover. And I was always furious about that.
My grandfather and grandmother had large photograph albums and apart from the stories that they told one about India and their life there, one's greatest fun was to get these albums out and peer through them. One was enormously interested. My mother went out to stay with her parents when she left school and there of course my father was ADC to her father and that's where they met. It was sort of a small circle and some families came out from England generation after generation.
My grandfather used to tell us a story every night -- he used to tell me a story in bed -- he used to come up -- what we used to call our jungle stories, and they were all very exciting, about hunting and going off after elephants. I used to think this was exactly what had happened to him but -- looking back on them -- he must have thought them up. They were fascinating. When he died I can remember that I thought, well, no more will I hear the jungle stories that he used to tell about India. They were mainly about going out on hunting expeditions and watching animals. One sort of got the flavor of India somehow.
I was down in Madras as a small child, and we had to go home very early. I went home at the age of four. I have a few vague memories, but that's all. But of course the whole background -- my parents' letters from India. I only got to see my mother once in three years, my father once in five years, and so all their letters were all about India, and they used to send us things home, and bring things home when they came and talk about it the whole time. And all my relatives, my grandfather and grandmother, uncles and aunts, they all talked India the whole time, so the whole thing was very, very familiar.
I was born in India, in Rawalpindi. It's now Pakistan. As far as I can remember I was about six when I first came home, and went to a school outside Bournemouth. I was educated at home, which was the normal sort of thing and was one of the great disadvantages of serving in India, because there were no suitable schools out there. And so practically every family, if they had children, had to send them home for education, which meant a separation. But it was part of the way of life. Everybody did it, and so one didn't worry about it too much.
I can remember, which indicates one's railway madness or fanaticism, I can remember very clearly a bungalow that my father lived in, which was built like so many of the railway bungalows, alongside the track. And it was right on an embankment, and built into the embankment, more or less underneath the house, was a place where they used to keep the trolley which was part of the equipment that every engineer had. They were push trolleys, they weren't motor trolleys in those days. Four men, two men at a time, used to run along on the top of the rail, simply pushing it. And this trolley was kept in underneath there, and on top of this was a beautiful sort of verandah, which one could rush out to and watch the trains go by very conveniently. And I can remember that very clearly indeed.
Now his son got a commission in the East India Company, in 1796. He became a captain in 1806, and he was adjutant in his regiment and went with it to the conquest of Nepal. And he served in all those small Indian wars.
And then his son was perhaps the greatest, you might say freebooter, or adventurer, of the family. He had the most amazing career. He was sent over to England to be educated, and then sent out again at the age of fifteen. And he got a commission as an ensign in the Madras Army of the East India Company. And he remained an ensign for years and years. And finally at the age of twenty-six, he fell in love with his general's daughter, who was General James Welsh. Now he was a very prominent officer in the Indian service, the Madras Army, and he didn't like this young subaltern falling in love with his daughter, so he said, "You mind your step, boy." However, my great grandfather, being the lad he was, suddenly went to him one day and said, "General, perhaps this is going to displease you. I hope you don't mind, but I've married your daughter." And the general said, "Have you? Right. Then you shall be punished for this. You pack your bags, and you go straight to Fort William in Bengal, and you leave the Madras Presidency altogether." The Madras Presidency was one of the most sought after parts of British India then, and Fort William in Calcutta was regarded as the penal settlement. It was unhealthy. It was hot all the year round, sticky. However, he and his newly wed wife went to Fort William, and they remained there for six years.
And suddenly news came through that the first Afghan War had broken out, and that my great grandfather's regiment was in action, right beyond the Northwest Frontier, which was then not British territory at all. And they were to proceed to a place called Ghazni. Well, he said, "What! My regiment being in active service, and here am I in Bengal. This won't do." So he took his wife and three children that had arrived, and there was a frigate lying off in the Hooghly, and he said, "You get aboard." And he bribed the purser to give them accommodation. He said, "You go down to Madras and join your father. I'm off to the war." And he was a very big man. He was six foot four, and broad, and he was a wonderful wrestler and sword fighter and rider and all the rest. And he disguised himself as a native and he rode or walked through Bengal, which was in British India -- that was all right -- through the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, which were uncharted territories, through the Punjab, which was also uncharted territory.
And he spoke the language wonderfully, he was almost like a native himself. And eventually he found himself up on the Northwest Frontier, in Afghanistan, and found out where his regiment was and joined it. And they were having great trouble trying to capture this fort at Ghazni. It was an enormous place and very strongly held. They'd had three assaults and failed. So finally, the commanding officer sent for him. He said, "Here, you will lead this company, my friend. Tomorrow, we're going to make a dawn attack." Well, he did. And not only that. This time the fortress fell. And he led his company through the gates, and they captured the fort. And the Commander-in-Chief came up after, and he said, "Look here, who is that young officer? I've never seen him before." So the Commanding Officer said, "No, I don't think you have, sir." He was still an ensign. Ensign Salmon. So the general, which was General Sale, said, "I'd like to meet him." And my great grandfather turned up and he said, "Now, where have you come from?" He said, "From Fort William, sir, in Calcutta." He said, "Have you? Well, how did you get here?" He said, "I walked, sir." "Oh," he said, "did you? With whose permission?" "With my own, sir." "Then with my permission you can walk back again." And he did. And then when he got back they said, "Now look here. There's a charge against you. But you've done such wonderful work that not only will we overlook it and forgive you, but your promotion is now gazetted to full lieutenant." So honor was satisfied as well. Well, to cut a long story short, he served in the Mutiny, then took part in the siege of Delhi. And he ended as a Lieutenant General, so he didn't do too badly.
My grandfather, who was his eldest son, used to tell me about when he went to India and joined his regiment and he went down into Madras Presidency. My great grandfather had retired by then, and he'd inherited a family estate in Wiltshire, at a place called Potter, and he came home to retire, to take over the estate. And after two years he said, "I don't like England. I don't like the country or the climate and I'm going back to India, and I'm going to spend my days there," which he did. And he went to Coonoor, in the South of India in the Nilgiris. And my grandfather, his son, joined his regiment outside Madras, at a place called Bangalore, and he said, "I was in such awe of my father, I didn't write and say, 'Dad, I've arrived, and can I come and stay?' I waited until I was summoned. And in due course I was told to come and stay with the old man." And he said, "Although I was on duty that particular time, even my Commanding Officer was in such dread of the old general that he said, 'You go. Go ahead. Stay with him.'" He was an amazing man. More or less ruled the whole of Coonoor like a potentate himself.
Now my grandfather joined what was called the Hyderabad Contingent, which was one of the old regiments in the East India Company, and in due course commanded the third infantry battalion of it. And he took them to Burma in the two Burmese wars and commanded them through it. And they were then chasing a man called Bo Shwe, a Burmese rebel terrorizing the whole of the Burmese hills. Well, my old grandfather, it was his battalion that finally found his hideout and attacked it. And they eventually captured the Bo and all his bits and pieces. And when everything was sorted out at the end, they gave my grandfather the old man's gong, which was his signaling instrument, which he used to signal his tribesmen. And it had a most amazing great boom to it. I've still got that gong. It's made out of bronze, and so shaped that it echoes. My grandfather had it at his house as his dinner gong. Then, sad to say, he retired and lived in Southsea. He only died just before the war. And what was so tragic was his house was bombed. He was dead then, thank goodness. The whole house came down. But when they dug out all the rubble, the old gong was found. But it's badly cracked. Actually, I'm now in the process of handing it over to the Army Museum.
The awful thing about it is that it's infective, it goes on to your families. And as I said, our children were left with this kind of wanderlust.
It does seem to be a peculiar thing that does run through the generations. If you were uncharitable you could say that everything was so inefficient in India, that you weren't really fitted to function anywhere else!
The Voyage OutSir Alec Ogilvie:
It had a swimming pool and fancy dress parties and called at Suez. The gully gully men -- magicians -- came on board and bum boats, as they were called, came alongside to sell you leather goods and all sorts of so-called Arab and Eastern clothes, made in Birmingham, I think. And, of course, then you got things like duty free cameras and binoculars, even in those days, mostly German.
That passage took on the order of three weeks. One called at Marseilles, Port Said in Suez, down the Canal. My daughter's generation used the word often: posh. Port Outward, Starboard Home, because of the way the sun rose.
There was also a feature of the social order that was known, probably rather unkindly, as the fishing fleet. Young ladies went out with service connections, to stay with So and So -- young men were plentiful and young ladies not so -- with the quite understandable intention of getting married. So in the bar of the Viceroy of India, I distinctly remember -- there were usually either the Civil Service, which was quite desirable to marry into, because in my day a girl was told that you were worth a thousand a year alive or dead, because you certainly attained a pay of one thousand a year fairly quickly and your pension was a thousand a year, which was originally quite a valuable pension. Anyway I can remember very well in the bar of the Viceroy of India a young officer -- there were quite a few girls there -- and he took up the Civil list, which was green, and the Army list, which was pink, and he said, "This, my girl, study this; this is the Old Testament, and this is the New Testament." It was rather cynical.
I remember on this same voyage -- on a four weeks' voyage everybody got to know each other pretty well. We, with one other girl, were the only missionaries on this boat. The rest of them were all tea planters and people like that. The big people went out first class, of course, but the kind of crowd that were with us were tea planters and so forth, and it very clearly came to us that as missionaries we were regarded as oddballs. So when the fancy dress dance took place, as always happened on these ships, my wife and I went as the missionary of fiction and his wife. And I put on an enormous great white topi and dark glasses and I had a bag full of tracts which I went round distributing. My wife put on an enormous great hat with fruit all around which the purser tied on for her and an appalling purple dress with a pink slip which showed underneath. So this was a great success. We got the prize -- a couple of dishes which we're still using. But the end of the story is that when we arrived in Madras our colleagues were waiting on the quay to meet us and they looked just like we had looked. They were a wonderful set of people, but ....
A topi is most comfortable to wear. I used to like it. Also, if you happen to fall off your horse or have a crash in a car, it's a wonderful crash helmet.
I remember when I went out there, people, old hands, if they saw you without a topi for one moment in the sun, they'd tap you on the shoulder. "My boy, you'll catch sunstroke."
It's very, very dramatic approaching India by sea from the west approaching Bombay, because you've got the Western ghats. They stand up. You can see India a long time before you get there. When you're going the other way round, Calcutta of course is all flat. You don't really see anything until you've arrived. But coming into Bombay you see this line of hills, quite dramatic hills. And then I used to climb into a troop train. The trains in India were really very good value in those days. They used to move along very slowly, but you had time to see the country. If you were coming in from Bombay and going up the ghats to Poona -- my very first station was in Poona.
But one's first journey, coming out to Bombay was really rather magnificent, because the sun was setting in the West, and sort of lighting up the western ghats as it set, and you were in this train as it chugged slowly and gracefully along. It was very hot. And you didn't bother about shutting the doors or anything. I remember I sat on the floor of the train, at the door, with my feet hanging out, to admire the scenery. It was very spectacular scenery. We were climbing up the ghats. And we eventually arrived. I remember it was a brilliant moonlight night. Of course the moonlight in India is very bright indeed. Well, the adjutant was there to meet me. He took me along to the room which had been allocated to me-I was given a room in one of the other officers' houses for two or three days -- and I set about being a member of the Indian Army.
I so well remember that Sunday morning. The luggage arrived from the station and upstairs we went to our rooms and a very old Mohammedan was standing outside my room. This chap from the Political Department said, "Mohammed will be your personal bearer and servant. He has just retired from being servant to a Commissioner who has just retired from the ICS and he's prepared to start life all over again with a junior officer like you." I went into the bedroom. He looked so solemn. He scarcely allowed me to take my clothes off, he had to take them off for me. When I put my dressing gown on and went to the bathroom, then he proceeded to follow ahead of me to the bathroom door and was waiting for me in the room when I came back. I started to put on my socks, I started to put on my shirt. He wouldn't let me. After about one day I said, "Please, I'm going to dress myself unless I'm terribly tired."
I went straight off to Saharanpur, which is near Dehra Dun. But I arrived at midnight -- you always arrived very late. I don't know how they always contrived this. All the trains. It must have been a terribly difficult operation. I arrived at midnight and was put into a tent. I was met and put into a tent and woke up the next morning and I was really delighted to find how fresh and clean -- it was the summer -- the air seemed so clean and fresh and it was lovely waking up in the mornings and seeing the sunshine. It was marvelous -- frightfully thrilling.
I went into a house to breakfast and it was my first meeting with the Collector and District Magistrate. And I said, "What shall I do for work, sir?" And he said, "Don't call me 'sir'. You reserve that for people two above you. And as for work, you don't have to do any work in your first year. All you've got to do is get the atmosphere of the country." And he said, "Here's a book on polo. Read that in your spare time, and I'll examine you on that this evening." And he said, "After a day or two -- you've got a clerk -- I'll have some cases, your own, and I'll go through these with you and read this record." Then I went off to a room which I was told was my office.
Well, through the family, I had some idea of what to expect of India. I'd never seen it but I always had some idea I'd been there before. It never seemed a strange country at all, even from the first moment I saw Bombay at six o'clock in the morning from the deck of a trooper. It seemed to be quite familiar. Some say -- if you believe in reincarnation -- I was presumably an Indian at some time or other. They say that a lot of Englishmen have been Indian. Anyway, nothing ever seemed to be unfamiliar.
And you feel homesick, and stupid things like that. And you don't like it! So unless you get over the hump somehow -- and once you're over the hump, you're for it, because you can never, never get it out of your system.
We really thought of ourselves -- well, not as Indians, because that would have meant we had dark skins -- but we completely identified with India. Doubtless, most of our friends were connected with India in one way or another.
1. The Passage to India | interviews
Running Your Empire | interviews
3. Life in the Bungalows | interviews
4. Imperial Diversions | interviews
5. Never the Twain? | interviews
6. No more India to go to | interviews