Peter Ireland’s talk was based on extracts from his grandfather’s memoire of his military service as a private in Burma, India and South Africa. An unusual thing for a private to do. He found references to places he’d never heard of before such as Chitral and Chin Lusai. His grandfather’s personal witness to the trials and tribulations of the army on campaign added great authenticity to the events described. His grandfather’s narrative was well supported by contemporary photographs that Peter had found on the internet. Despite the fact that the words had been penned over a hundred years before, Private Peter Ireland’s record seemed modern in flaavour. Albeit it was often clear that his values were late Victorian or early Edwardian rather than our 21st century values in terms of racial attitudes, the brutality of the battle field and the privations endured on campaign. Peter discovered his grandfather’s memoire by accident when clearing the family house. It was unknown to the family and Peter found it so fascinating that he went to the King’s Own Scottish Borderer’s Museum to further research his grandfather’s history. The Curator was equally amazed at both the accuracy of the diaries in terms of events, times and the officers involved. The fact that a ‘mere’ private had such a ‘strategic’ perspective on the military campaigns made the memoire more remarkable and a welcome addition to the Museum’s history of the KOSBies.
Private Peter Ireland was 19 when his overseas’ adventures began on the SS Euphrates in Portsmouth on his way to India. His impressions were very fresh of places like Gibraltar, Port Said and the Suez Canal. On arrival he transited the infamous Deolali Camp, of ‘going Deolali fame’, where the newcomers passed those soldiers on their way home, many of them unfit for service because they had succumbed to sickness and disease. Not long after arrival in India Peter’s troop was posted to the Hill country where the tea plantations are found. Here the climate was much more pleasant. Peter was enthralled by the mountain scenery, the sunsets and the sounds of exotic animals such as lynxes, cheetahs and eagles. Sadly this was too good to last and the regiment received orders to move to Burma which had only become a colony in 1885. It proved to be a very trying campaign during the monsoon. The men had no tents nor proper tropical gear. There was no fresh food and the canned food turned putrid in the heat. Inevitably many men fell sick and caught malaria. As such, it was no surprise to hear that only two men died in action while many more died of disease. This tale of Army ineptitude and lack of care for the men’s well being riddled Peter’s memoire. However, it rarely drew outraged comment, rather his commentary suggested this is the way it was and we’re all in it together!
Trooper Ireland spent time describing the flora and fauna of his surroundings including the local agriculture. During his time in Burma he found the local natives very friendly. Clearly he enjoyed his stay in Rangoon where he was able to enjoy going to the theatre and playing football and cricket. He did a bit of sight seeing too, including the great Pagoda where he observed lepers and blind musicians playing dulcimer like instruments. Peter was intrigued to find that it was only women that worked in the shops.
It was in India that Trooper Ireland saw his first serious action in the Relief of Chitral, a small independent state. The state straddled a potential route from Russia into India which the British wished to control. When the old ruler died in 1892, there was bitter, and often fatal, fighting amongst his sons as to who should take over. In 1895, tribal forces turned on a small force of British under the command of George Scott Robertson and they took refuge in Chitral Fort. Some desperate fighting took place with the tribesmen during the six week siege resulting in significant losses. Although Chitral is not well remembered today, it ranked with Mafeking for its prominence in Britain in its time.
A heroic rescue mission was mounted from Gilgit about a hundred and fifty miles to the East. It meant traversing challenging mountain terrain in winter weather but the fort was relieved. Peter’s grandfather was involved in the diversionary tactics to help the recue effort and gave a graphic account of his feelings during the action. Initially while the artillery were softening up the enemy he observed he was suffering nerves. However, once he had fired his rifle as they attacked, his nerves settled down. He records that the Afghans didn’t move under the barrage and the battle became heavily contested involving hand to hand fighting. Despite the British superior fire power, the Afghans show no fear of death. Peter tells of a fierce old man rushing to attack the British with a sword and his troop matter-of-factly dispatches of him with bayonets. It appeared all in a day’s work?!! Here Peter showed images of the various weapons in use at the time. These included the Maxim Gun, the Lee Metford Rifle, both used by the British and the Jezail used by the Afghans. The last is a long barrelled rifle which could be lethally accurate. Anyway, the relief allowed Robertson to install the 12 year old son of the old ruler, Shuja al-Mulk, as the new ruler under British protection. Satisfyingly he ruled until his death 41 years later.
Four years after Trooper Ireland had returned to Britain, he found himself as a reserve heading for the Boer War on the Braemar Castle. He clearly enjoyed having good rations and rifle practice taking pot shots at biscuit tins on the journey! Peter found himself involved in a different kind of conflict. Here the Boer farmers were motivated and capable and seeking to protect their colonies, the British were seeking to protect their interests in gold and diamond mines at Kimberley and Johannesburg and the poor Africans were stuck in the middle. The key leaders in the actions of Trooper Ireland took part in were Lords Robert and Kitchener against General Piet Cronje. What emerged from the diaries was that Kitchener had little regard for the men and often exposed them to unnecessary risk. Lord Roberts proved to be far more considerate and minimised the risk to the soldiers in battle. In the telling of the tale, Private Peter Ireland’s memoire unemotionally revealed that the soldiers involved came from all over Britain, and if killed in action, were all loaded onto the carts without distinction and buried in mass graves after the removal of useful equipment.
Trooper Ireland found himself in a number of desperate actions during the war which he described in quite sanguine ways despite the brutality of the fighting. We hear of Cronje’s early use of Pom Pom guns, where their ‘bark was worse than their bite’, but later a soldier alongside Peter was hit in the head with a Pom Pom shell and was no more. He observes that there is a lot of luck in battle where some die in a moment by putting their head above the top of the trench and, in contrast, an officer on horse back who canters around on the open battlefield for two hours is untouched! We hear of the ordinary soldier’s privations such as living on short rations, a dry biscuit a day, and, as the war progresses, no seats in their trousers unless repaired with material from their trouser legs. They later ran out of bread flour and the soldiers had to fall back on their own resources despite promises of food. Members weren’t surprised to hear that Trooper Ireland succumbed to dysentery and ended up in hospital for 17 weeks. He was moved to Greenpoint Camp in Cape Town where he made a good recovery and was then shipped home, his contribution to the war over.
Grandson Peter in his summing up, reflected on his grandfather’s memoire. His grandfather’s memoire of his trials and tribulations had surprised and inspired him. He had been struck by his grandfather’s complimentary descriptions of the native troops fighting with the British Army such as the Bengal Lancers. He also respected the Afghans he fought against in the North West Frontier actions. Not least, the trooper had admired the disciplined Boers fighting against superior British forces, even if they fired and ran in contrast to the Afghanis. In short, he took them for what they were rather than as stereotypical native enemy characters. Peter, who had worked hard to get photos to illustrate his grandfather’s narrative, made the observation that all the British Boer War pictures he used were taken by officers of officers. This is in contrast to the American Civil War some forty years earlier when all ranks were equally well recorded in pictures. Something which only changed in the First World War for the British.
It is not possible to do justice to Peter Ireland’s talk in this short blog. However, the narrative from his grandfather’s memoire provided a clear insight to the lives and times of soldiers in action and the goings on of the British Army at the end of the 19th Century, into the early 20th Century. It seemed a remarkably fresh account and modern in flavour. Many thanks, Peter.