Rawalpindi - 1st Surreys and a Pindi Poppet

1st Surreys were stationed in India from 1926 to 1937. They arrived there on 13th November 1926 from Hong Kong. The battalion had left England in 1920 and was stationed in Egypt and the Sudan on its way to Hong Kong. The move to India was a step in the right direction on the long trail back home. Three years in Hong Kong were enough in so small a station where the garrison duties were arduous. The battalion’s departure was much regretted for it had made many friends and established a fine reputation, but India was viewed with keen expectation. The voyage in HMT Neuralia was a pleasant one with stops on the way at Singapore, Colombo and Bombay, although sadly one soldier died just before leaving Hong Kong and two had to be put ashore at Colombo, one suffering from pneumonia and the other appendicitis. The battalion disembarked at Karachi and arrived at Rawalpindi after a sixty hour train journey to be greeted by the 2nd Royal Sussex who were already stationed there.

Rawalpindi stands in a vast plain in the Punjab, the Land of the Five Rivers. Alongside it now is the capital of Pakistan, the new city of Islamabad. In 1926 it was notable as a large military station, the location of H.Q.Northern Command and a base for operations on the North West Frontier. 1st Surreys were part of the 1st Abbotabad Brigade, the other three battalions in it being Gurkha ones, and their first priority was to train for mountain warfare on the Frontier. Their introduction came in January at the Brigade Training Camp established in the hills near Abbotabad some seventy miles away. However before that they took part in the New Year’s Day Annual Proclamation Parade which was described as “something like the Wembley Tattoo but not so resplendent”. On return from training camp there was time for the Sergeants Mess annual Sobraon Ball which was held in the Loco and Carriage Institute Ballroom, and the corporals held their first dance in India in the Masonic Hall. Then on 18th April the Battalion moved to Kuldana in the Murree Hills for the hot weather. Although only twenty seven miles away, it was all uphill as Murree and the adjoining military hill stations of Kuldana, Gharial and Bharian were above 7,000 feet, and the journey was spread over three night marches. The Battalion remained in Kuldana until the beginning of the cold weather in October when it returned to the Plains.

Such was the pattern of events for the next three years with minor variations. In 1927 on return from Kuldana “A” and “C” Companies, the Machine Platoon and the Band and Drums marched to Abbotabad for additional training with the Gurkhas. In May 1928 the District manoeuvres were cancelled because of torrential rain, in November they took place at Jhelum five days march away, In 1929 the battalion remained in the Plains but each company had six weeks in the hills at Bharian. In January of that year it was sufficiently expert to be given the role of Afridi tribesmen to simulate the enemy attacking the Brigade, a task much enjoyed by the soldiers. The battalion worked hard and played hard. Within months of its arrival teams were winning the Rawalpindi District events at boxing, tug-of-war and football, with hockey coming on but cricket lagging because of the shortage of grass pitches. At Kuldana, where training and sports facilities were more limited, bayonet fencing was taken up with enthusiasm, for the Luard Cup which had been presented to the battalion by Major-General C.C.Luard, GOC British Forces in South China. In May 1927 a letter of approbation was received from the Army Council for the commendable state of soldiers’ education in the battalion.

The Surreys first occupied the West Ridge barracks at Rawalpindi which consisted of single storey brick huts with corrugated iron roofs, each holding about two platoons. They could be very cold in winter and baking hot in summer. On the western side were the parade grounds and the playing fields, and beyond them again the battalion ranges. A couple of miles away was the arsenal in an old fort. It contained all the reserves of arms and ammunition and the ordnance workshops for the whole of the Northern Command. Still working on the lessons of the Indian Mutiny the guard was found in rotation by the three British battalions. Later the Battalion moved to Victoria Barracks and subsequently alternated between there and the West Ridge throughout its stay. The Victoria Barracks were in fact Victorian, solidly constructed, raised from the ground with thick mud-brick walls and roofs, all of which were intended to make them cooler for units due to spend the hot weather in the Plains. That part of the cantonment was well planted with trees, lawns and gardens which were a blaze of colour for a short time before the hot weather scorched them to cinders, and a pleasant change from the semi-desert West Ridge.

Victoria Barracks was also much closer to the European type shops, the cinema, eating places and the bazaar, all a pleasant change for the soldiers. For the officers there was the club, and for their ladies a congenial social life. An erstwhile “Pindi Poppet” has recalled that:-

“The Frontier Mail arrived at the station about 4 pm daily and then went on to Peshawar. ‘Pindi’ was a large place; the Mall, the main road, was part of the Great Trunk Road, it lay north to south and the wind whistled down it. At times I was very glad to have a fur coat. There was not a great deal for the women to do except be social, although at the time of the Quetta earthquake we all attended the British military hospital for training as auxiliary nurses. The curtains were drawn during the day to keep the heat out, and after an afternoon rest I used to go to the club to play tennis on the mud courts; then home to change for dinner and perhaps go out afterwards. We all had bikes; I biked up to the barracks or married quarters on the Ridge. If you did not bike you took a tonga. Not many of the young officers had cars.

There was quite a good shopping area. I used to spend my pocket money on Chinese knick-knacks and beautiful brocades that could be made up into jackets and housecoats. John Chinaman came to the bungalow; he had lovely things in a wicker basket which he would put out on the verandah for us to pick over. Tibetans also called selling copperware and turquoise jewellry.

The cinema was well attended. We sat on sofas on the balcony, the troops were downstairs and sometimes pretty vocal. There was a Saturday night dance at the club. My parents nearly always had a dinner party beforehand. After dinner we usually had a singsong with my mother playing the piano. The dance at the club finished at midnight with the National Anthem. The Lambeth Walk was brought out from England by an elderly colonel who taught everyone how to do it. Sunday was usually a busy day. We attended the church parade, watched the cricket, went riding.

Then there were picnics to Taxila, where there were Greek remains and to the woods in the Topi Park - very popular with courting couples. I also remember visiting the Attock Oil Company off the road to Nowshera, and being up a ladder when there was an earth tremor - not nice! And there was riding. I preferred my horse to my bicycle. The hunt was a drag; we met about 6 am in the dawn and the cool air -breakfast was wonderful when you got back. The Races were another feature, very popular with all ranks including the Indians”.

The countryside at the hill stations consisted of steep, thickly-wooded hillsides which greatly restricted the training then required, since the requirements for Burma many years later could not be anticipated. Beyond the hills, across the distant horizon, was the stirring sight of the snow-covered Karakoram Mountains. Entertainment was also a good deal more limited. One form of amusement introduced first at Gharial was ‘tat-riding’. A tat was a pony normally used for hire in place of a taxi. Tat-riding entailed hiring a number of ponies for the soldiers keen to ride and willing to go on local expeditions on the weekly Thursday holiday. It became very popular; each man carried a haversack ration and a water bottle and the party organised itself as irregular cavalry. Newcomers soon learnt to trot and then to canter. It was a far cry from the ‘Pindi’ drag and the races, but very worthwhile.

1930 was a year of increased tension. During the first part political agitation grew as a result of Ghandi’s resistance to the law which prohibited the unlicensed manufacture of salt (there was a tax on salt) and which was part of his civil disobedience campaign . Some companies of the Surreys were deployed to Chaklala, a military suburb on the south side of Rawalpindi which was a mass of huge storage godowns and workshops intersected by numerous roads and railway sidings. The others were able to move to the hills but remained there at twelve hours notice. Later in the year reinforcements were required for the North West Frontier, but the Surreys, to their dismay, remained behind and the impending inter-station move south to Lahore took place in February 1931.

There followed four years at Lahore and four at Fyzabad before the Surreys resumed their homeward path via Khartoum to England. Life followed much the same pattern but with different hill stations, Dagshai in the Simla hills while at Lahore, and Chaubattia while at Fyzabad.

Despite the ever present communal tension Lahore was a much enjoyed station. Among many memorable occasions there were the visits to the battlefields of Sobraon and Ferozeshah in the Kasur Training Area, the annual Sobraon Ball given by the Warrant Officers and Sergeants (1200 guests attended in the Lawrence Gardens Montgomery Hall at Lahore in 1932), the winning of the Army and RAF India Team Boxing Championships, the hosting by the Officers’ Mess of the MCC Touring Team led by Douglas Jardine in 1934, and the winning in that year of the Lahore District boxing, athletics and cross-country championships. Fyzabad provided new opportunities for shooting and fishing, and plenty of football and hockey grounds, a pleasant change after the cramped conditions at Lahore, but much reduced shopping facilities. For the newcomers to India there was also the first sight of the Hindu burning ghats on the river. For the Regiment it was its last station in India.


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