Troopships and the Regiment

Memories of an old soldier

Memories of an old soldier writing to Soldier Magazine in the sixties recalls a voyage in a troopship the Dilwara to India in 1894.


‘Recent mention in the press of the troop transport Dilwara reminds me of a former trooper of the same name which took some 1400 of us to India in 1894. I believe her tonnage was about 4000.  She was rather narrow in beam and this was blamed for her excessive rolling, even in fairly moderate seas.

Before going aboard we had been issued with our sea kits.  These consisted of a suit of secondhand (very much secondhand) khaki drill and a battered helmet.  Also in the bag were several cakes of salt water soap, and some sticks of cake tobacco – ‘Fair Maid of Perth’ I think it was called.  We were given hammocks and blankets and told off to our various messes.  The mess tables and forms were dismantled at night, and we could either sleep on them or sling hammocks.

The grub we got was not too bad for those days.  For breakfast porridge with a little jam, and perhaps a kipper or an egg, with biscuits.  Dinner consisted of bully or salt pork or other meat – terrible stuff.  Sometimes we got big tins of New Zealand mutton, shared between several men.  A large proportion of this mutton was fat.  I am afraid a great deal of it went out of the portholes – sometimes whole tins.

We received fresh bread and meat not more than twice a week, and these issues were eagerly awaited.  Our tea meal was similar to breakfast, except for porridge, with tea and biscuits and rather rank butter.  Margarine was not in general use at this time.  But we managed to live, and I believe most of us enjoyed ourselves.

Some might say; Why salt water soap?  Well, we had to use it for washing and shaving, for there was no fresh water for these purposes.  The only fresh water available was for drinking, and this was not really fresh – it was distilled from sea-water.  Below decks were several tanks of drinking water, and attached to each by a chain was a tin mug.  You turned a tap and filled your mug and drank under the eye of a sentry who sat by it all the time.  No one was allowed to take away as much as a spoonful.  When drinking it, I often wondered what a cup of clear spring water would taste like.

That salt water soap was supposed to lather in salt water, but did it?  Don’t you believe it; the stuff was hopeless, and the daily shave was a real ordeal, especially with the razors then issued.

It was in November when I made that voyage, and it was not until we were in the Mediterranean that we dug out of our sea kit bags the khaki drill suits and helmets.  Soon a general chopping and changing was in progress.  It was comical to see a six-footer in a pair of trousers reaching to just below his knees, and a shorty with trousers and coat that smothered him.  Finally some sort of reasonable rig-out resulted, and we soon grew used to our ill-fitting clothing.  In any case there was no one to see us except the high-ups on the upper decks, and except for occasional grins at our outfits they took no notice of us.

The ship was packed, and we had barely room to move; it was for ever like a popular theatrical show.  There was a profiteer who went round with a pail of water, a tin of sherbet and a spoon crying, ‘Who sez a cooler?’  A spoonful of sherbet in a glass of water cost a penny; but pennies were rather scarce among the lower ranks.  We were paid daily.  The private soldier got one shilling, which was spent mostly on fags and on tasty extras he could afford, such as a tin of bloater paste (which I had never heard of until then), a tin of jam or a tin of salmon.  The dry canteen was open only for specified periods and if you happened to be towards the end of the queue when time was up, you were unlucky.

When the ship reached warmer latitudes, a bath was rigged up on the fore well deck.  It was a huge sail with the sides drawn up box-like, filled with sea-water, and was about four feet deep.  To take advantage of this you had to be there before reveille, when the sail was loosed and the water allowed to run through the scuppers into its parent sea.  The big snag was the pre-reveille turn out, which many of the men did not like.

In due course we reached Port Said, where the filthy business of coaling was suffered.  We either had to remain on deck or below.  If we stayed below, we missed the spectacle, and remained fairly free from coal dust.  If we stayed up top, we saw all that was to be seen, and in addition collected and swallowed a good supply of dust.  I stayed up, and watched fascinated as the coal-carriers (mostly women) bore their baskets up the ramps to the bunker, tipped them, and then descended for more.

Then came the task of cleaning away the coal dust.  We soldiers had to do that, or a good deal of it; and how the stuff sticks, and how it gets into all the corners and crevices of the iron-work!!  Washing, scrubbing, scraping – what a filthy, tiring job – why shouldn’t the sailors do it?

However, the task was done in due time.  Meanwhile we sailed slowly along the canal, till Suez was passed, and we were in the Red Sea, and on and on, across the Arabian Sea to Bombay.

Now, alas, no more may our troops go to soldier in India.  What a deprivation!  I would not have missed my twelve years there for anything.’

Acknowledgement to Soldier Magazine.


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