Barty & the Hidden Fire
The first installment of The Valentine Memoirs is set during The Great War and follows Lt.Barty Valentine as he flees to India to avoid the mud and blood of the Western Front. Unfortunately for our reluctant hero, he finds himself an unwilling participant in both the Mesopotamian Campaign and a dastardly German plot to conquer the jewel in Britain's imperial crown...
“Excuse me sir but I can’t let you pass.”
I looked at the sentry with utter disdain. If I had worn a monocle, as so many of my more nobly-born brother officers affected to do, I would have adjusted it imperiously.
“And why not may ask?” I retorted, in what I hoped was my most commanding military voice.
“New orders sir, no one is allowed out of the barracks unaccompanied,” explained the youthful guard hopefully.
I studied him closely, hoping he would crack under my withering stare, and guessed the squib was younger and had been in India for even less time than I. His grey-back1 was wringing wet from sweat glands unused to the fearsome heat and his Anglo-Saxon skin still shone pink under his khaki coloured pith helmet.
“I see,” said I, hoping my obvious irritation would further weaken the sentry’s resolve but the young wretch stood fast.
“Sorry sir, but orders is orders,” he insisted and his pink face turned even pinker as he blushed at his own effrontery in challenging an officer.
“No you are quite right, orders are orders” I conceded whilst stressing the correct grammar, “But please remember that in the British Army sub-lieutenants are addressed as mister and not sir.”
It was hardly the wittiest of retorts but at least my terse monograph on military etiquette left me with the last word. Having the last word is something I have long regarded as absolutely essential in dealing with those of inferior rank, especially if they are in the right, and it is a policy that has always stood me in good stead. Unfortunately on this occasion such a small victory was not enough to restore my previous good humour.
Just five minutes before, I had set out across the maidan2 of the Pacco Qillo3 barracks with a spring in my step. My high spirits were entirely due to the prospect of spending a pleasant, and highly instructive, afternoon with the lovely trollop who kept a tasteful knocking shop in Hyderabad’s bazaar. Now my plans had been thwarted by the pink faced Horatius at the gate and there was nothing to do but turn smartly on the heel of my well polished boot and begin the long walk back to my billet.
I suppose that even though I never bothered to read regimental orders, I never have and I never will, I should have known that the bazaar would be off limits to army personnel. It would not have taken a genius to work out that since an idiot of a native policeman had got himself stabbed, in broad daylight too I might add, by a fanatical Mussulman, officers’ half holidays would have to be taken behind the barrack’s walls.
Even being in full possession of these facts, I reckoned that the legendary inertia of the British military authorities would grant me at least another month or two of libidinous liberty - but how wrong I was. Within a week of the policeman’s assassin being caught, tried and strung up our top brass had caged in their barracks all officers and other ranks with an efficiency that would have embarrassed a German.
Looking back, I suppose I should be thankful for both those standing orders and the sentry’s devotion to his duty. Without them I would probably have ended up with several inches of Khyber steel between my shoulder blades that afternoon, and this story would be a lot shorter than it is, because in the summer of 1915 razzias4 were becoming dangerously common all over British India.
Though these outrages had been generally confined to roughing up local peelers and occasionally heaving half a brick through a European’s shop window, the fanatics were growing steadily bolder. No doubt the temptation of a lone British Officer, however junior, searching for Eros in the narrow, twisting streets of Hyderabad’s bazaar would have been a tempting, if undeserved, target.
The irony was that I was on their side. Despite my lifetime spent in one kind of uniform or another, I remain a convinced disciple of Venus and not Mars. If it had been up to me I’d have handed Hyderabad and the whole wretched province of Scinde back to the natives - and done it quicker than you can say independence. The other irony is that my subsequent adventures, in which I played a starring if reluctant part, did more to keep India British than any other single act of the Great War.
Heaven only knows why we wanted to hold onto this patch of fly blown desert anyway; even a megalomaniac like Alexander the Great cleared out as soon as he could. But half century after Napier had sent his famous ‘peccavi ‘message (peccavi is Latin for ‘I have sinned’, which I suppose showed the blood thirsty bog-trotter at least had a sense of humour) the British Army persisted in keeping a large garrison in the old mud brick fortress of the Pacco Qillo. For reasons which I will later explain, I currently found myself to be an unwilling member of the Hyderabad garrison and whilst I confess my duties as a sub lieutenant in the Royal Regiment of Artillery were not particularly onerous, the new lack of liberty certainly was.
I have always disliked intensely anything that prevented me from doing what I wanted, when and where I wanted and now our jittery crap-hats, with no regard for health and well being of love-starved junior officers, had issued standing orders insisting that anyone in the King’s Uniform could only leave the barracks in pairs. This effectively ended my amorous expeditions to the bazaar for the foreseeable future so no wonder I was irritable.
As I trudged back across the maidan, my progress slowed by a most painful attack of Lover’s Cramps, I tried to persuade myself there was solace to be had in the Officers’ Mess. There at least I could satisfy my other vices with a chota peg5 and an hour relieving my fellow subalterns of a fiver or two at whist.
As my funds were dangerously low and my mess bills dangerously high, this would certainly be the most profitable way to spend what remained of my free afternoon but plucking these particular chickens had lost its thrill. I pride myself on being a fair mechanic with the pasteboards, and I do like a challenge, but I could take prize chumps like Wilkinson playing straight and where was the fun in that?
In the end, the punishing climate made up my mind for me. Hyderabad was sweltering under a scorching, late summer sun and the combination of heat and disappointment had now drained me of my strength. I decided that there was nothing left to do but lie on my charpoi and sweat like a coolie until dinner.
Having settled on my course of inaction I felt a little cheered and so quickened my step towards my billet. However I had reckoned without a further interruption to my plans from Sergeant Owen - our unspeakable company clerk.
I had just reached the flagpole in the centre of the maidan, with its Union Jack hanging limply in a gesture of surrender to the heat, when I heard Sergeant Owen’s shrill, Welsh voice hailing me from the opposite side of the square. In the corner of my eye I could see the corpulent little pen-pusher standing on the veranda of the regimental office and he was waving a piece of yellow paper like a signaller too eager for promotion.
I had been in the army for less than six months but that was long enough to know company clerks waving bits of paper meant bad news. I cursed my luck at being caught in the open with nowhere to hide and forced my overheated brain to think of something that would preserve my few remaining hours of idleness. It wasn’t much of a plan but it was the best I could under the circumstances.
I reckoned the C3 Owen7 would not risk heart failure by sprinting across the maidan in temperatures that would trouble Beelzebub so I simply pretended not to hear and imperceptibly lengthened my stride - but the wily Welshman had already sent a flying column to cut off my retreat. I had barely taken two steps when I felt a sharp tug at my Sam Browne.
“Sahib, Sahib” said a high pitched voice at my rear. Without thinking, I turned to see the little street-Arab who the indolent Owen paid a few rupees a month to run his errands. The boy waved his arms and pointed feverishly at the triumphant Taffy standing on the sun bleached veranda.
“Sergeant Owen Sahib, desire you to speak to him with most urgency,” said the scruffy urchin. I knew I was licked, for the third time that day, and mentally cursing my evil luck I made my miserable way to the veranda. Sergeant Owen was standing at the top of the three wooden steps and wearing a smile that split his bulbous bald head like a Baluchi knife wedged in a watermelon.
I knew what that smile meant; it meant that whatever was written on that damned paper meant Owen thought he was going to escape paying me the money he owed. Well if he thought that, he was very much mistaken.
“It is good news, I think!” he beamed.
I eyed him warily and snatched the document from his hand to read the fateful words. Before I had finished the first sentence I realised that this was the news I secretly had dreaded for months - and it was far worse than I could have ever imagined. It was so bad I had great difficulty in preventing myself from making a desperate dash for the barrack gates and even after fifty years I can still remember what was written on that damnable piece of paper. It was nothing less than my death warrant...
You are ordered to proceed immediately to Karachi and take ship for the port of Basra at the head of the Persian Gulf. On arrival you will join the 6th (Poona) Division attached to General Townshend’s Force D currently engaging Turkish forces at Kut el Amara on the Mesopotamian Front. You will report to the officer commanding Xth Brigade Royal Field Artillery and place yourself under his orders until further notice.
As this narrative unfolds dear reader you will quickly understand that this wretched slip of paper represented the confounding of many months of careful planning and would launch me on the very adventures that I had tried so desperately to avoid. Of course the unctuous Owen had already read my thoughts and he proceeded to rub salt gleefully into my wounds.
“Action at last,” he trilled in the sing song accent of the Welsh Valleys, “You must be proper delighted to be going to the front after all these months hanging round y’ere like nobody’s child.”
Damn him, I thought. He knew full well that the limit of my military ambition was to reach the rank of base-wallah and spend the whole of The Great War as far away as possible from shot and shell.
“As your orders say immediately,” gloated Owen, “I have taken the liberty of arranging your travel warrants and a tonga8 will be here at four to take you to the station.”
“Very good Sergeant,” I condescended, “I shall go and pack – oh and I hope you will remember to settle our little account before I leave.”
That wiped the smile from Owen’s face just as I hoped it would. The sergeant was one of the worst pontoon players on the North West Frontier and I had already taken him for twenty pounds - of which fifteen quid was still owed. I guessed he would have to dip his fat little fist into the regimental petty cash to settle the debt before I left and the thought of him sweating until he had a chance to replace the embezzled loot offered a little comfort.
I left the dumbstruck Owen and strolled as casually as I could towards my billet and inwardly cursing everyone who had started this dreadful war from the Kaiser downwards. I knew full well that subalterns in the Royal Regiment of Artillery were entirely disposable and that I was to be a replacement for one of those insanely eager junior officers who were already measuring their length in six feet of Mesopotamian sand.