First World War Poetry Digital Archive

India

My grandfather, William Laughton, joined the Territorial Army in Orkney and took part in drills until war was declared in 1914 and he was mobilised.

My grandfather’s first posting was to the Holm Battery near his home, which was at Breckan. There he was mainly employed as a blacksmith and engineer and it was his job to maintain the only boat at the Battery, not a very up-to- date model, powered by a car engine. He was required to go along on every trip in case it broke down. These trips ranged from removing brass fittings from the block ships in Scapa Flow, to transporting men home to the South
Isles of Orkney.

My grandparents married in 1915 and a year later his regiment was considered to be fully trained and received their first overseas posting, about as far away from Orkney as they could go, to the North West Frontier of India where the British Army was fighting the Afghan rebels. They were shipped from London to Bombay, calling at Durban in South Africa on the way. The journey took six weeks in all as they had to take several detours to avoid enemy shipping. There was no space on board to exercise and when they arrived and had to quick march to their first camp they suffered from severe muscle strain. In India their training continued with special guerrilla warfare techniques. Only after that were they sent to the fight the Afghans in the Kyber Pass area near Rawalpindi.

The climate was very hot and dry, sometimes reaching 127º in the shade and the supply of water was always scarce and rationed. At one time the enemy cut off their supply for three days and as a result my grandfather’s tongue was so swollen that he could not speak. Eventually they were given some tea and it tasted wonderful!

Many of the soldiers caught a bad flu while they were in India and were hospitalised. My grandfather was one of them and he was in a ward where those around him were dying off quickly. He decided that if he stayed there he too would die, so he crept out of the window in the middle of the night dressed only in pyjamas and a dressing gown. He was very weak on his legs but managed to walk until first light when he met some bullock wagons. He hitched a lift on one of the wagons but the men on the wagons could not speak English so asking for the nearest British troops was no good. They took him to the next town where he found someone who could speak English and he was directed to a tented camp where he found the British. While he waited there to re-join his regiment he heard a voice in the next tent speaking with an Orkney accent. This turned out to be a Fotheringhame man from the North Isles and the two of them spent a while reminiscing about Orkney until my grandfather left to return to his own Regiment.

He was in India a total of 18 months and spent most of that time sleeping in tents or in the open with only a blanket laid on the ground. His rifle was never away from his grasp and he even slept with it tied to his body to prevent it being stolen by the Afghans on night raids. His main fear while he was in India was contracting cholera which was a killer. Luckily he was spared that.

He saw many fascinating things in India. The natives performed magic tricks in the streets, although he never witnessed the famous Indian rope trick. He did see a trick where a man was tied inside a basket while another covered it with a blanket and thrust swords through it. When the basket was opened the man had disappeared.

After the war ended it took another year for my grandfather to be de-mobbed and return to Orkney,

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