Category Archives: India

Postcard of Dalhousie Barracks, Calcutta

This week we return to India again for our weekly postcard, which this week is a fine study of Dalhousie Barracks in Calcutta:skm_c30819010312060I believe this postcard dates from around the time of the First World War and the building still stands today as part of the Indian Army’s Fort William. This description comes from a book called ‘Fort William Calcutta’s Crowning Glory’ by M.L. Augustine:

As soon as one enters the Fort through the East Gate, a massive structure of a four storeyed building captures one’s attention. Constructed during the period of Lord Dalhousie (Between 1848-56), this triangular building is named after him. It is the only building of its type in India that can accommodate an entire infantry battalion with its stores, arms, ammunition, and officers. A thousand bodies live, eat, sleep and train themselves for war on its premises. On the ground floor there is a temple. Ironically, next to the temple are the Quarter Guard, the armoury of weapons and the prisoners’ cells. It is said that Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose was once incarcerated in this building before he fled to Japan, though there is no documentary evidence to support this in any manner.

It was reported that when it was built, Dalhousie Barracks allocated 2000 cubic feet per man inside its building, equivalent to 111 square feet per soldier- at the time this was highlighted as being particularly generous compared to the overcrowded barracks used up to this point. It was also noted that as built ablution rooms and urinals were situated at the ends of the building on each floor for the use of the men, something that was again novel and new in military architecture.

The building has no doubt been refurbished many times over the century, but it remains in daily use by the Indian Army and is still a large and impressive building:capture

Artillery Column in India Photograph

This week’s photograph is a magnificent study of a British Army column on the move through rural India between the wars:skm_c30819010312040The column appears to be a light artillery unit and is entirely mounted, the officers leading on their chargers:skm_c30819010312040 - copyA small group of mounted troopers follows close behind:skm_c30819010312040 - copy (2)Whilst the main column trails behind. There appears to be a succession of guns and limbers, each pulled by four or six horses, with the gun crews either riding pillion or on the limber itself:skm_c30819010312040 - copy (3)The column stretches away into the distance, curving round behind the bridge and shrouded in dust from the horses’ hooves:skm_c30819010312040 - copy (4)In the background a native village sits next to the road, its peaceful slumber rudely awoken by the passing troops:skm_c30819010312040 - copy (5)Behind this column would have trailed a large gaggle of hangers on, everything from cooks and servants to prostitutes and acrobats, all trying to part the soldier form his cash. Marches typically set off early in the morning before the sun became too hot and an advance part was sent ahead of the main column to prepare the following night’s camp. The camp was usually pitched near a small village or town and by the time the slow moving column reached it, hot and dusty, it would be ready for them. Apart for a few sentries, most men were then free to relax and visit the shops if the settlement was small enough. Any large town usually led to an order to remain in camp overnight. The following morning the camp was squared away and the process repeated until the column reached its final destination.

Indian Army Molar Extractors

I am never surprised at the wide variety of equipment that was taken into military service and marked as such. If I can find something weird and wonderful that is marked for the Indian Army as well then so much the better. Tonight’s object definitely falls into this category and is a pair of Indian Army marked molar extractors:imageThis dental tool has a large pair of jaws to clamp around the tooth for extraction:imageThe handles are deeply grooved to aid grip and this tool is specifically designed for the left upper molars, as marked on the inside of the handle:imageNote also the /|\ over ‘I’ mark showing it was accepted into Indian Army service. The tool appears to be dated 1929, If I am interpreting this mark correctly:imageA circular maker’s mark is stamped onto the inside of the opposite side and indicates that this instrument was manufactured in England, before being shipped out to India:imageThis is typical for the interwar period where manufacturing in India was not sufficiently developed to allow these items to be sourced in the sub-continent. The Second World War would see a massive increase in the capacity of the region to produce high quality medical equipment and by the time of independence India would be self-sufficient for this type of simple tool.

Visiting the dentist could be traumatic in the early twentieth century, as described by trooper Tom Canning:

Whilst in training with the Royal Armoured Corps in Barnard Castle, I broke a tooth which necessitated a visit to the Dentist.
Now I have disliked all forms of dentistry as it appears to be filled with people who enjoy hurting other people when there have been many ways of preventing pain of all sorts for many years past.
There was no escape however, and I started the trudge towards the 59th regts. camp some two miles away along the road to west Auckland, hoping that some strange disease had overtaken the Dentist, and that the appointment would be cancelled.
No such luck as I was ushered into the torture chamber. Sure enough I was now one tooth short of the establishment for fighting an enemy. ” I can rectify that” said the chief torturer ” I shall give you a new tooth”, and he proceeded to level off the offending left front incisor.
When he was finished he then suggested that I reappear – same time – same place next week.
The walk back to Streatlam camp was spent in musing how this Dentist could grow another tooth in my head, with no full understanding of how he was to achieve this miracle.
The next visit made it abundantly clear when he started drilling – upwards to-wards my brain ! After six weeks of this torture he then, like a third rate magician, produced this tooth on what appeared to be a very long spike. He then glued this “tooth” into my head – remember that this was way before the advent of “crazy glue” and other forms of adhesives.
On completion of this task he then handed me a mirror. ” but the tooth is blue” I remarked – ” not a problem ” he replied – ” it will be white as snow very soon”!
This I thought, was a ‘porkie” of great dimension which after four years overseas without the benefit of another dentist – the tooth remained blue.
Finally attaining civilian status, this blue thing finally fell off leaving this spike unadorned, much to the amusement of my Dentist who then established that in the course of my wanderings through Europe this spike had moved and affected many of my top teeth. The consequences of this were a complete overhaul of my mouth which left me in the position that should anything stressful occur in my mouth, all I have to do is to mail my dentures to the nearest dental mechanic for his attention and return mailing! No more Dentists for me!

Indian Army Pith Helmet Case

My thanks go to a friend and fellow collector who kindly gave me tonight’s object. Pith helmets were expensive but fragile purchases for officers at the turn of the twentieth century. They were easily crushed and so it was customary to purchase a special travel case for the helmets that protected them when not being worn. For the officer with money it was possible to purchase a very nice storage tin, with one’s name and posting sign written onto the outside. Tonight we are looking at an example of one of these tins purchased by a Major Berry before he went out to India:imageThe tin is oval in shape and made from tinplate that has been stamped, bent and then riveted and soldered into shape. Sadly this example has suffered over the years and when first discovered had a large dent on one side that has been carefully straightened out. It is by no means restored to new, but does look attractive enough to display now.
The top of the box lid has a carrying handle riveted to it:imageA metal hasp is fitted to the front of the box to allow the lid to be padlocked shut, a sensible precaution in early twentieth century India where the perception was that thievery was rife:imageThe exterior of the box is enamelled in a light brown shade, the interior though is painted a shade of blue:imageThe box is sign written in two places and the quality of this is first rate, suggesting that this was an expensive item when new. On the lid in black shaded white lettering is the owner’s name ‘Major Berry’:imageThe front is also marked, this time in red shaded gold lettering saying ‘Calcutta India’:imageThis was presumably Major Berry’s posting and this case would have accompanied him out to the Raj and back again. Until 1911 Calcutta was the capital of British India and I suspect this box dates to before the Great War so the Major would have been part of the military presence here.


Indian Made Mess Dress Trousers

A couple of weeks ago we looked at an Indian Army mess dress jacket. As promised, tonight we follow up that post by looking at the matching pair of mess dress trousers, also commonly called ‘overalls’:imageThese are produced in a very fine dark blue wool, with a wide red stripe down each outside leg:imageThese trousers were produced in India in 1920, as witnessed by the large circular acceptance mark stamped on the inside:imageThese trousers are of superb quality and not at all what we would later come to associate with Indian production. I am fairly confident however that they were produced in India rather than imported from Britain and then stamped on arrival. The buttons used throughout the mess dress are japanned stamped metal designs and although the japanning is too thick to be able to read a makers mark, they feel very ‘Indian’ to me:imageThe base of each trouser leg is cut to fit over a pair of dress boots, and a strap with a button to secure it is sewn on to pass under the instep and prevent the trousers from riding up:imageThe fly is secured with a row of the same buttons:imageThe waist of the trousers is lined with a striped shirting material, the rear being cut into a ‘fish-tail’ back and having buttons (on the reverse) to attach a pair of braces to:imageThese are very fitted trousers and as such the only pocket provided is a small change pocket inside the waist:imageAs officers would be expected to purchase their own mess dress, the acceptance stamp is a bit of a mystery. My best guess is that these trousers were produced for issue to a senior NCO who would have received his mess kit form the government. At some point though they were acquired by an officer for use with his mess dress jacket and thus the pair have come down to us together. I am pretty confident that the jacket and trousers have been together for a very long time as Indian produced mess kit is rare and the chances of a collector or a surplus shop just happening to find them as separate entities and then matching them up seems slim to me.

Either way these trousers are in remarkable condition considering they are now 98 years old and they look like they could have been manufactured yesterday!

Indian Army Used Spoon

Tonight we are looking at a metal spoon produced in the UK for use by the Indian Army:imageWe can tell that this spoon was destined for India as it is marked with an /|\ over an ‘I’ mark on the rear:imageThis was the military acceptance mark for India and is seen on a variety of British and Indian made military items used by the forces in the sub-continent. This spoon though was made in Sheffield and is marked with the makers stamp ‘SSPC&Co’:imageThis stands for the Sheffield Silver Plate and Cutlery Company Ltd, of Priestlet Street Sheffield. A 1921 dated advert by the company shows some of the designs of flatware they offered:Im19211203IM-SheffieldSilverPlateI suspect that this spoon was manufactured between the wars, as by the Second World War India was increasingly reliant on domestic manufacture to meet the needs of its military forces, as described in this exert from ‘The History of the Supply Department’

This industry, has been pursued on a small scale by the village blacksmith from times immemorial. In recent times larger units of production have come into being owned by enterprising smiths or others. The lines of production largely conformed to the rural requirements—namely, knives of various kinds, spoons, butcher’s implements, farm implements like sickles etc. Factories worked with steam or electric power were also started and these made cutlery of the modern type and surgical instruments. But such production continued to be small for long and the large proportion of the pen-knives, table knives, scissors, razors, spoons and forks etc. used in cities and towns was imported.

Production is scattered throughout the country but there are certain areas which enjoy notable hereditary skill; for instance, Aligarh and Moradabad in U.F.: Nizamabad and Wazirabad in the Punjab. The bigger factories are located in cities like Calcutta, Lahore and Bombay. The industry was mostly dependent on imported steel.

The war created a large demand for spoons, which gave a fillip to the industry. The Supply Department dealt with some of the larger producers. In other cases orders were placed with contractors who purchased partly wrought articles from rural areas and got them finished in workshops maintained by them. The production enormously increased and the total military demands in 1943 came to 5,800,000 pieces valued at Rs. 96 lacks. The Supply Department mostly purchased knives clasp, knives table, forks, spoons, locks and padlocks, The purchases of all kinds during 1942, 1943, 1944 and 1945 were Rs. 10,300,000, Rs. 4,100,000, Rs. 6,200,000 and 4,750,000 respectively.

The goods now made to meet Defence demands are also suitable for civilian markets except that a greater variety may be required.

Indian Army Mess Dress Jacket

British Officers serving in the Indian army had their own mess dress, just like their counterparts serving in the regular British Army. Previously we have looked at an example of mess dress issued to an officer of the 16th Punjabis here. Recently I have acquired another example, complete with trousers (which will be the subject of another post in a few weeks’ time). This example is in plain scarlet, with dark blue facings:imageThere are no buttons up the front of the mess jacket, but each shoulder strap does have a single brass button:imageThis design is a standard design for the Indian Army, comprising of the royal cypher, surmounted by a Tudor crown and with a laurel leaf beneath:imageThe cuffs of this mess jacket are pointed and faced in a dark blue:imageThis blue is repeated on the collar. The inside of this jacket is entirely plain, being finished in a high quality silky fabric of the same shade as the main jacket body:imageI have looked extensively through the 1931 dress regulations for India and I believe I have narrowed the mess dress down to that for the engineers. The regulations indicate that for Military Engineer Services, including “Barrack, Public Works and Sappers and Miners”, the mess dress should be scarlet, with dark blue collar and cuffs and scarlet shoulder straps. I cannot say for certain that this is the correct identification of my mess dress, but it certainly seems plausible.

Sadly there are no labels inside the jacket whatsoever so we know neither who made it, nor for which officer it was produced.

Alan Shaw was a British Army Royal Engineer, but during World War Two spent a lot of time with his Indian Army counterparts and recalls:

We had our meals in the grand old Officers Mess of the QVO Madras S & M. Behind each officer’s chair stood his bearer wearing a white cotton uniform and puggarree or turban with a waistbelt in the red white and blue stripes of the Corps of Indian Engineers.

At breakfast in front of each place setting was a fine newspaper stand of polished wood and brass. It was normal to read the Hindustan Times or other Indian newspaper while eating breakfast. If you had a hangover from the previous evening you didn’t have to speak to anyone else if you didn’t feel like it! At luncheon and dinner everyone was as sociable as normal.