A Foreign Country
“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” wrote L.P Hartley in his 1953 novel ‘The Go-Between’.
Looking back a generation or two, the past does, indeed, seem a foreign country. Those embarking on a professional career as young men before World War Two strode out into a very different world than the one we see today. Sorting through boxes of old photographs after my father’s death, I found images of that, now almost forgotten, world that our grandparents inhabited.
Perhaps typical of his class and time, my grandfather, known to everyone as ‘Fitz’ left Sandhurst around 1938 and embarked for India to join his regiment, the 5th Gurkha Rifles (Frontier Force). He announced his engagement to my grandmother (the daughter of a serving brigadier) in 1940, in Delhi, and they quickly had two sons. Dorothy settled into the life of an officer’s wife, while Fitz was often away fighting the forerunners of the Taliban on the North West Frontier. Social order and duty were a constraint on the freedoms we take for granted today and they left their scars on Fitz and the family.
The eldest of four brothers, Fitz lost Oswald, to the Japanese during WW2 and another, Maurice, to suicide. Maurice was commissioned into a cavalry regiment. This, while socially rather superior, was a very expensive undertaking, as officers had to provide their own horses, kit and servants to tend and move them.
While fitting the image of the dashing officer of social standing, coming from a landowning aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, his branch of the dynasty had fallen on rather lean times and his purse could not keep pace with his expenditure. Having fallen into debt in the mess, he sought the advice of his commanding officer, who told him in no uncertain terms that there was only one honourable way out for a gentleman and it involved a pistol. The family never talked of him thereafter.
This snapshot of a colonial family at a time when the British Empire seemed secure and confident, largely unaware that the 19th century order was about to be demolished by worldwide conflict, does, indeed, seem to have taken place in a past so foreign to us now that it seems like another planet, rather than another country.
I like to imagine the sense of adventure that must have inhabited Fitz as he embarked for India, newly commissioned as a 2nd Lt. He had gone straight from the carefree life of a ‘young master’ running around the home estate in Wicklow, to boarding school and immediately on to Sandhurst. Now the army beckoned and a life of derring-do on the fringes of Empire, where work was hunting fierce tribesmen, mostly with rifle and pistol, though his sword is tellingly sharpened, not the blunt ceremonial finish usually encountered on items of the era. Sport was hunting the prolific game of India’s forests.
At the time, institutions like the Army & Navy C.S.L stood to cater to young men heading out for overseas service. One could peruse the extensive catalogue or walk the aisles of the department store and gather, for crating, everything you might need once deployed. The store sold crockery, candle sticks, lamps and sheets, luggage, rifles, furniture and clothing. The young officer could gather his needs and credit was provided: the balance coming from his army pay on a regular basis. This, effectively, set him up for his career abroad.
Looking at the serial numbers and records of Army & Navy CSL is a bit of a deciphering exercise. The guns are listed but priced in letters – there is a code to work them out. For example, gun number 11195, made in 1890, is listed as costing ‘A.M’. This translates as ’21’. Serial number 11208 is listed as ‘KEMEI’, which is 34149. In money this is £34.14s. 9d. The system is simple to use – but you have to have the code!
India afforded plenty of opportunity for sport; and sporting rifles were a staple of the young officer’s kit. The early 20th century was a time of great variety in terms of what was on offer, to suit the tastes, needs and pockets of sportsmen travelling abroad. Army & Navy, Like Manton & Co. of Calcutta and Abdoolally & Noorbhoy, did not make anything, they bought from the trade.
For a moment let us imagine ourselves in the position of a young officer about to embark for India, as Victoria’s reign closed and Edward VII’s began. Our sporting shopping list might look like this:
A rook & rabbit rifle for small game. A Martini action of medium quality, with pistol grip, engine turned rib and superior finish in .30 Rook calibre cost £5.10s.
As a man with conservative spending habits, the option for a medium game rifle might be reflective of prevailing conditions. With .303 ammunition now widely available for the new military Lee Enfield rifles, with cordite propellent, we might choose a sporterised version, of the Lee-Enfield, or Lee-Metford. This would come with a pistol grip stock, horn cap, trap heel plate with pull-through cleaner, ‘accurately sighted and shot’ and neatly engraved for £12.00.
A sportsman needs a shotgun and the Anson & Deeley action has by now been in service for 25 years and is well proven to be reliable. It is also inexpensive. Ejectors are of limited value for rough shooting in the jungles and swamps so they can be dispensed with, at a considerable saving. The gun of choice is by Webley & Scott and has a Greener-type cross bolt, steel barrels and ‘strongly constructed’. It costs £18.00.
A hammerless .450 double rifle on the A&D action would cost £33.00, even in the plainest form, So, if tigers and bears were on the menu and finances restricted, I might compromise and buy a shot & ball gun rather than a shotgun and a rifle. A back-action hammer gun of this type by Charles Osborne would come with bullet mould for the conical bullets it fired and was sighted at 50 and 100 yards. With shotgun shells, it would bag you game birds for the pot. All his for £25.00!
Collecting new species for taxidermy and collation was a big part of many a colonial servant’s free time activity, as popular science was in its heyday. For this, ‘collectors’ guns were in vogue. They were often of .410 or 28-bore and a plain Anson & Deeley model could be had for £17.00.
As for accessories, you could add a game bag for 8 shillings, a cartridge belt for 5 shillings, a Leg of mutton case for 22 shillings and a leather gun case for 80 shillings. A canvas gun slip was 7s 6d. Perhaps a cartridge magazine would be useful – add 36s for a decent leather one for 200 rounds. A set of cleaning rods and jags would set you back 5 shillings
Many a young man, like my grandfather, headed for various parts of the Empire in the 1930s, expecting, like their own fathers and grandfathers, (my great, great grandfather was political officer to the Gaekwar of Baroda in the 1870s) to be there for life. WW2 and its aftermath changed all that.
With one brother buried in Singapore, another in India, Fitz returned to England in 1950, after a brief stint in occupied Japan. His Gurkha regiment was absorbed into the, newly independent, Indian Army. His guns and rifles were left to servants and native friends. It seemed as if the opportunities for hunting abroad were vanishing, as ever more independence was granted to the colonies and Britain reverted to the status of small independent nation; no longer ruler of the greatest Empire the world has ever seen.