George Alfred Henty: The Story of an Active Life
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“Bless the old Jesuit fathers,” he says, “for their grand discovery of quinine!” as he fortifies himself with that most wonderful of discoveries, as useful in India and in Africa as in South America, its ancient home. He provides himself, too, with little blue hexagonal bottles of chlorodyne. He takes aperients also, but not in paper boxes such as a doctor uses, with the contents to be taken two at bed-time, but safely garnered behind tin or glass to preserve them from the mould produced by damp.
Then, too, there is the remedy against one of the most lowering of diseases, dysentery – ipecacuanha, and in addition, as a warming tonic, a bottle of essence of ginger, and another of that valuable corrective that is so strongly suggestive of a draught from a very soapy wash-tub, ammonia. Thus provided with these absolute necessaries for use when the doctor is not within reach, he may feel that he has done what is necessary to guard against any trouble that may come. And is that all? Not quite. A war correspondent is a very expensive luxury to his employers, though the British public obtains the results of all that he has done for the homely penny. He is a costly luxury, and he must be taken care of, even though his necessaries possess height, breadth, and weight.
He receives hospitality and protection and permission to accompany an army, but this does not include anything in the nature of a tent. “My own,” says Henty, “which accompanied me in many campaigns, was about seven feet square. It was a tente d’abri, to which had been added a lower flap about two feet high, giving it a height in the centre of some four feet and a half. The two poles were joined like fishing-rods, and the whole affair packed up in a bag and weighed about thirty pounds. Of course the bed was on the ground and occupied one side of the tent, serving as a sofa by day as well as a bed at night. There was a passage left down the centre of the tent, whose other side was occupied by my trunks, which were, of course, small in size for facilities of transport. Here, too, were my other paraphernalia.”
Thus provided for service in the field, the correspondent, as it will be seen, is pretty well burdened; but during his travels he is always independent, for he has a home where he can write and rest and recruit himself against hunger, albeit his cooking has to be done in the provided apparatus in the open air.
For warmth in the bitter nights there is a watch-fire; but in some instances Henty depended upon his own natural warmth and a wonderful coat of sheep-skin tanned, with the thick wool on. He sometimes came to the club in this in the winter, looking feet more in girth than was his natural size.
One of the first things to be done on arriving at the scene of action is for the correspondent to apply at head-quarters for a form of permission to accompany the army, a general permission having been obtained from the home authorities before starting.With regard to this, Henty did most of his campaigning in the days before generals had begun to grow more and more strict and reticent, until now they go so far as to refuse permission altogether. In the case of the Russo-Japanese War, the British correspondents on the Japanese side were, in spite of every civility and attention, so hindered and obstructed, under the pretence of being protected from danger, that one of Henty’s colleagues, E.F. Knight, gave up the duty in disgust.
But to return to a war correspondent’s necessities: his next task on reaching the front is to buy a good dependable horse to bear the saddle and to be guided by the bit and bridle with which he has come provided. In addition he should have a couple of ponies, or two of the patient but hardy obstinate animals known as mules, to bear the whole of his baggage and stores. Lastly comes one of the most important businesses, that of hiring a couple of servants, one as personal attendant and general factotum, the other to attend to the horse and baggage-animals. Great things often depend upon little, and there is a little matter called experience upon which depends not merely a man’s comfort and convenience, but also the success or failure of his campaign.
Henty praises warmly a class of men who seem to have devoted themselves to the profession of serving, and have earned for themselves the credit of being the best men for the purpose in the world. These are the Goa Portuguese men, with European features, but looking as dark as other natives of India. For many years they have been accustomed to furnish all ships trading in the East with stewards, and as a consequence most of them speak English fairly well.
Henty speaks of having been fortunate enough to obtain two such men at different times – one accompanied him from Bombay on the Abyssinian expedition, the other on the Prince of Wales’s tour through India. Here is the admirable character he gives them: “Both were excellent fellows, always ready and willing, and absolutely uncomplaining whatever happened.” And much did happen, of course.
To a young man of energy who longs to change some ordinary humdrum career for one of excitement, there is something wonderfully attractive in the career of a war correspondent. Certainly the army always offers itself as a life full of wild episodes, but then there is something deterrent in the forced and severe discipline, as well as in the dangers which a soldier has to face. The risks an energetic war correspondent takes are of course many, for he is often compelled to be under fire, and if matters are adverse he may be taken prisoner; but there is great attraction in being a witness of the moves in the great game of chess played by nations in stern reality, though there are innumerable troubles to be encountered that are terribly irritating in their pettiness, and this makes them seem exasperatingly far-reaching and vast. For instance, it is maddening, when wearied out with a long day’s march, to have to be called by necessity to help the baggage man in the constant readjustment of the animals’ loads, which always seem to be slipping off through the ropes coming untied. This is bad enough with ponies, but it is very much worse with mules.
The Yankees have one particular way of tying the hide lariats, or ropes, that secure the burdens upon a mule’s back. This knot, or series of knots, they term the diamond hitch, perhaps from its value or its shape; both may be applicable. The Goa men have ways of their own, but these grow useless with the cunning animals. Sundry awkward packages have apparently been made perfectly secure on a mule’s back, but almost directly afterwards they become loose, owing to the fact that the animal had swelled himself out when the ropes were being hauled tight, and then drawn himself in till everything seems to have shaken loose. The whole burden then starts to slide sideways, and threatens to glide under the little brute, so that he begins to stumble and trip. Much of this soon becomes galling to a weary man, and one has heard of people under such circumstances who vow that, as soon as they begin to pull upon the loose rope to make all taut again, a mule will draw back his lips and show his teeth in a hideous grin, as if he were looking upon the whole transaction as the best of fun.
Then, too, there is the misery attending the arrival at the camping-ground and the selection of the place to set up the tent to make things comfortable, perhaps with the rain pouring down. A pleasant accompaniment this last to the lighting of a fire and the cooking of a dinner, while ultimately the correspondent may be able to get no tent erected, and may be forced to lie down in the open, wrapped in a blanket and a waterproof sheet.
This was not one of his troubles in the Abyssinian expedition, for there Henty encountered but little rain; but he and his companion, who represented the Morning Post and who travelled with him, met with plenty of petty troubles consequent upon the behaviour of one of the servants, an Indian syce. This fellow looked after the horses, but especially after himself, for he was always provided with the one great excuse to avoid his work, that he was not well. He ended by coming one day to announce that Abyssinia did not agree with him, and that he must go down to the coast and return in some ship that was sailing for India.
When accompanying a British force on an expedition like this, a correspondent is allowed to draw the same rations as those served out to officers and men – meat, biscuits, preserved vegetables, and a certain amount of tea and sugar – while in the Abyssinian campaign, possibly owing to the presence of a Naval Brigade, who worked the rockets, rum was served out regularly. This, however, was given only very occasionally in Ashanti, where, Henty says, “it was much more necessary. A small quantity of spirits served out to be taken at the evening meal is considered a very great benefit to men who arrive utterly exhausted after their march in a tropical climate.”
Henty goes on to add that the meat served out in the Ashanti campaign was either that of some freshly-killed bullock which had accompanied the march day after day, and whose flesh was as tough as leather, or else it was tinned meat, upon which after a short time everyone looked with loathing. This had to be washed down with a decoction of the commonest and worst tea, perhaps made with muddy water, and to an exhausted man it was well nigh impossible. But in that awful climate the addition of a small quantity of spirits to the tea acted as a restorative, giving the stomach a fillip, and enabling the food to be eaten and digested.
Fortunately, upon the Ashanti expedition the correspondents had clubbed together and taken with them a small supply of wine, which proved invaluable in bracing them up to do their work, when but for it they would have been incapable of doing anything at the end of some of the specially hard and exhausting marches. It was to this claret that Henty largely attributed the preservation of his health, when so many not thus provided were prostrated by the deadly effects of the climate.
In a hot country like Ashanti it might have been supposed that native fruits and vegetables would be plentiful and easily to be purchased of the people at the various villages; but nothing of the kind was obtainable, and the correspondents had to depend entirely on the stores they carried with them upon their ponies or mules. The commissariat supply was not abundant or appetising: for breakfast, oatmeal, eaten with preserved milk; but before that, at daybreak, they always contrived a cup of chocolate and milk. Dinner consisted of a banquet of tinned rations and preserved vegetables, made eatable by being flavoured with Worcester sauce or pickles, and when things were at the worst and appetite rebelled, there was an occasional addition of boiled rice with preserved fruit from their stores. Altogether, the weary correspondents were so lowered by exhaustion that they came to look upon their meals with utter disgust, consequent upon the heat and terrible nature of a climate which, higher up at the coast, was looked upon by old writers as the white man’s grave.
Matters were very different in the breezy, bright uplands of Abyssinia, where, owing to the difficulties of carriage, the correspondents were only allowed to carry with them a very small quantity of stores. Here, however, they were generally able to eke out their rations by making purchases from the natives, who, as soon as they found that they could receive honourable treatment in the way of payment, and that they were not dealing with an invading army who confiscated everything in the way of food, began to bring to market capital additions to the correspondents’ fare. Now it would be eggs, now chickens, or the meals were truly sweetened by the contents of a jar of honey. It was a land, too, of flocks of sheep, which were purchased by the commissariat, and the heads, which were looked upon by the officers who superintended the rations as what is technically termed “offal”, and not to be served out as rations, could often be obtained by the correspondents’ cook. He was able to make of them a dainty dish, although he had probably never heard the Scotchman’s remark that there was “a deal of meescellaneous feeding” in a good sheep’s head.
There was shooting, too, with an occasional present of guinea-fowls or a hare shot by friends; and on these occasions they generally had a small dinner party. So famous was the cooking of their servants, that one day, when Lord Napier asked Henty and his companion to dine with him he said: “You will have to put up with plain fare for once, for my staff tell me that when any of them dine with you they fare infinitely better than they do with me.”
Henty gives an example of one of the menus on a festive occasion: Soup; slices of sheep’s face, grilled with the tongue, and brain sauce; a joint of mutton, jugged hare; and an omelette with honey – a proof that during the Abyssinian expedition the special correspondents fared well.
Chapter Twenty Seven.