Simla Notes [2]

by Rudyard Kipling

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 22 July 1885

Continuous with the series of ‘Simla Notes’ of 15 July and 29 July in Sussex Scrapbooks 28/2, pp. 5—7; 42—4

Major Wentworth King-Harman (1840—1919) whose lecture is here reported was later chief government inspector of small arms. The two names at the end of the report are those of General Thomas Fourness Wilson (1819—86), who entered the Indian army in 1838 and was now a member of the Governor- General’s Council, and of Colonel Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1842—85), a soldier and adventurer killed in January 1885 in the Soudan. [T.P.]

(From our own Correspondent)
Simla, July 18

[....] On Friday afternoon, those who were interested in such things went down to the United Service Institute to hear Major King-Harman lecture on the British officer and the weapons (beyond those of loyalty, zeal and patriotism, and an immense ignorance of the precise junction at which he ought to vacate the ground in favour of the other side) — which he carries with him into battle. It was a curious sight to watch forty or fifty military men, from the grizzled General to the callow Subaltern, listening attentively, while one of their service held forth on the best means whereby a Ghazi might be stopped in mid rush with revolver and sword, or a more civilized enemy neatly and efficiently despatched with either of the two weapons. The mystery of death was not so uncommon a thing after all. Here was a man, in a low, even monotone, showing how such a one had warded it off with a strip of curb chain sewed on the jacket from elbow to wrist; and how such another failed to enlighten a flying Pathan upon the subject, because his sword was a regulation one and broke, after many downward cuts on the turbaned pate. Then heads in various portions of the room nodded acquiescingly, and an innocent, with pink and white cheeks, murmured to his neighbour, how his sword, too, broke once upon a time when he wanted it badly, and (the inevitable conclusion) it was an ‘awfully near shave’. Then Major King-Harman, to enforce his remarks, picked up from a side table certain swords of various shapes, and bade the audience observe how, with this skewer, a man might be run through the body ere he had time to cleave you open; how with the ‘Paget’ blade, broad curved and heavy backed — a degenerate service which preferred cutting to thrusting, might make collops of their adversaries in a deft and workmanlike manner. Furthermore, how he (Major King-Harman) had had forged to his design a blade that should be good, both at cutting and thrusting; though he was doubtful about the wisdom of compromises. This blade he exhibited lovingly, and tenderly returned to its sheath. Then he poured scorn on the foil wherewith the subaltern was taught to fence, preparatory to using the heavy hilted regulation sword; and equal scorn on the ‘lead-cutter’, a shiny straight-bladed horror, related apparently to the Smithfield butcher’s knife and the Japanese Hari-Kari instrument. Briefly, he held with thrusting not cutting, but if you must cut your adversary, use the Paget blade — and see that you get it.

Then the lecturer passed on to revolvers — the ‘type of armed civilization with a life’ (some say an erratic pellet) ‘in each chamber’. He had specimens to exhibit of these pocket aids to glory, and demonstrated, coram publico (publicly) , how the new Government ammunition did not fit the Government ‘six shooter’; whereas the old did. But the old was obsolete. Therefore, it behoved you to find a suitable cartridge, while you were yet within reach of civilization, and not when you hastily rammed ‘misfits’ into too small a chamber at the last moment. He complained that the majority of revolver bullets were inefficient, and would not ‘stop your man at thirty yards’ (the soldier of all lands takes a tender and proprietary interest in the alien whom he wishes to slay. Hence the possessive, ‘your man, your object, your prisoner’,) unless you ‘hit him in the eye’. Very few revolvers admitted of such painful accuracy. The Webby [sic: for Webley?] weapons carried a large enough pellet, and that was the best to buy. Summa. Buy the Webby revolver; see that your cartridges fit; practise often; and you may at some future time save your life, when you stand sadly in need of that article.

The lecturer thanked his audience for their kind attention; trusted that his words might do some good, and sat down near the swords and revolvers, as one who had been delivering some graceful little speech on geology, the easy question of river frontages in the Gangetic valley or the like. General Wilson, in moving the vote of thanks, described how he had entered the army at a date when Tommy Atkins marched to victory and continental hosts with a flintlock rifle, that dated from the year 1796, and was about as useful as a pea shooter at two hundred yards. On the occasion of his first engagement, said he, he was solemnly cautioned by his commanding officer in these words:
— ‘Young man, whatever you do, don’t draw that sword of yours. More than likely it’s no good when it is drawn; and it is more than likely you’ll do more harm than good with it.’
(So jealously was swordmanship studied in the last days of the good old-fashioned duello.) ‘Go into action with your double-barrelled gun loaded with buckshot, and may be you’ll bring down your man at ten yards.’ Armed in accordance with this counsel, did General, then Ensign Wilson, go into action; and we, of a later generation, who have heard of the Boers, and who hold the jezail (Afghan rifle) to be effective at five hundred yards, wondered how on earth the veteran presiding at our meeting ever got out of his first engagement. General Wilson, very unkindly, refused to enlighten us about that double-barrelled shot gun, and the ‘man at ten yards’. Even poor Burnaby had a breech-loader when he went on his last piece of knight-errantry, and the world was poorer by the loss of one of its bravest men. What did Ensign Wilson do when both barrels were discharged; and, with the archaic ramrod in his youthful hand, he paused on the field of strife to pour in the powder, the wad, and the wad above the shot; when he adjusted the percussion cap on the nipples of that fowling piece, and the ‘man at ten yards’ came up with a loaded gun or one of the swords that the Ensign was so particularly cautioned not to draw. But General Wilson had merely quoted the little incident to show how vastly the service had improved since the time that he joined it, how we might hope for further improvement, year by year, till — the speaker did not follow out the sequence — man shall no longer lift his hand against fellowman, because his doom would be sudden death, dealt by invisible engines in inaccessible positions at enormous ranges.

We moved the vote of thanks for suggestions how best to inflict sudden death on our enemies.