The English novelist Alfred Ollivant (1874–1927) born in Manchester became an author after a horseback-riding injury ended his brief military career. His best-known and most successful work, Bob, Son of Battle, is a minor children's classic. Ollivant also wrote about a dozen other novels ranging from small-scale cautionary tales to grand historical epics.
This story was first published in 1916 and appeared in the book ‘The Brown Mare and Other Studies of England Under the Cloud’ and is a hauntingly realistic portray of the Royal Pavilion hospital and a social commentary on the man and the war that they were asked to fight in. Ollivant likely visited the Brighton hospital sometime in 1915.
THE INDIAN HOSPITAL
by Alfred Ollivant
WHEN George the Fourth, then Prince of Wales, designed his Pavilion by the sea and turned the little fishing-village of Brighthelmstone into the fashionable watering-place we now know, he never surely dreamed of the use to which his great-great-nephew would put its halls and gardens a century later !
A tall brown stockade surrounds the garden now. Over it you see the domes and minarets and ornate roofs not of an Eastern palace, as you might expect, but of the pleasure-house of an English King. As we drove up to the gate a man in khaki stopped us. Then he saw the Doctor sitting at my side and saluted. The motor slid on through the garden and drew up at the entrance. On the seats by the lawns under the elms figures were sitting, strange indeed and yet not entirely out of place in that semi-Oriental environment : men in blue coats and trousers, brown men with white pugarees bound about their heads. One came hobbling clown the path on crutches, swinging a foot big as a punching-ball by reason of its bandages. An orderly in khaki passed him, shoving a kind of enlarged mail-cart such as children use. The orderly, a sturdy English youth with the close-cropped bullet-head of the private soldier, bore down on the back of the mail-cart, tilting up the seat of it—to balance his charge. And that charge was not a child. At first I thought it was an idol ; then it seemed to me a man without legs ; finally I recognized it for an Indian soldier squatting cross-legged on the seat.
The Englishman, tilting his brown charge and whistling as he came, made down the hill under the elms in the February sunshine at a little skipping run.
He was a small man and merry ; thick-set, close-knit, with a kind of robin-redbreast cockiness ; big red hands, swift to help, gray eyes always on the verge of a wink, and lips a little grim and masterful, but ready at a moment to twist into a whistle or a joke.
He lacked, perhaps, the dignity and repose of his patient ; yet stamped upon him was that solid ugly-cornered something which we call Character, that has won for him and his fathers such Liberty as no other people know and suzerainty over the 350 millions in that far continent from which the brown man on the mail-cart came.
The little scene compelled my attention ; and well it might. For it was the sum and the symbol of one of the strangest and most significant happenings in history : the East, enthroned, sheltered, and served by the West, which it in its turn had served and sheltered with its body and blood.
The Doctor, a Major for the purposes of this War, was beckoning me from the door. I followed him, catching as I entered a glimpse of an old board on one side of the entrance. On it, painted in letters dingy with age and weather, were the words :- ROYAL PAVILION
These floors which of old answered to the nimble feet of courtiers, the swish of ladies' skirts, and the music of mazurkas and minuets, echoed now to the stump of crutches, the slither of slippered feet, and the shuffle of carrying parties bearing patients to and from the operating theatre set up in what was of old, perhaps, the royal pantry.
In the entrance-lobby there was a group of brown men. Some were playing cards and some were watching the players. With their dark faces, the red scarves bound about their heads, an occasional crutch, or peep of white bandage, they looked like a jolly pack of pirates out of one of Stevenson's books. But surely no cut-throats ever looked quite so happy, or grinned with such utter honesty, as those ugly little men who sat round the table slamming down the cards.
" Ghoorkas ! " said the Doctor in my ear. " Ripping little beggars !—full of fun—and so game."
" Tenshon ! " came the voice of one of the men, the English word of command emerging drolly from an un-English throat.
The little group of Mongols, with their high cheek-bones, smear of moustaches, and the Chinese eyes from which all the fun and friendship in the world seemed to pour in twinkling torrents, rose on their crutches, those of them who could. Those who could not, raised their hands in salute as they sat.
We moved down a long passage in which brown men in blue lolled about and limped, and white men in brown bustled.
For in this Hospital with its hundreds of beds the nursing is of necessity done by the men.
No woman may touch a patient ; and the few sisters on the staff may not be present in the wards during meals, lest their shadows fall across the food and defile it.
In the passage are two trollies, one labelled Hindoo Corn Store, and one Mohammedan Corn Store. For in matters great and small the British Raj has been faithful. Down to the smallest item it has respected the beliefs and the traditions of its subjects from the East. In the Pavilion-Hospital there are two kitchens and two stoves. And Mohammedans and Hindoos take their food in the certainty that it has been prepared in accordance with the immemorial usages of their fathers.
At the end of the passage a door opened. We passed round a screen.
The Dome at Brighton today is such a sight as our fathers never saw, as our children are little like to see again.
England needs a Wordsworth to wander through that maze of beds and strike off his impression in an imperishable sonnet. And yet perhaps only a Turner could do justice to that scene, handing down to our descendants, in colours that will never fade, something of the poetry and the passion of this spectacle, so pathetic in its immediate significance, so tremendous in its import to the race, and so uplifting to the heart that feels and the eye that sees and understands.
In that vast gilded room where of old King George gossiped, and Fox drank, and Wilberforce expounded ; where in our time General Booth has preached, and Paderewski played, and Lloyd George spoken, the floor today is white with beds. They are under the chandelier, against the organ, on the terrace, beneath the balcony—flocks of them. And in each white bed is a brown face, uplifted to the banyan-tree that by a happy accident decorates the roof. Men of every race from that great continent which thrusts like a heart into the Indian Ocean are there ; some dark as Othello, some fair almost as you and I ; some with the noses of eagles, some short-faced as pugs ; clean-shaven and bearded ; big men and little ; splendid and insignificant ; tubby and lank.
At the foot of each bed is hung a board ; and on the board is recorded the man's name, regiment, the nature of his wound, and the like.
As we thread our way amid the beds, the inmates look at us with their soft brown eyes, so grave, so respectful, so affectionate ; and their hands go to their foreheads.
" Salaam, Huzoor."
And they give us the impression that we have done them a signal honour in permitting them to make of their bodies a living sacrifice for us and ours.
We move from bed to bed.
Here a splendid young Sikh, his hair a-loose from its rings and flowing about his neck in glorious black rivulets, is re-winding his long pugaree.
There a Ghoorka boy, aged eighteen, oiling his scalp-lock, grins at us like a friendly bull-pup as we pass. The Dogra in the bed hard by handles a little leather purse that lies at the bedside and beckons us.
" Bee-ullet," he says, " Bee-ullet " ; and shows us the jagged bit of copper that the Doctor has extracted from his body.
Under the chandelier a tall man, with both hands bandaged and in splints, is standing by a bed. In it a soldier in a skull-cap, with a sombre Afghan type of face, sits up erect and appears to be praying. He is the one man in the Hospital with a grievance. And this is his grievance : that he saw the man who shot him, and they carried him away before he could deal with his enemy. But some day he is going back—to find his man : during the war, if God wills ; and if not after. But he is going back. It is not Germany he has anything against, it is one German. An Afridi, he.
In the corner-bed by the door is a convalescent. For all his flowing beard and air of dignity he is a joker, and has gathered about him a knot of others lured by the laughter. He points them out to us with pride, telling off their nationalities.
" Is that man a Pathan ? " asks the Doctor, surprised.
The others nod.
" But where are his ringlets ? "
" Me old Pathan," explains the object of attention, and somehow between them they made us understand that it is only the young bloods who sport ringlets.
On the floor, at the bedside, squatting on a towel, is a patient figure laboriously cleaning his teeth with a bone.
The joker in the bed, who is holding a cardboard-box in his hand, releases the top. A paper snake springs out and coils about the neck of the man on the towel, to the delight of all.
Indeed, in spite of the suffering, one is struck by the atmosphere of almost childish happiness prevailing in the place,
They know nothing of the greatness of the cause in which they have bled ; they care little for what we call Democracy, these men of a race for ever old and for ever young. Militarism does not disturb them. They do not trouble themselves greatly about the rights of smaller States and the sanctity of International Law. They are willing to trust in the judgment of you and me who entered upon this War and asked them to bear their heroic part in it. They were content to fight because we asked them ; and now they are content to suffer. It is a triumph of faith.
Were you to ask them what it is all about they would answer you that for a time in the bazaar and in the lines there were many rumours. Then one day the Colonel-Sahib rode on to parade and said--
" Come, children. The Sirdar calls."
And they came—across the black waters their fathers feared so terribly.
They came, not as Cromwell's plain russet-coated captains came to him, not as the men of the North came to Abraham Lincoln, because they believed in the cause for which they were to fight, but because they believed in the men who led them.
They came, and they fought. These men, whose fathers have dwelt for so many ages round about the Tropic of Cancer that the skins of the children have changed under the sun from white to brown, fought under conditions which, if they were terrible to the soldiers of our race, were to them appalling. They do not fear the cold, these men of the Punjab and the North-West Frontier Province and the hills beyond. Nights are sharp in the Land of the Five Rivers and the frost bites keen in the Valley of Peshawur. But they tremble at the wet. And as it chanced this was the wettest winter on record. The men of the Bikaneer Desert, and the gaunt Afridi hills, and the sun-dried plains of the Ganges, fought against an enemy they feared far more than any Germans—bitter slush up to the knees, sleet like arrows of steel, drenching mist, rain in torrents loud enough to drown even the roar of high-explosive shells ; they fought, until they were sodden to the bone, and the souls of them cried out from the trenches for the sun, the sun, the friendly old sun, who had never failed them before, and now seemed lost for ever in that midnight of murk.
In spite of the conditions they fought, and they fought well. Kitchener has said it in the House of Lords, and French in his dispatches. For two months, with their faces towards their own country and their backs to ours, they held a line which was never dented more than three hundred yards at any spot.
Returning soldiers say you could always tell the trenches held by the Indians, because of the silence that prevailed in them. The English trenches were always a-buzz : the Tommies, like a host of sparrows, chirpy, cheeky, taking off their superiors surreptitiously, chaffing the Germans over the way, chipping each other. The Indians did not talk : they did not dream. They stood in the wet and died—without complaints but without enjoyment. When their white officers said " Follow ! " they rose and followed. When there were no more sahibs to follow they stood until, undermined by frost-bite, they fell on their faces in the mud and were carried over the sea to the Hospital provided for them by the Emperor who inspected them on the plains below the Palace of Delhi three years ago.
And here they are happy. There is no question about it. It may be that throughout the Western world today it is in the Hospitals rather than elsewhere that the peace which passeth all understanding is to be found. Certainly it is so here. These Indians in England are not in exile. At least, if they are home-sick they do not show it. Amid those hundreds, lying maimed beneath the Dome, thousands of miles away from their native land, under a wintry Western sun, I saw but one who seemed unhappy : a young Sikh giant, lying with face contorted, and the tears standing on his cheeks.
The men of his race, splendid as himself, stood by on crutches, apparently unmoved.
" Is he very bad ? " I asked.
" No," answered the Doctor. " Hysteria. Slight shrapnel wound and frost-bite."
The man sat up in bed, the tears streaming down his face, and in his own tongue made a passionate appeal to the Doctor.
His fellow-countrymen stood by with downward eyes, half-ashamed, half-amused.
One of the few sisters steps forward to explain.
" I called him a baby," she said, " and the men have been teasing him."
The Doctor passes on with a little smile ; and when we return a few minutes later the man is out of bed chaffing another patient.
All the Sikhs are not like that. Indeed, of the various races represented here they impress the stranger most by reason of their noble stature and bearing. And it is curious to recall that it is but a few decades since the fathers of these men who are fighting our battles in Flanders were following the Lion of the Punjab in vain assault on the British line at Sobraon and Chillianwallah and Goojerat.
They are men of religion and the sword, now as then. Like the Nazarenes of old; they never shave the head nor touch strong drink.
To the practical Western spirit their faithfulness has its disadvantages.
One man had a depressed fracture which resulted in paralysis of the arm.
In the Pavilion-Hospital every patient is free—free to die if he prefers it to an operation.
The situation was explained to the patient.
An operation on the head could cure him of his paralysis.
Would he have it done ?
Would he have to be shaved, 0 Saviour of the Poor ?
No ; but in the course of the operation it might be that some of his hair would be cut.
Then he would not be done.
" Why not ?"
" It is against my religion, Huzoor. Pathans shave their heads ; Sikhs never. What says the Guru ? "
And he is paralysed still.
As we passed slowly on a face in a bed beneath the balcony drew me. It was dark, bearded, and full of pain. The man was lying on his back, and from the way he swayed his head it was clear to me that he could not move his body ; and the reason too seemed clear, for his feet appeared to be contained in a kind of barrel, concealed beneath the sheets, which it humped and rounded.
As I moved, the man's eyes followed me. I looked at the board at the foot of the bed, and read the fatal and frequent legend
Frost-bite in both feet.
Something drew me to him ; something drew him to me. Our eyes met and called. I went to his bedside.
He was a Punjabi Mohammedan and could talk a few words of English. Leaning a little out of bed he drew his hand across my shinbone about six inches above the ankle, with a gesture horrible in its significance.
" Froz-bite," he said. " Operation."
" Better now ? " I asked.
He rolled his head about, his eyes clouded with pain.
" Leedly better now. One, two, three operation."
I asked him when he would be going back to India.
He didn't know.
" My job horses. . . . India-rubber leg."
I asked no more ; and he spoke to me of Ferozabad " in U.P.," where he had lived, and Mhow where he had been quartered, and the ammunition column to which he had belonged.
Did I know Amritsar ?
Yes ; I knew Amritsar, and the Golden Temple, and the Holy Book.
Amritsar was the home of the Sikh Gurus. Doubtless Lon'on would be the home of the Gurus of the Sahibs ? I would be a Guru from Lon'on ? Was it not so ? Clearly : for I had a beard. No Sahib had a beard unless he was a Guru. Would I, the Guru from Lon'on, so wise and world-famous, take two biscuits from Ali Mahomed, the driver in the ammunition column ?
As I left him clutching the English comic paper somebody had given him, he said, with the insinuating courtesy of the East-
" You come again. Not to-morrow. No. Three—four day. Friday."
His face was still with me as I quitted the Dome—dark-eyed, patient, full of pain, and above all familiar. I had seen it somewhere before, I was sure—in the Louvre, perhaps ; crowned, I think, with thorns.
We passed out into the garden in the February sunshine.
Beyond the high brown palisade the trams were sliding up and down Pavilion Parade ; and along the top of the trams you could read the advertisement boards of an old and vulgarized civilization that died suddenly of shock early in August 1914.
The reminder that Tamplin's Ales are the best, Is.6d. the bottle, and that Selfridge's is the shop for outfits, comes to you as out of another world. And the men and women on the roofs of those moving trams, most of them immersed in green or pink afternoon papers, seem scarcely aware that one world is falling into ruins about their ears and another springing out of those ruins. Hardly do they trouble to glance over the palisade and see the process of the miracle going on apace within.
I turn and look back at the building.
On the balcony, overlooking the lawn, are other convalescents. A young and very handsome Rajpoot waves to me. I have never seen him before. He has never seen me. But he waves to me ; and I wave back.
Then a bullet-headed British orderly takes his place on the balcony beside the Rajpoot, and winds his arm about the shoulder of the son of a hundred kings.
And thinking of those two on the balcony, with their heads in such close conjunction, I have hardly a glance for the magnificent Sikh Havildar with the beard twisted about his ears, who salutes us at the gate as we go out.