The War of the Flag
THE UNION JACK has commonly and rightfully come to be regarded as a peacemaker. But there are occasions when a display of red. white and blue incites hostilities. This story concerns two such occasions, both of which happened within that region of the British Empire known as the “Furious” Gomal, which is dubiously a part of the North-West Frontier Province.
The first happening was trivial except to the person principally concerned. His name was Gunner Rowlandson. But after he did what he did do, he was called “Bolshie” in his battery. It was the obvious nickname for a man who insults a Union Jack in public. What made the action much worse was that he was wearing the King’s uniform at the time and there were natives watching all around.
It wasn’t until later that Gunner Rowlandson realized the enormity of his crime. He was suffering from what soldiers of the French Foreign Legion call "le cafard” and British Tommies “running amok.” It is a disease that attacks white men in hot climates. When you get it you are liable to do anything from stabbing your colonel to dancing naked in camel scrub.
There’s an irritant in you that screams for a counterirritant. Something hot and poisonous rises from your spleen to your brain, you fingernails feel jagged and full of dust, there’s an evil taste in your mouth and a hatred of every created thing in your heart. It’s a vile combination of liver attack and brainstorm, that sends you prancing mad.
Gunner Rowlandson’s seizure was comparatively mild. Instead of flying like a mad dog at the nearest officer, he vented his rage upon a Union Jack.
It was at a football match being played between two native teams on the stony, rectangular patch of desert outside the fort, that was the Dirgan Khot football ground. A gritty, ugly spot, especially on an evening shortly before the rains. The air was turgid with pent-up electricity, there was a hot breeze that exasperated the skin, and sand devils dancing monotonously on the plain.
ALL DAY Gunner Rowlandson had had spots before his eyes and an uncomfortable feeling of expectancy. Trifles had irritated him; the faces and voices of other men had seemed loathsome. He knew the world to be punk and himself a scab. And when the scoring of a goal by the side he had not backed, coincided with the three hundred and fifty-second fiybite, he could stand it no longer.
He must do something violent or burst. A Union Jack hanging near where the colonel and other officers of the garrison sat, caught his eye. In the outlying parts of the Empire the Jack means infinitely more than it does at home. It is the visible symbol of the authority of the Raj. Especially in native eyes is it significant.
Knowing that and desiring to do the most outrageous thing possible. Gunner Rowlandson suddenly leaped to his feet and ran toward the flag pole, shouting things about the Union Jack as he did so.
His hands closed on the cherished cloth. In a moment he would have ripped it from the pole, but before he could do so half a dozen scandalized spectators flung themselves upon him. They were men of his own battery, and they were not disposed to be gentle.
For a time they couldn’t master his crazy strength. But while he fought, sanity returned and with it the dawnings of a deep shame. His fists dropped to his sides.
Next day, feeling sick and sore and terribly contrite, he was marched before the C.O. of the battery. Luckily for him, the major was experienced in the tricks an Eastern climate can play on a white man’s nerves. He fined Rowlandson the cost of a new flag, gave him some sound advice about midday siestas and the wearing of neckshades, and sent him to Abbotshah on a week’s leave.
His actual punishment came from another quarter. It came in the form of unpopularity with his comrades. It was a battery with a reputation to uphold, and Rowlandson had made it the laughingstock of the station.
They called him “Bolshie” and treated him as if he were a pariah suffering from a contagious skin disease. His former friends dodged him. The wit of the battery, a hulking gunner called Fletcher, elected him his victim in chief.
And when came a minor war that also concerned a Union Jack, there was much jeering comment about which side he would fight for.
THE SECOND occasion on which a Union Jack provoked unpleasantness in the Furious Gonial, was a more serious affair.
It arose, a few months later, from the contravention of an unwritten law. The unwritten law is that in newlyacquired and sensitive portions of the British Empire, the Jack must not be flown unnecessarily lest it act as a provocation.
The Perhan Valley, 200 miles from Dirgan Khot, was one such portion. The Waziri Pathans, of Arab ancestry, who lived there liked to consider themselves independent. At least they did during times of peace. When danger threatened in the form of raiding trans-border Afridi tribes, they were quite glad to consider themselves a unit of the British Empire and would have been vastly indignant if
A heat-crazed man, a foolish deed under India's blazing sun, torture or dishonor—and retribution
the British Raj had failed to come to their assistance.
They were also graciously pleased to accept a subsidy from the Raj in return for granting recruiting facilities. It helped to balance their budget, solved their unemployment problem, and brought trade to the principal village. Major Griffiths, the fatherly, experienced recruiting officer who visited them yearly with a contingent of Sikh policemen, was a popular figure. He played chess with the Khan, spent money in the local shops, and generally conducted himself with tact and discretion. The only people who resented his presence were the priests, but they were in a minority and could do nothing.
Another unwritten law in India is that no peg must be allowed to remain in a hole it fits. Major Griffiths was sent elsewhere, and a younger officer who possessed every quality except the one most needed—tact—was sent to the Perhan Valley.
In other parts of the Empire it is customary to display a Union Jack outside a recruiting office. Captain Wheeler, which was the name of Griffith’s successor, didn’t see why the Perhan Valley office should be different from the others.
Since there was no Jack in the district he sent to Abbotshah for a large specimen, and ran it up with his own hands while his Sikh policemen stood at the present.
And the mullahs—fanatical firebrands ever on the lookout for a chance to stir up trouble—smiled in their beards when they saw that flag. It gave them just the chance they wanted.
Left to themselves, the tribesmen would have been quite proud of having the flag of the British Raj flying in their village. The mu'lahs taught them different. They preached that the Unbelievers’ flag was a danger and an insult to every Moslem.
It was an unclean flag, a flag whose shadow defiled the followers of the Prophet. It was red with the blood of the Faithful slain by the Unbelievers; it was a mockery of Islam. And when the wind blew from the southeast, the flag pointed toward Mecca, which meant that the Unbelievers intended one day to seize the Holy City.
With their howling reiteration of such statements, they worked the ignorant tribesmen up to a frenzy. The culmination came one Saturday afternoon in the mad month of Ramadan, when the congregation surged out of the principal mosque yelling their determination to tear down the Union Jack and bum it.
Captain Wheeler saw the mob and heard what they were shouting. He acted as he thought proper. At all costs, the LInion Jack must be protected from insult. He formed his policemen with loaded rifles across the street, and told them to fire over the heads of the crowd if they came on.
The crowd did come on, and the Sikhs fired. Whether by accident or design has never been clearly established, but a bullet went low and a mullah fell dead. The tribesmen, who were unarmed, fled in all directions, and in the panic two more men were injured.
TT WAS as if Wheeler
had told his men to fire into a powder mine. Word of what had happened flashed through the district. The Wazirs swore vengeance and that night the tribes rose.
It was well for Wheeler and his men that they had fast horses to carry them to safety. As it was, they had to abandon everything and gallop for their lives. As they passed, death spat at them from the dark hillsides.
Wheeler reported what had happened to the commandant of the fort at Ul. In his own opinion, his behavior had been entirely meritorious. He had kept the flag of the British Raj flying in the face of the enemy.
The commandant glared as he listened. He was a soldier of experience, and such have no use for copybook patriotism.
“You’ve made a nice mess of things, young man,” he exploded. “Why the dickens didn’t you take the flag down if it annoyed them?”
“Lower the Union Jack !” Wheeler cried indignantly. “I’d rather have died.”
“Rats.” snorted the commandant.
What he knew and what he couldn't explain to Wheeler was that the Union Jack is great enough to be lowered on occasion without dishonor. It is only little flags and little men who are afraid of giving way.
rT'HAT WAS how the “War of the Flag” started. It was a nasty little war because it was based on religious grounds.
All round there was highly inflammatory material. Lest the flames spread to that material, the Raj acted swiftly. A punitive expedition was hurriedly assembled at Dirgan Kliot and raced to the Perhan Valley to stamp on the flames.
Two native regiments, a regiment of British Infantry and a battery of field guns, were what comprised this fire brigade. They were a formidable little force, well equipped to meet all emergencies. In pitched battle they could have taken on and licked six times their number of insurgent Wazirs. And they would have asked nothing better than to have had a chance to do so.
But the opposing leader denied them the pleasure. He was a mu'lah called Afzul Makmud. a brother of the mullah who had been killed and a typical Frontier firebrand. And whatever he may have been like as a priest, no one could deny that he was a military tactician of the first order.
He played tag with the troops over 300 square miles of hilly, waterless territory. He struck at them like a shadow boxer, and when they struck back it was to waste their blows on empty hilltops. The tribesmen had slipped elsewhere and were laying another ambush.
They were as elusive and persistent as sand flies. Had it not been for the raids by night and the ceaseless sniping by day, one might have sworn there was not a Wazir in the district. Indeed, the observation officer of the “heavies.” who rode in an observation balloon anchored to a lorry, did so swear. Search as he would with his field glasses, he never spotted a target on which he could train the long khaki snouts of his darlings.
The Wazirs grew bolder with success. There were attacks on isolated pickets. Prisoners were taken. What remained of the prisoners was left where the column could not fail to see. And when men saw what had been done to their comrades they were sick, cursed or fainted according to their temperaments.
BEFORE THE campaign and during it, a storm that had no connection with the Wazirs had been brewing. It had its matrix in the heart of Gunner Rowlandson. Weekly, daily, hourly, he felt with increasing conviction that if Gunner Fletcher didn’t cease to be humorous at his expense, Gunner Fletcher would get something he wouldn’t like.
The other men might have forgotten the episode of the Union Jack on the football field, but Gunner Fletcher wouldn’t let them. He was a hulking Yorkshire tyke, and once he got hold of a joke he chewed it like a bone. To call Rowlandson “Bolshie,” and ask him when he meant to desert and join the Wazirs, seemed to him the height of humor and he did so every day.
It was a stupid form of baiting that made Gunner Rowlandson see red. He was bitterly ashamed of the incident; he had done all in his power to live it down. With the officers and N.C.O.’s of the battery', he had succeeded. They had marked his name for promotion when the campaign ended.
There is a limit to what a man’s temper can endure. That of Gunner Rowlandson was reached one night when the “War of the Flag” was about a month old.
He and Fletcher were in a sangar overlooking a plateau where the field guns had been parked. The main body of the column was about half a mile ahead, guarded by a fringe of outpost pickets. Beyond those pickets the Wazirs were believed to be lurking in the hills.
In the sangar were three other gunners and a lancebombardier. They had been there nightly for a week and were feeling bored. Everyone was glad when, in response to a question from Fletcher about how much he’d been paid by Moscow for dancing on the Jack, Rowlandson suddenly tore off his tunic and equipment.
“I’m fed up with your jokes, Fletcher,” he said through his teeth. “Get your tunic off and put your fists up.” Fletcher accepted the invitation with alacrity. He was the bigger and heavier of the two. He had the longer reach, and was considered in the battery to be something of a bruiser.
Against all that, Gunner Rowlandson had nothing except righteous indignation. But righteous indignation, if only it be strong enough, is as good as a suit of armor. It may not enable a man to duck and hit with precision, but it puts venom in his blows and enormously increases his capacity for taking punishment.
The level portion inside the sangar wall was the arena.
The moonlight was bright enough for their purpose. Stripped to the waist and barefisted, they faced each other like two oldtime bruisers.
“Go!” yelled the lance-bombardier.
They went. All out. faces set. chins tucked in and shoulders hunched. Toe to toe in the moonlight, they swung and parried, neither man yielding an inch.
Labored breathing and the thud of clenched fists on flesh wrere the only sounds. Fletcher was turning his fists as he struck, and his callused knuckles tore Rowlandson’s skin.
A full-shouldered drive that had all the big gunner's weight behind it, connected with Rowlandson’s rips and made him reel. Before he could recover, Fletcher was upon him like a tornado. With vicious shortarm punches he drove Rowlandson back against the sangar wall.
Rowlandson ducked forward at 11 it* sharp impact of the stones. For a second he was inside the other’s guard. The face he had hated for so long swung between him and the stars. And he hoisted an uppercut dynamic with his pent-up rage.
“That’s the stuff, Bolshie!” a man yelled.
At sound of the nickname the gunner cut mad. Fletcher was staggering back with windmilling fists and flung-back head. Rowlandson tore after him like a tiger. His fists played the devil’s tattoo on the big man’s chest and ribs as he smashed him across the sangar.
THE BOMBARDIER'S shout had saved Fletcher from defeat. Seated on a stone, he inhaled huge draughts of air. His face was grim. The “Bolshie” thought he was winning, did he? He’d show him! Fletcher spat blood, put his hands on his widespread knees, and lowered his head like a determined bull.
When the bombardier gave the word they went for each other again. No science -—only strength and fury and a desire to hurt. Both were tough as mules. Both conceived themselves fighting for the right cause.
The spectators howled their joy. They were getting for nothing what patrons of the Wembley Stadium too often sigh for in vain. A fight! A tearing, hell-for-leather tumble between two tough, well-matched scrappers. The moonlight showed them dark rivulets of blood on white skin, and the fighters’ bodies dancing against a background of black rocks.
Gunner Rowlandson was still furiously on the attack. The watching men forgot all else in their excitement. Even the sentry had turned to watch. He was resting on his rifle and shouting with the others: “Go it, Bolshie! Sock him in the jaw!” As the sentry shouted, a noiseless form reared serpentwise behind him. A bearded figure with skull cap, dirty grey robes and long curved knife. Then there was an electric yell that tore the night as the Wazir sprang and struck. The sentrypitched forward, the hilt protruding between his shoulders. As he fell, the hillside spouted sword-brandishing tribesmen, who yelled the slogan of their faith as they charged.
“Death to the Unbelievers! Allah is great and Mohammed is the Prophet of Allah!”
Too late, the white men sprang for then rifles. The Wazirs were on them. The sangar boiled with fighting, slashing men.
Death was the least the soldiers had to fear. That knowledge gave them the strength of madness. Empty-handed, they grappled with the Wazirs.
Below in the valley, the bugles were screaming the alarm. Half-clothed, panting men were racing to the sangar. But before they could get there, the Wazirs had vanished like ghosts. They left three dead gunners and one badly wounded lance-bombardier. They had carried oil all the rifles and ammunition and two prisoners.
The lance-bombardier, his hands pressed to his midriff and coughing like a sick
monkey, gradually wheezed out the story.
“The Wazzies rushed us . . Rowland-
son and Fletcher . . . They’ve got them . . . Carried off ... I hope they're dead ...”
rT'HEY weren’t. Both had received head wounds. While they were unconscious, the rejoicing tribesmen carried them to the hidden fastness that was their camp.
Some time the following day Rowlandson opened his eyes. The first thing he saw was Fletcher’s face about three feet distant from his own. For a second he imagined they were still fighting.
He tried to move. Then he found his limbs were immovable. At the same time he made other discoveries. There was a pain in the back of his head as if it were being probed with a red-hot knife. His mouth and throat were like fried leather.
His face was burning and pricking intolerably. * Things were crawling over the flinching skin. He could feel them investigating his ears and nostrils. Ants! Fletcher’s face was black with them. It looked grotesque, like a football lying on the sand. Then he realized that he, too, was buried to the chin in sand. Fie bent his head forward and burrowed his face. For a second he was free from the agony of the ants.
Fletcher’s eyes opened. They were little bloodshot pits in his swollen face. He stared at Rowlandson. Then he spoke without emotion of any sort.
“We’ve copped it . . . This is the Wazzies’ little treat . . . They’ve buried us near an ant-heap. I was hoping you were dead.”
A brave man, Gunner Fletcher. He contrived a grin.
“Buck up. Bolshie. It won’t be long. How’s the eye?”
“How’s your jaw?” Rowlandson said hoarseiy.
They didn’t talk any more. A couple of hours of fiery torment passed. Bearded men squatted on the sand in front of them and taunted them with the sight of water. Rowlandson opened his eyes and saw that one of them was waving a large, tattered Union Jack before Fletcher’s face—the ill-fated flag which once had got Rowlandson into trouble. The Wazir was shaking English in the high-pitched metallic accent of the East.
“Spit on it, white man . . . For drink of water? . . .No! Presently you change your mind ...”
“You dirty hubshi,” Fletcher said distinctly. “I gave your mother three annas in Bombay.”
The Wazir snarled and swivelled round on his haunches so that he faced Rowlandson. Holding the flag by the end of the pole, he trailed the red, white and blue cloth across the sand.
“Spit on it, white man. Then I brush ants away. Spit twice you get drink.”
“You unclean pig!” Rowlandson rasped.
Both white men laughed. The Wazir himself spat on the flag. Then he went away, and there was an interval during which the crawling sparks commanded their reeling brains.
Gunner Rowlandson’s eyes rolled up to the flaming sky. There was a speck hanging motionless. A vulture hoping for a chance to rob the ants?
ANOTHER period. His body was a T*flame of living pain. The speck was still there. Fletcher was speaking.
“Here he comes again. Wants us to defile the old Jack . . . See him in hell, Bolshie . . . It’s only a trick ...”
More tribesmen stood around and mocked them. The mullah himself was there. The English-speaking tribesman knelt before Fletcher.
“Spit on your flag, white man. You do that we give plenty water.”
Fletcher, grimacing horribly, refused. The mullah scowled. He was bent on making the white soldiers defile their accursed flag. It would be regarded as a Continued on page 33
Continued from page 22—Starts on page 20
Moslem triumph and hailed as such throughout the Gomal.
Now it was Rowlandson’s turn. The flag was spread under his chin.
“Spit on it, white man. I f you spit on it, we will give you all the water you can drink and shade you from the sun. Also, we will drive away the ants with smoke.”
Rowlandson’s reply was a frenzied scream.
“Kill me quick and I’ll do it. Take me from this . . . Lift me out ...”
I íe was shouting like a madman. They placed the flag before him, but he took no notice. Suddenly his eyes closed and his head rolled forward.
The mullah gave an order. Three men dragged him from the loosely piled sand. Still he babbled as in delirium. They cut the ropes and made him stand.
Fletcher watched dully. So Bolshie had given in! Couldn’t stand the pain.
White-livered chap, Bolshie! No guts! He wouldn’t gain anything either. The Wazirs would put him back again. When he’d insulted the flag as they wished, they’d return him to the ants.
He'd stick it out . . . Now Rowlandson was standing alone with the flag in his hands. He was holding it high above his head and brandishing it. Obviously he was quite mad. He was laughing and babbling and the Wazirs were standing round mocking.
Quite mad. He swung the flag down so that its folds touched the sand. Again lie swept it up. Now he was shaking it before him as if it were the head of an enemy he held by the throat.
Again the great folds swept down to the sand. Suddenly Fletcher began to laugh like a lunatic . . . Dash, dot dash dot . . . Dash, dot dash dot . . . Dash, dot dash dot . . .
7’. R ! The range signal to open fire. Target Ready. That was what those wild gyrations of the flag spelt for anyone who could read Morse.
But who was there to read those frantic signals? He looked up and saw the speck
in the sky Rowlandson had seen. It was no vulture. His trained eyes recognized it for what it was.
The observation balloon floating above the battery. Up there was an officer raking the country with powerful field glasses for a glimpse of the Wazirs. They were difficult to spot in their robes that matched the rocks, but the red, white and blue flag would show their position clearly. If onlylie read the signal and understood . . .
T. R., T. 1?.. T. R. Fletcher’s prayers went with the message. Had it been understood? Were the long khaki snouts jerking up for high-angle fire?
Suddenly a Wazir leaped at Rowlandson. He had become suspicious of the white man’s antics. The gunner’s fist crashed against his jaw. Again the great red, white and blue folds clapped in the still air. T.R. . . . T. R. . . .
Target Ready! Something whooped overhead. The Wazirs stood still and stared. Was this the vengeance which men swore would follow the flag of the British Raj?
A crack behind, made them spin round in terror. The guns were bracketing. Then they had the range, and it was as if hell burst upon that plateau.
Bangs and puffs of white smoke overhead. Shriek of shrapnel ricocheting from rocks. Running men smitten from the skies. Yes, it was the vengeance of the flag and before it the Wazirs scattered like stampeding deer.
Panting soldiers leaped out of lorries and scrambled with naked bayonets up the hillside. The guns had scattered the tribesmen, but what of their prisoners? ,A half-naked figure waved a Union Jack feebly at them from a rock. There was a relieved yell of “Bolshie!”
Whatever the circumstances, a British soldier can always find a joke.
“Fletcher?” Gunner Rowlandson croaked. “He’s all right. You’ll find him over there—sharing a funk-hole with an ant.”