For the benefit of my grandchildren, such of them as may be interested in their forefathers; I write a short sketch of my varied career, which will certainly be my only record.
I was born at Dingley Rectory, Northamptonshire, in February 1845, and because I was at my birth the eldest of twins, and because I was heir to the properties (Dingley Hall, Maidwell Hall, Orton etc) of my uncle, Henry Hungerford Holdich Hungerford (who took the name and arms of Hungerford when he succeeded to the property), considerable fuss was made over me, church bells being rung etc. When a cousin was born in 1852 who cut me out, I had to make my own way in life and be educated for a career.
We left Dingley for London (my father having been appointed Incumbent or Rector of St James’ Notting Hill) about the time of the Crimean War (1854), which I remember well. In due time I went to a big Grammar School in Hammersmith (the Goldolphin School) of which I eventually became head, and was passed on to the Indian Military College at Addiscombe, where I again worked my way to the head of the College, and got a Commission in the Indian Army in December 1859. This I was most unwisely allowed to throw up because I was anxious to become a Royal Engineer, and that I could only do by passing through the Woolwich Academy under the new amalgamation rules — which I did. It took me another two years to get me commission in the R.E.
Having got it I went straight to Chatham Headquarters, where I played much cricket and did very little else — and then on to India. I might have done this two years before, and in many ways I should have gained considerably by doing so. In India I was attached to the Indian Survey Department, and my career may be said to have begun. I had an uncle in India at that time — General Sir Edward Holdich G.C.B. who helped me quite usefully. My first venture as a Military Surveyor was in Rajputana, where I managed to combine a good deal of shooting and hunting (chiefly after antelope) with my work as Surveyor.
My first campaign was in Bhutan in 1865. Bhutan is an unpleasant and unwholesome country in the extreme North east corner of India, and it consists partly of the outer, or foot-hills of the great Himalayan system of mountains, and partly of the flat plains below them, filled with dense forests of enormous trees, and wide spaces of grass so high and thick that elephants can hardly get through. This grass country is full of all sorts of game; elephants, rhinoceros, buffalo, tigers, bears and enormous snakes. It is great country to hunt in, but difficult to make a map of.
It happened once that my little party of surveyors carrying the instruments were scattered in every direction by three great bears who charged in to the midst of them and sent them all flying; and would probably have done some mischief if I hadn’t shot the biggest from the howdah. He was a great brown bear with white whiskers. I never saw another like him. The buffaloes hereabouts are very dangerous, worse than tigers, as they lie in wait and charge so suddenly that there is no chance with them except from an elephant.
In the hills there is not so much game, and it happened sometimes when we couldn’t get supplies up to the camp on account of the excessive rain and awful tracks, that we had to shoot whatever we could find to eat. Squirrels were the most common game, and not at all bad when properly cooked.
The people of the country were absolute savages, clothed in coarse blankets and very dirty — but they fought well with their knives and bows and arrows and they were most difficult to find in the thick jungle. It was almost always raining in Bhutan and the rotten little paths and tracks through the jungle were so sodden and slippery that it was impossible to move quickly. Leeches abounded everywhere. They used to sit on the leaves by the side of the paths like this waiting for you to pass, and then if you touched the leaf they would be on to your clothes in an instant. It was very difficult to avoid these horrid little bloodsuckers. The trees on the slopes of the higher hills were decorated with long trails of moss hanging down from the branches like men’s beards. There were more beards than leaves very often.
Bhutan was a most unwholesome country until the lower forests were left behind and the upper slopes of the mountains were reached. There the rhododendrons grew wild and flowers spread themselves everywhere. Roses were rampant with columbines of a gigantic size, and masses of primulas and blue forget-me-nots matching the sky. It was a fairyland up there, with quaint wood-built monasteries and houses often decorated with most beautiful carvings, not altogether unlike Switzerland. Down below were the mist filled forests of pine and bamboo, which sometimes showed up in exquisite beauty when the rain ceased, the tree ferns and orchids being especially lovely. In the deep dark gullies, where the ice-cold water leaped down the plains, there was often a flight of the most gorgeous butterflies. Except in Cyprus I have never seen such size and colour. They flashed in and out of the sunlight like coloured stars.
By the accident of a big stone falling on me and cutting open one leg whilst climbing down into one of these gullies, I was badly lamed for some time, and I did not get over it till the campaign was over and I got back to the Engineers Headquarters at Roorki in Northern India.
It was not long before another campaign opportunity offered itself. This was in Abyssinia (Northern Africa), where our Envoy had been imprisoned, with a lot of other Europeans, by the Emperor Theodore, and we had to go to get them out. So in 1867 I was sent to Abyssinia as surveyor with two other R.E. subalterns, and it was a most amazing campaign.
We marched 300 miles into an enemy’s country, after all our transport had been broken down and we were reduced to such assistance for the carriage of our baggage as could be locally raised (chiefly donkeys); we stormed the fortified hill of Magdala at the end of it, which could only be approached by one narrow road, as it stood straight up like this out of the plain. Found that the Emperor Theodore had committed suicide; took his queen and her son Almayo captive; released all the British and German captives that Theodore had made prisoners, and marched back again, just in time to save the flooding of the pass by which we had reached the Abyssinian plateau, by way of the periodic rains. In fact, we were hardly in time, for the water came down that pass in an 18 foot flood with the earliest storms of the season, but fortunately stopped for a week before the regular torrent set in. During that week we cleared out. That Sooroo defile was practically the only way from the plateau to the plains and the sea coast.
I was sent by Lord Napier of Magdala to find some other route if possible. It is true that I got down from the plateau to the coast all right, but I lost every mule I had and all my baggage in getting down, and no troops could possibly have taken that route. In doing this I was separated from the Army. I was, in fact often separated whilst doing my exploring work. I had a small guard, but it wasn’t enough to prevent my little party from being ‘sniped’ by bands of robbers who were always on the prowl, and I lost men regularly every day.
I was never hit myself, but I think there was a curious reason why my native escort and survey staff were steadily shot and I was let off. The Abyssinians (whether robbers or otherwise) are quite fanatical Christians (of a sort) and recognised brother Christians whenever they met English officers. It was only necessary to show a bit of blue colour (it didn’t matter what it was so long as it was blue) and it was accepted as the token of a brother Christian. They never murdered British officers, though of course they killed them in fair fight if they could.
I had a lively experience once, when I came unexpectedly on a big robber camp at a place where I wanted to camp myself. It so happened that the next day was Easter Sunday, so I was formally invited to an Easter feast by the robber chief (Waldeo Jesus) and I didn’t think it wise to refuse. The feast began alright with raw beef bones and steaks cut out of a live bullock, local bread (not bad) and a liquor made from fermented honey. We were seated in a huge great red flannel tent, and were served by women; and as the feast proceeded, my host grew more and more drunk and noisy. Finally, when I suggested that I had duties to attend to and must retire, he made arrangements which were obviously meant to prevent me.
I had, however, expected something of the sort, and had posted all the guard of native troops I possessed, outside the tent in case of accidents, without his knowledge. So when I shouted to the havildar in command, he just opened the tent door from outside, put his head in and saluted. No more objections were made! I promised to interview Lord Napier on a matter affecting this robber chief, and said I had enjoyed myself exceedingly, and made my exit. That night the whole band slipped off so silently that I heard nothing of their movements. In the morning they were gone, and so were the best of my mules. My work was difficult and exhausting, and before the campaign was over I was left alone to carry it through. There were three of us R.E. officers on Survey duty, originally. Both the other two went temporarily off their heads.
One was quite knocked over by the awful experience of coming on a great mangled mess of human remains at the foot of the cliff from which Theodore used to throw down his prisoners when he didn’t want them anymore.
Incidentally there was a good deal of sport in the country, but not time enough to follow it up. One dark night in the low country a herd of elephants walked right through my little camp and disappeared in the darkness without doing very much mischief. Lions used to sit over the camp and roar all night, but did no raiding into the camp itself. Antelope and hares and guinea-fowl abounded everywhere. Abyssinia was my second campaign, and I think I enjoyed it more than any other because the climate was so delightful and the scenery so grand on the plateau.
….. to be continued
Written by Col Sit TH Holdich and first published in the HFHS Journal Issue 1 December 1991