28. November 2008 · Comments Off on Reprise: An Odd Thing to See in a Military Museum · Categories: Fun With Islam, General, GWOT, History, Military, War, World

(This is a reworking of an essay I wrote, now lost and unreachable in the old MT archives, in light of current events in India. It seemed to have particular resonance, in light of some informed opinion, that the attacks in Mumbai are having rather the same effect locally and to the Indian diaspora that 9/11 had on Americans.)

It wasn’t quite the oddest thing I ever saw in a military museum: for my money, that would be Edith Cavell’s dog, stuffed and mounted in the Imperial War Museum, but it was the most unsettling, the most heartbreaking. The object was in the little local museum in the northern English city of Carlisle, in a suite of rooms in the castle, dedicated to the local regiments, which had been distinguishing themselves in the service of the British Empire for two or three centuries.

My younger brother JP and sister Pippy and I had spent a couple of weeks in the Lake District, and stopped in Carlisle on our way north to Scotland, during our wandering summer of 1977. We were discovering, or in my case, rediscovering the country of our ancestors, but on the bargain basement level— staying in youth hostels, traveling on public transportation, and buying groceries in the local Tesco. JP in particular was the champion of the inexpensive lunch; purchasing a hard roll, a slab of cheese and a tomato, and then sitting on the curb outside the store entrance and eating the lot.

Our itinerary was dictated by curiosity, a list of must-see locations, and the availability of a youth hostel, which charged the equivalent of about $1.00 a night for members, and offered some primitive kitchen facilities, but limited the duration of a stay to three consecutive nights, and locked us out during the day. We had gotten terribly efficient at looking after ourselves, and locating and extracting whatever inexpensive and educational resources were available in a city or town, over and above whatever attraction had drawn us there in the first place.

The first order of sightseeing business; go see the church and/or cathedral. There was always a church or cathedral, most usually with something interesting in it, and for free, or nearly free. Next, hang out in the park; there was always a park, nearly always a pleasant place to sit and kill an hour or so, and eat whatever we had bought for lunch.
Then go see the castle. There was always a castle, possibly in ruins, and if not, there would be a small fee to get in, but there would be something fascinating and educational within. Carlisle’s cathedral was interestingly truncated, owing to a little local spot of bother called the Civil War. The castle seemed to have escaped serious damage, and we were pleased to discover the military museum, three or four tiny stone rooms, with narrow windows and cases full of old uniforms and medals, a veritable military mathom-house of memorabilia. I had begun to suspect that many of the things in this museum and in the three or four others that we had seen were donated out of despair: what on earth to do with Great-Uncle Bert’s old dress tunic? Kukri? Camp tea service? You couldn’t throw it away, donate it to Goodwill, or the English equivalent thereof, and you certainly didn’t want to give it house room, so donating it to the museum was the honorable solution. The same sort of curious things tended to show up over and over, though, and we had begun to see them as familiar old friends.
“Have you found the Queen Victoria gift tin, yet?” I asked. During some long-ago imperial war, the dear Queen had made a gift to every man in the forces of a little tin of sweets, at least a third of whom had kept the tin as a souvenir, and his descendents had given it to the local military museum.
“Two of them,” reported JP, “Over here. Right next to the piece of hardtack with a poem written on it.”

There was always a piece of fossilized and slightly bug-nibbled piece of hardtack. In one museum I had seen one with a heroic ode neatly covering the playing-card sized surface, written in neat, flowing letters.
“Where’s the cap-badge? I didn’t see it in the other room.”
There was always a cap-badge, slightly dented where it had deflected a bullet and saved the life of the wearer. Every museum had a variant on that; if not a cap-badge, then a canteen, or one of those tiny Bibles with metal covers. The only exception I ever noticed, was the small metal-covered aircrew first aid kit. It was perforated with a bullet hole. According to the inscription next to it, the bearer had also been perforated, but non-fatally.

The last and largest room in the Carlisle museum— which wasn’t much bigger than the bedroom that Pippy and I shared at home— had a large case in the center, filled with weapons for the most part: Malay knives, and ancient pistols and swords, but the most curious thing of all was on a little stand in the center.
“What’s with that?” JP asked, “It doesn’t belong here at all.”

It was a white muslin baby’s cap, one of those lacily ornate Victorian bonnets, with ruffles and eyelet lace, and dangling ties that would make a bow under the baby’s soft little chin. Our family’s christening dress was about the same style, carefully sewn with tiny, tiny stitches, out of fine cotton muslin, but our dress was in pristine condition, and this little bonnet had a number of pale rusty blotches on it. We looked at it, and wondered what on earth a baby’s cap was doing in a case of guns and knives, and I walked around to the other side of the case, and found the card that explained why.
“Oh, dear, “ I said, “They found it at the well in Cawnpore. The local regiment was one of the first to re-enter the city.” I looked at the stains, and knew what they were, and what had happened to the baby who wore that little bonnet, and I felt quite sick.
“Cawnpore?” Pippy asked, “What’s that to do with it?”

By the time I finished explaining, poor Pippy looked very green. I knew about the Sepoy Mutiny, because I read a lot, and some of Kipling’s India stories had piqued my interest in history not covered in American public schools. The British garrison— and their wives and dependents, and any number of civilians, in the town of Cawnpore stood off a brutal siege by elements of their rebelling Indian soldiers, and local nobles who thrown in their lot with the mutineers in hopes of recovering their old position and authority. Reduced by disease, shot and starvation, the survivors had surrendered on the understanding that they be allowed to take boats down river, but they were massacred at the landing, in front of a large crowd, in as grisly and brutal a fashion as can be imagined.

Only one boat managed to float away, but all but five men were eventually recaptured and killed. Two hundred or so women and children who survived the massacre at the boat landing were taken to a small house close by, and held as hostages in horrible conditions. When the avenging British forces and their loyal allies were a day or so away, the leader of the mutineers in Cawnpore gave orders that those last surviving women and children be killed. They were hacked to death by a half-dozen men from the local bazaar, and the bodies thrown into a nearby well. Men from the returning British relief force later reported finding that house awash with blood, throughout all the rooms.

The horror of that particular massacre inflamed British popular opinion to an extraordinary degree. Sentimental and earnestly chivalrous, seeing it as their special duty to protect women and children, to live by the code of a gentleman, to keep promises— the actions of the Indian mutineers at Cawnpore, in breaking a truce and killing defenseless wives and children, seemed calculated to outrage every one of those values held dear by the typical Victorian. Commanders and soldiers came to look at the blood on the floor of the murder house— shoe-deep by some accounts— and resolved that there could be neither parley or mercy with those who had done this. The gentlemanly gloves came off, and the Mutiny was put down, with no quarter asked or given.

Captured mutineers were dragged back to Cawnpore and made to lick the floor of the massacre house, before they were hung, or tied over the mouths of cannon and blown to pieces. It’s all in the history books— this one is most thorough, and I recommend it. In reflecting on this, and on the running battles being fought in the streets of Mumbai – which is India’s modern Wall Street and Hollywood all mixed together – I wonder how much history those responsible for these bloody scenes at hotels, a hospital and a railway staion may know, or do they only know their own? I wonder if they have any clue of how much they risk putting themselves as far beyond the pale as the Cawnpore mutineers, all for making a show for their fellows and sympathizers? Eventually, when a group of terrorists violate enough norms, those who have been made targents will run out of any patience and sympathy, and feel no particular obligation to observe them in the breach. Having sown a storm, I wonder if those who sponsered a coordinated attack on India’s major city have any notion they are in danger of reaping a whirlwind. It has happened before, you know. In that very country and not to terribly far away.

A baby’s little white ruffled cap, faintly spotched with pale rusty bloodstains: we looked at it again, and went away, very quietly.

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