Peshawar Remembered

Introduction: Walter Reeve was born in September 1934 in Catterick Garrison, England. His father served in the Royal Indian Army. He arrived in Peshawar before partition with his family in December 1935 and finally left Pakistan in November 1949. In those fourteen years he travelled all over the sub-continent.

Mr Reeve established contact with me some time back through the website of the Sarhad Conservation Network (SCN). At nearly 70 years of age, he is now retired and settled in Australia with his wife and has two children. His hobbies include family research, playing golf, woodwork and photography.

He fondly remembers his days spent in Peshawar. When I made him a suggestion to render his reminiscences about the place, he readily agreed. The following is a personal narrative of events around partition time. It records the impressions of an English schoolboy growing up in Peshawar at a very tumultuous juncture. He lived through events that now appear in history books. He provides first-hand insight into the lives of the Europeans living in Peshawar in those days and mentions places and people that have long since gone.

Dr Ali Jan, SCN (30 April 2004)

I arrived in Peshawar with my parents in the early months of 1947. This, however, was not the first time I had been to Peshawar. When we first went out to India in December 1935, Peshawar was my father’s first posting. He was a Warrant Officer in the Army Educational Corps. I was only an infant and have no recollection of the place as it was then. Within only a few months he was posted to Wana and my mother and I went to Kasauli in the Simla Hills.

Just prior to our arrival in Peshawar in 1947 my father had been on operations in the Oghi area in Hazara while my mother and I were living in Pachmarhi in Central India. With the imminence of Independence my mother and I travelled to Nowshera where we met up with my father. We stayed in Nowshera for only a matter of weeks before my father was posted to Peshawar.

Peshawar had, for decades, been the base for the British army in its operations into tribal areas and the Afghan border area. British fears of the tribesmen and Russians coming through Afghanistan, challenging Britain’s interests in India had haunted governments for over a century. The remote areas over which Peshawar presided were barren, arid and extremely dangerous; the danger coming mainly from the tribesmen who did not acknowledge British authority and resented any intrusion. Infringements did occur from time to time which very often necessitated a very large force to be sent to hand out a lesson to the recalcitrant tribesmen. Although outnumbered and outgunned, the tribesmen, because of their remarkable ability to operate in harsh conditions and their adeptness in using the rugged terrain to their advantage, were able to confront large forces and inflict considerable damage. The N.W.F.P. was used by the British and Indian armies as a training ground, it was the nearest to being on active service in peacetime. Thus Peshawar became a large cantonment catering for the needs of troops, families and a large local population. Even though, at the time of my return to Peshawar, the British army had ceased to dominate the cantonment there was still a lot of military activity with the Indian units stationed there.

Our new home was the Services Hotel on Fort Road. The hotel would have been the biggest and most well appointed in Peshawar. It was located in a pleasant district fairly close to Government House and opposite a large recreational ground or maidan. Our apartment was on the second floor of the two-storey hotel. It was very comfortable with a sitting room, two bedrooms, bathroom and toilet. A veranda ran along the front of the apartments from which one got a grandstand view of the hotel gardens, Fort Road and the playing field beyond.  My schooling became a matter of urgency. Since leaving Pachmarhi in the Central Provinces, I had not had any schooling; and the little I had received in Pachmarhi was paltry and certainly was not of the standard my age and ability demanded. With the British army schools now closed, my parents elected to send me to a private tutor- her name was Miss Birch. She was a kindly and gentle mannered lady of about 40 years, an Anglo – Indian and unmarried. She was totally dedicated to the furtherance and improvement of the charges under her tutelage. Her school was run from her home. The inside of the bungalow was dark and gloomy mainly due to the lack of windows and the surrounding trees. To compound the gloominess the furnishings were Victorian in the best Anglo-Indian tradition; with heavy drapes, dark carpets, dark wooden furniture and a velvet pelmet along the mantelpiece above the open fire. The house had a huge garden where most of our lessons were conducted. We would sit at tables under the shade of a tree and do our lessons. If the heat got too intense we would sit on the veranda. There would be many distractions when we were outside, because opposite the house, on the other side of the road, was Mackeson Park and beyond that The Mall, the former being named after a British Commissioner, Colonel Mackeson, who was assassinated by a disaffected local in September 1853. The subsequent hanging and cremation of the perpetrator, who was a Muslim, created a very tense situation in the cantonment for some time after. The park was a popular thoroughfare and flanked The Mall which was the main artery through Peshawar. Apart from the distraction of the traffic and passing pedestrians, we had to contend with the occasional fight among the cats, of which there were many – from memory about fifteen. The good soul that Miss Birch was saw her taking in all the stray cats, and her kindness and concern for animals ensured a steady flow of unfortunates to her door. She also had five dogs who would liven up a dictation lesson or a dreary Scripture session by fighting among themselves or pursuing some of the cats around the garden who would dash in all directions seeking refuge up the numerous trees that dotted the garden.

Miss Birch belonged to the old school of teachers; teaching us to a strict curriculum that included dictation, Scripture, the three R’s, reading and history. Even though she had Christians, Muslims and Hindus in her class, the latter two were still required to attend morning prayers and the singing of hymns. Her individual attention to each student ensured that we all grasped what was being taught and any who were a bit slower than the others were encouraged with patience and understanding. Every morning the class would start with a reading session; usually from a popular book by a well-known author. Each student read a section until the book was finished. This method maintained our interest in the story and encouraged us all to read. Dictation was another way of getting us to improve our writing skills as well as exposing us to classical literature. Religion, never a strong interest of mine, was also taught but never thrust on us, in deference to the Indians in the class no doubt. She would not allow any book to be placed on the Bible that she kept on her desk, regarding this as some sort of defilement. These were good days, and I was very happy in my new surroundings without the regimental strictness of army schools to contend with and having a teacher who was genuinely interested in my progress.

Looking back on those days I can now appreciate and understand how apprehensive Miss Birch would have been at the departure of the British. Apart from losing her clientele, who were predominantly British; being an Anglo-Indian left her with no place to run. Although born in India she would not have regarded herself as Indian. The presence of the British guaranteed her place in society, which, while not on the same footing as the “sahibs” was undeniably above the indigenous Indians. Now, not only was she going to be subjected to a change of social status, but also a change of nationality with the birth of Pakistan imminent. I wonder how she fared in the later years? Was some sort of marginalisation brought down on those people who fell between two cultures; not having a claim on one and no desire to be part of the other?  I hope not.  She deserved to end her days in peace and security having devoted her life to enriching the lives of many children and giving succour to any suffering animal who happened by.

The social life in Peshawar was lively and varied. The Sunday ritual was to go to the Peshawar Club for a swim in the large pool that was set in gardens immaculately maintained by an army of malis. Fountains played nearby surrounded by lawns where deck chairs were arranged. In this idyllic setting one was attended to by numerous bearers who brought cordial drinks and potato chips, garnished with tomato sauce, or, in the case of the adults, beer and gin and tonics. Everything was put on a “chitthi” and paid for at the end of the month. Being totally ignorant of the dangers of sunburn, I would, without fail, get burnt every time I went to the pool. I don’t recall there being any lotions for the prevention of sunburn in those days.

Peshawar, being the nearest large cantonment to the frontier, attracted all the army personnel who managed to get leave from the lonely postings in the remote tribal areas. One such group were the Tochi Scouts, an elite arm of the Indian army that operated in small groups in the most desolate and far flung posts of the frontier area, who, when they got into town would party and celebrate for days on end. This behaviour was tolerated provided no damage was done and no injuries were inflicted by their outrageous conduct. One of their more bizarre exploits was to ride off the high diving board on a bicycle at top speed, to the amazed amusement of the more conservative onlookers. A variation of the stunt was attempted by one heavily imbibed scout when he elected to jump off the high board onto the springboard, some 20 feet below, and then, assuming his calculations were correct, end up in the pool. Somewhere in the course of this prank, dynamics, gravity and recoil conspired to affect his trajectory when – almost fatally propelled at high speed and descending from a considerable altitude – he landed on the lawn causing himself severe injury. It was fortunate he didn’t land on one of the aforementioned fountains, which would have proved a far less resilient landing.

My parents, with friends, played golf on a few occasions. They weren’t particularly good or competitive golfers, but it was a social outing that was much enjoyed.  The course was quite close to us and I often walked around with them, occasionally having a swing at a ball.

I was one of very few British children left in Peshawar and, as the British families left, I found that my remaining friends were predominantly Indians, or rather Pakistanis, as they were to become. I made a particularly close friend of Qayum Khan, who also attended Miss Birch’s school. He came from a well-off family; I think his father was involved in the local government. Befriending him allowed me to enter areas of Peshawar that one would not normally go to as a European, certainly not on one’s own. We would frequently cycle through the bazaars in the city, which was out of the cantonment area and thus did not come under the close scrutiny of the British authority. We would cycle down the narrow alleys thronging with trades people selling their wares and craftsmen, squatting in their cramped workshops, fashioning brass and copper pots with rhythmical hammering strokes. The gap between the buildings would be festooned with merchandise suspended on lengths of rope or poles high up between the opposing buildings. Parachutes of all colours hung lazily, blowing in the smoky dust filled air. Where these parachutes came from is a mystery; the assorted colours would indicate that they had a military origin; different coloured canopies being used to identify the load, such as ammunition, food, or medical supplies.

Peshawar bazaar was notorious for its reputation as a collective “fence” for stolen goods. The “Thieves” or Chor Bazaar was renowned for the place to go to buy back anything that one had had stolen, that was providing it was still in one piece. Qayum and I would buy stamps and coins, the collection of which were hobbies we shared, for 8 annas a handful. One took a chance with the condition and value of the purchase, but to youngsters it appeared marvellous value; with quantity rather than quality being the appeal.  Apart from the more mundane everyday requirements that were generally available in the bazaar, there were the exotic imports that came in from Afghanistan; namely carpets.

Peshawar was the gateway into India and received all the camel caravans bringing in carpets not only from Afghanistan, but also Persia, Bokhara and Turkestan. The caravans came laden with Qum, Kishan and Tabriz carpets and the more popular and cheaper Bokharas and Turkoman. The shops had a distinctive smell, as one cycled past, emanating from the heaped stacks of carpets. One did not have to go to the bazaar to purchase a carpet; enterprising salesmen cycled around the hotels selling their wares, which they had strapped on the back of their bicycles. The advantage these salesmen had over their bazaar counterparts was that they could display the carpet on your floor and give you, the client, a better idea of how it looked in your surroundings. My parents bought a large Bokhara from one of these itinerant vendors and in the course of the hard bargaining he threw in a carpet saddlebag, which I have to this day.  Qayum was an indispensable friend because of his command of languages; apart from Urdu, he also spoke Pushtu, the language of Afghanistan and the Pathan tribesman and, of course, excellent English. I often visited his home where his mother would feed us cakes and milk drinks and those wonderful Indian sweet delicacies, ladhu cakes and jalebis. As good a friend as he was he could not accompany me to the club swimming pool because he was not connected with the army and he was Indian. This anomaly never concerned me; I just accepted it as indeed he did. Even though the British tenure in India was all but over, the arrogance of such discriminatory attitudes still prevailed and was tolerated.

Apart from the Club, the other meeting place was the Masonic Club, which was attached to the Masonic Temple, which from memory was located on the Mall, just past the left turn into the bazaar.  My father was a Freemason, which automatically gave him access to this exclusive club. The Masonic Club did not adhere to the strict social rules observed at the other club and was certainly more casual and less concerned with protocol. Lodge Khyber, a lodge founded in 1850, was based here and was essentially a military lodge. One of its most famous members was Field Marshal Lord Roberts V.C., who was Worshipful Master of the Lodge when he was a Lieutenant before the Indian uprising of 1857. I much preferred the Masonic Club because of the billiards room, where I would play billiards and snooker for hours. The room had a wonderful atmosphere about it  – with its panelled walls and ornate heavy curtains; the strip of coir matting around the perimeter of the table; the low lights illuminating the flat baize green surface that highlighted the player but plunged everyone else into dark anonymity; and that unusual little accessory to counter sweaty hands and the resultant lack of slide with the cue across the fingers – a small bag of French Chalk, which one patted onto ones’ hand to ensure smooth movement of the cue. The Lodge celebrated its centenary in 1950, and after being granted a sanction to transfer to London, did so after its last meeting in Pakistan on 21st  June 1951. Khyber Lodge and its members dominated the social scene in Peshawar in the latter half of the 19th century. Records of the Lodge show that the Masonic Buildings on The Mall were used variously as a place of Divine Worship, Public Library, Public Meeting Place and Hospital. In 1875 the residents of Peshawar gave a Ball in honour of the Lodge and its members “as a mark of their appreciation”.

While I was playing billiards, learning algebra and riding through the bazaars of Peshawar, more serious and momentous events were taking place in Delhi. The proposed date for independence was first mooted for June 1948, but the hostility and fanaticism threatened to expand into open conflict between Hindu and Muslim; a situation that would have been impossible to control or stop. Because the British military presence was negligible the first sign of a major inter-religious conflict would have seen the disintegration of the Indian army made up of regiments of mixed religions and loyalties. Not even the strong regimental loyalties would have been sufficient to persuade them to stay together and remain neutral while keeping the Hindus and Muslims separated. An operation was undertaken, code named  “Scheme Cross” – which involved the transfer of the Hindu element of the Indian Army, the police, post and telegraph services, civil service and railways to what was to become Hindu India, and their Muslim counterparts were in turn transferred back to what was to become Pakistan. The resulting vacuum created enormous security problems as this transaction was undertaken. The baser elements of both sides were not slow in taking advantage of the changed circumstances.

The N.W.F.P. in particular was close to a state of disintegration, and the danger of hordes of tribesman, Pathans, Afridis and Wazirs, who would come pouring down through the Khyber Pass while confusion and uncertainty reigned, and take possession of land they had laid claim to for decades, was near reality. The division, however, although creating two states, disregarded the fact that each new state would have a significant minority of Hindus and Muslims living in each. This anomaly would prove to be a death sentence for hundreds of thousands of Indians of both persuasions when, even though they had lived peaceably as neighbours for centuries, they turned on each other prompting a mass exodus as refugees heading in both directions for their perceived religious haven in the newly formed countries.

These matters were not much concern to me at the time; with the news of these events filtering through the military grapevine and the clubs. The first sign that the situation was deteriorating was when Indian troops were moved into the hotel grounds who started to set up rifle pits and machine gun posts in the gardens. Guards were posted at points in the hotel to protect the many Hindu residents there, many of whom were government and political officials. My daily cycle to school was diverted along roads protected by army patrols. There were many rumours of disturbances in the bazaar area, but none of these distractions affected our daily routine. The paradox was that here we had a new nation in its embryonic stage yet those from whom freedom was being sought, the hated colonialist, were not the ones being attacked or abused; all the fury was being directed at fellow Indians because of their different religions. We still went to the shops, the Club and I continued to go to school and mixed with my Indian friends. The first visible sign of violence that I witnessed occurred when I was returning from the Club on a Sunday after a morning swimming session. It was my custom to cycle through the bazaar because it was a shorter route; but on this occasion, as I approached the bazaar, I could hear sounds of the mob, that unmistakable buzz of excited voices raised in anger intermingled with shouts of defiance and cheering as shops were being indiscriminately destroyed. Above the horizon formed by the roofs of the buildings a column of smoke could be seen curling upwards. The communal violence that had been widespread in the northern parts of India had finally reached Peshawar. I hurried home with a new urgency taking up a position behind a tonga loaded with passengers in the belief that there would be safety in numbers; what the four of us and a decrepit horse could have done in the face of a mob bent on killing is debatable. The police were powerless; in fact there were tales of the police being actively involved in the resultant looting. The main instigators of the burning and rioting were the Pathan tribesman who had come down from the tribal areas to take advantage of the instability to sate their lust for loot and settle a few scores with Hindus at the same time. During one of their incursions, the Pathans attacked a house adjacent to where my teacher Miss Birch lived. In their attempts to dislodge the occupant they invaded her garden and trampled down flowers and hedges. Miss Birch, with remarkable courage and complete disdain for their fearsome reputation, berated them for their effrontery and, after some argument, they dispersed. Whether her outburst and confrontation ultimately saved the unfortunate occupants was never discovered.

Those of us in the hotel felt as if we were under siege, with the threat of power and water cuts and the possibility of food shortages because of the disturbances in the bazaar. Both these worries were compounded when coupled with the news that the staff at the dairy, who were mainly Sikhs, had been butchered and did nothing to alleviate our anxieties. The small force protecting the hotel suddenly seemed inadequate against the rampaging tribesman and disaffected population. A very small contingent of British troops was called on to assist the local law enforcing agencies in restoring order. Order was eventually restored probably by the combination of the authorities gaining some control and the looters and murderers becoming tired of their bloodletting and destruction.

The situation did eventually quieten down and, with the recent excesses and violence receding, some sort of normalcy returned to the cantonment. The Club was once again sought out at weekends; school returned to its mundane routine of dictation, algebra and Scripture; Miss Birch’s plants and hedge recovered from the recent trampling and it was safe to visit the bazaar; still showing the signs of burning and vandalism after the frenzy of destruction. But still the feeling of fear and concern hung like a pall over the British community, whose numbers were very small with little police or military protection available. My father told me later of contingency plans that had been drawn up to evacuate British families in the event of a total collapse of order. These required that all families would rendezvous at a military airport with only a few belongings and await a mass evacuation by R.A.F. aircraft to some unknown sanctuary. The plan for those in Rawalpindi was to move all families to the Murree Brewery factory on the outskirts of Rawalpindi, which would be defended in the event of hostilities from the local population and then transfer to Chaklala airstrip for evacuation.

The British Government, in their haste to transfer power as quickly as possible to India and Pakistan, had left hundreds of their own subjects at great risk and it was doubtful whether they would have had the will, or the means, to rescue the last remnants of the Imperial presence from the violence that was engulfing the northern half of the sub continent.

The months leading up to independence fell in the summer months, which in this part of India were oppressively hot, Even when the fireball of a sun finally subsided below the horizon, it was no guarantee that relief was certain. Everything had been permeated by the days’ scorching exposure – ground, concrete, roads and walls all acted as efficient storage banks for the now departed sun, which had moved on and was imposing its life giving and strength sapping energy on some other quarter; leaving us to cope with the aftermath. The nights offered a slightly cooler prospect but only a marginal increase in comfort was gained. To get a good night’s sleep many went to extraordinary lengths to achieve this end. Sleeping on the veranda was popular as was sleeping on the flat roof of the house, the latter being fraught with danger should one find it necessary to get out of bed in the night and forget where one was. A more extreme ploy was to sleep with a damp sheet over you under a ceiling fan. This method certainly kept one cool but could result in an attack of pleurisy with the possibility of fatal results. On one particularly hot and sticky night, while my parents were sitting on the lawn in front of our apartment, the idea was born that some relief could be obtained if the beds were brought out on to the lawn and we slept outside under the stars – this, mind you, in a large hotel accommodating many guests. Initial reticence was overcome by the need for a comfortable night of sleep. The servants duly brought the beds out onto the lawn and fitted mosquito nets and with shaking heads and wry smiles, left us to our slumber. It was necessary to ensure that we were up early in the morning, so that we would escape the early morning stares of the curious and disapproving guests as well as the local population; and of course, the beds would have to be returned to the apartment early so that their unsightly presence on the manicured lawns would not cause offence to the hotel management. Like all well conducted and best laid plans something went wrong. Either the alarm did not go off or the bearers did not understand our instructions; either way found us stranded on an island comprising of three beds, complete with “mozzie” nets, in vulnerable isolation in a sea of lawn. The sun had risen as had hundreds of people who were now going about their daily chores. The problem now was to get out of bed and make a dash, in pyjamas, to the apartment, a distance of about 30 metres. I was beside myself with embarrassment and upbraided my parents for having persuaded me to participate in such a ridiculous enterprise. Meanwhile as we considered our position; servants, malis, and assorted tradesmen walked past with amused interest. We finally summoned up the courage to make a dash for it urged on by the need to remove ourselves from our predicament and to meet the pressing demands of the clock, which indicated that we had slept rather better than we had expected. When a suitable gap appeared in the passing cavalcade of assorted onlookers, we made a dash for it to the security of the apartment. Despite the good night’s sleep the experiment was never repeated.

With the very near prospect of British rule coming to an end, one would have thought that the activities of the bureaucracy would have been curtailed or that civil servants would have felt disinclined to continue in their duties; which could now be seen as futile. But this did not happen. A very small band of dedicated civilian personnel carried on with the running of the country to the last minute. Their dedication was recognised by the Indians they were the oil that kept the grinding wheels of Indian society moving. The District Commissioners were such a special breed of civil servants. They were responsible for their areas; settling claims, ensuring fair play and adjudicating in disputes on a whole range of matters. They were the face of the Raj that the ordinary people became familiar with. The task of the D.C. in the North West Frontier Province was particularly arduous and required a fine balance of firmness and tact, especially when dealing with the tribesmen. This ability to talk and negotiate with the tribesmen inevitably let to a rapport between the two parties. This was well demonstrated when the D.C. of our area invited my parents and me, together with some other army personnel to attend a tribal tamasha being held in tribal territory. Normally, in circumstances such as existed at the time, such an outing would have been foolhardy. The tribal areas were technically out of bounds and out of the control of the British, even when the latter were at the zenith of their power. But such was the regard that the D.C. was held and the confidence he had in their honour, that the invitation was accepted.
We started off in the late afternoon and were driven some miles into open country over dusty roads until we were met by a Pathan tribesman mounted on a motorbike at an appointed place; he led us over more dusty tracks through a dry and arid landscape for some time until we reached our destination which was a river. The river had virtually dried up save for a trickle that meandered down the middle of a wide bed of stone and gravel. The bed was wide with steep sides and conveyed the illusion of an arena. As we stood on the high bank we could see a gathering of people, and a fire glowing, through the gathering twilight along the rivers’ edge in the middle. Scrambling down the sides we made our way across the stony ground and as we got closer to the gathering we could see charpoys arranged in a crescent around the fire. In the stream, that rippled and sparkled over the smooth pebbles, lay bottles of cordial and soft drinks keeping cool in the icy water. Our host was a Pathan tribal chief who had with him a retinue of subordinates and followers. Apart from my mother, there were no women present. The D.C. was able to converse with him in his native Pashtu. What was discussed was of little interest to me; at twelve years old I had little grasp of the political scene. Once the niceties and greetings were concluded the meal was prepared. The food was traditional tribal fare of curried goat, vegetables and unleavened bread. The latter, which resembled a very large and thick chappatti, was cooked to such large dimensions that one sufficed for all of us and we just tore a piece off as required. One delicacy, and this appellation would depend very much on how adventurous one was, were sheep tail fat cubes. The sheep in the area had enormously fat tails that hung down pendulously, frequently dragging on the ground.  The tails were cut off and the fat was cubed and then cooked over an open flame until brown and crisp. When one bit into them the hot fat gushed out in torrents, dripping off ones’ chin and often finding its way to the elbow. All eating was done, inexpertly by the Europeans, with the fingers. The meal was finally brought to a conclusion with sweet meats and tea. Green tea was served from a teapot made of china so fine that the glow of the fire could be seen through it. With the huge meal consumed and teeth raked clean our host saw us off with good humour and best wishes. This tamasha was probably his way of showing his regard and esteem for a representative of an occupying power which he had opposed all his life, yet not letting past differences get in the way of a relationship that obviously existed between them. Who knows? He might have had some regrets that the old enemy was going; at least it was an enemy he knew. The new masters about to assume the mantle of power were an unknown quantity.

We journeyed back the way we came under the guidance of the same motorcyclist; en route we stopped at a water filtration plant where, despite the lateness of the hour, we were given a tour of the plant by the person on duty. From there we headed for Peshawar only to find that the gates to the cantonment were closed. A confused policeman on duty, when confronted by a car load of Europeans in the middle of the night, was reluctant to let us through but was finally persuaded that he was dealing with the District Commissioner and allowed us access. The evening had been a wonderful experience and adventure that had brought me in close contact with the tribes people who had a fearsome reputation and whose fighting qualities, honour and hospitality were legendary. The D.C. would have been well aware of their traditions and their hostility towards Britain; he also knew that a Pathan would not besmirch his honour by harming a guest.

In the course of his military duties my father had occasion to visit the Khyber Pass when on an inspection of facilities at Jamrud and Landikotal – two forts en route to the Afghan border. My mother and I were fortunate to be able to accompany him on this trip. These forts were part of a defensive system guarding this vital artery to the border. The Khyber Pass, subject of many an adventure story and scene of some of the most ferocious fighting between the Pathan tribesmen and the British army, was one of the few openings in this mountainous region that would allow a foreign invader to enter India. Russia was, of course, that enemy and was always regarded as a potential aggressor in this area; so the British presence was always significant and visible. The road is long and tortuous following the gullies and spurs of the old caravan route through very dry and scrubby country; which in summer is insufferably hot and in winter unbearably cold. A posting here was not popular with the troops who, apart from the extremes of climate, endured excruciating boredom that could be punctuated at any time with a very violent and swift death. Where engineers had hacked through the rock to widen the road; the resulting large faces of rock towering above the road were used by different British army regiments to carve their regimental badges and insignia, leaving behind an indelible and permanent reminder of their stay. I hope these poignant remnants of the Raj are still there, for they are a memorial to the thousands of ordinary British troops who, far from home, sweated to keep the empire intact. The discussion as to the rights and wrongs of our presence in India has no place here. The lowly soldier gained nothing from the Empire. He endured the heat, suffered the illnesses and faced the danger for a pittance; and very often died in some remote place for a country that held him in low regard. Not for him the riches of the traders or the high society of the officer class. His home was the barracks, his family the regiment and drink his solace. Hundreds died for their King and Country in minor conflicts that would not even rate a mention in an English newspaper. Their memorial would be these imposing carvings standing out high over the harsh surroundings in this far off corner of the world.

The border itself was a disappointment. Where the road came to the barrier the tarmac ended; beyond the painted pole flanked by a rusty barbed wire fence, both of which offered, at best, a token deterrent to cross, was a dusty stony track that meandered off into the hills. The prospect of crossing into that desolate and uninviting zone would have been reason enough to keep out. A small guard post manned by a group of dishevelled soldiers in tired uniforms and wearing German steel helmets; the latter being the only piece of apparel that endowed them with some martial bearing, stood in incongruous isolation as Afghanistan’s first line of defence. A sign proclaimed that one was crossing into Afghanistan and it was illegal to cross.

To escape the temperatures of summer on the plains – often reaching the 100 F and over – my father took some leave which gave us the opportunity to visit Cherat; a hill station quite close to Peshawar.  Cherat was first considered as a refuge from the oppressive plains in the 1850’s when Lt. Roberts, later to become the aforementioned Field Marshal Roberts, did a survey of the rocky ridge with a view to establishing a sanatorium for troops.  The road to Cherat first crossed flat scrubby country for some miles and then, on getting to the foothills, started to climb steeply up a twisting and windy road, the affect of which was to bring on car sickness. On arriving at the summit one was immediately taken by the peculiar topography of the hill station. The houses and military establishments were perched precariously along the narrow spine of the ridge. To build a house it was necessary to hack out ledges in the hillside to accommodate a building. The views were spectacular and uninterrupted; looking down on the plains for miles around. Hardly any houses, because of their position on the ridge, would have been deprived of a virtual aerial aspect of the scrubby flat plains.  Barracks, roads and parade grounds had to be carved out of the rocky hills. Cherat was not endowed with much natural beauty; very little in the way of trees and vegetation prospered in the rocky and unforgiving ground. Despite its altitude I don’t recall the temperatures being significantly cooler than Peshawar. I recollect watching some members of the Black Watch Regiment returning from a route march along a road that passed directly below our house; the heat had reduced them to a disorderly group of stragglers strung out for some distance with a piper at their head urging them on. We shared our bungalow with another family. The house was large enough for two families to live separately in their own quarters. The other family had two children, both of whom were looked after by an Anglo-Indian nanny, the latter was a delight; she had the wonderful gift of being able to communicate with children without appearing patronising or condescending. We would while away an evening playing board games or cards with her.

This battalion of the Black Watch was the last British regiment to leave Pakistan and was very prominent in Cherat at the time. They provided the transport to get children to school, organised sports days and parties for the children They even supplied the school percussion band with new drum skins. The barracks where the troops were housed were a favoured place for us to visit; talking to soldiers, watching them drill and listening to their tales were the stuff of fantasy. Their drills were interesting to watch because they were done to a drumbeat and shouted commands were kept to a minimum. I have always found the disciplined marching and drilling of soldiers fascinating. There is an aesthetic appeal to witnessing a group of men all marching and manoeuvring in unison to the beat of a drum or a martial band. The pipe band of the regiment would practice their music and marching to a large audience of bystanders. There were occasions when the side drummers would rehearse by tapping their drumsticks on the concrete steps rather than their drums, with a solitary piper accompanying them. There was also a Gurkha regiment stationed in Cherat and it was arranged that the two regiments would march in a farewell parade utilising the massed bands of both regiments. During the dress rehearsals, when the Black Watch was in full regalia, I took some photographs of the band. Some fifteen years later, when I was working in Croydon in England, our cleaning lady in the shop where I worked mentioned that her husband had served in India and had been in the Black Watch. She brought in some photographs that he had taken of the band and they were almost identical to those I had taken. Her husband had been there at the same time at the same rehearsal; a remarkable coincidence.

The final parade was a poignant affair for both the Black Watch and the Gurkhas. The Black Watch was heading home once independence was declared, and the Gurkhas, although native to Nepal, were part of the British army and would be returning the Britain as well. With these two regiments went the last tangible vestige of British power. A large audience watched as these two regiments marched and counter marched on the parade ground. The two bands combined to create a heart-stirring spectacle of massed drums and pipes sending the skirl of the pipes echoing through the hills and reverberating from the rocky surrounds. Cherat, like the Khyber Pass had a tradition of regimental carvings on the rocky faces of the hillsides. The Black Watch already had their badge there from a previous visit and had merely added the date 1947 to the other dates; thus ending an era in British military history.

August the 14th 1947 – Independence Day a day remembered by millions in a myriad different ways. Many rejoiced at their newfound freedom; to many this day heralded an uncertain future as they fled their homes to seek refuge in a new but strange country of their religious persuasion. To the British it was the stunning realisation that it had all come to an end to thousands it was the day for which they died. Independence was going to cure all ills; a feeling of optimism pervaded reinforced by a naïve belief that the change would bring good fortune and prosperity instantly, a belief that was as naïve as believing that a change of government significantly changes things. Those in the new Pakistan shed one master but inherited the hydra whose heads were poverty, military dictatorship, civil unrest, corruption and war. All these heads were to be reared in the future; but August 14th was to be celebrated and the future, although unknown, would be free of the shackles of imperialism. Tongas trotted up and down Fort Road past the front of our hotel bearing the picture of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the new president, the occupants shouting out “Pakistan Zindabad” “Long live Pakistan”.

My father was present when the Union Flag was lowered on the 14th August, without ceremony, for the last time at sunset at Peshawar British Army headquarters. He took possession of the flag and kept it. It stayed in the family for many years until my father, towards the end of his life, fearful that the flag would be lost or fall into disinterested hands, presented it to the East Yorkshire Regimental museum in Beverley, England. The museum has since been incorporated with the Prince of Wales Regiment in York. I fear the flag may now languish in a shoebox in a damp basement without its significance being known.
The speed with which independence came meant many things were not available in Pakistan because they had previously been produced in the non-Pakistani portion of India. One such item was stamps. For some time the only stamps available were the old Indian postage stamps overprinted with the word “Pakistan”. Small things such as my father’s shoulder flash embroidered on his uniform had to be changed by putting a loop on the I in R.I.A.S.C. to turn it into a P with an ink pen. My father at this time had agreed to stay in the Pakistan Army to help in the reorganisation and establishment of a new national army.

The expectation that a quick partition of the Indian sub-continent would somehow diffuse the violent strife proved to be ill founded. The line drawn by Radcliffe, a bureaucrat brought out from Britain, to determine the boundaries between India and Pakistan, not only wended its destructive way across a map, but through villages, fields and the very lives of the poor helpless souls unfortunate enough to live on this fault line. The creation of East Pakistan, a Muslim enclave a thousand miles from West Pakistan, was another bureaucratic piece of nonsense destined to bring untold misery and devastation to that impoverished and unhappy part of India. The killing continued unabated and out of control. The meagre forces available to confront the murderous mobs were inadequate. The birth of Pakistan and India as independent states was a difficult labour; they were brought into the world of nations amidst flame, death and hatred. The butcher’s bill for the partition of India was never officially calculated; but it was roughly estimated that one million souls perished in the months preceding and immediately after Partition; a figure the British government was reluctant to acknowledge – they were glad to be free of the problem that India posed. Once the government had made its mind up, expedition was the byword. This probably influenced the way in which the Indians regarded the British in the final days. There was no attempt on the British side to hang on to this “Jewel in the Crown”; therefore, there was no inducement for the Indians to show rancour or hostility; we were handing back something without a fight; something we had taken and moulded into a unified entity, the latter being done as an administrative device rather than through any leanings to altruism, and had brought about improvements to the country in a myriad ways.

Early in 1948 an event occurred that threatened to create further destabilisation. This was the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, at a prayer meeting on the 31st January. The sub-continent held its collective breath when the news was announced. The killing could have been a trigger for a war had a Muslim been the assassin. The new state of India, although secular, would have risen up in a furious mood for revenge. As it happened the assassin was a member of the Hindu orthodox party whose grudge was against Gandhi for having preached Hindu-Muslim unity in contradiction to his own vision of a Pan-Hindu state.

These days it is a frequently asked question as to where one was when a certain event happened. Gandhi’s assassination sticks in my mind because my parents and I had been to the Saddar cinema and had seen Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman in “Spellbound”. After the show we went to the Masonic Club where we heard the news. The atmosphere was tense with everyone hoping that this killing would not bring on a conflict. It would be a few days before the arrest of the killer was announced and his identity revealed – to the relief of all.

Sometime in mid 1948 we left Peshawar for Rawalpindi where my father took up a new appointment.
Peshawar, as in all places in India that I lived, has a special place in my memory. I spent most of my formative years on the sub-continent, I was educated there and, despite much illness and discomfort, spent some very happy times there. As I have grown older and see my future diminishing I, like most elderly people, find solace in the past. I frequently reflect on those years spent in India and Pakistan. As the years have passed, I have come to realise that, historically, my years there were lived in tumultuous times and that I witnessed at first hand the birth of a nation and the start of the demise of an empire. I have lived through events that now appear in history books. Historians deal with politics and national matters as academics and concern themselves with cold facts and the science of politics; whereas I have heard the frightening sound of a mob, I have seen the smoke of destruction, and have walked through the rubble of someone’s home. I have also retained some marvellous memories of the people, colours and sounds of a sub-continent that I regarded as home long after I had returned to my native England, which paradoxically was a country in which I was a stranger.   

Walter Reeve

As an infant with bearer Ramzan Khan - Peshawar Feb 1936