Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Life of a British Soldier

I mentioned a week ago the large garrisons maintained by the British in 19th and early 20th century Hong Kong. Life for the earliest soldiers was difficult, particularly as many of them died of disease. But many of them also contributed to this high mortality rate unfortunately by excessive drinking and a hundred other fatigue-inducing ways of amusement. A picture painted by a British officer critical of the slovenly life of the garrison soldier at the turn of the 20th century was not a pretty one:
At 5am he awakes with a soft punkah fanning him. 5.15 cup of cocoa and a biscuit brought to his bedside by a coolie. 5.30 the coolie shaves him, still in bed. 6. bathing parade. 7.30 breakfast, of which ½ lb. of beefsteak forms an invariable component. 8 to 11. Nothing whatever to do and plenty to help him do it – the everlasting coolies perform nearly all the cooking, sweeping and cleaning up in barracks. 11. A short spell of school and theoretical instruction in gunnery. After dinner unanimous repose on bamboo matting, as being cooler than a mattress. 5pm One hour’s easy gundrill. 6 to 10 sally forth to chaff the Chinese folk, try a trifle of samshu… His idle life is not a happy one, destitute as it is to him of interest and active amusements, and in a very short time he becomes listless, depressed and pulled down, contrasting painfully with his newly landed, fresh-looking comrades.
Back in the days, of course, when not just every officer but every single soldier had access to a manservant. The soldier's life is made all the more difficult when the pendulum must needs swing between indigence and risking all in battle... the ones on Hong Kong, though, had little occasion for serious tests (other than strike-breaking) until the Japanese invasion in 1941.

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