The Wildgoose Chase

I met Chelsea Pensioner Walter Wildgoose in 1977 when he was 87 and I was 26. Through a series of letters written over the last year of his life, he passed along his life story - the workhouse children's home, a life in the British Army witnessing the opening battles of World War I and life in India, a remarkable family surviving the bombs of World War II London. This blog will document my research and progress on the novel I'm writing about this amazing man.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Afghanistan 1919

Like Forrest Gump, Walter Wildgoose seems to be a part of many of the major events of the early 20th century. The reason for this is due (mainly) to his life in the British army, which spread itself all over the world and had a hand in many of the formative events of the time.

Today's world hot-spots parallel those post-World War I, so Walter was present in Afghanistan, India (and areas that are now a part of Pakistan), and Iraq (Mesopotamia). His battalions of the Machine Gun Corps embarked to Bombay aboard the SS Mekara, then headed for the Northwest Frontier and the Khyber Pass. His account:

When we arrived in Bombay, the first impressions were very interesting. It was the smells that intrigued me. Bullock carts rumbling along as if they had all day to get there. Indians in their loincloths, and the hawkers selling many varieties of fruit (and plenty of flies too). We arrived in Deolali, the reception Centre for all troops leaving India or entering. Our battalion was posted to Mhow, so we had another train journey of thirty-six hours. The climate was very mild and just like English climate. We soon got climatized to the country, but all of it was very strange to the newcomer. At night, the shrieks of the monkeys, and the weird cry of the jackals, was blood curling, but we soon got used to it. Mosquitoes was a source of irritation at night and we were advised to use mosquito nets.

After a few weeks in Mhow, we left to go to the North West Frontier. We were sent to Rawal Pindi, and the other battalions went to Quetta, Lahore, Peshawar. The Afghan troubles were taking place in the Kyber Pass at the time. We stayed in Rawal Pindi for a few months, then we were posted to the Jamrud Fort area, including the Kacha Ghari area, which was a perimeter camp. There was an Indian regiment quartered in this perimeter camp besides our battalion. It was like a concentration camp, surrounded by barbed wire with blockhouses situated all around it, so as to afford security.

The camel convoys come to pass through on their way to Peshawar, 12 miles away, but they are denied admittance after sundown. It was situated in the Afridi country, as warlike tribe, who tended their flocks of goats and sheep by day, and went marauding by night, mainly to steal rifles. We always kept ours locked up with a chain passing through the trigger guards. There was a “camel cemetery” just outside the camp. When the camels die, they are dragged along the ground by two other camels, to this cemetery, and just left lying there. Soon, the vultures begin operations, and what they do not eat, the jackals come at night to have their supper. I might say there is a very unpleasant smell pervades the air for miles around!!

Our commanding officer used to have all the mules on parade, and we had to ride them bareback. What a penance the was! We could hardly walk when we returned to camp, and we were sore for days. One of his little whims I suppose. We spent 1919 Christmas in this God forsaken place under canvas but we got hardened to this way of soldiering.

Camel cemeteries, bareback mule-riding, barbed wire - things were never dull for Walter and the MGC troops stationed in the pass.

Walter shared his story with me in early 1980, in the midst of the Afghan conflicts with the Soviets, and he often remarked about the underlying problems. I got the feeling that he was sitting back, patting his foot and saying "Go ahead, USSR, see what you can do with it!"

I suspect that Walter would not be surprised in the least that the region is still in turmoil. This week's elections in Afghanistan point up the many problems that still permeate the country.

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posted by MaryB @ 10:04 AM  


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