BLOOD AND STEEL
A Book Review
The Battle of Dograi during the 1965 Indo-Pak War conjures up images of the Indian infantryman’s matchless grit under fire in the minds of our soldiers and for those of us, officers, who were commissioned into the army in the aftermath of that war, Lieutenant Colonel Desmond Hayde, MVC (later Brigadier) whose name was synonymous with that battle, have always been a role model. One has heard and read about his legendary heroism when he led 3 Jat, the 550-man strong battalion he was commanding, in the do-or-die battle to capture the heavily defended Pakistani position on the outskirts of Lahore held by troops double in numbers to his, supported by tanks and artillery, during a dark September night; ironically a position he and his men had captured earlier in the war with relative ease, but was withdrawn from for logistical reasons (The array of gallantry awards that the battalion earned included four Maha Vir Chakras – including the one for the CO himself –, four Vir Chakras, seven Sena Medals, twelve Mention in Dispatches and eleven COAS Commendation Cards).
With his orders of the night, Ek bhi aadmi pichhe nahin hatega! (Not a single man will turn back!) and Zinda ya murda, Dograi mein milna hai! (Dead or alive we have to meet in Dograi!) having had become folklore of the army, the image of his most of us had formed in our minds was that of the tough infantry commander who would brook no nonsense. The book, Blood and Steel, he has authored, which I enjoyed reading recently reveals an altogether different facet of his persona; a talented writer gifted with a tremendous sense of humour. This one isn’t about war (for that you need to read The Battle of Dograi, one of the other two books he has authored); instead it’s autobiographical and mostly about our army during the transitional phase when the British Indian Army shed its prefix to become the Indian Army. He paints an absolutely witty picture of the beginnings of the Indian Military Academy (IMA), when there was no feeding institution like NDA and cadets joined directly from civilian life with all the accompanying ‘straightening out’ involved, the very first course of 1932 having amongst its cadets ‘a gentleman with a prominent nose, whom his friends were inclined to call ‘Beaky’’, whom no Indian reader should have difficulty in identifying.
Hilarious are the parts that picture the taming of the motley crowd by the British officers and NCOs who comprised the training staff, especially the drill square bit with the giant of an Irish Sergeant Major bawling at the Gentlemen Cadets to look sharp and stand straight, nevertheless suffixing a ‘Sir’ whenever he addressed one of them. Equally riotous are the antics of the cadets, no less than turning around the decorative guns to face the office building and hanging the barber shop’s board on the gate of the Deputy Commandant’s residence. Then we have the little-known part of the IMA history when the name of the institution itself was scrapped during World War II when training of the regular officers was discontinued and it was turned into one of the many Officers Training Schools (OTS-s) that sprang up all over the country to train Emergency Commissioned Officers. Post war the institution reverted to its original role and name, the first post-war course commencing in 1946 and we have even more hilarious narratives when we have war veterans (those who held temporary commissions during the war) as cadets and a mix of Indian and British officers in the staff, invariably war veterans; the Indians unrecognizable from their British counterparts in their bearing and conduct, the colour of their skin alone varying. The author having belonged to the third post-war course (January 1947 – September 1948), we get a more vivid narrative of the ragging that’s IMA’s lore. We have the whole course being sent on a wild-goose chase to fight a raging fire that never was in a nearby village; we have the GCs learning to advance by front rolls and retreat by back rolls, first on gravel till they graduated to do it on grass and much more.
The early part of the book gives an insight into the origins of the Anglo-Indian community as well as the family history of the Haydes and the author’s memories of his boyhood in Bangalore. The proud soldiering tradition of the family, which went back a few generations, and young Desmond’s growing up in a railway colony with all the trappings and bonhomie of the typical Anglo-Indian community of the pre-independent era create a nostalgic narrative. So do his recollections of his dad, a soldier-turned-railway guard, whose ‘mere physical presence was enough’ to elicit obedience, his ‘reasonable and calm’ mum and his siblings, numbering a total of ten to begin with which included two girls but later reduced to six boys and one girl with two boys and one girl dying young, and of the family leading a happy life within the frugal income of Rs. 140/- the head of the family earned, which included his army pension and railway salary. We also see the sad spectacle of Desmond’s entire family migrating to New Zealand after he joins the army as times change and employment opportunities for Anglo-Indians shrink with the whole system getting ‘degree’ oriented putting them at a handicap; academics being not their forte. This as we know was the case with Anglo-Indians in general whose numbers in India have dwindled drastically over the years. A wonderful people, great soldiers and sportsmen as well as dedicated professionals who should have proved a valuable asset to a new India, were lost to us because they found themselves sidelined in the new order of things.
We see the induction of 2/Lt Hayde and two other young officers of his course into the Jat Regiment, when they report at the Jat Regimental Centre at Bareilly in the closing chapters and their initial disillusionment at finding the norms of discipline they had been drilled into so intensely not strictly maintained. Neither do they get a chance to join the active battalions even as the war in Kashmir draws to a close. Nevertheless they get to know their Jats whom Desmond knew nothing about earlier, back in Bangalore some even pronouncing the word as in ‘pat’. As he spends good two years in the centre doing sundry duties including one to assist the civil authorities to quell mob unrest, with only a course at Infantry School, Mhow he attends for a change (and of course meeting his ‘girl’ whom he was to marry later in Bareilly); he gets to learn about and love the men he is to command during his career. The Jats, hardy men of North Indian peasant stock, possessing incredible physical strength (with ‘kushti’ for their favourite sport) despite being vegetarians, who ‘were spruce and smart and wore their uniforms as they were born into them’ turn out to be men after his heart. The book ends with him being posted to the 1st Royal Battalion (Light Infantry) of the Jat Regiment and at the threshold of his joining the battalion ‘located somewhere in the distant Kashmir Valley’. Little did young Desmond knew then that he was going to create history one day commanding his Jats in one of India’s most glorious battles.
A fantastic read.
First published in 1989; this edition (2013) from:
Brigadier Desmond E Hayde, MVC, retired from the Indian Army after 30 years of service to settle down in Kotdwar in Uttarakhand, the home town of his wife. The couple had three sons, of which one was commissioned into his father’s battalion.
The old brigadier passed away in 2013 at the age of 87 and lies buried at the Bareilly Cantonement near the Jat Regimental Centre alongside his wife, Sheila.