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Books: Thomas Atkins

5 minute read

OLD SOLDIER SAHIB — Private Frank Richards—Smith & Haas* ($2.50).

In the last months of the Great War the ”doughboy,” the “poilu” and the “Tommy” fought side by side against “Jerry” (also known as “the Boche” and “the Hun”). Of all these warriors only “Tommy” had a last name. Thomas Atkins, oldest soldier of modern times, has been serving His or Her Britannic Majesty since post-Waterloo clays. Until the late great Rudyard Kipling showed what a dear fellow Tommy really was underneath his tough exterior, he was also known as “the brutal soldiery.” Last week Thomas Atkins spoke up for himself, showed he was neither a dear fellow nor a brute, but a nice mixture of both. The wildest brawls and ruddiest language of Kipling’s soldiers can be read unblushingly in a drawing-room. Private Richards’ report, though peaceably expressed, is truer to bachelor life. Old Soldier Sahib has an honest animal smell, as exciting to plain citizens as a whiff from a lion’s cage.

Robert Graves, onetime Captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, edited his fellow-soldier’s book, wrote an appreciative introduction. Private Richards was already a veteran of 15 years’ service when Graves, just out of public school, joined the battalion as an officer. With better luck than most veterans (Graves calls it a “20,000 to 1 chance”), Richards fought through the entire War without missing a battle or stopping a bullet. He won two decorations (Distinguished Conduct Medal, Military Medal), was known as “a good man,” but never applied for a promotion and never got one. After the War he wrote his personal account of it (Old Soldiers Never Die, as yet unpublished in the U. S.) and sent it to Graves for his opinion. Graves then urged him to write the story of his pre-War soldiering in India and Burma. Result was Old Soldier Sahib.

Frank Richards first heard about army life at the bottom of a Welsh coal mine, when his “buttie,” an ex-soldier, held forth on the milk & honey that was India. It sounded livelier than a collier’s future, so off went young Richards to enlist in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. He was younger than the age he gave the recruiting sergeant, but well set-up and handy with his dukes. He soon got the hang of barrack life, and was enjoying his beer and his “bit of skirt” with the best. He took his part in many a pub-brawl, many a dangerous jest. When an ignorant young officer had him “crimed” for a dirty rifle (which was actually clean) and his attempts to establish his innocence only got him into hotter water, he learned another piece of old soldier’s wisdom.

Richards missed the Boer War by being too promising a signaller. When he was drafted for service in South Africa, with his course in signalling still unfinished, his instructor had the order cancelled. Richards completed his course, was then sent with a draft to India. On the whole, he liked India. In some respects, the life he tells about is the same that Kipling sentimentalized in Soldiers Three, but Private Richards includes many a first-hand report that would have cost Victorian Kipling his journalist’s license. To Richards the brothels were as important as the beer and the barracks, and he would never admit that Gunga Din was a better man than what he was. To him and all his right-thinking pals. Viceroy Curzon was a dangerous softy whose silly innovations made it necessary to punch natives in the belly instead of beating them on the head, where the marks would show.

Richards’ greatest pal was a soldier known as the Prayer-wallah, who was fond of reading the Bible, though not from piety. The Decameron “was considered very hot stuff; but the Prayer-wallah used to say that in this respect it did not come within shouting distance of certain pas sages in the Old Testament, once you got the hang of the Biblical language.” Hewas an earnest student of the crab-bat (Hindu anathema ) and became a fluent expert in it. Richards tells of a bazaar swearing match between two natives that made the Prayer-wallah “tremble with admiration.” The two contestants stood with folded arms, volleying antiphonal abuse, until the appreciative crowd hailed one as the victor. The acclaim finally went to the one who “had gone back 2,000 years in his rival’s genealogical line and given convincing proof that a direct female ancestress had secretly cohabited for years during her widowhood with a diseased bullfrog, thus going one better than her mother, who had legitimately married and cohabited with a healthy pig.”

The heat (sometimes 121° in the shade) and the climate, no respecters of privates, played Richards some nasty tricks, laid him low with malaria more than once. But he never allowed these accidents to interfere with his old-soldierly habits, stuck manfully to his belief that death in India came oftener to teetotallers than to his sort. “A curious effect of the heat was that one could drink beer for hours without it having any effect on the bladder.”

When his enlistment expired, and he went home to Wales, ex-Private Richards soon found he was missing the army. For six years he worked at various odd jobs August 1914 took him back to barracks’ and he was glad to go.

*Last week merged with Random House.

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