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Corporal Dainty's Bottom...
Mule recollections of Lieutenant Philip Brownless.
Philip and Isla Brownless were my friends. Over several years I interviewed Philip on the subject of his service in North Africa 1941 and India/Burma 1943/45. He had anecdotes galore. At the same time, Isla became my unofficial (but much needed) proof-reader and editor for many of my early books. I couldn’t have done it without them.
Here is one story Philip prepared on his introductions to mules, as part of his training to become a Chindit, in 1943. I chuckle about it regularly and though you would like it too.
Soon after our return from the Arakan front in the autumn of 1943, we were in central India, and had been told that the whole division was to be handed over to General Wingate and trained to operate behind the Japanese lines. All our motor transport was to be taken away and we were to be entirely dependent upon mules for our transport.
The C.O. one evening looked round the mess and then said to me “You look more like a country bumpkin than anybody else. You will go on a veterinary course on Tuesday and when you come back you will take charge of 44 Column’s mules.”
I had never met one of these creatures before. On arriving at Ambala I reported to the Area Brigade Major who wasn’t expecting me and seemed to have no clue about anything. He said “You’d better go down to the Club and book in.” I reported to the Club, a comfortable looking establishment, and they seemed to have a vague idea that a few bodies like me might turn up on a course and were apologetic that I would have to sleep in a tent but otherwise could enjoy the full facilities of the Club. I was shown the tent, an EPIP tent or minor marquee, with a coloured red lining and golden fleur de lys all over it, (very Victorian) with a small office extension with table and chair in front and another extension at the back with bath, towel rail and a fully bricked floor. Having lived either in a tent or under the stars in both the desert and the Arakan for the last 2 years, this struck me as luxury indeed. Even better, I took on a magnificent bearer, with suitable references, whom I found later was some kind of Hindu priest. I soon got used to having my trouser legs held up for me to put my feet in, and being helped into the rest of my clothes. I had a comfortable 3 weeks learning all about mules.
I discovered all sorts of things like the veterinary term “balls”, which were massive pills which were given to the mule by – first of all grabbing his tongue and pulling it out sideways so he couldn’t shut his mouth on your arm, and then gently throwing the ball at his epiglottis and making sure it went down. Then you let go of his tongue and gave him a nice pat. One of our lecturers, an Indian warrant officer, knew his stuff well and was so pleased about it that when he asked a question he would give you the answer himself. He liked being dramatic and loved to finish a description of some fatal ailment by saying “ Treatment, bullet.”
Many of the men in our battalion were East Enders; others came from all over Essex. A few were countrymen, two were Irish and knew all about horses, one sergeant had been in animal transport and one invaluable soldier had been an East End horse dealer. The large majority had had nothing to do with animals: however, the saving grace was that English soldiers seem to be naturally good with animals and soon learned to handle them well. I arranged to get some instruction from the nearby unit of Madras Sappers and Miners and we borrowed a handful of trained mules from them for the men to practise handling, tying on loads and learning to talk to them.
Then came the great day when we were to draw up our main complement of animals, about 70 mules and 12 ponies. We were dumped at a small railway station. It was all open ground and there was a team of Army Veterinary Surgeons to allocate fairly between the three battalions, the Essex, the Borders and the Duke of Wellington’s. Lieut. Jimmy Watt of the Borders was a pal of mine: he and I, with a squad of men were to march them back nearly 100 miles to our camp, sleeping each of the five nights under the stars. As soon as we arrived at the disembarkation site I got all our mule lines laid out, with shackles (used to tie mules fore and aft) and nosebags ready. I had also picked up the tip that the mules would be wild, having spent three days in the train, and almost impossible to hold, so I instructed our men to tie them together in threes before they got off the train. As all three pulled in different directions, one muleteer could hold them. Not everybody had learned this trick so the result was that wild mules were careering all over the place, impossible to catch. When our first handful of mules arrived, they were quickly secured in a straight line and fed. They were familiar with lines like this and cooled down at once, long ears relaxed and tails swishing amiably. When the wild mules careering round saw this line, they said to themselves “We’ve done this before” and came and stood in our lines. We shackled them and I picked out the moth eaten ones and sent them back to the vets who kept sending polite messages of thanks to Mr.Brownless for catching them. We finished up with a very good set of mules. Jimmy Watt and I had a bit of a conscience about the Duke of Wellington’s so we picked them out a really good pony. We felt even worse a few weeks later when it was sent back to Remounts with a weak heart! The Brigade Transport Officer visited us the second evening so Jimmy Watt and I walked him round rather quickly, chatting hard, to approve the allocation of animals, and he agreed with our arrangement.
In a highly optimistic mood early on, I decided to practise a river crossing. We marched several miles out from camp to a typical wide sandy Indian river, 300 yards across, made our preparations, i.e. assembling the two assault boats, making floating bundles of our clothes and gear by wrapping them in groundsheets, unsaddling the animals, and assembling at the water’s edge. A good sized detachment of muleteers was posted on the opposite bank ready to catch the mules. The mules waded into the shallow water but no one could get them to move off. We tried all sorts of inducements in vain and then suddenly, one sturdy little grey animal decided to swim and the whole lot immediately followed. Calamity ensued! Mules are very short sighted and could only dimly see the opposite bank but downstream was a bright yellow sandy outcrop and they all made for this. The muleteers on the other bank, when they realised what was happening, ran through the scrub and jungle as fast as they could, but the mules arrived first and bolted off into the wilds of India. I swam my pony across with my arm across his withers and directing him by holding his head harness, the gear was ferried across and the mule platoon, with one pony, began the march back to camp. Deeply depressed, I wondered how to tell the C.O. I had lost all his mules and imagined the court martial which awaited me (or, serving under General Wingate, would I be shot out of hand?) An hour and a half later we came in sight of the camp and to my utter astonishment I could see the mules in their lines. When I arrived at the mule lines, the storeman met me and said that the whole lot had arrived at the double and had gone to their places. He had merely gone along the lines, shackling them and patted their noses. Salvation! I kept quiet for a bit but it got out and I was the butt of much merrymaking.
Once back with the Brigade, serious training began as we were due shortly to go into Burma. There were marches to toughen up both men and mules, and brigade schemes lasting 2 or 3 weeks, with all supplies dropped by air. On one scheme, hearing some planes overhead, we lit a line of signal fires and managed to collar the ration drop of the “enemy” who were on this occasion the 2nd Black Watch – we were briefly not popular. Bags of grain for the mules fell as “free drops” - without statischutes – sometimes hazardous. Often the wind took the chutes away from the steep hillside and we could only watch as our stores sailed out of reach. My batman, addressing the sky, was telling everyone what he thought of the wind, the weather and the Japanese when half a dozen shovels, tied together, landed at his feet with a smack which silenced him for a whole minute.
One night march was a miserable failure: the importance of total silence had been impressed upon us by the Second in Command, a slightly jittery man at the best of times. All might have been well if the cooks in camp had not served bacon and beans to the column for supper….. The struggle not to laugh as the accompanying farts reverberated through the jungle would have betrayed our presence to the Japanese had this exercise been for real. The need for silence on the march meant that our mules and ponies had to be de-voiced. Mules have keen hearing and if one detected the presence of mules in another column, even a mile away, a deep bray would have evoked an instant response, developing into a “conversation” and betraying the presence of both columns to the Japanese. A team of veterinary surgeons arrived one morning in our training camp, set up their tables and each mule was led forward by his muleteer. With rope through his shackles to bring his feet together, he was gently “cast” (capsized) and with a chloroform pad held to his muzzle, he quickly became muzzy and unconscious while the vet made a small nick in his neck to sever his vocal chords. It was skilfully done and a few minutes later the mule got to his feet and was soon back in his place munching happily
On another training exercise, each platoon had been given a live sheep as rations. My friend Harry Wilson had no one in his platoon prepared to butcher their sheep so they returned hungry with the sheep happily travelling in the back of the lorry with them. I was fortunate in having two peacetime butchers in my platoon and had hardly given the order before the sheep was mutton and sizzling in the pot. The conservative tastes of pre-war British soldiers was brought home to me over the curry powder. Back at base, I had enquired what was in the great array of big red tins in the Quartermaster’s Store. Q told me it was curry powder “but the troops won’t eat it”. When I asked if I could have some, he gave me a great tin full. On the next scheme I took a small bag in my pack and one evening I made my bully beef and tinned vegetables into a delicious personal curry with the addition of a tiny tin of jam and some of the hard biscuits. By then our quartet, my sergeant, runner, batman and myself who messed together, were already tired of “bully burgoo” night after night, and although they liked the wonderful aroma of my curry, they preferred sticking to the devil they knew. They watched in amazement that I didn’t drop dead from eating plum jam with meat! My sergeant soon asked to try some and liked it. Before long our quartet were all curry converts looking forward to supper, and others in our column whose appetites had been tickled by the delicious smell became keen. When we got back to base, Q was astonished that our whole force now wanted curry powder and he was indenting for the Indian Army allowance, far more than the British Army allowance!
On Christmas Day 1943 I had been out riding across the plains of India and when I came back it was time to water up and feed the animals. Unfortunately, half the old lags in the mule platoon were drunk and on their beds so I got the others to tie two or three mules together and take them down to water and then feed them. A little Welshman called Adams had a very nice little mule, but he was the only person who could manage it. Anyone else who went near the animal was either bitten or kicked, and Adams was right out. So we shook him and got him on his feet and explained that his animal needed watering, so he staggered over to his mule, put his arms round the animal’s neck and burst into tears. So then we said “Come on, Adams,” and he managed to unshackle the front leg and then fell underneath the animal. Anyone else would have been kicked to death, but the mule looked round with his long ears well forward as if to say to him “You silly old fool”. However he unshackled the animal and managed to get to his feet and the pair of them shambled slowly down to the river. After a few minutes they returned, Adams carrying on a cheerful conversation with the animal, which was reshackled and fed, and the crisis was over.
Another time, I was in the mule lines and a rather portly lance corporal was grooming his very nice mule’s hindquarters, with his large posterior facing the front end of the mule. After a while the mule turned his head slowly round and eyed Corporal Dainty’s bottom. After a good look, he very leisurely took a bite. What Corporal Dainty said is unrepeatable.
An obituary to Philip was published in the Church Times and can be found here.
Philip and Isla’s son, Ben, is a fellow trustee with me of the Kohima Educational Trust.
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