(Review originally published on http://www.firstworldwar.bham.ac.uk/reviews/index.htm)
Sunlight and Blue Shadow 1916-1919 - A Soldier Writes from India
Selected and Edited by Wendy Henningsson (Gothenburg: Nork Books 2001)
ISBN 9163109573 Pbk pp. 190. Illus.
In August 1914 Edgar Phillips volunteered for the 25th (County of London) Cyclist Battalion, The London Regiment. It would take a year for the men of this Territorial unit to be deprived of their bicycles, by which time they were brigaded with their fellow cyclists from the 1/1st Kents, 1/9th Hampshires and 2/6th Royal Sussex. They were destined for service in India and eventually arrived in Bombay in February 1916. Although Phillips and his comrades had been re-branded as infantry, he records that he retained the rank of 'Cyclist' until early 1918, when he officially became a Private.
Phillips was a gifted artist and lucid letter writer, though he destroyed most of his output after the war. Wendy Henningsson draws on the 80 remaining letters from his four years in India, together with diary entries and his excellent photographs and cartoons, many of which were published in the battalion magazine The Londoner and The Times of India Illustrated Weekly.
After facing the huge culture shock that most Westerners experience on arriving in India, the author settles down to the tedium of camp life. The men are kept busy with drill, rifle practice and endless route marches. While Kipling's Tommy might claim 'there's worser things than marchin' from Umballa to Cawnpore', Phillips laments the hardship. Understandably, he curses the Indian sun beating down on them as they 'slog, slog, slog, with the equipment cutting the shoulders and numbing the arms and rifle dead weight'. But there are plenty of opportunities for relief off-duty. A popular pastime involves hunting for butterflies, lizards and snakes, over the rocks and valleys beyond the Baird Barracks near Bagalore. It is in these forays that Phillips is at his best, penning some fine descriptions of breathtaking landscapes or recounting the thrill of an Indian troop train hurtling through ravines. This content will make the book appealing to naturalists and travel readers, but perhaps of less interest to readers of military history.
Dates of letters would have been useful, if only to compare Phillips' changing view of the war to the more dramatic events on the Western Front or other theatres. Henningsson has clearly done her research thoroughly, though sometimes the quotes from letters are dwarfed by the editor's input. Importantly, she stresses the ever present threat of illness and disease as Phillips succumbs, like most of his battalion, to dysentery, jaundice and malaria.
Morale is maintained by an extremely efficient mail service, together with a series of lectures, one improbably titled, 'The intervention of Rumania in the war and its probable influence'. Such attempts kept the men informed of the progress of the war, and he records that even lectures on the Hindus and Parsees were well attended, as 'a welcome antidote to the dreariness of camp routine'. However, unlike many of the men, Phillips observes the local villagers. He describes an extraordinary array of personalities, including a snake charmer, necromancer and magician, whose breakfast comprised a mouthful of brass nails. But it would have been instructive to learn more about Phillips' fellow soldiers and the non-existent officers, who register 'excruciating scores' on their rifle targets. To this end, Sunlight and Blue Shadow should be complimented by two other recent books on Army life in India &endash; David Goodland's Engaged in War, which provides the view from the Officers' Mess during the Great War, and William Pennington's memoir, Pick Up Your Parrots and Monkeys, the story of a boy soldier during the 1930s.
Unfortunately, Phillips falls ill with dysentery when the battalion finally sees action in May 1917 during the Waziristan Expedition on the North-West Frontier. He subsequently volunteers for the 27th Field Ambulance, and after further bouts of illness he spends his convalescence sketching and embroidering silk pictures. There are endless football matches, during which he suffers his only injury of the war, and when the Armistice finally comes, there is huge relief.
However, it is the events of 1919 that prove most interesting. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, erstwhile General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Phillips' 45th Brigade, is now Military Governor of Punjab. Phillips is assistant Railway Transport Officer (RTO) at the time that Dyer presides over the notorious Amritsar Massacre on 13 April, and is well placed to hear first-hand accounts. Surprisingly, Phillips appears to agree with the action taken, recommending 'putting the fear of God and the tip of a bayonet into the blighters in order to create loyal subjects'. This will do little to endear the author to his readers, who will conclude that four years in India did nothing to cement the 'Jewel' to the Crown. The sacrifices of the Indian Corps in the Great War, were obviously soon forgotten.
Centre for First World War Studies