A very warm Namaste and a resounding Jai Hind!
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods”
Thomas Babington Macaulay (in Horatius)
The story of Horatius Cocles was first mentioned by the 2nd-century-BC Greek historian Polybius. He was a Roman hero of the late 6th century BC (but, perhaps legendary or, mythical), who along with two companions, defended the Sublician bridge (over the Tiber, in Rome) against the entire Etruscan army. His valiant act gave the Romans time to cut down the bridge. Horatius is then said to have thrown himself into the Tiber to swim to the other shore, although versions differ as to whether he reached safety or was drowned. Horatius was immortalised by Macaulay in his poem of the same name.
While historians may quibble about the fact whether Horatius was real or merely a mythical figure, acts of similar or even greater valour have been performed by the Indian soldier without any chest thumping or brouhaha, in every war or operation the Indian Army has been involved in. Who can forget the unbelievably valorous acts committed by Indian soldiers while defending the Nation’s honour and territory, steadfastly holding out against far superior numbers and against all odds, be it the Garhwalis at Sela, the Sikhs at Saragarhi or, the Kumaonis at Rezangla. In each of these, and in innumerable other brave actions, the Indian soldier has cheerfully gone well above and beyond the call of duty, even laying down his life, to defend an ideal and his fellow soldier, spurred on by the words and deeds of his superiors.
Why does the Indian soldier fight and fight so well? Why did he not hesitate to perform these acts of daredevilry and sacrifice under the British who, after all, were not his own brethren, even when fighting overseas, in foreign territories, for a cause that was not his own? This is not a rhetorical question but, a question whose answer will hopefully dawn on you when you have earned the honour and privilege of leading them.
In my last post too, I had alluded to the Indian Army soldier. In fact, the exact words were : “The Indian Army soldier is a special breed – he will produce wonders and follow you to hell and back……” On reflection, it seemed to me to be too cryptic and I thought that this subject merited a separate post and hence, these musings.
It set me harking back to my own days as a young officer, when I was finding my feet in my regiment. (Engineer units are called regiments, unlike the Infantry, which has battalions). Soon I was reminiscing about the day when I first realised what weight an officer’s word carries for his men.
It was during my first Bridging Training Camp (or, BTC, as it was then called) as a Young Officer (YO) that I was entrusted with carrying out live mine training for my Field Company (an Engineer Regiment has sub units called Field Companies (three) and a Field Park Company, unlike an Infantry Battalion whose bayonet strength resides mainly in its Rifle Companies).
Now, live mine training involves training all ranks individually on handling of live mines, which includes their arming, neutralisation and disarming drills, followed by actual laying of each type of mine by each individual by day and (later) by night. It is only after completion of this process that actual mine field laying practice by full teams is carried out. The mines are primarily anti-personnel and anti-tank types, and since the anti- personnel (blast type) mines are smaller and comparatively easier to handle, these are usually the first ones that are taken up in live mine training.
So, there I was, trying to put young soldiers through the initial phase, which involved taking out the anti-personnel mine from its packing, removing the ‘shipping plug’ from the detonator well and inserting a live detonator, before carefully laying the armed mine into a small hole and covering it with soil to camouflage it. The trainee was then required to report to the training officer (me) that the mine was armed and laid.
Since the shipping plug of the mine NMM-14 (which still remains the main anti-personnel in the Indian Army arsenal) closely resembles the actual detonator, I had been at pains to repeatedly remind the Thambis (as the soldiers are called in the Madras Sappers) to double check the detonator before arming the mines. In order to drive home the point, I had surreptitiously replaced one of the detonators with a shipping plug, which had gone unnoticed by the soldier who happened to become the unsuspecting scapegoat. Let us call him Sapper X.
Having got the confirmatory report from all trainees, I pointed at Sapper X and asked him, “Thambi! Is your mine armed?”
Sapper X : “Yes, Sir!”
Self : “What will happen if you step on the mine?”
Sapper X : (After a pause) “My foot will be blown off, Sir!”
Self : “Ok. Let’s see, if you are right!” Pointing at him, I ordered, “Sapper X, ek kadam aage chal!” This would have brought him directly on top of the armed (to the best of his knowledge) mine.
You could have cut the silence with a knife. The unfortunate Sapper gave me an incredulous and questioning look. With a steely look, I reminded him, “Thambi! Ek kadam aage chal!!” To the budding Sappers, let me confess, this is not part of any training manual! It is definitely not something I would recommend anyone to even contemplate. Even if one is certain that the faux detonator was actually ‘nakli”, one never knows! There is also the little matter about damage to the mine about to be stepped upon!
Sapper X gulped nervously, gave me a reproachful look and took a smart step forward, worthy of a drill parade, even as I lunged forward to try and stop him.
As he stood bemused on the un-blasted mine, I blasted him (even as I breathed a huge sigh of relief!). The remaining training period went off uneventfully.
It struck me then, even as a Young Officer, what weight my word had carried for a disciplined soldier. After all, it requires guts and a deep sense of duty and discipline to follow an order of one’s superior, especially an order which is liable to result in a serious injury to oneself or, maybe, even death!
However, it was only much later that I realised the immense and abiding faith and trust that soldier had to have had on his commander, to be able to cast aside his doubts and fears and follow a patently absurd order, knowing full well the danger to his life (maybe) and limb (definitely)!
If someone were to ask me about my crowning glory in uniform, I would unhesitatingly quote this, because this was the day I look back upon as having achieved what any Armed Forces Officer ought to strive for – being accepted as a leader of your men!!
Do you think you would like to lead real men? Do you think you have it you?
And if you wish to know how to go about it, write to me. Meanwhile, do ponder over it.
Waiting for your responses. See you soon!!
Till then, Farewell.