THE INDIAN mountain batteries were the most unusual and colourful military units ever formed in the long history of the British Empire. The long campaigns in the North West Frontier Province in which these batteries participated were reminiscent of Kipling’s Gunga Din. The battles were extremely tough with sharp, bloody skirmishes in all variations of temperature. Man and mule struggled alike to maintain a decent foothold on the rocky, snow-clad cliffs, and woe betide the battery that lost a mule. A court of inquiry was invariably convened if a mule died or was injured.
The Journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies accurately summed up the characteristics of the mountain Gunners in this apt description: “The Indian mountain artillery was one of those workable anomalies which flourish in the British armed forces… the prospect of real action attracted a collection of adventures, able and eccentric officers, usually with a combination of all three qualities. Some were quite dotty.” Lieutenant Colonel G. S. N. Buckland, DSO, popularly known as ‘Barmy Bill’, was one such legendary moutain Gunner, with a fertile brain and a keen sense of humour.
Tales of Barmy Bill’s exploits are legion, but it was for his astonishing prowess with a catapult that he was most remembered. An orderly was permanently on duty on the balcony outside the Commanding Officer’s office in Kohat. On sighting a bird alighting on the nearby tree, the orderly would rush in to report, Chirriya, Sahib! Barmy Bill would drop every-thing and, stepping out on to the balcony, would knock the bird off its perch with one unerring pellet. On one occasion he is known to have interrupted a telephone conversation with the Brigade Commander while he indulged in his pet pastime.
Barmy Bill kept himself occupied on the many tedious journeys that he had to perform on the Kohat-Thal narrow-gauge railway by practising his skills with his catapult. His favourite target consisted of two men walking one behind the other along a narrow bond (embankment) beside the line. Barmy Bill would strike the man in front upon his hindmost parts with remarkable accuracy. Instinctively the victim turned and, with extreme vigour, proceeded to thrash the man behind him, paying no heed to his protestations of innocence!
Outreaching his own exceptional performances, Barmy Bill reached the peak of his catapulting career on an occasion when Sir John Coleridge, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Northern Command, gave him a lift in his staff car one morning.
During the long drive, Barmy Bill “engaged” a number of juicy targets out of the window on his side. But, after a time, his sixth sense told him that all was not well. The GOC’s face was covered by a disapproving frown.
Quick-witted that he was, Barmy Bill realised that he had perhaps been behaving rather selfishly and said, “I’m so sorry, sir. How stupid of me! Of course, it’s your turn now.” With this he gave Sir John the catapult and a handful of pellets.