The Indian Mountain Batteries were the most unusual and colourful military units ever formed in the long history of the British empire. Their campaigns in the North-West Frontier Province, reminiscent of Kipling’s Gunga Din, were extremely difficult with short, bloody Skirmishes in all variations of temperature. Man and mule struggled alike to maintain a decent foothold on the rocky snow-clad cliffs.
A military journal of the time accurately summed up the characteristics of the mountain gunners ; “The Indian mountain artillery was one of those workable anomalies which flourish in the British armed forces. The prospect of action attracted a collection of adventurous able and eccentric officers, usually with a combination of all three qualities. Some were quite dotty”.
Lt Col G.N. Buckland, DSO, popularly known a Barmy Bill, was one such legendary mountain gunner, with a fertile brain and a keen sense of humour.
Tales of Barmy Bill exploits are legion but it was for his astonishing prowess with a catapult that he is best remembered. An orderly was permanently on duty on the balcony outside the CO’s office in Kohat. On sighting a bird alighting on a nearby tree the orderly would rush in to report, “Chhirriya Sahib!” Barmy Bill would drop everything and stepping out on to the balcony, knock the bird off its perch, with one unerring pellet.
On one occasion he is known to have interrupted a telephone conversation with even the district commander while he indulged in his pet pastime.
Barmy Bill kept himself occupied on the many tedious journeys which he had to perform on the Kohat —Thal narrow—gauge line by practising his skills with his catapult. His favourite target consisted of two men, one behind the other, walking along a narrow bund beside the line. Barmy Bill would strike the man in front upon his hindmost ports with remarkable accuracy. Instinctively the victim tuned and, with extreme vigour, proceeded to thrash the man behind him.
Outreaching his own exceptional performances, Barmy Bill reached the peak of his catapulting career on an occasion when Sir John Coleridge, GOC Northern Command, gave him a lift in his staff car. During the long drive, Barry 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 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 pallets.