As Madras trembled - 1942

The Japanese Indian ocean raid and the Madras exodus..

Everybody talked about the Great War as the summer months seared the South. Even though there was an imminent fear of a Japanese invasion in India, the Mahatma and the Congress were quite upset with the British dragging India into what they essentially thought was a white man’s war and were focused on finding the right opportunity to push through with the Indian claims. The British government sent Sir Stafford Cripps on 22 March 1942, to talk terms with the Indian political parties and secure their support in Britain's war efforts. His weak offer was rebuffed with Gandhiji terming it ‘a postdated cheque on a crashing bank’.

Japan entered the war with the attack on the American Pearl Harbor naval base at Hawaii, in Dec 1941. It was a devastating attack, launched mainly from Japanese aircraft carriers, destroying a large number of ships in the American Pacific fleet. The primary intention was to cripple the western command, thereby preventing the Pacific Fleet from interfering with Japanese conquest of the Dutch East Indies and Malaya without interference. Having succeeded in that effort, they bombed Burma’s Victoria point next and secured entry into Burmese mainland from its south and Eastern borders. Simultaneous forays into Malaysia and Singapore resulted in rapid allied capitulation. In all of these frontiers the might of the British forces was found wanting. By February Singapore had fallen. By March 1942, Rangoon had fallen after Malaya, so had the strategic Andaman. Hundreds of thousands of Indian workers in SE Asia were in full flight across the land borders into India, their ancestral home. Their belief was total that the British Raj would do nothing to help them, for they had not seen any overt support either at Malaya, Singapore or in Burma. One could hear the refrain – that invasion was imminent, the Japanese were coming, and that the British were set to flee. As the British manipulated the war news channels, rumor machines took over and wild tales were told and retold.

Strategically, the Japanese aims were multi fold and involved destruction of other key Allied strongholds of SE Asia, in the march towards India. The eastern cities of India namely Calcutta and Madras took note, for they were British regional capitals. Air raid actions were practiced, blackouts were observed and businessmen slowly started to pack up and leave to more Westerly and Northern cities. It was apparent that the invasion would be from the East and that the British may not stay to fight. Bose and the INA were fighting side by side with the Japanese, and Bose was exhorting his countrymen to join his side. Richer families sent women and children farther from coastal cities to interior villages. In places like Calcutta, some city administrators even tried to utilize this opportunity to relocate many thousands of beggars, but failed.

Down south, in Madras, things were no better. As often mentioned, the Japanese soldier, though quite a bit smaller than a Burmese elephant, evoked a bigger fear. British officials in the coastal areas sent their families away to the hills; Indian officials sent their families away to relatives in villages and there was a fear that the Japanese would murder civilian officials without batting an eye, based on rumors coming from Burma. Initial orders prohibited them from moving, but officials were later told that they should stay so they could help the population, and it was not a matter of if, but when. The British hardly mentioned the aftermath of the unlikely event of naval invasions, large scale air attacks and so on, for they had little idea of ‘what then’. Many expected a land invasion across Bengal and Assam, with the Japanese hordes streaming through, in attack.

But the Japanese had other plans though with their Indian Ocean raid, and their immediate point of focus was actually Ceylon, for the British navy had retired to Ceylon after the debacle at Singapore. With the defensive perimeter set at Singapore shattered, coupled with the Japanese taking of the Andaman Islands, the British were vulnerable. By launching operation C, the Japanese aimed to catch the British navy by surprise at Ceylon.

Admiral Somerville knew of an impending attack from various signal intercepts, (I wrote about this some time ago in the PNS Ghazi story) and was awaiting the Jap flotilla led by Admiral Naguomo with his own attack force of carriers, destroyers and submarines. Many of these ships were based at the isolated Maldives, at Addu Atoll, where earlier in 1941, the Royal Navy established a base ("Port T"). Air strips, oil tanks, supply stations etc. were kept in place, and strangely its existence was largely unknown to the Japanese, so also Indian nationalists who supported the INA. Somerville expected the attack to take place on the 1st or 2nd April, but Nagumo delayed it forcing Somerville to send back some of his bigger ships to Addu and elsewhere. Nagumo arrived with his fleet on the 4th and wreathed havoc on the shipping plying the Indian West coast and Ceylon. 28 ships were sunk in all. On 5th, Easter Sunday, the Japs bombarded Ceylon with 125 planes. Later they decimated the harbor at Trincomalee and sunk a number of Allied ships.

Admiral Sir Geoffrey Layton, the commander of Ceylon, stated "The Japanese Fleet has retired to Singapore, to refuel and rearm, and to organize an invasion force, which we think is coming back to attack us." But Sir Andrew Caldecott, Governor of Ceylon, speaking in Tamil, asked shopkeepers near the harbor to not panic. The death toll was only 50, “much less than the daily casualties from the street accidents in London,” he tried to reassure. People fled Ceylon, taking the Dhanushkodi route to India. Madras thus started receiving not only Burmese refugees, but also Ceylon refugees, both parties giving first hand details of Japanese prowess. Even though the Japanese attack demonstrated their superiority in carrier operations, Somerville was able to save the bulk of his fleet, including the carriers HMS Indomitable and Formidable, to fight another day.

On April 6, at about seven in the morning, a single Japanese plane strafed Kakinada, a port town 400 miles north of Madras, damaging two ships, killing one person and injuring five. In the afternoon, a small group of planes attacked Vizag, another later on in the evening, bombed the area. The government press release mentioned that some 20 bombs were dropped but that not much damage had been caused. Nevertheless, the officials admitted that five were killed and 40 were wounded.

Old-time residents of Vizag mention rumors of Japanese ships, the resulting panic and the hurried digging of crude air raid shelters. Civil defense drills and blackouts were practiced, and car headlights had their top half blacked off. But naturally, the prices of essentials rocketed, as shortages hit the merchants due to their diversion to the military up NE. Ration cards were issued and ‘Standard Cloth’ was issued as a ration, while new recipes were perfected from leftovers and in general the populace  quickly adapted to live with little. Source (Chandramathy Moses – Vizag)  

As news of the attacks in Ceylon and the cities of Andhra in the North reached Madras, panic set in. The residents expected Madras to be next. Madras as you can imagine was already in preparation for the invasion. Let’s see what they did and while doing so, let me also record my thanks and indebtedness to A Srivathsan, who collated much of the input and presented it in a series of Hindu articles in the autumn of 2012.

As early as in January, the air raid precautions unit had been set up. By March over 4,000 volunteers had been trained in first aid, shelters and handling blackouts. Siren identification brochures had been printed. As the harbor was prone to raids, plans were made to move offices, commercial firms and banks from the sea side to interior areas. A proposal to shift the operations of the office of the Accountant General, except for payment of pensions to Bangalore was bandied about. Library books had been moved. Concrete air raid shelters were built while inhabitants of Madras nervously scanned the sea for signs of the Japanese navy, as a landing was feared on the beaches of Madras. The leading business houses shifted elsewhere, for example while Burmah-Shell moved to Salem, Standard-Vacuum relocated to Bangalore.

By April 6, 1942, the Madras police commissioner Gasson ordered all employees of the water supply and transport departments to stay, fearing an exodus. Fears of shortages were paramount, items such as milk and food were important. Then came the fear of hotels closing and all of this adding to a food shortage. The Madras government quickly came up with the idea of starting co-operative shops to control distribute provisions and vegetables, and they also ensured that private shop pricing was regulated. Nevertheless, most hotels closed, and the remaining ones sported long lines and much higher prices serving mostly food packets - the first-class packet included sambar rice with curry and curd rice with pickles priced at 3 annas. The second-class packet containing only sambar rice with pickles was priced at an anna and a half.

A false alarm on the dawn of April 7th alarmed the Madras folk, and though an ‘all clear’ signal was sounded an hour later, panic quickly engulfed the residents. The city came out with blackout requirements and the staffing of volunteer forces. Five days later, the government issued a communique advising all non-essential population to leave. The common took it quickly that Madras was no longer safe and with that the railways stations at Central and Egmore were besieged, and the general flight was east and south to Bangalore and Malabar. Close to 50,000 people railed it out every day to distant locations and in a couple of weeks, over 500,000 had fled, most of them going to their native villages or towns, while others camped with relatives and friends in those distant locations. For those who had nowhere to go, the government set up six temporary camps at Nandivaram, Nandambakam, Periyapalayam, Attur, Vengattur and Thruapallam. Some of the officers were relocated to the Sherman Girls school and a military contingent was placed at Ranipet. The ARP officers stationed themselves at the St Christopher’s training college while the trainees moved to CMC Vellore temporarily.

Prisoners were shifted to jails in Andhra Pradesh by special trains; wild animals in the zoo were shot as a precautionary measure. Patients at hospitals also fled in panic. The bustling metropolis was quickly reduced to look like a ghost town. The Madras secretariat was disbanded and while the essential staff and departments were shifted to Madanpalle, the non-essential offices moved to Ooty (of course!). Some other departments moved to Vellore, Salem and Anatpur. But Arthur Hope the Governor decided to stay in Madras. The 22 miles of slit trenches built looked like a wasted effort for an abandoned city. An old escape road was readied through Kodaicanal to Munnar and from there to Cochin with the hope that British ships could evacuate the Brits back home, if it came to that.

Even celebrities like the dancer Balasaraswathi the dancer and her mother Jayammal fled to Chingleput, while many of the affluent families moved to Mysore while the landlords there tried their level best to dislodge their existing tenants to make hay while the Japanese sun rose. Madhavikutty (her family lived in Andhra in those days) was sent off to Malabar. Trees were camouflaged as guns on the beach, idlis and dosas were starting to get replaced with wheat dishes and coins were in short supply. An unused small center gate of the Fort St George was sealed with bricks. Madras university offices were relocated to Coimbatore.

Pulla Reddi the commissioner wrote that the British officers simply fled and when he asked for instructions about what he should do if the Japanese landed, he was told to do what he liked, they had no time and had to catch the Blue Mountain express  bound for the Nilgiris. He adds - No street lighting was allowed, and no electric lights were allowed even inside houses, ’and finally and the worst of it all, I was asked to have all the lions, tigers, panthers, Polar bears and such dangerous animals in the zoo to be shot in a few minutes. Everybody seemed to have lost his head.’

Interestingly, the zoo tried to offer the animals to other zoo’s but none were interested. Then they tried to move them to Erode, but the railways had no space to transport them. The Police Commissioner, insisted that the animals might break loose if Japanese bombs fell, refused to wait and sent a platoon of the Malabar Special Police to the zoo ’who to my great horror ruthlessly did their job in a few minutes’. Three lions, six lionesses, four tigers, eight leopards, four bears and a black panther were shot while the lone elephant was spared as nobody could figure out the logistics in the burial of its corpse (V Ramakrishnan -DT next).

About three weeks after the government had issued the communique advising people to leave the city, Governor of Madras H. E. Sir Arthur Hope spoke to the residents in a broadcast on All India Radio: “During the past few weeks much has happened to cause anxiety in this country and especially in the Madras Presidency. That anxiety is natural, but I want this evening to try to put things in their right perspective. When the Government issued their communiqué on April 11th, they had good reason to believe that there was a direct threat of invasion to the Madras coast and Madras City. Happily, this threat did not materialize. There is, however, as the Commander-in-chief said in his broadcast the other day, always the danger of an attempt at invasion, until the Japanese are driven from the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean. This danger will lessen from week to week, as our reinforcements of all sorts pour in.”

It appears that propaganda radio also played its part with a radio channel and its female announcer ‘Tokyo Rose’ repeatedly told her audience about Japan’s plans to bomb India. Perhaps it was the Japanese American Iva Toguri from Los Angles who was stranded in Japan and forced to work for the Japanese. Perhaps it was others, we don’t know.

After an agonizing period, with the Japanese showing no sign of arriving, much of the beleaguered population slowly began to return. Most people returned to live through a period of air-raid warnings, while bomb shelters were built at many locations, including key locations such as Nungambakkam, Mylapore and George Town. Film production, which was a key job and money spinner had crashed with the film supply from Agfa affected. Even though Kodak took up the slack, that was also disrupted as commercial shipping declined. Some studios moved to remote places. War film newsreels were shown in theaters. The beach area was out of bounds and a hefty fine of Rs 3/- was levied on transgressors. Time gun firing at Ft St George was stopped, one could buy only a maximum of Rs 5/- worth of provisions and fishing in the harbor was prohibited. First line beach was deserted, waiting for the Japanese. Locks were in short supply.

By the end of 1942 and early in 1943, things were back to normal in Madras, with hotels and movie halls busy as usual and when speculators made big money reselling houses they had purchased at throwaway prices when the previous occupants fled Madras after selling them. Cricket matches resumed, with the Europeans beating the Indians at Chepauk in Dec 42, in spite of Gopalan’s well hit 87 runs.

And then, it finally happened on a dark and stormy night on 10th (or 11th) Oct 1943. The banks of Cooum and Adayar had overflowed, and Madras was flooding, with even the Longmans and Oxford press buildings affected. Air raid sirens went off as people clambered on roofs to escape floods while several others drowned. A Japanese plane flew by and ditched or dropped one or a few bombs on a drenched Madras, killing two people and some cattle. The newspapers did not report it and Madras folk knew about all of it only after a week.

After the war, it became clear that these 1942 Japanese incursions were just a cover as convoys steamed to Rangoon. In fact, it was the last time the Japanese fleet and its supporting air arm ventured East for they were not too keen of deploying their limited naval or air resources into the Indian Ocean regions since they had to worry about a regrouping American fleet. John Clancy affirms it - The Japanese High Command were concerned at the possibility of their Task Force in the Indian Ocean being cut off from the remainder of their naval forces in the South China Seas as the result of increasing American naval activity in the South Pacific, and had ordered a retreat.

Later, the Japanese established a submarine supply and fueling station at Swettenham Pier - Penang and German, Italian and Japanese subs roamed underwater, wreaking havoc on Allied merchant ships through 1944. Though the Japanese failed to arrive, an even bigger crisis hit the East coast, it was the 1943 Bengal famine, and the actions taken by the British at that juncture are the most abhorrent, a topic I will write about another day.

Rajaji had warned against “exaggeration of the danger of a Japanese invasion” and well, one could always say in hindsight that he was correct, but the fact is that the fear of a ruthless enemy who had successes at Singapore, Malaya and Burma, panicked the British. It soon became amply clear to the masses that these foreigners were simply incapable of taking care of the people they governed. When that reality hit them, the British lost the jewel in their crown.

Shameful Flight: The Last Years of the British Empire in India - Stanley Wolpert
Farthest Field: An Indian Story of the Second World War - Raghu Karnad
The shiver of 1942 - Indivar Kamtekar (Studies in History 2002 18: 81)
Military Economics, Culture and Logistics in the Burma Campaign, 1942-1945 - Graham Dunlop
Madras Miscellany - Muthiah S
Autumn leaves – Pulla Reddi
Hindu reports – A Srivathsan 
 The Most Dangerous Moment of the War -  Clancy, John


What the Dickens?

Charles Dickens, India and the life of Walter Dickens in Calcutta

Dickens has been so much a part of many Indian generations since the mid-19th century, we have read his works as part of school studies, and many others have read him for pleasure and enjoyed his works. We got to know his characters such as David Copperfield and Oliver Twist, we have clapped for his stand against social injustice, bureaucracy and oppression of the downtrodden. But what many of you may not know is that he had another side, a dark one.

With all that, you may wonder what made him say this in 1857, writing to Angela Burdett Coutts – And I wish I were Commander in Chief in India. The first  thing I would do to strike that Oriental race with amazement (not in the least regarding them as if they lived in the Strand, London, or at Camden Town), should be to proclaim to them in their language, that I considered my holding that appointment by the leave of God, to mean that I should do  my utmost to exterminate the race upon whom the stain of  the late cruelties rested; and that I was there for that purpose and no other, and was now proceeding, with all convenient  dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of  mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.

Well he did and it was just after he heard about the 1857 revolt. The mutiny itself which engulfed much of middle and North India, involving the triumvirate of Nana Saheb, Tayta Tope and the Rani of Jhansi is a subject which is difficult to maneuver through, for the literature produced since the event has been so heavily English sided, to say the least. But there have also been recent attempts to create revisionist works swinging wildly to the other side of the balance. Perhaps the truth and reality are somewhere in between and to sift it out from the Burra Saheb’s masterful manipulation of the language and the media in those days, takes much time and effort, what with time having obliterated many a track.

Though Charles the pater had not ventured into India, his desire to send his sons to the imperial colony resulted in two of them securing positions in India. Walter lived in Bengal for some six years and Frank spent a brief sojourn in Bengal, returning to England when his father passed on. It was while searching for information on Louise Ouwerkerk that I came across Dick Kooiman’s paper on Walter Dickens, Charles’s son and his career in India. One thing led to the other and I ended up studying Dickens and his Indian connections.

A recap of the so-called rebellion - The rebellion of 1857 was an unsuccessful uprising in India in 1857–58 against the oppressive rule of the British East India Company. Starting around May 1857 in the form of a mutiny of sepoys at Meerut, it spread along as many civilian rebellions across central, North and East India. It was eventually suppressed with the rebels' defeat in Gwalior in June 1858. Violence and cruel actions were perpetuated by both sides and British reprisals were severe, with entire cities laid waste in British retaliation. When news of the events reached Britain, the populace there were aghast, unable to understand that their realm was no longer invincible, that it was being threatened by the lowly masses. The press went on an overdrive and newspapers published exaggerated accounts. While the majority of writings available today voice the British story, two books cover the revisionist Indian side, written by Parag Tope and Amarish Mishra.

An example of the fake news (London Times – 25th Aug 1857) and the Brits as you can see were masters at it - They took 48 females, most of them girls of from 10 to 14, many delicately nurtured ladies, violated them, and kept them for the base purposes of the heads of the insurrection for a whole week. At the end of that time they made them strip themselves, and gave them up to the lowest of the people to abuse in broad daylight in the streets of Delhi…..British investigators as early as 1858 concluded that the allegations of rape, cannibalism, and mutilation were fabrications, but that did not halt the circulation of such sordid fake tales, especially those related to the rape of delicate British ladies.

As the news of the events and violence in Kanpur spread in England, the Sahib was enraged. Many wanted the race which took to their brave soldiers and fair women, exterminated. Dickens following the general opinion, said those very words which we started out with and then he went silent. Never did he write a novel set in India, nor did he visit country. Instead he wrote “the tale of two cities’ talking about the throes of the French revolution and a mutiny. Did he really mean to put an undercurrent of the Indian mutiny in his two cities?

Joshi explains - Always contemporary and already thinking about fictionalizing events, Dickens wrote to Henry Morley, a colleague at Household Words, asking him to research whether an English colony existed, or could have, in South America. In his 18 October letter to Morley, Dickens explained that he “wish[ed] to avoid India itself” but wanted a setting “in which a few English people—gentlemen, ladies, and children—and a few English soldiers, would find themselves alone in a strange wild place and liable to hostile attack” (Letters, VIII,469). The language - “strange wild place,” “hostile attack”- reveals Dickens’s siege mentality, self-righteousness, and un-complicated response to events in India.

Well, he did get influenced by it in his writings and we can see its impact on the work "The Perils of Certain English Prisoners," around the events in India co-authored with Wilkie Collins late in 1857. Dickens wrote the first and last chapter of "Perils," a tale set in the British West Indies and narrated by an English soldier, Gill Davis, sent to protect the island of Silver Store from attacks by pirates.

Thus, we can conclude that while Dickens was probably one with a somewhat balanced view of life, it was restricted to the life in his world, the British one. The imperial subjects, the masses in the colonies had their place way down below and were not worthy of study. Affected by the rumored treatment of the women and brave men of the EIC, he turned a blind eye into the workings of the EIC, that huge organization which was stripping the country dry and massacring hundreds of thousands in the name of mutiny.  But let’s leave Dickens now in Britain, nursing his hatred and shift to the life of his son.

Many types of youngsters made their way to India in the steamers bound east. Fortune seekers, truant youngsters from well-to-do families, career soldiers who had the needed training rearing up as mercenaries of a sort and of course administrators, who had never administered anything. There were businessmen who saw great opportunity to prosper, then there were professionals such as engineers, missionaries, doctors etc. who saw a great demand in the far away India. Yes, plenty of good men who wanted to do something for the people also went to India, not to forget the numerous missionaries who traveled to implant a new religion and uplift the downtrodden, or so they explained. Finally, there were women who went out fishing, as part of the fishing fleet, to hook a husband in India. Not mentioned often, there were also the undesirable of Britain, the scum and the criminal, heading out East.

Dickens had his fair share of problems, and when you have ten children and when many of his sons fail to succeed, the worry on a pater can be manifest. Charles, the eldest went bankrupt toying with banking and business, Walter the second, we’ll get to him later, Frank joined the Bengal police, then moved to Canada, was considered incompetent and alcoholic, Alfred racked up debts and fled to Australia, Sydney went to sea but was also beset with financial difficulties and died young. Among the last two, Henry did well in the law field, lived the longest but was killed crossing the road and Edward went to Australia to work at petty jobs and died penniless.

As the children grew, one by one, Dickens’s enthusiasm plummeted. Having earned his success and having overcome childhood poverty while still a teenager through his own impressive energy and drive, his children’s complacency and lack of ambition drove him to a depression. Perhaps if only to escape a disappointing marriage, in 1857, the same year as the mutiny, Dickens fell in love with Ellen Ternan, an 18-year-old actress and drifted away from his wife Catherine. Dickens was 45 when he met her and began an affair with Ternan, but kept the relationship secret. She became his "magic circle of one". Matters eventually came to a head in 1858 when Catherine opened a gift for Ellen wrongly delivered to her. It contained a gold bracelet meant for Ternan with a note written by her husband. As the embitterment peaked, Catherine was ‘persuaded’ to leave home that year, after signing a deed of separation!

As the late Girish Karnad opined - “His novels have good and kind descriptions of women, but in his real life he treated women poorly. He fought with his daughter, despised his mother and there are several examples of how he treated his wife, whom he was married for 21 years, had 10 children with and then divorced. Not only did he divorce but he publicly announced her as incapable of being a good wife and a mother,” he said in an interview with The Pioneer (24th Feb 2014).
Walter Landor Dickens

Walter Landor Dickens, called Wally by some and “Young Skull” by his father due to his high cheekbones, was born on 8th February 1841. Originally to be named Edgar, his father decided to christen him after the poet Walter Savage Landor, whom he admired. Walter was schooled at Kings Private school at St Johns Wood and then continued with his preparatory courses for the military at Wimbledon School. Finding that Walter was deaf, Dickens had him examined and it appears that the subsequent treatment brought about some relief. Walter seems to have done well for himself there and got ready for the cadetship exams in 1857. As Walter prepared, Dickens politely refused Burdett-Coutts’s offer of financial assistance, but accepted her glowing recommendations and character reference for the boy as part of his application.

The immensely rich society lady Angela Bourdett Coutts whom we talked about earlier, a benefactor of Dickens, a close friend and to whom Dickens confided about wanting to exterminate the Indian natives, was the one instrumental in sponsoring Water’s visit to India as a soldier. Bourdett was a large shareholder in the East India Company. Using her special influence, she managed to get him a direct entry into the Bengal infantry as a cadet, subject to him passing the requisite exams in April 1857, which he did, all of 16 years of age and slightly deaf! Not to stop, Dickens decided to try and get his next son Alfred also to a post in India.

Walter went through the many rigors required for a career in India, he learnt to fence, swim and ride, use guns and even learnt a bit of Hindustani! By July, youngster just 16 years old, had boarded the P and O liner Indus at Southampton, bound for Calcutta. He was just one of the many thousands of young people who ventured East, to enrichen themselves in the Indian colony. Many were to thrive and flourish, some lived their entire lives in that distant land, some died in war or of disease, some built vast families who survived and thrived through many generations. Some went native, some intermixed with the local populace to create the Anglo Indian race, while others ended up as abject failures.

As the ship was headed to Calcutta, the situation in India had reached a boiling point and the mutiny was well under way having started around May 1857. By June the siege at Kanpur was on. Britain still did not know the details and the first bits came through only after Walter had sailed away. He arrived in Calcutta around 30th August to join the 26th, but it had been disbanded. He joined the 42nd which was instrumental in taking back Kanpur and Lucknow from the rebels.

Back in England, father Dickens was seething with rage, perhaps also worried stiff about his son wallowing in the thick of things, and venting about wanting to destroy the Indian race. He blamed the politicians and administrators of the EIC and Britain for not sending quick reinforcements to defend the cities of Kanpur and Lucknow, he also took to blaming the Hindu character as totally untrustworthy. Dickens was equally vehement that mercy should not be accorded to any Indian prisoner, and remonstrated against Canning who proposed it. And to top it, he castigated British women flocking to serve or see Hindu princes.

Walter seems to have been doing well in the military which was on the move and in action, and got quickly promoted to lieutenant, was awarded a mutiny medal and of course some prize money or bounty - the spoils of war. His regiment was involved in the operations at Kanpur and later in the retaking of Delhi. It is also apparent that not only was he fighting during the mutiny, but also in the NW frontier province later. Anyway, he settled down to a routine life in India but seems to have been invalided and carried in a litter to a hill station, according to a letter written by his pater. We do know from his father’s writing that he had fallen sick, fainted of sun stroke, suffered from Smallpox, and caught smart fever, after which he moved to a hill station to recuperate and rally out of the ailments.

But things went south very quickly and before long Walter was deeply indebted and no longer popular in his company, being placed low on account of his debts. What could have happened? Was it due to illness, combat fatigue or pain from his wounds? Did he get involved with vice and opium? We do not know, but we do hear that he was always in debt. From the family letters, we can glean that he had asked his father for money, but Charles refused help, and we see Walter writing to Mary (Mamie) his sister that he had resolved to write home no more until he was out of debt. I guess this is when Charles, his brother arrived (when he was a tea trader in Hong Kong) to settle his debts, during his fortnights stay in India in 1861. Walter then planned to join the home service but was advised not to do it as it would reduce his income. Mary did get another short letter in the fall of 1863 that Walter was unwell. By Christmas he wrote stating that he was very ill and traveling to Calcutta to get a medical certificate in order to head back to Britain on medical leave.

Dickens quickly sent his son Frank to check things out but he arrived in India too late, in January 1864, only to hear that Walter had passed away, after coughing blood, of an aneurysm of the aorta on 31st Dec 1863. The gory details go thus – He arrived in Calcutta from the station where his regiment was, on the 27th of Dec. He was consigned by the regimental doctor to the officer’s hospital there, which is a very fine place. On the last day of the old year at a quarter past five in the afternoon he was talking to the other patients about his arrangements for coming home, when he became violently excited, coughed violently, had a great gush of blood from the mouth, and fell dead; all this, in a few seconds.

Dickens writing to Miss Coutts said – I could have wished it had pleased god to let him see his home again, but I think he would have died at the door.

Among his possessions Walter had left nothing of value: only a small trunk, changes of linen, some prayer books, and a colored photograph of a woman believed to be a member of the family. According to his captain, everything else had been turned into cash in preparation for the return to England. But it is not clear where that money went, though. The officers' mess, the regimental store, the billiard table, the native servants, a merchant or two, all remained to be paid. We notice that Walter left behind, considerable debts and his regiment passed along to the family a claim for a substantial debt of 140 pounds, including a humble written request from one Ganga Ram for Rs 18 and annas 8.

Walter was buried in the Bhowanipore Military Cemetery at Calcutta. Charles Dickens, his father received the news of his passing on Feb 6th, 1864, on his birthday. His original tombstone read - In memory of Lieut. Walter Landor Dickens, the second son of Charles Dickens, who died at the Officers' Hospital, Calcutta, on his way home on sick leave, Dec 31st 1863, Aged 23 years.

In April 1987, a group of students from Jadavpur University collected funds and moved the tombstone to the South Park Street Cemetery, more as a tribute to the author, his father. The tombstone is now placed among the memorials of the notable Europeans who died in the 18th century, but is grave is no longer marked or traceable, from what I understood. Walter’s story comes to a sudden stop here and Kooiman, who was responsible for all the original research into this topic in 2002, had been unable to dredge much more. Will the days ahead reveal something more? I doubt it, for few are interested in such forays!

The boy was surely attached to his mother and she to him, for Catherine’s will mentions leaving an Ivory elephant miniature complete with a houdah (sitting platform on an elephant), gifted by Walter. In fact, Charles Dickens did not even tell her of her son’s passing, such was the depth of the animosity between them. The sad part was that Dickens saw his wife’s genes as the root cause for all the problems his sons faced. Several of the children “were undermined by drink” or had gambling addictions. Dickens with his huge ego, maintained that their flaws came from their mother, them acquiring her “curse of limpness”, the lack of purpose and energy, and a natural defect of character.

William Hardman, editor of The Morning Post wrote succinctly: "Poor Mrs. Charles Dickens is in great grief at the loss of her second son, Walter Landor Dickens, who has died with his regiment in India. Her grief is much enhanced by the fact that her husband has not taken any notice of the event to her, either by letter or otherwise. If anything were wanting to sink Charles Dickens to the lowest depths in my esteem, this fills up the measure of his iniquity. As a writer, I admire him, as a man, I despise him."

Charles Dickens died in 1870 leaving a legacy of £1,000 to Ternan in his will and sufficient income from a trust fund to ensure that she would never have to work again. In 1876, six years after Dickens's death, Ternan married George Wharton Robinson, 12 years her junior. She died of cancer in 1914.

Dickens as you see, was a man with great many virtues, but like many others, one with a lot of failings.

Priti Joshi, “Mutiny Echoes: India, Britons, and Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities” (pp. 48–87)
Dickens and the Indian Mutiny - William Odie
The short career of Walter Dickens in India – Dick Kooiman
Georgina Hogarth and the Dickens circle - Adrian, Arthur A
Catherine Dickens and Her Colonial Sons - Lillian Nayder

Pics – Wikimedia, thanks to the contributors

What the Dickens – is an idiom unrelated to Charles Dickens and was apparently in use even before Charles Dickens was born. It seems to predate Shakespeare as well and is considered to mean 'What the devil?' The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the expression “the dickens!” is “an interjectional exclamation expressing astonishment, impatience, irritation, etc.; usually with interrogative words, as what, where, how, why, etc.” and explains it as a slang or colloquial term meaning “the deuce, the devil.” The exclamation is “apparently substituted for ‘devil,’ as having the same initial sound.”