David Balcombe: A British Soldier in India 191527 March 2009
Staff Person: Jonathan Dembo
These 6 black and white photographs are from the David Balcombe Papers (Manuscript Collection #1140.1.i). They were taken in India in June 1915, when Balcombe was a private in H Company, 1st Battalion, 4th Queen’s West Surrey Territorial Regiment. The West Surreys were a reserve regiment and never saw combat. Part of the 44th (Home Counties) Division, the 4th Queens were sent to India in October 1914 to replace regular units of the British Indian Army that had been sent to France in the first days of World War I. In June 1915, the 4th Queen’s were sent to the mountains near Darjeeling, Nepal to escape the summer heat that was beginning to suffocate Lucknow, where the unit was stationed. Balcombe took these photographs before and during this summer holiday.
The top two photographs show the view from the railroad carriage carrying Balcombe up to the cool climates above the clouds in the Himalayan Mountains. The middle two photographs show buffalo carts hauling timber and water from a well. Animal and human labor continues to do the majority of work in India to this day. The two remaining photographs show the barracks that housed the 4th Queen’s in Lucknow, India.
In addition to the photographs, the Balcombe Collection includes several dozen letters he sent to his parents during his World War I military service. He describes in these letters the poor conditions faced by British enlisted men in India. The soldiers’ food was so poor that they had to supplement their rations from their own pay in order to survive. Married men who had to send part of their pay home to their families might have starved if their unmarried comrades had not helped to feed them. Even so, they were able to afford the assistance of Indian servants who did menial tasks for the soldiers. His parents at home in London experienced far more combat, in the form of Zeppelin raids, than Balcombe did during his military service.
Balcombe served in India from October 1914 until September 1917. Luckily for him this was an exceptionally quiet period in that country’s history. During 1917, he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, later renamed the Royal Air Force, and was sent for training to Risalpur, in what is now Pakistan. In September, promoted to 2nd Class Air Man, Balcombe was sent with his unit, the 31st Squadron, to Aboukir, Egypt where it became part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force. Later promoted to 1st Class Air Man, Balcombe worked in the Wireless (Radio) Section of the base. After General Allenby entered Jerusalem in December 1917, the Turkish threat to Egypt diminished greatly, and Balcombe finished the war in Egypt in relative safety and comfort.
You may learn more about Balcombe and his life by accessing the finding aid to the David Balcombe Papers in the Search Room of the Special Collections Department, in J. Y. Joyner Library.
Click on the images to see enlarged versions.