We are used to the image of British servicemen in the Great War trudging through the mud of Flanders. Not all served on the Western Front. Many served in the Middle East, the Balkans and Italy; others ended up in India and Burma. D.E.G. Quelch was one of a lucky few who ended up in a paradise far from the Flanders mud.
British soldiers, and those of the Empire and Dominions served all around the world during the Great War. In early 1918, there were 3.77 million British (as opopsed to imperial or dominion) soldiers in the army, of whom 2.3 million were serving overseas. Of that number 2.17 million – more than 90% – were serving in the theatres of war around the world: France and Flanders, Italy, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Salonika, Palestine and in East Africa. Another 17,237 were manning garrisons around the Empire and 98,645 were serving in India and Burma (along with 388,599 native Indian troops).
Among those in India and Burma were a number of London battalions. For example, the 25th London cyclists were based in India in 1916-18 – part of the battalion stayed on and were part of the garrison of Amritsar during the imposition of martial law by British forces there that culminated in the infamous massacre at the Jallianwala Bagh
Another London unit in Asia was the 18th (London) Battalion of the Rifle Brigade. One of their non-commissioned officers was Douglas Edwin Gerald Quelch, who was a married 42-year-old employee of the London County Council tramway department when he volunteered for the army in 1914. In late 1916, he wrote to the editor of the LCC’s staff magazine (published in Jan 1917), describing some elements of his war experience
Sir,-Before leaving Rangoon I received a copy of the Staff Gazette and read with much interest the doings and whereabouts of some of the staff. I thought it quite an excellent idea, which should help to bring old members into touch with one another. Since leaving England I’ve been in Malta, Egypt, India and Burmah, and now on special duty in charge of a detachment at Table Island, about 350 miles south-west of the Irrawaddy mouths and 150 miles north-east of Port Blair and the Andamans, in close proximity to the Cocos Islands (well known in connections with the Emden raids). The island, or rather islands (as Table is joined to Slipper at low tide) are uninhibited jungles, the only attempt at civilisation being the wireless station. Landing is only made by small boats owing to the dangerous nature of the coast.
We are quite out of touch with everything outside as we get no news or mails except when a steamer calls with fresh supplies, every two months or so.
Deer and other wild cattle are plentiful, also turtle, and fish of all sizes and colours. Unfortunately swimming is almost impossible owing to the large numbers of sharks. Cocoanuts and bananas are very plentiful. Companies of my battalion are at Rangoon and at the Andamans, but we fully expect to leave for Europe in January. I might mention that there [are] over one hundred L.C.C. employees in this battalion. Kind wishes to all old friends and a speedy return.-Yours faithfully,
Sergeant, Rifle Brigade
Quite a contrast to his native Camberwell!
The islands Quelch described as in the Coco Island group, at the north of the Andaman Islands. The Wikipedia entry describes the islands in the group:
The Coco Islands consist of the main Great Coco Island and the smaller Little Coco Island, separated by the Alexandra Channel. Table Island, a third small island located near Great Coco Island, previously housed a lighthouse but is uninhabited. Slipper Island is an islet located off the NW point of Table Island.
The Cocos may have been known in 1917 in connection with the Emden, a German cruiser that marauded around the Bay of Bengal in 1914. Today, they are better known for the alleged use by (or sale to?) China.
Quelch’s unit do not appear to have made it to Europe in 1917-18. Twenty three men from the 18th Rifle Brigade are listed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission as having died in Burma in 1916-1919, along with another eight commemorated in India. Like Quelch, these men were mainly over military age, being in their forties and even older when they died (one was 61). Many of them had originally joined other battalions (often in the London or Middlesex Regiments) as volunteers or from the National Reserve but were transferred to the 18th Rifle Brigade for this garrison duty in India and Burma. Almost all were Londoners.
Adamson and Hudson, London Town Miscellany vol 1
Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire.