On a special military train

A couple of decades ago, when I was a young captain in an infantry battalion, we were slated to move from a field area to a peace station, as part of the infantry relief programme. I was the designated quartermaster and planned everything meticulously for the movement of our battalion. We were supposed to travel on a military special train that was scheduled to arrive at a nearby railway station somewhere in north-east India.

While we camped near the railway station awaiting the military special, the atmosphere was a mix of emotions. For bachelors like me and other young officers it was fun attending officer mess parties and ‘badakhanas’ with the relieving unit, whereas for married officers and jawans with families, it was a happy and expectant feeling as their families would join them at the peace station.

There was an interesting incident one morning while we waited at the railway station; there was no dearth of humour in uniform, ours being a Sikh Light Infantry battalion. Now, we were on radio link and not on a fixed line. That morning, the signal platoon havildar brought a decoded radio message which read, “Your atta drwn to our signal no...” The word, ‘attn’ (for attention) was erroneously decoded as ‘atta’ and the havildar assumed it to be atta (meaning flour), and brought the message to me instead of the adjutant, since the quartermaster is responsible for the provisioning of rations to troops. On seeing the message I burst into laughter to the predicament of the havildar, and I couldn’t stop myself from sharing this with other officers.

The train arrived after a wait of nearly a week. The special train was special in every way; right from missing bulbs throughout the train to the missing cushions in the first class seats and even missing window panes on windows. We army men always manage with whatever is available. We spread our mattresses out on the berths, lit lanterns and established communications among the officers’ carriages, the engine-driver and the guard at the rear with our field telephones, by running our rugged looking telephone cables outside the carriages. As our special train passed through railway stations, curious onlookers tried making sense of our lantern-lit train with onboard communications and then gave up.

During peace-time, military special train has the least priority, after express-trains, mails, passenger-trains and goods-trains. At important railway stations, even stoppages for military special train are not at the usual platforms, and instead were at railway yards. Hence, our train took 12 days to reach our destination whereas an express train would take about 42 hours. Yet, we enjoyed the slow-paced journey from north-east to a peaceful barrack in western India.

The leisurely journey had an anticlimax when our khalsa boys, who had spread a tarpaulin sheet over the tracks for unloading and transferring the stores to the new location, forgot to remove it, derailing the train!

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