Every morning at 05.00 hours, the Major would rise in Chitral to the comforting opening tune of the BBC World Service and its “This is London calling” jingle. Henry Purcell probably never imagined that his Lili Bolero would be heard in such an isolated place. A world away from the cut-glass voices of the English newsreaders, Major Langlands would don a dark suit and tie, always with freshly polished shoes. Sufi, his loyal servant of many years, would serve him the same breakfast every morning: Quaker Oats porridge; an egg, cooked with a poacher bought from Selfridges and up to two cups of Lipton’s tea. Time permitting, he would read a newspaper, a bit dated because it would take several days to get there from London via a succession of antiquated airplanes.
Well into his nineties, sprightly and driven, he would sit in his little cottage overlooking the Himalayas, live off a pittance and change the world for the better, one pupil at a time. On the dot at 06.00 hours the Major would head out the door at a clip, through the gate and up the hill. All around him the solitary and regal snow-covered peaks of the Hindu Kush would greet him as the sun rose behind Tirich Mir’s 25,230-feet-high peak, twenty-four miles away. Then, as he reached the main building of the school, “he would be greeted by beaming pupils chorusing ‘Good morning, Sir!’ – to which he would reply, in a voice crisped by King’s College, Taunton and six years of officer training, ‘Good morning!’”[i].
Chapter 2. No flowers by request.
Geoffrey Douglas Langlands and his twin John Alexander, could not have been born at a worse time.On the twenty-first of October 1917, the port city of Kingston upon Hull in the East Riding of Yorkshire was in the midst of an existential crisis: an ongoing food shortage, intermittent Zeppelin bombing raids and the onset of the Spanish Flu pandemic was a mere three months away.
It all started with a raucous celebration of the declaration of war against Germany. A large crowd gathered outside the Daily Mail offices in Whitefriargate on Tuesday the 4th of August 1914. On the stroke of 11pm patriotic fervour, no doubt nurtured by many years of colonial triumphs and the ensuing sense of invincibility, led to the boisterous singing of patriotic songs and exuberant revelry all over Hull. No civilian really doubted this would go England’s way.
The closest the country had been to a global conflict before were the Napoleonic Wars and they had been over exactly one hundred years ago. Although many military men were to try and fight the Great War by the same means, despite the invention of machine guns and mustard gas, the likes of Kitchener and Haig were convinced the war would be long and hard. Yet initially, most civilians believed that a short, sharp rap on the Hun’s knuckles was in order and that this would all be over by Christmas.
A plethora of speeches, military bands and gung-ho patriotic expressions in the form of newspaper articles, posters, hoardings encouraged thousands of young men to enlist. Friends, neighbours, brothers, work colleagues all encouraged each other to join in so-called “Pals” battalions. It felt like a day out at Hornsea beach. Then the reality of a war like no other sank in.
Within weeks, those jovial young men faced dismal odds of survival at the front. At home, it became clear that the war could not be restricted to the battlefields of Gallipoli, the Somme or Verdun. This was not going to be over by Christmas.
[i] “Obituary: Geoffrey Langlands Died on January 2nd.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper. Accessed December 7, 2019. https://www.economist.com/obituary/2019/01/19/obituary-geoffrey-langlands-died-on-january-2nd.
(c) Dr. Alexander Ross, 2021