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4.8 out of 5 stars
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4.8 out of 5 stars
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on 29 November 2004
Even if you have only the most passing interest in history this is one of those rare books that you should not leave un-read.
Masters recounts, in beautiful style, his passage through the RMC Sandhurst and on to becoming a subaltern in 2/4 Ghurkha Rifles on India's Northwest frontier. But this is no ordinary story about a toff fagging and hurrahing his way through life, rather it is an evocative self-study set against the backdrop of interwar Britain and India.
In his descriptions of India it becomes clear how in love Masters was with the country and the people and especially with his beloved Ghurkhas. Though this is not to suggest he expresses or represents some outdated colonial view, his love of the Ghurkhas was reciprocal and if it may at times seem paternalistic, it is in that he demonstrates the very essence of a good young officer, genuine care and very deep respect for his men.
This book is also alive with individual cameos of the Ghurkha officers and men with whom Masters served and allows the reader rare insight in to the life of an Indian Army regiment before the second world war. This book is also richly veined with humour and you are likely to find yourself frequently laughing out loud at exploits such as 'mess mountaineering'.
This book should be obligatory reading at Sandhurst as it is full of lessons for would-be officers, but is also obligatory reading for anyone with an interest in history, military or otherwise, travel or biography.
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on 10 September 2007
Is the story of one man grappling to come to terms with command, and not a normal command but the command of a Company of Gurkhas [namely A Company of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Prince of Wales Own Gurkha Rifles].

In 1933 John Masters moves from Wellington to Sandhurst and then after training to India and a brief stay of further education with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, and then on to the 2/4 PWOGR, here he takes command of a Rifle Company as it maintains order on the edge of the Empire. Imperial Policing at its zenith, this is a remarkable insight to the North West Frontier of the time [although not much seems to have changed] and the clashes with the Pathans tribesmen. Masters learns his trade under the watchful eye of his Commanding Officer, and on the brink of the Second World War, he is the Adjutant of the Battalion ready to see further action in an all too different clash of arms.

An excellent recollection, lovingly written of the old Indian Army, by someone who learnt his trade on one of the remotest outpost of Empire. Recommended to anyone who has an interest in Military History or is about to take up unit command themselves.

G LONG
2007
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on 9 September 2013
Memoir of a Military Education: John Masters's Bugles and a Tiger

In his foreword to Bugles and a Tiger (1956), the first volume of his autobiography, John Masters defines his book clearly:

This is a factual story but not a history. [ . . . The] purpose is to tell the story of how a schoolboy became a professional soldier of the old Indian Army [. . . and to give] an idea of what India was like in those last twilit days of the Indian Empire, and something more than a tourist's view of some of the people who lived there.

As heir to Kipling, a much greater writer though Masters has genuine writing talent, and to lesser-known figures like Jim Corbett, Anglo-Indians in love with India and having the double perspective of Englishmen born in that country, Masters succeeds in his purpose. Bugles is a classic of its genre, a memoir of a military education but also a homage to India, its flora and fauna, its peoples and cultures, with particular attention to the Ghurkhas of Nepal.

Bugles covers the years 1933-39, moving from Masters's training and education at Sandhurst, through his experiences on the North-West Frontier of India, first with a British infantry regiment and then with the Ghurkhas, to a brief visit to Japan and a journey across North America, return to India and the outbreak of World War Two. A large part of the impulse behind these experiences is what Kipling describes as "for to see and for to behold, ever the world so wide," a desire appropriate to youth and to the first volume of an autobiography.

Such adventures give Masters a mass of experience made exotic to most readers by time and distance. For a writer, vast and varied experience is a great resource but poses the problem of structure: How to select from and represent such multiplicity in a clear, coherent way? At one point Masters remarks that impressions "were received not in a continuous chain [. . .] but in separate cameos," and this provides a structural principle based on the anecdote or episode, inset into the larger, chronological narrative. Such anecdotes, for example about Pathans' night sniping or the withdrawal of picquets under fire, give a lot of detailed, expert information but present this in action, with an emphasis on showing rather than merely telling. Smaller episodes take their place within the linear narrative of Masters's life, which they partly comprise, and the whole is framed by frequent reference to the long historical perspective which reaches back, say, to Alexander and forward to an independent India. This almost Russian-doll structure works wonderfully to enable Masters to move from the specific detail of his individual experience to the larger issues of Indian and world history.

Much of what Masters describes is directly relevant to our period and its political problems. When, for example, he writes of the difficulties of "the Indo-Afghan border" with its armed tribes "fanatically adhering to the Moslem law, addicted to blood feuds and vendettas" and "owning no king or central authority," we recognise the currency of the description in the early twenty-first century. Specific details like the hunt for the Faqir of Ipi, an enemy tribal leader who lives in a cave, immediately invoke the more recent version of Osama bin Laden. Even though from 75 or 80 years ago, the situation Masters describes is depressingly familiar and relevant, placing our experience in a longer historical perspective, too.

On some issues, political and social change has overtaken Masters's world and views and this is perhaps where a modern reader feels the difference of period. Friendship with an Anglo-Indian causes Masters "for the first time to consider the political aspects" of his position in India: "they wanted us to go and I at once saw the justice of this." Masters is very critical of the Indian Congress party and his paragraphs on Indian nationalism hardly constitute an in-depth analysis, but that is not the purpose of his narrative and it's clear he is far from being a blinkered, Colonel-Blimp-type imperialist.

Despite the continuing relevance of the political situations and issues Bugles describes, the book's heart is not political but personal, informed by extensive first-hand experience. When Masters describes the Central Provinces, for example, the country of Kipling's Jungle Books, the specific detail of the flora, fauna and geology carries the authority of lived experience. Masters is not a tourist but has near-native knowledge while, as part-outsider, he has the careful and recording eye of an observer, and his descriptions are dynamic because they represent the landscape and its inhabitants in action.

Also, the language of his descriptions shows a talent for the perfect word choice. So he describes the Frontier as "a tilted wilderness of rock and scrub," a phrase in which the adjective changes a near cliché to something original and striking. Similarly, a phrase like "the ether stillness of the hospital" immediately conveys the smell, the near silence, the deadness. Occasionally, Masters tries too hard, as in his description of a ship's wake as "like a knurled white scarf, embroidering the darkness with points of violet fire," where the poetical prose tends to the purple, or violet, but the scenes Masters describes are colourful and he doesn't usually stray too far into the technicolour.

Masters's descriptions also gain power from native terms, used more substantially and authentically than as mere local colour. His eye, and ear, produce a text tinged with the polyglot, a feature in common with Kipling's work and, to a lesser extent, the writings of that great lover of India, the hunter and conservationist, Jim Corbett, whom Masters had surely read. These writers, with their interest in the languages of India, have long since anticipated the macaronic of the postcolonial novel.

If Masters shows his attention to and love for the landscapes, the flora and fauna and peoples of India, their languages and cultures, the heart of that love is his relationship with his regiment, the 4th Ghurkhas. Throughout, he gives a lot of information about Ghurkha culture and customs, individualising this with specific portraits of named soldiers, whose photographs are the only ones in the book. Masters doesn't prettify their culture as, for example, when he describes in full detail their ritual execution of animals. But his respect and admiration for the Ghurkhas' knowledge, intelligence and courage are clear, and we believe Masters when he tells us, of Ghurkha Gumparsad: "He was a man whose honesty of purpose shone through his speech and his silence alike. I loved him and could have hugged him then." Masters uses that wonderful phrase from Henry V, "band of brothers," to describe the regiment and it's clear that he genuinely believes in a brotherhood that transcends cultural, racial and national distinctions though, for him, that brotherhood is forged partly through the extremes of a soldier's life, as is self-knowledge.

Bugles ends, appropriately, at the beginning of a local military action, a figure for the larger war to come, with Masters no longer the novice but part of the "spiritual unity" of the battalion, his apprenticeship as a soldier and a man complete.
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on 10 September 2007
Is the story of one man grappling to come to terms with command, and not a normal command but the command of a Company of Gurkhas [namely A Company of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Prince of Wales Own Gurkha Rifles].

In 1933 John Masters moves from Wellington to Sandhurst and then after training to India and a brief stay of further education with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, and then on to the 2/4 PWOGR, here he takes command of a Rifle Company as it maintains order on the edge of the Empire. Imperial Policing at its zenith, this is a remarkable insight to the North West Frontier of the time [although not much seems to have changed] and the clashes with the Pathans tribesmen. Masters learns his trade under the watchful eye of his Commanding Officer, and on the brink of the Second World War, he is the Adjutant of the Battalion ready to see further action in an all too different clash of arms.

An excellent recollection, lovingly written of the old Indian Army, by someone who learnt his trade on one of the remotest outpost of Empire. Recommended to anyone who has an interest in Military History or is about to take up unit command themselves.

G LONG
2007
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on 10 September 2007
Is the story of one man grappling to come to terms with command, and not a normal command but the command of a Company of Gurkhas [namely A Company of the 2nd Battalion, 4th Prince of Wales Own Gurkha Rifles].

In 1933 John Masters moves from Wellington to Sandhurst and then after training to India and a brief stay of further education with the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, and then on to the 2/4 PWOGR, here he takes command of a Rifle Company as it maintains order on the edge of the Empire. Imperial Policing at its zenith, this is a remarkable insight to the North West Frontier of the time [although not much seems to have changed] and the clashes with the Pathans tribesmen. Masters learns his trade under the watchful eye of his Commanding Officer, and on the brink of the Second World War, he is the Adjutant of the Battalion ready to see further action in an all too different clash of arms.

An excellent recollection, lovingly written of the old Indian Army, by someone who learnt his trade on one of the remotest outpost of Empire. Recommended to anyone who has an interest in Military History or is about to take up unit command themselves.

G LONG
2007
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on 6 March 2017
A highly entertaining and informative autobiography, which compels the reader to go on to the second volume, "The Road past Mandalay".
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on 9 June 2013
As a Nepalese it was brilliant to read about this amazing part of history that John Masters shares with us..Lovingly written, honest and fun..
He sums the Nepalese quite well..I showed my English wife the section where he described about how we point with our chin and grunt generally!! Ha..ha!! Very true..
I mean he even remined me of a nepali curse"Jhanta" that i had forgotten ..Priceless..
Jokes apart.amazing book about pre- 2nd world war in the North West frontier and also life in general with the gurkhas along with other amusing anecdotes.
For anyone with a interest in a genuine no hold barred sort of account this is the book..
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VINE VOICEon 14 January 2010
This book is also suprisingly (unsurprisingly?) topical. Masters' first taste of real war is the Waziristan Campaign 1936-39. His descriptions of both the Pathan character (fierce and fiercely proud) and their tactics (hit-and-run strikes, roadside booby-traps) will be familiar to any soldier serving in Afghanistan today. And if anyone in the Labour government had bothered to read it, they perhaps wouldn't have got into such a mess in 2009 mishandling the issue of Gurkhas in the British Army. I also loved some of the insights into social behaviour, and was astonished at how widespread adultery was amongst British women. The book is also tinged with sadness: generations of families like Masters had created India and loved it deeply; but the writing was on the wall: their day was at an end, and the sun was setting on British India. A fascinating, engaging, funny and sad book.
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on 22 July 2015
This is the first of 3 volumes of autobiography and covers his time in the Indian Army up to the outbreak of the Second World War.

The author writes very well and this is a really entertaining book covering military life in India in the late 1930s and the last of the campaigns on the North West Frontier. It is written against the backdrop of the moves towards Independence and is an interesting account of that process from the point of view of a man whose family had served in the sub-continent for several generations.

The other 2 volumes of autobiography are The Road Past Mandalay that covers his service up to the end of World War Two and Pilgrim's Son. The latter is hard to get now and covers his early life as a writer in the USA in the 1950s.
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on 4 October 2005
I first read this on recommendation, while serving with the British Army in Malaya in the mid sixties. It was a good read then for a twenty year old, but re-reading it some forty years later was a wonderful surprise. What an eye opener it would be for young officers now to see how officers had to live for their foreseeable lives (and enjoyed it!), and although there is undoubtedly a job to be done in the modern army in some extremely tough places, there is no doubt that this era was tough and ugly. But in the company of those wonderful Gurkhas, some some fun could be had too. As a fellow rifleman of a sister regiment it was a joy to re-read, but anyone with an interest in military history, or simply wanting to read a true story of someone telling their story of a fascinating life could do no better than to read this. I look forward to reading the next part of this fascinating autobiography; The Road Past Mandalay.
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