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The life of John McCrohan (1827-1892) - Part I
My Family TreeJerry writes "The Drummer Boy

Meanwhile John was continuing his training as a drummer. He was given a uniform and placed under orders of the Regimental Drum Major. He learnt the exact details of how to stand, to sling the drum around his neck, and to hold the drum sticks, as laid down in the military manual.



The drummer boys started learning the drum rolls slowly, then built up speed. There were numerous different beats the boys had to remember: The Long Roll, the Seven Stroke Roll, the Eleven Stroke Roll, the Open Flam, the Close Flam, the Flam and Stroke, the Flam and Feint, the Drag, the Drag and Stroke, and many many variations of these.

After learning the Rolls, and after many months of constant and repetitive practising, the boys started to put them together into the Calls and Marches. While stationed in barracks in peacetime, the daily routine was ordered by beatings of the drum at carefully laid down times. The day started with The Reveille at daybreak, when the men were to rise, and the night sentries to cease challenging those approaching the garrison. The Assemblee told all men to repair to their colours for roll call. There was The Church Call to summon them to church, The Serjeants' Call to bring all serjeants to the orderly room, and The Drummers' Call to summon the drummers to where the regimental colours were. At sunset every day the drummers beat The Retreat, summoning the men to another roll call and to hear the Orders of The Day read out. Lastly The Taptoo (later "Tattoo"), at ten o'clock in summer and nine o'clock in winter, ordering all troops to repair to their quarters.

A major task of the drummers while stationed in Britain was recruiting. The Recruiting Sergeant, with a band of drummers, would station himself at the market cross of a selected town or village. The beating of the drums would attract attention, and the striking uniforms, brightly painted side-drums and gleaming swords would convey to the young men among the inhabitants a romantic picture of life as a soldier.

Then there were the calls to be used while campaigning. The General, an order to make ready to march, and The March Call, to move off. To Arms - a general alarm, The Preparative, to make ready for firing, and the rousing calls to be made during battle to encourage hard-pressed fighters to make an extra effort. In John McCrohan's time the drums were still being used for all these Calls in most regiments, but over the fifty years from about 1800 to 1850, drums were gradually replaced by bugles, which could be heard more clearly over the noise of gunfire, and permitted more variation in the calls. All drummer boys also learnt to play the bugle as well.

For marching, however, the drums were merely the accompaniment to the tunes provided by the Fifers, who were a separate group in the regimental band. John learnt many regular Marches, and also the Victory March for ceremonial parades, and the Rogues' March, to be used when a soldier discharged with ignominy was drummed out of the regiment. Then the beat to be played at a flogging to count out the strokes. Finally, for the saddest occasions at which the Drummers had to attend, the Dead March, for use at funerals and executions, when the drums were played muffled with black cloth. At the end of a regimental funeral, a drummer was the only mourner remaining, and could claim the sword of the deceased as his fee.

Not all the drummer boys were allowed to continue as drummers after the age of eighteen; the least able were transferred to be regular privates. There was thus great competition among the drummers to excel. The drummers wore a smarter uniform than the regular soldiers, had a distinctive scimitar-like sword, and received more pay. In addition, some among them learnt foreign languages, as the interpreters at parleys were drawn from among the drummers.

John McCrohan in Australia

As we saw, John joined the army at the age of nine. At twelve years old he had said goodbye to his parents when they retired to Ardfert. In 1830 the 17th was assigned to oversee the convict settlements of New South Wales, and so at fifteen, he embarked on a journey to the other end of the earth, with no date for his return.

................. Description of the voyage to Australia to be inserted ..............

John's ship dropped anchor in Sydney harbour on the 10th of February 1831, and he saw before him a land like nothing anyone from Britain could imagine. His first impression must have been the heat. He had left England in late autumn; here it was the height of summer. In his first few weeks there he saw the exotic, unfamiliar vegetation and creatures of this isolated continent: the eucalypts or gum trees, the kangaroo, koala, wallaby and dingo, the parakeets and the raucous cockatoos. Most of all, he saw an unending expanse of land; he was in a country much larger than Britain, but with a fraction of the population.

Sydney had been founded in 1788, when the first convict fleet arrived off Botany Bay as part of the great British experiment of Transportation. Between that date and the end of the system in 1868, a total of 162,000 men and women were sentenced to be transported to Australia as punishment for crimes ranging from petty theft to murder. Less than two per cent were transported for political crimes. The years John McCrohan was in New South Wales were the peak years by number of convicts transported: 26,700 between 1831 and 1835. Very few transportees ever returned to Britain. Most, on completing their sentence, decided to settle in Australia for good, and those who had families back in Britain sent for them to come out.

In thirty-three years New South Wales had developed from a bare unsullied land, inhabited by the hunter-gatherer aborigines, to a country of small settlements, sheep stations and farms. There were roads, quarries, coal mines, and the town of Sydney, with its rows of small whitewashed cottages with neat gardens and hedges, all under a clear, unpolluted sky. All this had been achieved by the labour of the convicts, under strict military administration.

There were in effect, two classes of British in New South Wales. The free settlers, who had come from Britain of their own volition, on the promise of unlimited land and cheap convict labour, went to extraordinary pains to distinguish themselves from the convicts, and from those who had served their sentence and stayed on in New South Wales as Emancipists. Ninety per cent of convicts were assigned - hired out to private settlers. The remainder were "Government Men" supervised by the military on public works.

John was in Australia as part of the host of soldiers, prison officers and administrators needed to control such an enormous penal colony. He hardly ever saw an aborigine. They had been forced out of the settled areas into the bush, and their numbers were decreasing as the settlers took more and more of their land.

The whole system of transportation had come about firstly, because British juries refused to find someone guilty of petty crime if they knew he or she would be hanged; secondly, because the Government would not pay for large prisons to be constructed in Britain; and thirdly because public opinion in Britain would not countenance the sight of chained men working at forced labour. In New South Wales such a sight was commonplace. Once outside the town of Sydney, one could see gangs of them everywhere.

So John McCrohan found himself guarding gangs of convicts, not always in chains, working on road building, or tree felling, or digging ditches, or stone quarrying, or clearing the bush for farmland. For the most part, overseeing these men was not difficult; most of the convicts obeyed orders and did what was required of them. As with all forced labour, they of course did the minimum work they could get away with, but gross insubordination was the exception.

A convict who would not cooperate in the system, or who committed further crimes, was sentenced to a very harsh regime, in Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania), or on the infamous Norfolk Island. There the men worked in chains all the time, and a flogging was the punishment for the smallest infraction. Even in New South Wales, however, there was continual pressure from the Government back in Britain to increase the severity of the regime. At times it was felt that the life of a convict in Australia was getting such an easy reputation that criminals were actually hoping to be sent there, as a life far better than they could achieve back home.

When John McCrohan arrived, New South Wales was labouring under a very strict regime, under a Governor whose name belied his character: Sir Ralph Darling. When his term of office came to an end in December 1831, his departure was marked with wild jubilation by the Emancipists, and the arrival of his replacement, Governor Bourke, made life easier for convict and soldier alike.

From time to time the soldiers would be called upon to pursue a runaway. It was easy to escape from the road-building or bush-clearing gangs; the difficulty was to survive in the bush. Most returned of their own accord after a short time; those who managed to stay alive and evade capture became the heroic bushrangers of Australian legend.

John came to New South Wales a boy. He left in 1836 a man, and still a drummer, as he had been one of those selected to stay in the regimental band on reaching eighteen. Not tall, only 1.68 metres, but with a fresh, healthy complexion, sandy hair and grey eyes.

........... research needed to find out where John McCrohan was from 1836 to 1839 ..........

John McCrohan in Afghanistan

Eventually, in February 1839, the regiment was posted to India, as a task force was being put together to invade Afghanistan. Ever since Britain had taken possession of India, there had been friction between Russia and Britain over the Northwest frontier. A buffer zone, in the form of Afghanistan and several central Asian states, existed between the two Empires, but both sides were constantly nibbling at the edges. They dispatched surveying parties to fill in the blanks on the map, intrepid "explorers" traversed the region, reporting on the other side's movements, and spies disguised as merchants or holy men roamed the whole area. In addition, both Empires were constantly sending missions and envoys to the central Asian Emirates, Khanates and Kingdoms, seeking to make security and trade deals with the rulers that would benefit themselves and exclude the other side. In his book "Kim", Kipling referred to the whole enterprise as "the Great Game".

For the most part, both sides had avoided military action, for many reasons, not the least of which were the enormous cost and logistical problems, in very difficult terrain. But in 1838 Lord Auckland, the Governor General of India, had lost patience. Dost Mohammed, the ruler of Afghanistan, had welcomed a Russian delegation and signed a security agreement with them, while at the same time pointedly excluding a British mission which was also in the capital. To allow the Russians a free hand in Afghanistan was too close for comfort, and it was decided to invade and install a more compliant ruler, Shah Shujah, a rival claimant to the throne, who was living in exile in India.

The "Army of the Indus", as the task force was officially called, consisted of about 15,000 British and Indian troops, backed up by around 30,000 camp followers - officers' servants, cooks, bearers, grooms and so on. In addition to horses there were also thousands of camels to carry the enormous amount of supplies necessary, and several herds of cattle, to be slaughtered and eaten as required.

Immediately upon arrival in Bombay, the 17th Regiment marched north and joined the assembled troops. At the end of March 1839, as soon as the high mountain roads were passable after winter, the army, led by General Sir John Keane, crossed Sind and entered Afghanistan. The most direct route would have been across the Punjab and through the Khyber Pass, but the British at this time did not want to offend the sensitivities of Ranjit Singh, the ruler of the Punjab and a close ally, by passing so many troops across his territory. Consequently, the army used the Bolan Pass, 600 Kilometres further south, and much longer and higher.

Despite the quantities of supplies brought with them, the troops soon found it hard going. Progress was very slow as the roads were not suited to such heavy treatment. The Bolan pass, at an altitude of 2,500 metres, was particularly tough, but even in the lowlands no fresh vegetables could be obtained. It was also increasingly demoralising to find that the local peoples whose territories they passed through were violently opposed to the imposition of Shah Shujah upon them. Day and night the troops had to fight off raids by Afghani hill tribes.

Fortunately, the army reached the first sizeable town, Kandahar, after only four weeks. Kandahar surrendered without a fight, and the British troops discreetly held back so that "Shaw Sugar", as they had dubbed him, could make a triumphal entry at the head of his own rag-tag body of soldiers.

The inhabitants of Kandahar suffered the presence of the British troops in resentful silence, but at least plenty of food was now available. The army continued its march, and in another few weeks reached Ghazni. This town would prove less easy to take. It was a strong mountain fortress, and refused to surrender.

Rather than wait for the heavy guns, which were still being dragged over the mountains, General Keane decided to send in sappers to plant explosives and blow up the main gate of the fortress.

The explosives to blow up the gate at Ghazni were to be planted and ignited by a small party of volunteers led by Lieutenant Henry Durand. The gate would then be cleared by a storming party, after which the 17th regiment was assigned to be the first to enter the fortress. John and the other members of the band would have been stationed very close to the gate in order to make as much noise and confusion as possible when the time came. At midnight on the 22nd of July 1839 the soldiers took up their positions, with orders to lie on the ground, and no words to be spoken above a whisper, until the charge had been placed and blown.

At three in the morning diversionary fire was opened up on the far side of the fortress to draw the enemy away. Then the explosion was heard. The heavy masonry and timbers of the gateway rose in the air and crashed down in rubble. The bugles sounded the advance, the storming party, closely followed by the 17th regiment, charged the gateway, and soon the men were engaged in hand to hand fighting in the streets inside. The men of the 17th fought their way up to the citadel of the fortress, and their colours were the first to fly above the ramparts. The colours, or regimental banners, were the heart of the regiment, and the drummers were always stationed close by in the tight-knit protective force guarding them and the honour of the regiment. So we may picture John standing proudly beneath the colours at the very top of the fort of Ghazni.

It took twelve hours to subdue the entire fortress. The Afghans fought hard, but were no match for highly trained troops. Over 500 of them were killed, with a loss of only 17 men on the British side. The exhausted men once again had plentiful supplies of food now, and the way was clear to the capital, Kabul.

As the army continued its march northward, it was found that the taking of the hitherto impregnable fortress of Ghazni had been a demoralising blow to the Afghans. No longer did the troops have to face raids; the tribespeople were surrendering in droves. Then came the news that Dost Mohammed had fled Kabul. Despite the security treaty he had made with the Russians, they had signally failed to give him assistance of any sort against the invader. When, on August 7th, the British reached the capital, Shah Shujah was again able to enter without a shot being fired.

The 17th was now dispatched to take the town of Khelat, the last holdout in Afghanistan. The march, through high mountains amid bitter cold, was once again very hard, but eventually Khelat was reached and taken with very little resistance, on the 13th of November 1839. And so the 17th left Afghanistan and returned to Bombay, and routine regimental life.

The regiment had covered itself in glory over the conquest of Afghanistan. Every man, including John McCrohan, received a silver medal for the taking of Ghazni. This was only the second campaign medal ever to be issued to all ranks taking part, the first being the Waterloo medal, which John's father Daniel had received.

Despite the success of the campaign, the British stay in Afghanistan was destined to be short-lived. Shah Shujah, the puppet ruler of the British, proved unable to control the country, and in 1842 the tribespeople rose up and massacred the entire British garrison which had been left at Kabul. Eventually the British allowed Dost Mohammed to return, as the only ruler strong enough to hold the country together. After his salutary experience he no longer flirted with the Russians, and Afghanistan was left in peace for another forty years.

John, Jane and Frances Gordon

About the same time as our ancestor Daniel McCrohan was born in Ireland, another ancestor, John Gordon, was born in Scotland, at Haddington, a town on the Great South Road to London, just outside Edinburgh. Little is known of his life. He first took up the trade of baker, but later enlisted in the army, joining first the 71st Regiment of Foot, and, in 1823 at Dublin, transferring to the Queens Royals Regiment. His wife was named Jane, of whom we know even less.

Soon after, the Queens Royals were posted to India, and it was while stationed at Poonah, near Bombay, that a daughter, Frances Gordon, was born to John and Jane. She was born on Christmas Eve, 1826, and they had her baptised on New Years Day.

The present-day visitor to Pune, as Poonah was respelt by the Indians in the 1980's, would find that India hasn't changed a lot since the time of Frances' childhood there. Then, as now, the noisy, crowded streets and bazaars were full of countless shops and stalls, selling inexpensive goods of all kinds. In towns such as Poonah, where British regiments were stationed, business flourished in the bazaars as the troops and their families spent their earnings there.

Poonah was the seasonal capital of the Bombay presidency in India. The rulers and administrators of the southern part of India operated from Bombay during the winter, and in the hot summer moved to Poonah, which was 550 metres up on the Deccan plateau to the east. Poonah was also the headquarters of the British Army Southern Command in India, and was administered as a military town.

The original plan, in each town or city where British troops were permanently stationed, had been that the British would live in an enclosed cantonment, separately from the Indian townsfolk, and be supplied by an army commissariat, or supply store. In Poonah, the cantonment was situated on the edge of the old town, and was known as the Camp. However, for the rank and file soldiers, the bazaar of old Poonah was a favourite place to visit when they had free time. Whatever the thoughts of the local populace about being occupied by a foreign power from the other side of the globe, the presence of the British troops in Poonah was a godsend to them.

For all its crowds, noise, dirt and squalor, India has never been called dull; there's always something of interest going on. From dawn to dusk the streets were full of people transporting goods of all sorts by oxcart, on camels, handcarts or on their own shoulders. Bearers and porters passed by clad in the dhoti, or Indian loincloth, and bent almost double under enormous burdens. Occasionally a more important personage would come by, borne in style on horseback or in a palanquin. Cows, sacred to the Hindu, wandered unhindered through the streets, helping themselves to food from vegetable stalls.

To live in India is an experience one never forgets, and Frances and her family must have had many interesting stories to tell for the rest of their lives.

On the nineteenth of January 1839, when Frances was twelve years old, her father John Gordon died, while still at Poonah. We don't know anything about Jane's circumstances after that, or whether she had the opportunity to get back to Scotland. For the present at least she stayed on in India. One of her immediate concerns would have been to get Frances settled as soon as possible. A boy child of a soldier could, as we have seen, enlist in the regiment at a very young age, but for the female "Barrack Rats", the best prospect would be marriage to a soldier. A fine choice was made in John McCrohan, drummer, veteran of Afghanistan, of very good conduct, and recently promoted to Corporal. They married on the twelfth of October, 1840. John was twenty-five; Frances was only thirteen.



Note: (Researched and contributed by Mike McCrohan of Eastbourne, England. John McCrohan's record can be found in the McCrohan genealogical database at this link.)"

Posted on Sunday, 18 February 2001 @ 10:59:53 EST by Admin

 
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Australian archdiocesan records - Francis McCrohan/Grace Mullen


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