Extracted from Barnaby Rogerson’s afterword to Eland’s new edition
Bengal Lancer was published in the summer of 1930 and proved a phenomenal success in both the British Isles and North America. Over 150,000 copies were sold and the London publisher, Victor Gollancz, sold foreign rights to Italy, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Rumania. The film rights were snapped up by Hollywood for fifteen thousand dollars and in January 1935 Paramount released The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, [starring Gary Cooper] which was saluted as one of the great adventure stories of cinema. Francis Yeats-Brown was able to admire the film on its own merits and was amused rather than outraged that it had so little to do with his book. But having read Bengal Lancer, you will understand how difficult it would be to create a film that would in any way be true to the text.
For Bengal Lancer is many things, but above all it is a love affair with the spiritual traditions of India. It is also the autobiography of a carefree young cavalry officer in the British Indian Army and includes an account of his courageous work with the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War, a prison-escape narrative and a subtle treatise on leadership and what makes a good soldier. It is funny and self-deprecating, so that the reader delights in being in the company of such an unusual man. We do not care that he never found the spiritual master that he yearned for, nor acquired the unattainable woman he desired. It is enough to have spent time in the company of someone who so cared for the Punjabi and Pathan men under his command that he tried to understand their religion, to feel for himself its emotional appeal. It is a rare combination, the soldier and the mystic, the sportsman and the pilgrim. Bengal Lancer feels like one of those books its author was born to write, a one-off touched by magic.
The Yeats-Brown family were a cosmopolitan hybrid – part of the English establishment who had nevertheless, for three generations, lived on the coast of Italy. Francis’s great grandfather had made a small fortune in banking, and his grandfather, Timothy (1789–1858), had married Mary Ann, the daughter of another London banker and loan-broker, Benjamin Goldsmid, in 1812. After the early death of Mary Ann, Timothy remarried Steuarta Erskine, the intellectual daughter of the British ambassador to Munich, and in 1828 the couple moved to Italy where Timothy initially represented the family banking interests of Brown, Cobb & Co. From 1840 he also served as the British Consul in Genoa. The Ligurian coast of Italy was a world away from strait-laced Victorian London, and the Yeats-Browns maintained an enviable and arty style of life in the palace they rented on the edge of the city. All sorts of travellers passed through the port of Genoa on their way further east, and many of them were delighted to accept the hospitality of the British Consul. Some of the more famous visitors, such as Dickens, became lifelong friends of the Yeats-Brown family.
Francis’s father, Montagu Yeats-Brown, was born into this idyllic world in 1834 and brought up in an Italian-speaking household though his mother made certain that he would also be fluent in German by hiring a Bavarian nursemaid and spending much of the year with her father at his home in Bavaria. Aged ten he was sent to the German Academy in Brussels, before finishing his education at Marlborough College. The allure of the soft Mediterranean climate saw him return and join the consulate staff at the tender age of 21. When his father died in 1858, Montagu was already Vice-Consul and took over his father’s position. It was a very agreeable life, especially after he bought the ruins of a medieval castle on the coast above Portofino for just £40 in 1867. Isolated on its own olive- and pine-clad peninsular, the ruins were turned into an enchanting summer house, the old battlements enclosing a sheltered garden … Francis was born into this cosmopolitan household on 15th August 1886, the youngest of three boys. His childhood memories are idyllic. He was pampered by Italian maids and the family was used to the most excellent food and long summers in their own castle, now shaded by a mature garden overlooking the sea.
In July 1904 Francis entered the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, which completed his outward transformation into a confident young man. Eighteen months later he took ship for India wearing the uniform of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps. He was initially stationed at Bareilly (roughly halfway between Delhi and Lucknow) and acquired the characters we meet early on in the pages of Bengal Lancer, his bulldogs – Brownstone and Daisy – and his ponies, Punch and Judy. On 31st December 1906, Yeats-Brown was transferred to the 17th Bengal Lancers and, with his early multilingualism, progressively taught himself to speak Urdu, then Pathan and Punjabi. His sparse frame, which had kept him off the rugby fields of Harrow, now became an advantage, as he could ride fine Arab horses as a lightweight. He became an excellent polo player, with a five-goal handicap. His company commander, Major Metcalfe, considered him ‘the least conceited man I ever met. Very shy and retiring.’ It was also noted that he tended to duck invitations to attend shooting parties but used his leave to travel incognito in the North-West Frontier and to live as a Hindu in Benares. This wasn’t held against him, for imaginative use of leave and skill in languages was one of the accepted ways of becoming noticed, and of being asked to become a Political Officer.
In May 1909 Francis finally returned home to the Yeats-Brown castellated summer house outside Portofino. The ugly duckling of the family was now a swan, who could look his elder brothers in the eye and was even able to confess the extent of his debts (good polo ponies have never been cheap) to his father. That summer Francis also became a friend of the writer E. F. Benson (a comic genius of the first water) who taught Francis the essentials of the craft: to observe carefully, to listen to how conversation flows, to write quickly (but edit slowly) and to alter your style, so that descriptions, dreams, thoughts and conversations each have their own mood, as if perceived through different eyes. Francis returned to Portofino again in 1911 but otherwise his life was entirely committed to India, as described so evocatively and sympathetically in Bengal Lancer.
War erupted before Francis could return to his regiment in India. In September 1914 he served with the 5th Royal Irish Lancers and took part in the battle at Aisne and then the first battle at Ypres. His parents had a house in the Hampshire village of Twyford, which was their English bolt hole when not working in Genoa. It was in this comparatively modest environment that he finally made peace with his old father, whilst on leave, and in the process also felt himself to be part of England. Then he was ordered East. The journey down the Red Sea was spent in the fascinating company of Mark Sykes, one of the talented young men then directing British policy in the Middle East. The campaign in Mesopotamia that Francis Yeats-Brown served in was deliberately being pushed forward to offset the failure of the Gallipoli landings. As we now know, it led to an even more spectacular military defeat, with the surrender of the British army at Kut. In Bengal Lancer Francis devoted just twenty-five pages to his long period of captivity in Turkey. This was a wise editorial decision for his first book, Caught by the Turks, was entirely devoted to this period of his life and was not a success. He subsequently returned to describe these years of imprisonment in his third book, Golden Horn, whose sales were also disappointing. The problem was that this period of his life, although packed full of real adventures and a hair-raising series of escapes, could never be convincingly told in a light-hearted manner. Francis had suffered physical and mental wounds in the prison camp, from which he would never be entirely free. After the war, there was an attempt to get the commandant of the Afyion-Karahisar prison camp tried for war crimes, but it was thought that it would be too traumatic an experience for the young men he had raped to testify in a court room. To what extent Francis directly experienced abuse, or was affected by the sufferings of his comrades, we will never now know. No doubt the spartan boarding school experiences of his English childhood (about which he never wrote) did not make this second involuntary experience of captivity any easier. He was a convalescent after the war, complaining of back pains and wounds from an axe, but by the summer of 1920 the army doctors had somehow got him back on his feet. He was sent back to India, to the barracks at Rawalpindi outside Peshawar, where Major Francis Yeats-Brown supported the work of the Political Officer, John Coatman. It was a fascinating but also difficult period, for British rule was being challenged all over the globe, with blood on the streets in Cairo, bombed-out villages in central Iraq and civil war in Ireland. And calls for independence in India had just been galvanised by the British army massacre of protesting civilians in Amritsar. It was hard for British forces to know if the rising of the Mahsuds of Waziristan or the three Hazara martyrs was just another incident of North-West Frontier dissidence, or the beginnings of a new national uprising.
But instead of further immersing himself in the complex tribal politics of the region, which was probably what he desired, Francis was cherry-picked for a very different mission. He was appointed the official interpreter for a four-month fact-finding tour of India by the US journalist, Lowell Thomas. It was an inspired choice. Lowell Thomas was clever, influential and energetic and would not have tolerated any interference (official or otherwise) in his itinerary. Though a relentless, hard-driven operator, he was continuously astonished by Francis Yeats-Brown’s knowledge, energy and enthusiasm for every aspect of India. Lowell Thomas travelogues – image-led lecture shows – had already single-handedly made T. E. Lawrence world famous. By the time he produced The Land of the Black Pagoda about India, film technology had superseded this medium, but his acknowledgement of the assistance of Francis Yeats-Brown was heartfelt and genuine. ‘I, metaphorically speaking, sat at the feet of a Guru, a Yogi. Incongruous as it may seem, my Guru was neither Hindu, Muslim nor Buddhist monk. He was not even an Oriental, at any rate by place or birth or ancestry. He was an Englishman and a professional soldier.’
At Lucknow in 1922, the 17th Bengal Lancers were amalgamated with another regiment, which Francis took as a sign that it was time to leave the army. His seniors not only accepted this decision but gave him the last two years of his service as furlough on full salary. Francis Yeats-Brown ‘took leave of mother India, as her servant, on Sunday morning, 6th August, sailing down the Hooghly from Calcutta.’ He changed steamers at Rangoon, then at Singapore, then took a boat to Shanghai and on across the Pacific to Vancouver.
In April 1929 he paid a ‘young stenographer with a blonde Eton crop: a discouraging, disinterested party who kept glancing at her wrist-watch’ to take down a dictated story about his life in India. He was consciously tapping into his golden days, both of innocence and of energy, but also saturated with his fascination for India. With words on the page, he took himself off to Italy that summer to ‘cut the thing to pieces’ and completely rewrote it. His friend, E. F. Benson, tried to interest his own publisher in the book but there were two rejection letters to be digested before Victor Gollancz (one of the leading left-wing publishers of the day) snapped up Bengal Lancer.
The rest is publishing history. Francis enjoyed the process of being lionised, though he noted how famous writers tended to slip into performance mode, and that it was only with his close friends such as E. F. Benson and T. E. Lawrence that his conversation remained real. He could not, however, resist accepting invitations to dine with Bernard Shaw, Somerset Maugham, E. M. Forster, John Masefield and the dozens of other famous names that litter his diary after the publication of Bengal Lancer. What undoubtedly gave him the greatest pleasure however was being allowed to talk to Gandhi on a long, dawn walk through the deserted streets of London.
Francis Yeats-Brown died unexpectedly early in December 1944. His old friend and Fleet Street colleague, John Evelyn Wrench, wrote a biography, Francis Yeats-Brown 1886-1944, which was published in 1948. Yeats-Brown was undoubtedly an exceptional man, who searched all his life for the truth, practicing periods of abstinence and fasting alongside his passionate immersion in the discipline of yoga. Despite his British DNA, in many ways Francis was a genuine European, aspiring for a classless society that rewarded all its people, more fully at home in Italy, Germany and India than in his British homeland.
Extracted from the afterword to Bengal Lancer Francis Yeats-Brown