Tiger Story

by Lt-Col F.E. (Freddie) Elliot, late R.A., late Queen's Messenger (1892-1971)

Until the outbreak of war in 1939 there used to be a pleasant custom in the armies in India and Burma (in those days a province of India) whereby Thursday was observed not quite as a holiday but rather a day on which formal parades were at a minimum and plain clothes were worn by all ranks, except of course the quarter-guard and stable picket. There was little idleness, though: gunners practiced gun-laying and fire discipline; the slavedriving NCO i/c signallers spurred his minions on to further efforts; specialists practiced their skills; learner trumpeters might be heard making strange noises deep in the jungle; saddlers and artificers were busy on their endless repair work; the musical clang of hammer on anvil was audible from time to time. Supervision of these and other activities on that day could confidently be left mostly to the Indian Officers, while the British Officers were able, if behindhand, to get up to date with paper work.

One fine Thursday, then, I was sitting in the battery office, immersed in the accounts-never one of my strong points-when three young men, knocking on the open door, came in and bade me good morning. They were the Assistant Commissioner (and ex officio local magistrate) and two officers of the large Rangoon firm of Steel Brothers. It was the captain they were looking for but he happened to be engaged on one of those tasks, such as quarterly stocktaking, which once begun cannot be left. They had wanted him to join them in looking up a wounded tiger that had been making himself unpopular at a spot half way to Mandalay from where we were, at Maymyo in Upper Burma. They now politely asked if I would like to come with them and the idea was certainly attractive. But I was on a hot scent in a chase after an elusive digit which had to be tracked down. I declined. John Wilton, however, the only subaltern then present, jumped at the offer of taking my heavy rifle and joining the expedition. But as they were moving off I had a sudden idea and asked them how they proposed to go about looking the tiger up when they arrived on the scene. "Well," said one of them, "I suppose we shall try walking him up as in rough shooting, guns well spaced out, with beaters in the intervals." That did not seem at all a good plan to me. Though very far indeed from being a Jim Corbett, I had read some of his and other experts' writings on going after tigers and had myself followed up two wounded tigers, both of which, however, had, before we had gone far, luckily turned out to be dead. I knew that the method now proposed might result in trouble if not disaster for somebody. I had better go with them after all, I thought, if they would still like me to. In any case, I didn't really want to miss the party. So the battery accounts would have to wait until later. Pausing only to tell the guard commander to inform the captain where we were bound for, John and I went off to change into khaki kit, and pick up rifles-I had to content myself with the light rifle now-ammunition and a few necessary stores, then we rejoined the others. All five of us piled into the A. C.'s car with our gear and started off down the hill toward Mandalay.

On the way we compared notes on arms. The A. C. and one of the Steel's men, Farmer, each had a 12-bore, to be loaded with spherical ball in the right barrel and buckshot in the choke; the other Steel's man, Hurt, had a 92 mm. magazine rifle to which he was much attached; John had my D-B .577 Holland and Holland which weighed 13 lb. and was shod with inch-and-a-half thick rubber to absorb some of the recoil, and I had the .318 W.R. magazine rifle. Hurst had shot big game with his 9mm. in East Africa and had on one occasion been mauled by a leopard (as panthers are usually called in that country). He had yet to be persuaded that a double rifle was preferable to a magazine at close quarters. Twenty-odd miles out, at a height of not much more than 2,000 ft. above sea level-Maymyo is at 3,500 ft.-we were met by the Assistant Superintendent of Police (A. S. P.), a well-turned-out, intelligent Indian who spoke, besides his native Punjabi, at least three languages fluently: Hindustani, English and Burmese. This officer had assembled beaters and guides and we were led to the jumping-off place. The A. S. P. told us that the tiger had killed one Burman that morning and clawed two others. The tiger was himself severely wounded, having frequently been shot at with primitive firearms and slashed with dahs on his forays among the villages in that neighbourhood. Being crippled, he had taken to killing village cattle. He was reported full of fight, however, and in an ugly mood. The A. S. P. added that the local men had the animal marked down with reasonable accuracy a mile or so away.

A large number of Burmans had collected, all eager to take part in the operation; far too many, indeed, for our purpose, and the first thing to do was to send most of them away, to their evident disappointment. We kept half a dozen of the most suitable and explained, through the A. S. P., what they had to do. The guns, they were told, would, as far as the going allowed, keep bunched so as to watch the front and flanks while not disregarding the rear. The Burmans were to provide themselves with quantities of suitable stones, to thrown into any covert that might be concealing the tiger as we advanced. and they were told to keep behind the guns, never in line with us, still less in front of us. As we proceeded, one of them was to climb a convenient tree as opportunity offered, to see if he could detect anything of the tiger ahead or in any direction. These points having been made clear we loaded our weapons and started off in pretty close wedge formation.

For some distance the going was fairly open, with scattered trees of different kinds and sizes and patches of scrub and longish grass here and there which our followers duly rocked as directed. But all was still and the heat of the April sun began to make itself felt. Gradually the going became heavier. It could now fairly be classed as jungle, with more and bigger trees and thicker undergrowth. We continued to follow the prescribed drill, our progress becoming slower as the covert thickened. Our guide kept us in the right direction and all was still silent except for the occasional call of a bird. We sweated freely. At last the jungle became so dense that we had to follow game paths, mostly in singe file, and to discontinue stoning covert because it was covert everywhere. The senses of sight and hearing were working overtime but now a third sense came into play: "I can smell him now," remarked Hurst. We went on, very much on the alert, and after a moment or two, "I can smell him too," said Farmer and, sure enough, a horrible smell, faint at first but increasing, was assailing the nose. We were going slowly along a game path, myself leading, when we suddenly came to a small, partly overgrown clearing some 8 or 9 yards across. Stepping into the clearing I paused for a moment to take a look and at once spotted the tiger, half concealed in long grass at the opposite side. It would be impossible to describe briefly what now took place in literally a few seconds of time. From now on, everything happened almost simultaneously. It may therefore be best to relate the bare facts in as few words as possible and elaborate afterwards where desirable.

"Look out!" I yelled as the tiger sprang, without a growl. The sky was full of tiger as I hurriedly swung the muzzle up and fired almost vertically, the recoil, much greater than that of the service .303, knocking me momentarily off balance. The tiger landed full on Hurst who was a little to my left rear and who had fired simultaneously with me. He lay pinned on his back but with great presence of mind thrust the muzzle of his rifle into the tiger's mouth, keeping it from using its fangs. At the same moment John stepped forward and, at a few inches rise, blew the tiger off Hurst while the A. C., Farmer and I closed in and gave it our contributions. The tiger now seemed dead enough but we put some more lead into him to keep him so, on the principle that it matters less to damage the animal's skin than to risk one's own unnecessarily. We then turned to see what sort of shape Hurst was in. He had received some nasty clawings of which the worst were on his left arm and in the right thigh near the groin and some lesser cuts on the chin and chest; his back was abraded and contused. Hurst asked to have his wounds sucked, an office which John at once performed and we bandaged him up with a shell dressing, a useful relic of the 1914-18 war.

Our fusillade must have immediately got the A. S. P. and the villagers moving in our direction, for in no time, as it seemed, they appeared and a man was sent post-haste to bring some beer from the car. After getting outside a couple of bottles Hurst felt much better. He was helped to the car and rushed back to Maymyo, the A. C. keeping his foot hard down almost the whole time except on the hairpin bends. At the hospital it seemed ages before the surgeon emerged from the theatre but at last out he came, with a satisfied smile, saying that there was nothing to worry about. Hurst would be perfectly fit again in due course. Which I am glad to say he was, though naturally it took some time for him to mend up completely.

To return to the scene of action. Before leaving the spot we tried to reconstruct the sequence of events. Now the odd thing about a fast-moving episode like this is that, with the best will in the world and with nothing to gain and nothing to lose, five reasonably honest men cannot, and could not even on oath, agree in every particular. Thus, different beliefs were held as to what our respective positions had been at various stages. However, the facts were materially as I have stated. A day or two later a lurid and not too accurate account of the incident appeared in the Rangoon Gazette, headed "Saves Friend's Life. Gun in Tiger's Mouth." Which was right enough and Hurst admitted afterwards that if he had been on his own he would almost certainly have been a goner, because he was unable to work the bolt of his magazine rifle while holding the tiger's head away; whereas if it had been a double he could probably have fired the left barrel and killed the animal himself.

A few notes about this tiger may not be out of place. The most remarkable is that he was found to have a compound-fractured off hind leg and must therefore have made his spring -- a standing one at that -- off his near hind only. John declared, in the course of the short postmortem referred to above, that the tiger leapt clear over me on to Hurst, an example of the incredible power the big felines can exert. The leg was a horrible mess and, no doubt, the main source of the sickening stench given off by the unfortunate animal. Apart from the holes we had made in it, the skin, which was otherwise in good condition, showed much evidence of damage by missiles of sorts and dah slashes, and the skull, when it came to skinning, had many buckshot embedded in it. It is all very well to say that animals are less sensitive to pain than we are. That is true, but life must have been pure hell for this one while in such a condition. Well, poor devil, all his troubles were over now and not only he but the villagers and their cattle could rest in peace. Incidentally, it was impossible ever to tell where Hurst and I had hit the tiger with our opening shots, because of the multiplicity of bulletholes in the skin. But obviously a couple of light slugs could not possibly have any effect in checking a heavy body hurtling through the air. At the range of a foot or two, however, we could not well have missed. Later on, wondering why the tiger had picked on Hurst when the obvious choice was me, the only plausible explanation at which I could arrive at was that the tiger, instinctively aware that he must put all he had into his one sound hind leg, had actually overdone his leap, at the same time slewing to one side owing to the uneven takeoff from a single leg, thereby missing me and landing plumb on Hurst.

In spite of express admonitions on the subject of the appropriation of whiskers and claws by unauthorised persons, it was found, when the carcass arrived later on in Maymyo, that not one of either appendage remained. The former are valued as an aphrodisiac and the latter as charms (as are also the vestigial clavicles). This tiger was not particularly large -- 8 ft 3 in. between pegs -- but fat and heavy, weighing 306 lbs.

I said that John blew the tiger off Hurst with his right barrel. This is scarcely an exaggeration, if it is one at all, at any rate that was how it looked to me. The .577 is a really powerful weapon which lands a tremendous punch. The bullet from his left barrel actually wobbled or shifted the whole upper part of the dead animal as it lay slumped and inert. I wonder where the skin is now. By common consent it was voted to be Hurst's and no doubt it looks very well on his wall with all the many holes neatly patched, as good taxidermists do, so as to be quite invisible. Deficient whiskers and claws are also fitted by the best practitioners, at some extra charge.