Mundy Monday: "The Soul of a Regiment"


Welcome to Mundy Monday, DMR Blog’s look at the works of Pulp writer Talbot Mundy. Our first installment examines one of Mundy’s earliest sales to the fiction market: “The Soul of a Regiment”. While Mundy started writing non-fiction in different magazines in 1911, it was this piece, published in the February 1912 issue of Adventure magazine, that first brought him praise and critical attention. It was also his first story to merit a cover illustration.

The story revolves around the English Sergeant-Instructor assigned to the 1st Egyptian Foot, an infantry regiment raised in the beginning of the Mahdist War in the Sudan during the mid-1880s. It describes Sgt. William Grogram’s herculean efforts to turn his fellaheen recruits into something like a real regiment; key to his work is the regard for the regimental colors that he manages to instill into his troops.

“So long as its colors remain, and there is one man left to carry them, a regiment can never die”

By the time he is done, he manages to overcome the obstacles of language (he learns Arabic to talk to his men) and indifference (his Colonel and the other officers think that nothing can be made of native troops) to form his men into a real regiment that he is proud of and whose men he loves as they love him. He even manages to form a small regimental band (which only knows two tunes: “The Campbells Are Coming” and “God Save the Queen”) to provide martial music for his men to march to. Then in 1884, the Gladstone administration sends General Charles “Chinese” Gordon to the Sudan and the 1st Egyptian Foot go with him to Khartoum. In January of 1885, the city fell, Gordon was killed and the 1st Egyptian Foot, along with every other unit at Khartoum, was lost.

Over the next three years, Britain builds her forces in Egypt; more troops arrive from other lands in the Empire, more regiments of local troops are raised and the Sirdar (the British commander-in-chief of the Anglo-Egyptian army) organizes and trains the force that will inevitably set sail up Father Nile to avenge Gordon. From time to time, rumors come up from the South of a mad feringhee (European) who travels with three pipers and a drummer, but no one connects them with the Sgt. Grogram who left for Khartoum with the 1st Egyptian Foot. The only sport that the Sirdar would countenance was polo, and once a year there would be a polo match between the Army team and the Civil Service team that all of Cairo would turn out to see, with the Sirdar presiding over it in person. The third such match was tied at half-time, 1 goal each, with the Army band playing before a noisy crowd when the band stops playing and the crowd gradually falls silent. Five men come marching onto the field; a drummer, three pipers and a third man who marches like a British soldier. They are scarred, ragged, dirty scarecrows that march to the tune of “The Campbells Are Coming” across the polo field and present themselves before the Sirdar, reporting for duty as the First Egyptian Foot.

When asked for their colors, the British soldier who leads them opens his tunic to reveal the bloody torn colors of his regiment wrapped around a body abused by torture and starvation. “Here, Sir!” he replies, and the pipers start playing the only other tune they know, “God Save the Queen.” Sgt. Billy Grogram stiffens in a salute and then falls dead at the Sirdar’s feet. They bury him with honors and begin recruiting new men into the 1st Egyptian Foot the next day. The regiment’s colors are the physical embodiment of the soul of the regiment and because he had returned with those colors, the regiment would live on.

“The Soul of the Regiment” was reprinted at least four times while Mundy was still alive and voted most popular story in Adventure magazine by a 1918 readership survey. It lacks the polish and craftsmanship of the author’s later work, but it certainly has something that engages the reader’s attention, even though the action occurs offstage. Perhaps because, although the story takes place more than 25 years before the year of publication, in 1912 there were still living veterans of the American Civil War and many more people who could remember the stories told by their father or grandfather about following the colors of their regiment into battle. It connected with British readers as well and was the first of his works to be republished in England. Although quite short (only three brief chapters), it contains a number of elements that we will encounter again in his later works; for example, Sgt. Grogram’s soul is said to go “into the regiment”. That is not a modern or Western concept and foreshadows the influence that Eastern philosophy will have on Mundy’s later works.

This story is recommended; it is a quick read and can be found in most collections of Mundy’s short fiction or here, courtesy of the Roy Glashan Library, complete with the original cover art. Give it a look; a real man will be able to read it without getting all teary-eyed. I swear.