IDR Blog

Digging Deep to Answer the Call of Nature
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Lt Gen HS Panag, PVSM, AVSM (Retd.)
served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. As a soldier, he was known for his integrity, intellect and zeal for reforms.

This article was first published on Newslaundry: Read original article here:

Ever wondered about army toilets? Wonder no more. 

In the 1950s, Readers’ Digest had a column called “Humour in Uniform”. Being an Army Brat (born, raised and transferred), it was interesting to see in print something that was part of our everyday life. Military life is too regimented and stereotyped. For civilians, the military way of life itself is amusing and over the centuries thousands of military anecdotes have kept people regaled. Let me add to the library by narrating two anecdotes from my life with the Gurkhas.

By a quirk of fate and also due to my rather non-conformist ways, at 6 years of service, I was transferred to the 5th Battalion, the Fifth Gurkha Rifles (5/5 GR). My first battalion was 4 Sikh, the Saragarhi Battalion, and 5/5 GR was no less. In the 1944 battle of Mogaung, in Burma, as part of the Chindits, the unit had won two Victoria Crosses in a day. As a professional, it did not take me long to earn the respect of my troops, but it took much longer to adapt to the Gurkha way of life. Everything was in sharp contrast to what I was used to. The first lesson was learnt within two days of my joining the unit.

I reported to the unit at Jindrah, which is in the Shivalik Hills and about 60 kilometres from Jammu. The unit was in the process of moving to this location from the Valley and was to be located in a tented camp. As the camp was being established, the Commanding Officer (CO) held a conference. I was introduced to the CO for first time and he welcomed me with a snide remark, “So, the scum of the Sikh Regiment has been sent to pollute the great 5/5 GR? ” I had no option, but respond curtly, ” Sir, I have been posted to 5/5 GR by the Army Headquarters; and Lieutenant General ZC Bakshi, the Military Secretary, and Colonel of the Fifth Gurkha Rifles would certainly have examined the ‘scum’ part of it.”

That sealed a temporary truce and the conference began. There was only one agenda: toilets! The CO settled the issue by declaring that the Gurkhas eat a lot and consequently shit a lot. The toilets’ design, thus, will deviate from the laid-down specifications and will be made as deep as possible. In order to make this mundane job more interesting, he decided that there would be an inter-company toilet digging competition and a new trophy will be instituted for the same.

Noting the look of surprise on my face, he remarked, “Young man, you will soon get used to the Gurkha way of life.”

Empirical wisdom with the experience of large number of soldiers dying due to dysentery and cholera has taught the armies to never take chances with camp hygiene. In camps two types of toilets are used. The shallow trench latrine (STL) and the deep trench latrine (DTL). The former is meant for emergencies (one or two-time use) and consists of a simple trench one and a half to two feet long, one foot wide and one foot deep.

The DTL is a more elaborate affair, for longer duration use. It consists of a trench 10-12 feet long, three feet wide and six to eight feet deep .The top is kept a little wider and it tapers down to above specifications at the bottom to prevent caving in. The trench may be reinforced to make it stronger. The trench is covered with wooden planks, metal sheets over a frame or concrete slabs with four holes, per DTL. Superstructure for screening is made with local material or jute cloth.

Next morning, the bugle was sounded at 0600 hrs for the competition to begin. Five DTLs were to be constructed per company and the competition was to be in two parts: the trench and the superstructure. Part one was to be judged at 1300 hours. Troops worked at a feverish pitch. To my chagrin, I noticed that the focus was more on symmetry and depth of the trench, ie keeping the wall at right angles rather than a reverse pyramid design. I quickly called the platoon and section commanders and despite their protests about losing the competition, gave firm directions regarding the correct design of the trench. The ground was firm but I restricted the depth to eight feet. Other companies not only maintained the symmetry, but went down to 10 feet. In my view symmetry was of no consequence since the trench was to be covered by a wooden plank frame. At 1300 hours the team led by the CO came for the inspection. Symmetry and depth were the principle criteria. As feared by my junior leaders, my company came last and our neighbouring company came first.

The CO gave me a dressing down in front the entire unit and said that I better learn the Gurkha way of doing things. He went on to say that I should refrain from imposing the ways of “desi paltans” on the Gurkhas. He further directed that the DTL should be at least 15 feet deep so that they could be used for a longer duration. He again reinforced the need for symmetry. He specifically directed me to learn from the others and stay back to improve the standard of my trenches.  My feeble protest about the depth of 15 feet without reinforcement was met with a volley of expletives.

In blazing sun, the work commenced again after lunch. Being an army brat, having taken part in 1971 War and with a coveted foreign posting under the belt, I was determined not to follow the quixotic orders and much to the annoyance of my junior leaders, I told them to do only cosmetic improvement to our trenches.  Suddenly, from the neighbouring company, there were cries of “Maryo, maryo! ” I rushed to the spot and found that two of the trenches of the company that had been declared first had collapsed, as they had been dug down to 15 feet. Five soldiers were buried under the mud. Galvanising everyone into action, I organised the rescue. We quickly dug their heads out to enable breathing, and after frantic effort of an hour, pulled the men out.

Luckily all survived. Two soldiers had broken their legs and two had severely injured their backs. The CO and other officers soon arrived on the scene. He gruffly asked me to narrate the incident. I gave him the facts and then, the reason for the fiasco. DTL specifications had been violated. You can dig a narrow trench not more than six to eight feet without reinforcement of the sides. Without batting an eyelid, he gave a benign smile and said, “Digging deep did not mean ignore the safety.” All other Company Commanders got a dressing down. In dramatic decision, my company was declared first and the company whose trenches had collapsed was declared last!

The orders with respect to the depth remained unchanged, but the side walls were to be suitably reinforced. My company celebrated the victory with a barakhana. I had arrived in the Gurkhas and never looked back! I found out that most junior leaders know about the correct DTL design, but in the Gurkhas, the leader’s orders override all rules and regulations.

Officers’ living tents have a bathroom tent attached. Normally a single hole DTL was made and a wooden commode was placed over it. Popularly, it was called a ‘thunder box’. We were out on field exercises and were to break camp at 0800 hours. Officers’ tents are normally dismantled last and the time given was 0630 hours. In the army, 10-15 minutes are added by each rung of command and by the time it reaches the lowest rung an hour generally gets added. Every thing in the Gurkhas is done silently except for a small hand gesture or a hissing signal. The troops detailed to dismantle the officers’ tents reached the location at 0530 hrs, an hour before the scheduled time. They began their work with the bathroom tents. Silently, the ropes were untied and as per drill, the tents were lifted in one go. Two of the officers unaware of the silent drills going on outside were sitting on their thunder boxes and were caught like rabbits in headlights.

The Non Commissioned Officer in charge of the working party rose to the occasion and tersely called out, “Party, savdhan! (party, stand to attention) and saluted the officers smartly. And then, realising the plight of the officers, ordered the working party, “Jaisse the” (as you were before). Promptly the tents were placed over the officers again. Such were the ways of the Gurkhas!

Thirty two years after the DTL digging competition, as the Northern Army Commander I was visiting Jindrah, which was now a sprawling military administrative base with hundreds of storage sheds. The CO was intrigued when I dismounted and walked to a nullah close to one of the sheds. Lo and behold the DTLs were still there and in use by the civilian labour working at the base! In hindsight, the CO of 5/5 GR was probably right!

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

Post your Comment

2000characters left

2 thoughts on “Digging Deep to Answer the Call of Nature

  1. Unheard but hard life of soldiers who make us sleep peacefully. The political dynasties’ scions and ‘supari’ journalists / anchors must be made to spend a few years without break in such places.

More Comments Loader Loading Comments