meaning and origin of ‘Poona’ as applied to army officers

Pune (formerly Poona, also Poonah) is the name of a city in Maharashtra, in western India; it was a military and administrative centre under British rule.

The name Poona, Poonah, came to refer to the old-fashioned, reactionary opinions and pompous, peremptory manner of the army officers who had been stationed at Poona—cf. also meaning and origin of the British term ‘(Colonel) Blimp’.

Published in The Wishaw Press and Advertiser (Wishaw, Lanarkshire, Scotland) of Friday 12th March 1937, the following letter seems to satirise those officers’ language and opinions—on Friday 5th March, this newspaper had published a letter in which a person signing themself ‘Fabian’ was denouncing “the insidious poison of pacifists, communists, and other by-products of our civilization”:

A Pukka Sahib Writes

Wishaw, 6/3/37.
The Editor, “Wishaw Press.”
Dear Sir,—On behalf of the Poona Empire Builders Club may I doff my hat to your correspondent “Fabian” in recognition of his devastating destruction of those caddish thugs who have decided not to defend us against the “unreasonable ambitions of our neighbours,” and, to add, by jove, that men of his stamp are unfortunately too jolly scarce to-day!
Like “Fabian” I make it a point of honour never to listen to pacifist speakers, and to read nothing but good Conservative journals. Rather!
I thought—by jove, I really did—that his reference to Applecross was deuced clever—witty, I mean, by jove! What I mean to say is, you don’t get those pacifist chappies saying clever things like that—and his Socialism, a “watered-down Communism”—super, by gad—and original by George, original!
When war breaks out, and gad, sir, it jolly well will if those foreign bounders don’t show a bit more respect, we’ll show them that in spite of those Oxford ticks, thanks to men like “Fabian” our “far flung Empire” will be no less far flung than ever in the past, but will probably be flung even further.
As I remarked in a recent speech to the “No-More-Peace-League” last week—“Let us boldly burn our boats behind us and launch out into the open sea, nailing our colours to the flowing tides of British Imperialism, marching boldly with our shoulders to the plough and our backs to the wall, exploring every avenue and leaving no stone of the Slough of Despond unturned, until we have kicked away with willing hands the traces that would blind our eyes to the sound of those pacifist rebels strangling at the fountain-head, the fatted calf that lays the golden egg.”
As our General used to say: “The world will never get anywhere till we shoot all those pacifists and Socialists”—and, by George, all foreigners—I mean to say, sir, THEY’RE NOT BRITISH!
If any pacifist wishes to write against this letter expecting a reply, let me warn the hound, here and now, that I shall send him to Coventry. When it comes to arguing with pacifists, well I’m just not that sort of a chap.—l am, yours, etc.,
(Col. Ret’d.)

It seems that the army officers who had been stationed at Poona were in the habit of exclaiming (by) gad, sir!. The purported retired Colonel who wrote the above-quoted letter used that turn of phrase, and, reporting on the annual meeting of the Horncastle Division Conservative Association, the Skegness Standard (Skegness, Lincolnshire, England) of Wednesday 20th May 1936 quoted Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Archibald Weigall as declaring:

“I hear Poona Colonels saying ‘By gad, sir, how the Government has let us down!’”

This gave rise to the phrase (by) gad, sir, when I was in Poona(h) and variants, used for example in the following advertisement for Walkers ales, published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Friday 24th April 1936:

advertisement for Walkers ales - Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) - 24 April 1936

! keep that thirst till you get to Walkers

The Colonel likes his Turkish bath; (the heat reminds him of when he was in Poona, by gad sir!) and he likes his Walkers after it to cool himself down again. He knows a good thing when he tastes it. Pukka sahib.

And, in a letter published in the Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, County Antrim, Northern Ireland) of Wednesday 9th June 1937, one Ralph Cope mentioned—without further explanations:

the “Gad, sir when I was in Poona in 75” type of officer.

The following illustration and caption are from the review by Herbert Farjeon of People of Our Class, a comedy by the Irish playwright, novelist and critic St. John Greer Ervine (1883-1971)—review published in The Bystander (London, England) of Wednesday 25th May 1938:

illustration for the review of People of Our Class - The Bystander (London, England) - 25 May 1938

Poonaby gad, sir! Retired Indian Officer (Nicholas Hannen) – Village tradesman, by gum! Local butcher (James Harcourt)

Those illustration and caption refer in turn to the following passage from the review by Herbert Farjeon:

It is in this Act [= Act II] that the local butcher, whose son has become engaged to the daughter of the local major-general, drops what would once have been a dramatic bombshell by objecting to the match even more emphatically than the major-general has objected himself.

The phrase (by) gad, sir, when I was in Poona(h) occurs at the beginning of Women are the only snobs, by John Benson, published in the Daily Herald (London, England) of Wednesday 8th June 1938:

Men are never snobs. It is just the women in their lives that make them so.
(“By gad, sir, the fellah’s not a gentleman. When I was in Poona. . . .” Oh, no, men are never snobs!)

This advertisement for Four Square tobacco was published in the Daily Herald (London, England) of Thursday 12th January 1939:

advertisement for Four Square tobacco - Daily Herald (London, England) - 12 January 1939

A gentleman’s tobacco, by Gad!

Artificial flavouring? Dammit, I’d horsewhip the fella who tried to make me smoke a tobacco polluted by that stuff. Knew a young fella once, came from a good family, too, who was cut in the mess at Poonah for offering some artificially flavoured stuff to the Colonel. Served him right, too—in my young days we knew better. Ought to have known that we smoked nothing but Four Square. And by Gad, Sir, those Four Square people know how to make tobacco. Smoke it all day, and next morning your mouth is as clean as a whistle. Four Square—that’s what I call tobacco. And if the country wasn’t going to the dogs, they’d smoke it to a man!

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