Historical Sketch by A.M.A. Azeez, Principal

“ . . . . . . . Above all, we wish that the strongest opposition be brought to bear upon any motion to abolish the Cadet Battalion, as we are of opinion that its disappearance would be a very grave loss to education in Ceylon”. At this stage of the development of the Cadet Movement in Ceylon, it may seem strange that a wish and an assertion of this nature should ever have been called for. But these words appear in a memorandum presented by a Conference of Principals of Schools to the Hon’ble the Minister and the Members of the State Council in the year 1931. That was the time when in Ceylon, as in many other lands, the country’s legislature was dominated by “dis armament  and peace at any price” which paved the way to Munich and the second world war. The move to abolish the Cadet Battalion was however defeated by the strenuous efforts of the Sub-Committee, composed of Mr. T.B. Jayah, Mr. P. de S. Kularatne, Father M.J. Le Goc and Mr. H.L. Reed, appointed by the Principals’ Conference for this purpose. The far-sighted wisdom of these educational stalwarts became apparent when the “call to arms” came in 1939 and the ex-cadets rallied to the country’s call in no uncertain manner to fill the ranks of new units formed almost overnight. 

To us at Zahira, it is a matter for pride and satisfaction, that my predecessor Mr. Jayah had throughout been a firm admirer of the cadet movement. When he assumed duties as Principal in 1921, Mr. Jayah lost no time in applying for a Cadet Contingent. It was perhaps also Zahira’s good fortune that just about this time Col. L. Mc. D. Robison took over the command of the Cadet Battalion. Zahira owes a deep debt of gratitude to Col. Robison. He was attached to the Western Division of the Education Department at that time, and he was largely instrumental in securing for Zahira the status of a Secondary School with minimum delay and guiding her footsteps at a time when she sorely needed help. It was a tense day at Zahira, when early in 1925, Col. Robison arrived to inspect the batch of students, for whom Mr. Jayah claimed a place in the Battalion. There was no playground – there was only a cemetery – attached to Zahira at that time. The boys drawn up in the quadrangle, barely 25 yards square, in front of the Mosque Mr. G.E. Hettiaratchy in charge of the Seniors, Mr. T.P.S. Laxana in charge of the Juniors and Mr. T. Suhayb in charge of the Recruits. The road had to serve as parade-ground and for the armoury Zahira had nothing better to show than a go-down attached to the old Wapche Block. The inspection to the relief of many a palpitating heart passed off satisfactorily. Messrs Hettiaratchy, Laxana and Suhayb were allowed to attend the Officers’ Camp in April 1925, and all three passed their examinations. The Contingent was formed the following month, and a platoon of senior cadets from Zahira attended the August Camp at Diyatalawa for the first time the same year with Lieut. Hettiaratchy in command. Lt. Hettiaratchy and soon afterwards Lt. Laxana as O.C. Contingent found the going very heavy. But they also found the boys making good by their enthusiasm that they lacked in facilities, and when in 1927 Lt. Suhayb took command of the Contingent, the foundation of cadetting at Zahira had been well and truly laid by his predecessors in office.

Soon afterwards to meet the clamorous demands of boys who were shut out of the Contingent, an additional Junior Platoon was formed. Lieuts. Thomas Fernando and S.J.A. doray were placed in charge of the Junior Platoons. The College Junior Cadets camped out for the first time in 1930 at Barrack Square, Kandy. It was the first experience of camp life for most of the youngsters, and the anxiety of the officers who were in charge of the seventy five boys was not allayed when Mr. Jayah decreed that they should be out for not less than five days. This camp was a notable success and had its immediate and valuable result in instilling a great measure of confidence into the young cadets.

The College Contingent was made very much the poor when Lt. Thomas Fernando left in 1934. Our loss was however mitigated to a very large extent when Mr. A.M. Merza, one of the members of the original Zahira Platoon, consented to fill the vacancy. His appointment as an Officer happily coincided with the strenuous efforts that were being made to improve the standard of shooting in the Contingent.

With the proceeds of a Benefit Show at the New Olympia Theatre arranged for us by the late Hon’ble Mr. N.H.M. Abdul Cader, the Manager at the time of the School, a 100 yds. range was laid out and formally opened in 1936 by His Excellency Sir Reginald Stubbs. The Miniature Rifle Club paid fat dividends, the standard of shooting rose up by leaps and bounds and our cadets were thus in a position to compete with confidence in the C.R.A. Competitions at Hunupitiya.

The following year saw the College Senior Platoon winning the Miller Inter-Platoon Shooting Cup at Diyatalawa, and also, to the delight of all cadets past and present the Herman Loos Cup.

In 1939, after 12 years of services as O.C. Contingent at Zahira Lt. Suhayb was promoted Captain and Lt. S.J.A. Doray assumed command of the contingent. About the same time to the regret of all Lt. Merza left us for Batticaloa after having given us of his best unstintingly and cheerfully. Owing to the decrease in members at school, the College was forced to disband one platoon of Junior Cadets, and Mr. Jayah had to use his persuasive gifts to induce Mr. Noor Hamith to give up scouting and take a commission in the Cadet Battalion. The activities of the Battalion remained moribund for a short while at the beginning of the War, but in 1942 under the inspiring leadership of Col. R.J.F. Mendis, the activities of the Battalion were resumed with increased energy. The Battalion was thrown on its own resources but Zahira did her bit by maintaining her standard of efficiency, in the Junior Cadet Camps, Officers’ Camps, Senior Cadet Training Camps and by joining whole-heartedly in the Air Training Scheme sponsored by the R.A.F.

When Lt. Doray was promoted Captain in 1944 Lt. Noor Hamith took command of the Contingent. The College experienced some difficulty in getting a suitable officer for the Junior Platoon, till Mr. A.M.O. Muhlar, an old Zahira cadet offered his services to the College a few months before the retirement of the Hon’ble Mr. T.B. Jayah. Lt. Muhlar took the Rifle Club under his wing and the range was soon humming with activity. He threw himself into the training of the Junior Cadets so whole heartedly that within a year of assuming command of the platoon, the Zahira Platoon for the first time in its history secured the C.L.I. Challenge Cup for all-round efficiency. The Juniors surpassed themselves the following year by practically sweeping the board in all Inter-Platoon Competitions winning the De Soysa Cup for Squad Drill, the Whiteway Shield for P.T. and the C.L.I. Cup for General Efficiency. The same year their elder brothers won first places in shooting, hut and line inspection and soccer. A glorious tradition of inspiring leadership and magnificent team work has been established at Zahira which cannot but be an enduring stimulus in the years to come.

Shortly afterwards, Lt. Noor Hamith was promoted as Captain and we now have Lt. Muhlar as O.C. Contingent with c/Lt. M.R.A. Careem in charge of the Junior Platoon. It is a matter for deep satisfaction that the officers now guiding the destinies of the Senior and Junior Platoons should both be old cadets of the College Contingent.

There is perhaps a greater measure of satisfaction derived from the progress made in the field of shooting. The rifle I believe still remains the basic weapon of the armed forces, and despite the pomp and glitter associated with ceremonial parades, the intrinsic efficiency if not the tone of a unit, whether it be a section or an army, is reflected in the standard of shooting in the unit.

I do not know whether “Military discipline” is as hide-bound as it is so often caricatured to be. But I do know that whatever it may be, it does a world of good to the boys. Cadet training encourages a boy to work hard, to be smart and alert and to consider the welfare of his section and his platoon as being greater than his own, and these are qualities of intrinsic importance in the welfare of our country which have recently regained its independence and depends so much on the loyalty of its citizens for its progress.  

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