Unsung heroes

Print edition : December 12, 2014

fd Photo: iidsf

British Secretary of State for Defence Michael Fallon with British and Indian military officials during the First World War centenary commemorations in New Delhi on October 30. Names of Indian soldiers who were killed in the Great War are seen engraved on India Gate, originally called the All India War Memorial and built by the British Raj to honour the Indian Army dead in the war. Photo: SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP

For everyone interested in India’s contribution to the First World War, David Omissi’s book is a mine of information.

“THE condition of affairs in the war is like leaves falling off a tree and no empty space remains on ground. So it is here: the earth is full of dead men and not a vacant spot is left. As many of the men get wounded they live—the rest are killed. One has to stay on top of corpses and even sleep on them because not an empty place remains anywhere…. You have heard that the war between Kauris [obviously meaning Kauravas] and Pandavas [in a reference to the epic Mahabharata] was a great conflict but it was not so great a fight as this one. …the bullets flew about more thickly than drops of rain…. The Germans lost a lot and we also had many casualties… in some places men had lost their eyes, in others men without legs…. I have no sure confidence that I will see you people again: there is nothing but hopelessness.”

This is an excerpt from a letter written by an Indian soldier, rifleman Amar Singh Rawat of Garhwal Rifles, to a family member in Garhwal, then part of Uttar Pradesh. The description is of the fierce battle between the German and British forces at Neuve Chapelle between March 10 and 13, 1915. He obviously sustained injuries in the same battle because the letter is dated April 1, 1915, and sent from Kitchener’s India Hospital, Brighton.

In another letter, dated March 26, 1915, the same soldier wrote that he had sustained injuries in the head, but was lucky to have survived and the fighting was so severe that there were heaps of bodies and blood splattered all over the ground.

Another soldier, a Sikh, in a letter to his parents from a hospital, says: “This is a devils’ war.” Another wounded Indian soldier writes to a friend in India: “Do not be worried, my friend, we all have to die sooner or later.”

Another soldier, who spent three winters in France, describes the hostile climate to a friend in these words: “At the present time, the cold is more intense than can be described. If you pour hot water on the ground it immediately becomes solid like ghee. This is my third winter in this country, but it has never been as cold as it is now. Flowing water is frozen hard like stone.” Yet another description of the winter goes: “...the earth is white, the sky is white, the trees are white, the stones are white, the mud is white, the water is white, one’s spittle freezes into a solid white lump… the water in the rivers and canals is like a thick plate of glass.”

These are excerpts from some of the 657 letters written by Indian soldiers who fought alongside British and French forces in the First World War. These letters have been compiled into a book titled Indian Voices of the Great War by the British historian David Omissi. A first-of-its-kind attempt, the book provides a rare insight into the trials and tribulations of the War, the hardships these brave souls had to endure, and the valour with which they fought and won. Though the Indian soldiers were fighting on behalf of the British then, their commitment to the cause and their loyalty to the King, as displayed in these letters for the first time, are amazing and put a big question mark on the wisdom of Indian historians who, describing them as mercenaries, did not even accord them a footnote in our history books.

For reasons not known, Indian historians and the Indian government have chosen to ignore completely the contribution of these brave soldiers in the Great War despite the fact that they played a huge role in making the Allied Forces victorious. Their role in freeing and protecting France and Belgium from the Germans is exemplary, more so because they had to fight in extremely hostile cold conditions for which they had not been trained.

Interestingly, Britain has been researching on them for years, compiling data on them, tracing their families in India, making documentaries on them, and unambiguously acknowledging their contribution to the victory of the Allied Forces. British Defence Minister Michael Fallon visited India as recently as October 30, to honour them and felicitate their family members. “We must not and we will not ever forget the enormous service rendered by India’s heroes. More than a million Indians fought in every theatre of that First World War conflict from Aden to Asia, from Palestine to Persia, from the Gulf of Oman to Gallipoli, and their courage is, I think, all the more remarkable for being entirely voluntarily. Not a single Indian was conscripted,” he said, after placing a wreath at the India Gate in their honour.

The French have lined up a series of commemorative programmes to celebrate the occasion. These programmes include a high-profile ceremony at the Neuve Chapelle Battle Memorial (a memorial set up to pay tribute to the Indian soldiers who fought in France) in 1915.

The measure of these men’s sacrifice becomes clear from what the commander of the Allied Forces, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, said in 1927. Paying the Indian soldiers a rich tribute, he said: “Return to your homes, in your distant lands bathed in the light of the East, and proclaim out loud how your patriots spattered the cold northern lands of France and Flanders [in Belgium] with their blood, how they liberated them from the clutches of the determined enemy, thanks to their quick-wittedness. Go and tell all of India that we must look upon their graves with the devotion that all our dead deserve. We shall cherish, above all, the memory of the examples they set. They hewed the path for us, it is they who took the first steps towards the final victory.”

While the French and Belgian people recall with gratitude the magnitude of the sacrifices made by these brave soldiers, we in India have chosen to ignore these brave soldiers who lost their lives fighting the German forces. The deliberate amnesia on our part becomes even more painful because the year 2014 marks 100 years of the beginning of the First World War, which had an overwhelming participation by Indian forces without whom the Allied Forces would have found it difficult to contain the Germans. Over a million Indian soldiers fought alongside British and French troops in France, Belgium, Turkey, Mesopotamia and other theatres of war. Over 74,000 of them lost their lives. This figure is bigger than the combined tally of Indian soldiers killed in all the wars fought by independent India. They were mostly poor peasants, overwhelmingly from the then Punjab region and North West Frontier Province, and some from Garhwal and other regions. Enlisted by the British rulers, they were wrenched off from their roots and sent to far-off places to fight the Germans. They fought valiantly, made supreme sacrifices, and yet remain unknown.

The flawed notion that they did not fight out of patriotism, but had gone to fight somebody else’s war for money and were mercenaries, has been largely responsible for the indifference on the part of Indian historians and the Indian establishment towards them. There could be some truth in this, but there also was the general opinion among the then dominant political activists in India that if Indians participated wholeheartedly in the War, the British would consider granting them Home Rule. While money must have been a consideration for these men, for they came from very poor backgrounds, their valour, their commitment to the cause and their overwhelming contribution to the larger cause of victory to the Allies cannot be questioned.

Rare insight

It is against this backdrop that the book becomes immensely relevant at this time. It helps to dispel certain wrong notions and provides a rare insight into the lives and minds of these men and understand the human tragedy of the Great War. The book also helps one see the social contours of those times and how these men observed and learnt from their experience in England and France. India in 1914 was a country seeped in casteism, bound by odious social norms and frustrating biases. When these men saw the ways of the European countries, where people were not discriminated on the basis of caste or creed and women enjoyed a prominent position and played an active role in social life, they were impressed and they wondered why Indian society too could not be like that. In many letters, these soldiers rued the fact that back home everyone was not treated as equal and with the same respect, that people tended to waste money on unnecessary ceremonies, that women back home were not educated as in Europe, and that generally the level of education at home was poor, which was the primary reason for the poverty and backwardness. In one letter, a soldier, Khan Mohammand Khan, writes to his father: “The people of Europe live in ease and comfort simply through education. Both men and women are sufficiently educated to know wherein lies their profit and loss, and to plan and secure their advantage.” He vowed to give his children, whether sons or daughters, a good education.

Another one, recuperating in a hospital in England, was surprised at the selfless service people there did. They wrote that in India people only thought of the brotherhood of religion but in England people were kind to them and served them without any motive. He was awestruck at the sight of women cleaning their excreta without any hesitation, because in India this task was done only by the “untouchables”.

The letters also give a peek into the peculiar problems the soldiers faced when they were away from home for long periods. Interestingly, similar problems exist even today: such as relatives and neighbours forcibly occupying their land, wives running away with other men, wives pleading with them to let them come to the battlefield so that they could be together, soldiers giving clever tips to family members in order to send petitions to the authorities to grant them leave, and soldiers adopting tricks to feign illness and injury so that they would be sent back home. There are interesting nuggets to be seen in some of the letters. One soldier, Dafadar Ram Nath, frustrated at being away from his wife for such a long time, writes to a headmaster, Baldev Singh, in Rohtak: “My idea is that since it is now four years since I went to my home, my wife should, if she wishes it, be allowed to have connection according to Vedic rites with some other man in order that children may be born to my house. If this is not done, then the family dignity will suffer. Indeed this practice should now be followed in the case of all wives whose husbands have been absent for four years or more. It is permitted by Vedic rites if the wives are willing.”

Wives running away with other men was a problem many soldiers faced. One Qasim Khan, whose wife apparently went with one Nur Khan, advises his father not to try and bring her back because this will make people laugh at him: “Never mind her, let people say whatever they will,” he says, adding that once he is back, he will complain to the government about Nur Khan and the latter will spend his entire life in prison. As for himself, “I will not lack for wives,” he tells his father. In another letter, one Fakir Mohammad writes to his son Mahsud, who had gone to France: “Abdul Hamid has given your wife to someone else in the Chikar village. When I heard of this and asked him he said, ‘I won’t give my sister to Mahsud because he has gone to the war in France and no one has yet returned alive from that war’.”

Then there are letters that tell of soldiers getting intimate with French/English women and even marrying them, and then making up long stories to justify this to their family members. One such soldier, Mohammad Khan, who married a French woman with the permission of the French and British authorities, made up the story that the woman concerned had conned him into it and took the permission of the King to marry him without his knowledge and that he had to marry her because “after the King’s order I should have got into grave trouble if I had refused”. In another letter, the same soldier further explained, “The net was drawn very tightly around me and if I had not married I would have been separated from you for the rest of my life.”

Another soldier, Risaldar Anjamuddin Khan, assuring some family member that he will not have sex with Christian women, writes from France: “We are living in comfort in large splendid houses the likes of which we have never seen before. Married ladies and young, unmarried women attend to our wants, tidy our beds and eat at the same table as we do. They are beautiful as fairies but for us they are like mothers and sisters. I assure you that by the grace of God, my faith will remain unbroken.”

Some other letters give one a glimpse into the irritation caused to the soldiers on account of frequent demands for money. One Mir Safir Ali writes to Mir Qaim Ali from France: “As for the letters that come from home, I have not the heart to read them but I tear them up and throw them away. Every one of them asks for money and there are many things in them which I have never told you. You ought to know for I have told you over and over again that they are always read by the censors. Tell them when they write never to mention things that happen behind the purdah. If the censor sees them, what must he think.” This letter also makes one understand that the letters to and from soldiers passed through a censorship and at times some of them were withheld/edited for objectionable information.

Air of pessimism

One also gets an account of the sense of despondency and the air of pessimism, as days turned into months and then years, and the war continued. In many letters, soldiers, who braved the hostile climate and ferocious fighting, say they have lost hope of returning home. One Bhagail Singh, writing from France, tells Chain Singh in Lahore: “I did not write the truth to you before. Now I write the truth. Do whatever you think fit and do not expect anything from me. Consider us as having died today or tomorrow. There is absolutely no hope of our ever returning. Only those who are predestined to long life will return. This war is terrible and of those who have come to take part in it, none will survive.”

This sense of hopelessness set in towards the later years, when the war dragged on without an end in sight. But in the beginning, when these soldiers arrived in France and Belgium, their mood was of joyous bewilderment at the beauty of these places and their people. They were given a rousing heroes’ welcome by the people there and were feted by them. There are many letters describing the beauty of France and England and their people. They describe how the local people insisted on hosting them, take them sightseeing, arrange parties for them, and try and make their life as comfortable as possible. Paris has been variously described as “the land of fairies”, “heaven” and “paradise”.

There are many interesting letters that wounded soldiers wrote from various hospitals in England. Of particular interest are those that were written from Brighton Pavilion, a royal palace that was turned into a hospital for them. There the King and Queen often visited the soldiers, leaving them awestruck. Many soldiers have described with gratitude how well they were treated there, and how “ladies”, total strangers to them, would take care of them like their own mothers, even carrying their excreta, and how the King personally ensured that they got the best of treatment.

One Isar Singh writes from Brighton to a friend in Punjab: “Do not be anxious about me. We are very well looked after. While soldiers are always beside our bed—day and night. We get very good food four times a day. We also get milk. Our hospital is in a place where the King used to have his throne. Every man is washed once in hot water. The King has given strict order that no trouble be given to any black man in hospital. Men in hospital are tended like flowers and the King and Queen sometimes visit them.”

But there were the less fortunate ones in other hospitals where the conditions were not so good. One soldier, name not mentioned, writing directly to the King from a hospital called Milford-on-Sea, has given a graphic account of his woes. He wrote on the cover of the envelope: “To the Emperor; Let no one except the King open this.” He wrote in the letter: “No British officer nor Indian doctor cares for us…. We do not get new clothes. In the morning only tea. At 10 o’clock a chapatti and a spoonful of daal, in 24 hours, only five cigarettes. In the evening the chapattis are half baked and there is no meat. No sick man gets well fed. The Indians have given their lives for eleven rupees [monthly salary].”

Then there are letters that give an account of the soldiers’ return to India and the warm welcome that they got from their people. Soldier Abdul Jabbar Khan wrote to Kot Dafadar Mohammad Yar Khan in France, on his return home to Jais in Rae Bareli, Uttar Pradesh: “When I got out of the station at Jais, it was filled with people, and rockets were sent up and a band accompanied me home. On the road there was a scene as if a general had arrived. When I got near my home, copper coins were thrown all over the place to the crowd…. I could hardly contain myself and when I came out of my house I found a crowd waiting. Everyday for the past one week there has been a crowd round the house. I can hardly find time to write as the house is crowded with people wanting to hear about everything. ” The author tells us that the censor expressed pleasure at the soldier getting a hero’s welcome on his return.

The letters are a virtual treasure house of information on the First World War from an Indian perspective and it is amazing that no one had thought of tapping them until now. For everyone interested in India’s military history, especially its contribution to the First World War, the book is a mine of information, especially because so little is known about this experience from an Indian perspective. The book was rightly described a “monumental work” by the author Amitav Ghosh. Mark Tully, who wrote the foreword, has described the brave soldiers as “forgotten heroes” whose gallantry did not find its rightful place in the British war history. He says it is a sad reflection on British imperialism that the contribution India made willingly in the hope that its loyalty to the Empire would be rewarded with Home Rule, was not recognised or remembered. Now that this book has been published, he says, others would take a cue and follow the Indian story of the First World War since these are only a few hundred letters out of the many thousands that are there.

True, these letters, and those that are yet lying forgotten, may transform the Eurocentric account of the Great War.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor