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Pagris and Helmets: Indian Soldiers in the First World War

Nitya Gundu | Jawaharlal Nehru University

World War 1. Some Indian cavalry troopers preparing a meal
First World War. Some Indian cavalry troopers preparing a meal - Estrée-Blanche, France

As the autumn chill set in, in 1914, the Lahore division of the British Indian Army moved into Flanders. They had sailed from Bombay in August before assuming their position by the end of October at Ypres. The 129th Baluchis were the first to see action. The Indian Expeditionary Force, as the troops participating in the First World War were called, consisted of men who had largely been enlisted into the Army from the Northern and North-Western regions of the Indian subcontinent. The Indian subcontinent had provided labour for imperial combatant and non-combatant forces since the late 19th century. The First World War was the first time, however, that Indian troops entered the European theatre of war. It was also the first time that Indian combatants and non-combatants were mobilised in such large numbers. Over one million troops were mobilised. Santanu Das, an academic specialising in the literature of the First World War, describes the British Indian Army as being ‘the twin conscripts of colonialism and modernity for it was the conjunction of cheap labour markets and modern modes of transportation that facilitated their mobilisation.’

Bewilderingly engulfed in an Imperial war, far away from any semblance of familiarity, the soldiers depended on letters for communication and solace. These letters, sent home and to friends in other regiments, cover an extraordinary range of topics and emotions. Most of the soldiers came from peasant backgrounds and were therefore illiterate. Their letters were often written down by scribes or literate officers and further passed through the censor. Historian David Omissi - whose collated work is the source of the excerpts mentioned here - argues that the presence of such a third party makes these letters somewhat of a public record, thus blurring the lines associated with the ethics of reading otherwise private correspondence. Urdu was the chief lingua-franca of the Indian Army, although letters were sent in Gurmukhi, Garwhali, Gurkhali, Marathi and Hindi.

129th Baluchis near Holobeke
129th Baluchis near Holobeke

The European theatre of war was a shock to soldiers, whose experience in battle had been limited to colonial campaigns of a small scale. Attempting to convey their experience to kinfolk back home, they used familiar metaphors and imagery. A wounded Punjabi soldier wrote to a relative in January 1915 -

‘Do not think that this is war. This is not war. It is the ending of the world. This is just such a war as was related in the Mahabharata about our forefathers.’ (The Mahabharata is a popular Sanskrit epic chronicling a great and destructive war.)

For a majority of the Indian soldiers, enlistment was a thing of repute. Fighting a war reified the traditional values associated with duty and honour. Morale was often boosted, and reassurance given through the reassertion of this value system. A letter sent on 8th April 1916 by an unnamed relative to Risaldar Raj Singh of the Meerut Division, who seems to have been redeployed from France to the Middle East, reads -

‘It is your duty to gain renown for the Jat clan. It is your duty to illuminate the name of your ancestors, and of your clan, in the same manner as the 6th Jats have done. It is an obligation on you to serve the Government loyally. It is desirable that you should impress this on all the men at the time of roll call.’

Homesickness, exacerbated by the unfamiliar climate and a deepening sense of despair as the war dragged on, was a commonplace theme in letters, and further so in the archival material left behind by prisoners of war. Prayers for victory were often prayers for a safe return to India. One such phonographic recording of Mall Singh, a PoW at the German Half-moon Camp, reads thus -

‘There was a man who would have butter back in India

He would also have two sers of milk.

He served for the British.

He joined the European War.

He was captured by the Germans.

He wants to go back to India.

If he goes back to India then he will get that same food.

Three years have already passed.

There’s no news as to when there will be peace.

Only if he goes back to India will he get that food.

If he stays here for two more years then he will die.

By God’s grace, if they declare peace then we’ll go back.’

One of the major grievances in the letters was the policy of returning lightlywounded soldiers back to the trenches or other theatres of war. Indian troops considered it particularly unjust as it was seen as a way of sparing the lives of British troops. In one particularly heartbreaking letter that was withheld by censors, Buta Singh in the Kitchener Indian Hospital writes to Harnam Singh of the 23rd Pioneers in Aden in August 1915,

‘If you are still unwell, why do you not return? If you come any further you will probably lose your life. We were 200 strong when we arrived. Now there are forty of us. No! Make any excuse you can, and return home, so that one of us can be saved.’

The soldiers, however, did appreciate the medical care as it surpassed their expectations as well as their experiences pre-war. They wrote back home about the kind of care they were given. Major hospitals were the Lady Hardinge Hospital near Southampton, the Royal Pavilion Hospital and the Kitchener Indian Hospital in Brighton. They were further gratified by the religious considerations made for them in terms of their meals and worship. A letter sent in August 1915 by Havildar Ghufran Khan Afridi of the 129th Baluchis from the Pavilion Hospital to Subedar Zaman Khan, a fellow soldier stationed at the Depot in Karachi, reads thus -

‘The arrangements here to enable our people to keep Ramazan are excellent. Colonel Southey Sahib has made excellent arrangements and takes great trouble for us Muslims. His arrangements for our food during the fast are very good, and he has put us all together in one place, because during the fast it is not easy to live with Sikhs and Dogras.’

The letters (as well as sound recordings, songs and material objects) convey a complex and layered picture of the South Asian experience overseas during the war. The observations, opinions and insecurities that they reveal diversify the narratives traditionally associated with the experiences of the First World War.


Further Reading

  • Ahuja, Ravi, ‘The Corrosiveness of Comparison: Reverberations of Indian Wartime Experiences in German Prison Camps’, The World in World Wars, 2010, pp. 131-166.

  • Das, Santanu, ‘Reframing life/war ‘writing’: objects, letters, and songs of Indian soldiers, 1914-1918’, Textual Practice (29.7), 2015, pp. 1265-1287.

  • Omissi, David, ‘Europe Through Indian Eyes: Indian Soldiers Encounter England and France, 1914-1918’, The English Historical Review (122.496), 2017, pp. 371-396.

  • Omissi, David, Indian Voices of the Great War Soldiers Letters, 1914-18, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 1999.

Nitya Gundu completed her Masters in History from the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her other interests lie in world literature and music.

Twitter - @nityagundu


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