“‘If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me?’ India and the First World War” by Vedica Kant

India and the First World War

A collector’s delight, this book has more photos than text. Even if you aren’t a serious reader you can enjoy the pictures and their captions. The gruesome realities of war come alive through the pages. According to Max Weber, the British and French armies comprised “niggers, Gurkhas, and the barbarians of the world.”

One and a half million Indians participated in the war. Over 70,000 were martyred. Gandhi, Tilak and Sarojini Naidu persuaded Indians to serve the imperial cause. Gandhi’s ‘Appeal for Enlistment’ leaflet said: “If we want to learn the use of arms with the greatest possible dispatch, it is our duty to enlist ourselves in the army.” The 700 odd princely states saw the war as an opportunity to curry favour with the British.

The soldiers left behind hardly any traces of their thoughts, feelings and experiences. Most of the information was gleaned by reading their censored letters. There is only one first person account of soldier’s war experiences. Two Bengali gentlemen, Dr. Kalyan Mukherjee and Sisir Sarbadhikari, who wrote their memoirs, were part of the medical corps.

Havildar Abdul Rahman wrote to a friend in May 1915: “For God’s sake, don’t come don’t come don’t come to war in Europe…and tell my brother Mohammed Yakub Khan for God’s sake do not enlist. If you have any relatives, my advice is don’t let them enlist.” Amir Khan in a letter to wrote to Khan Zaman in Rawalpindi district, “…our guns have filled the German trenches with the dead and made them brim with blood. God grant us grace, for grace is needed. Oh God, we repent! Oh God, we repent!” Gulab Singh wrote, “Many men have had their feet cut off for they had been burnt by the frost.” Santa Singh wrote to his mother, “As a man climbs a plum tree and shakes down the plums (so that) they fall and lie in heaps, so are men here fallen….They too are the children of mothers.”

When a sepoy decided to marry a Frenchwoman, a fellow sepoy wrote, “Mahomed Khan, the lance dafadar, is engaged to a Frenchwoman on the condition that he becomes a Christian. The marriage ceremony is to take place in two or three days. We have done our best to prevent it, but all has been in vain.”

Ragbir Singh wrote, “I have been wounded twice, and now this is the third time that I am being sent to the trenches….If Parmeshwar (God) allows I will escape but the butcher does not let the goat escape.”

The Home Office sanctioned cremation at a site near Brighton, although the 1902 Cremation Act virtually banned open-air cremation. When ghee was in short supply and there was talk of serving margarine to the wounded sepoys, the War Office intervened with a note: “If it got about that we were using margarine, there might be an explosion similar to the old cartridge trouble of the Mutiny.”

By January 1915 Germany had decided to build a mosque near Berlin to cater to Muslim POWs. The Germans had initially protested against the use of Indian and African soldiers in the war – something they viewed as a breach of racial etiquette. A few months later these barriers crumbled and new liaisons emerged.

The story of the two Afridi Pathan brothers, Mir Dast and Mir Mast, makes interesting reading. The former won the Victoria Cross for bravery in war. The other defected to the German side along with twenty two others and later joined a German mission to Afghanistan to convince the Emir to invade India. The British had increased the Emir’s stipend so he was in no mood to rebel. Both Mir Dast and Mir Mast survived the war.

206 Indian POWs lie buried in a forgotten cemetery fifty miles outside Berlin. In fact the Indian dead are scattered all over Europe, some with memorials, some without. The question ‘who will remember me’ hangs heavy.

It wasn’t just Europe. 40% of Indian soldiers served in Mesopotamia in the blazing heat and chilling winters of the Arabian Desert. Sarbadhikari describes an incident where he and another soldier, after marching continuously for three days in hunger and cold, set off to look for food and found a piece of bread in the haversack of a dead white soldier. “We divided it between us and were eating it in the dark, when we realized that the bread had a peculiar taste. Then we understood. The bread had soaked up the soldier’s blood…”

In April 1916, 17000 British- Indian troops under Captain Townshend surrendered to the Turks after enduring a five month long siege at Kut al-Amara. They were marched off through the desert to a location in present-day Syria to build the Baghdad-Istanbul railway. They witnessed the Armenian genocide. A small Armenian boy who was the lone survivor of his family was adopted by an Indian sweeper, given the name Babulal, and brought back to India after the war.

The vast majority of sepoys took their sad stories with them to their graves. As Amitav Ghosh states in the Foreword, “…silence was one of the sepoy’s most enduring traits; it goes so far back and is so consistent that it is hard not to see it as an act of resistance in itself.”

The troops were demobilized after the war and many were out of work. Their story too remains untold. During the clashes that preceded the burning of the police station at Chauri Chaura in February 1922, Bhagwan Ahir, a Mesopotamia veteran, was thrashed by the police. The rest is history.

Overall Assessment: Invaluable for the photos.

‘If I Die Here Who Will Remember Me?’ India and the First World War
AUTHOR: Vedica Kant
PUBLISHER: Roli Books
Date of Publication: 2014

Contributor: Pushpa Kurup lives in Trivandrum, India and works in the IT sector.

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