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For king and another country: Indian soldiers on the Western Front

Over a million Indian soldiers fought in the First World War, many travelling from remote villages in India to the muddy trenches of France and Flanders.

In her book For King and Another Country, writer and journalist, Shrabani Basu, delves into archives in Britain and narratives buried in villages in India and Pakistan. She recreates the War through the eyes of the Indians who fought it, and examines how the war led, ultimately, to the call for independence.


Today, I will, in about 35 or 40 minutes, run through four years. So it’s going to be a quick run through the war and as Sara said I’m not a military historian so don’t expect detailed accounts of anything. But for me it’s the personal stories that drew me to this war. The stories of peasants, the stories of Maharajas, the stories of these ordinary soldiers that crossed all these thousands of miles and came here so without further ado let’s get stuck in.

On the night of 4 August 1914 as Big Ben struck 11pm, Britain’s Prime Minister, Herbert Askwith, knew that the world was about to change. The deadline for Germany to withdraw from Belgium had passed. Britain would now enter the Great War. Thousands of miles away, the Indian Empire was sleeping. Night would soon turn to day, and India would wake up to the news that they too were at war. Lord Kitchener had called for 100,000 volunteers in Britain, but he knew that they would not be enough. Britain needed the troops from the colonies, from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and India. Of these, India had the largest standing army so they would get the first call to mobilise… The Viceroy of India, Lord Harding, he immediately declared that the people of India were backing this war. He had received messages of support from the Maharajas who offered money and troops. Top leaders of the congress, as well, felt that they needed to back the war effort, and the thinking behind this was that if they were loyal to the British, they might give them dominion status, like the other countries.

So mobilisation orders were now immediately sent out to all the contortments. I’ll just give you a little brief of the structure of the Indian army at this stage and why it was the way it was. It was after the mutiny that Lord Roberts took over, and for him recruitment for the Indian army was from the so-called martial races. So he wanted to recruit the Sikhs, the Bhutans from the northwest, and the rugged men from the hills, the Ghurkhas, Garhwalis, the men from Rajasthan. And he didn’t want what he called the effeminate people from the south, from Madras he said ‘no they don’t figure’. From Bengal, they had been part of the mutiny so they didn’t count at all. But these are the people he wanted and he is building his army. He also noticed the Garhwalis who were these men from the hills, who were very much like the Ghurkhas, and he said ‘they need to have their own regiment.’ And I’m going to talk a little bit about the Garhwal regiment because there are two people from here who then go on to win the Victoria Cross, and I do their personal stories in my book. So these Garhwali men, here’s an image of them, peasants from the hills, they were mainly shepherds. They were actually called by the British ‘the raw stock’. Once recruited their transformation is complete. Haircuts, uniforms later, they are soldiers of the British-Indian army. The Garhwal regiment would go on to win two Victoria Crosses and several awards of merit… Now as the call of mobilisation reaches these remote areas in the hills, the troops start gathering in their contortment towns. Two divisions of the Indian army, the Lahore division and the Mira division start making their way from north India to these poor towns of Bombay and Karachi from where they are going to sail with the British Expeditionary Force. Now, along with the Garhwalis, we have the Bhutans, strong and rugged men from the northwest. Two of these men also figure in my book. Called XX and XX, they are destined for future glory: they are also going to win the Victoria Cross. Along with the Bhutans we also have the Sikhs of course. This is going to be a story of Munta Singh. He and his captain set out from their contortment towns and they’re heading to the ports. And of course last but not least the Ghurkhas, who are famous for their bravery and loyalty. They came down from the hills of Nepal and India.

While they were on route marches in Bombay waiting for the ship, everyone in Bombay thought they were Japanese, they had never seen Ghurkhas before, they didn’t know who they were. Then, the Ghurkhas had never seen the sea either, so it was all very strange for them. They went swimming, they tasted the salty water. They were Hindus; staunch Hindus. For Hindus the sea was actually called the Kalapani which means ‘black waters’. It was forbidden for Hindus to cross the seas, so it was a big ask when the British Government says you are going to cross these seas. As we know, 1.5 million Indians crossed these seas and came to fight for the British. So we have the foot soldiers, now we need to see Maharaja, he’s also going there with his turban and his sabre rattling. And of course, we also have the General, General Wilcox, Sandhurst trained, an old India hand, and he’s recruited to be the commander of the Indian army. He loves the Indian soldiers, he’s very close to them, and at the end of the war he actually writes a long poem about the Indian soldiers. So here we are, we are all ready, soldiers, generals.

But when you take the Indian army abroad, the logistic problems for the British were huge, because the Hindus would not eat food cooked by the Muslims, they will not have water given to them by the Muslims. The Muslims won’t eat pork, the Hindus won’t eat beef. All the slaughtering has to be done separately so what do we have? We have a huge group of followers who come along so they have the cooks, the cleaners, the water carriers, the bellow blower, the kneader of dough, the cicers, the grooms. And it’s a huge battalion; it’s a band of brothers that are making their way to the West. The Germans actually look at them and say, ‘what on earth are they doing? Why are they getting this Indian army to the Western Front? They write in their newspapers. But of course they knew what they were doing. So here we have the followers all marching. Cooks were there as it was very important for the Indians to have home cooked, hot Indian curries. They are cooking very close to the trenches and supplying them with hot food. But at this time, the Indians had not even been told their destination, they are in their summer clothes, and they think they are probably going to Africa.

They get on these ships; soon they are streaming across the Indian Ocean on a moderate sea. Sikhs on board they have their holy book with them, they sing the religious songs. While Muslims go up on the promenade and pray towards Mecca. It’s only on 30 August, a few weeks in, that there is an announcement on the radio from Lord Kitchener, and he has announced in Parliament that two divisions are coming to Europe. There are cheers on the ships because they realise for the first time that they are actually going to the West and will be fighting shoulder to shoulder with their English counterparts and Officers. So on 26 September, the Indian ships arrive in Marseille. The soldiers disembark, and as they come off the ship they are greeted with loud cheers by the French, who call them ‘Les Hindus! Les Hindus!’ they thought they were all Hindus. It’s also the first time that the French had seen these exotic soldiers from the East, so as they march, the French women want to come up and give them flowers. Some of the Sikhs were very embarrassed because some of them wanted to hug them and kiss them and they were saying ‘what’s going on here?’ So as they marched to the camps the cheering continues, and the Indians reply with the one English phrase that they know which they’ve learnt from their officers, and it’s ‘Hip Hip Hurrah!’ So as they march they say these words, and even the followers, these cooks and cleaners, they get a loud cheer, they’ve never been cheered before. Everyone’s adrenaline is flowing at this time. But of course the cold autumn months are setting in, so the Indians in their summer clothes have not got any winter clothes yet. They are still wearing thin cotton khakis. Desperately they wrap themselves in anything that they can find, such as tablecloths or eiderdowns. They are just getting through the evenings really. The French watch in wonder as these Indian get about their way. They say ‘These Indians are very strong because they eat trees in the morning’. Actually it’s the Indians cleaning their teeth with neen sticks. They’ve never seen such things. So these are the scenes from the camp, them sitting by the camp stove, Sikhs are combing their long hair, separate slaughter facilities are set up for Hindus and Muslims. Suddenly, the French countryside is transformed with the Indians. They are carrying sheep, but the Indians preferred goat; they tried to get goat for them.

People gather at the train stations to see them, they give them bread and sweets and cheer them along. They watch as they go about their ways. This could be a village in India, but it’s actually in France. At the camps and the billets, they pray, they play with the locals, the little children, and they even get to taste some wine. Soon it is time to travel to the front line, and red London buses transport them. They actually came all the way from Piccadilly and they took them to the front line.

So before long they now arrive in Belgium. They take a position in their trenches and they are still in their cotton clothes. They’re thrown into the deep end now, with no time to get accustomed to the trenches, they find themselves in the first Battle of Ypres, defending the British line. There’s not enough barbed wire, not enough ammunition and there aren’t enough troops. Even the English trenches they were shallow so they soon got filled up with water, while the Germans were at a height so they were dry. But the British trenches were muddy almost immediately. All the while of course, the German bombs are raining down on them. The Indians had never seen warfare like this. They are used to hand to hand combat in the northwest frontier with the clash of steel and swords. Moreover, their companies are split up so they are sent with officers who can’t speak their language; they are not with their own fellow countrymen. So there is complete confusion. But they hang on; they do their bit. And on a cold damp day in October, when all the men from his regiment were killed, Sepoy Khudadad Khan, kept firing until his last bullet was over, and held his trench until reinforcements arrived. He became the first Indian to win the Victoria Cross. The actions of the Indians allowed the British to hold the line. The rest of the Commonwealth troops had not yet arrived, they were not ready; it is only the Indians who are holding this line. Indians who didn’t know anything about trench warfare, they held the line. The Germans could not reach the 16.15 ports. They were reinforcing the British army who were exhausted after the first few weeks of fighting. So their role is absolutely crucial here.

Meanwhile while this is happening in Belgium, in France, further south, the Garhwalis and the Sikhs are in action in Neuve Chapelle and Festubert. The Garhwali troops, they are fierce warriors. Darwan Singh Negi, in the Garhwal regiment, he wins the second Indian Victoria Cross in Festubert. He goes to the trenches, leads the attack, and wins the Victoria Cross. In December 1914, the man from the hills of Garhwal was personally presented the medal by King George V in in France. The King would always ask them if they had any wish, so when asked what he wanted, the simple Garhwali says all he wanted was a school to be built near the hills where he lived so the local people could be educated, as he himself was completely illiterate, and he had realised the value of education. So this school was built, and it is still standing there today and is now a secondary school. So we have Darwan Singh getting his VC.

By November the Indians have their first sight of snow. Still without great clothes, they brave their first winter in the cold, muddy trenches, and the soldiers write about it. Here’s a letter I’m quoting: ‘in the trench the snow rises from the feet to the neck and the feet and hands are frostbitten. It rains and snows day and night’. Another lamented, ‘the whole world is being sacrificed and there is no session, it is not a war but a 18.00 X’. After a brief respite over Christmas, the fresh offensive is planned in the New Year. The Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March would be the first battle that the entire Indian core would take a role in, and work as a complete unit; they wouldn’t be split up for this one. In Battle of Neuve Chapelle, it would be the first time that the German defence was actually broken, and it was done with the help of the Indian soldiers. But the casualties were enormous. In just three days of fighting, 4,233 Indians lay dead. Darwan Singh Negi of the Garhwal regiment would fight to the last and die on the battlefield. He would posthumously be award the Victoria Cross. In his village of Garhwal, his 14 year old bride Saturi would spend her life alone wearing the Victoria Cross pinned on her sari all her life. It was all she had to remind her of him. Saturi actually lived until 1981. There is a memorial in this little village to Darwan Singh, and every year she would take the medal to his memorial. Every year she would stand there and take a salute on his behalf. I met the family and they still live there, they’re still peasants.

In Neuve Chapelle itself, there was another poignant, moving story. This is of the Sikh Munta Singh. At the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, Singh is out there in the battlefield and sees his captain, George Henderson, injured. He just takes a wheelbarrow, goes out there in the field, puts his captain in it and starts wheeling him back. Then he is hit, having been under constant shellfire. He takes a bullet in his leg, he brings his captain to safety, his captain survives but Munta Singh is injured. He is sent to Brighton where he has gangrene in his legs, and he dies. But that’s not the end of the story because Captain Henderson never forgot this sacrifice. So when he goes back after the war, he makes sure that Munta Singh’s son, when he grows up, he gets a job in the same regiment. Captain Henderson’s own son, Robert, and Singh’s son become friends and they go together to fight in the Second World War. So this friendship continues, and now the third generation actually live in the UK and are best of friends. They go every year to the memorial services together and are now both in their seventies. It’s one of those of stories of friendship formed through sacrifice.

As the war was drawing on without end, the soldiers wrote letters home about the horrors of war. ‘No one who has ever seen the horrors of war will forget it to their last day’ said a Bhutan soldier. ‘Just like a turnip is cut to pieces, so a man is blown to bits by the explosion of a shell. All those who came with me have ceased to exist’. In April 1915, they faced the German gas attack in Ypres. Tying their turbans over their faces to protect themselves; they didn’t have gas masks at the time. They were told ‘dip your turbans in chloride of lime; wrap it round your face’. Also they were told, if you can, to urinate on their turbans, wrap that round your face and that will save you.

For his bravery in the face of the gas attack in the second Battle of Ypres, 22.13 one of the Bhutan soldiers was awarded the Victoria Cross. He never recovered from this gas attack; he used to write letters saying ‘the smoke has got to me.’ He was presented the Victoria Cross in the grounds of the Brighton Pavilion by King George V. It was a grand presentation ceremony. He was asked to make a request, and his was that once a soldier is wounded, he should not be sent back to the trenches. This was the overriding feeling in all the Indian soldiers. They said we’ve done our bit, were injured, don’t send us back, please let us go home to our countrymen. But that did not happen. If they were ok they were patched up and sent back. You may be wondering why there were here in Brighton, because as the number of injured was increasing by the thousands, they couldn’t accommodate in French hospitals, so they had to bring them by ship they get them into Southampton port, got them as quickly as possible into hospitals that were made for them in Bournemouth and Brighton. The biggest and the most exotic of hospitals was the one they made at the Brighton Pavilion. What was amusing was that the soldiers were told that it was a former palace and they were allowed to believe that the King has left his palace for the embassies. Of course it actually belonged to Brighton Council. So they loved the thought that the King has given them their palace, and the soldiers were delighted as they had come out of the trenches and then lie here. Many of them lay beneath grand chandeliers; one of them wrote `I am in heaven’. The King and Queen quickly realised the PR value this had; the soldiers were so happy. The King and Queen came to visit the soldiers at the Pavilion, and they started making postcards of these. So postcards of these men lying beneath chandeliers, these were then sent out to recruit more Indians to come into the war. To give them the impression that this was the war, living in a palace. Also, images of the soldier receiving his award from the King, the King speaking to all these ordinary soldiers, these were sent back to India. Also, some of the images of the Indian soldier receiving his VC were used to shame the British soldiers who didn’t want to enlist. To say look, this man from the North-West has come here and he’s sacrificed and doing this and you are not enlisting. So this was used as propaganda, with 20,000 copies of brochures of these men in Brighton went to India to recruit more soldiers.

Another home for the homeless became the Kitchener Hospital for Indian soldiers. Of course, English nurses were not allowed to nurse injured Indian soldiers. They did not want any dangerous liaison between the lonely English women and these Indian soldiers. And they loved these soldiers, there’s a letter saying ` these women love our turbans, they come to us, and they invite us to their houses’. So they were really being watched, they had to be under constant supervision. There was barbed wire around Kitchener hospital. One soldier writes `I’m in Kitchener jail’, so there’s a lot of discontent there, there’s even a shootout. So they were taken out on a daily walk, but completely supervised. They probably only got an outing once in several weeks, sometimes months. Children as young as ten were sent to the front line. They came in as followers, as kneaders of dough, but they got injured as they were so close to the trenches. Many of them were in the hospitals in Marseille. Some went into the trenches as competents and some of them came to Brighton. When the Queen saw a 16 year old, Pim, she was so moved, she gave him a rose. He lost his arm and his leg in the shellfire, and his brother lost his leg. So these are two young Ghurkhas, both below age, who must have lied about their age got through and here there are. Despite all this, the British did want to ensure the Indians were very happy and cared for in these hospitals, so a lot of care is taken to look after them. They make sure they have their separate meat, that their slaughterhouses are separate. And a very enterprising butcher in Brighton immediately sets up a halal butcher shop; probably the first one in Brighton. The Indians are also taken out on outings, those that were well enough to travel. They are taken out on these open top buses, the reason for this is so that the people can see them and their turbans and they would always cheer for the Indians when they saw them. It made the Indians feel very happy and proud that they were so popular.

But despite all these arrangements, the bright lights of Brighton, the hospital care, the soldiers were very depressed. One of the Indian soldiers committed suicide at Kitchener Hospital. In letter after letter, the soldiers spoke of their longing to go home and their despair that they would soon be sent back to the trenches. Quoting from a letter `for God’s sake don’t come, don’t come to this war in Europe, tell my brother for God’s sake not to enlist’. This is from a letter that goes out from a Bhutan soldier. There was despair that only those who’d lost an arm or a leg had any hope of returning home. By the end of the second winter, they are really, really desperate and very, very depressed. But of course they go on. But, by the end of 1915, most of the infantry are given orders to move to Mesopotamia. So they are going to move to the desert in Mesopotamia, Palestine, North Africa. They now have to suffer harsh desert conditions. More sacrifices were actually made in Mesopotamia, 20,000 lost in the siege of Kut. But the cavalries, sappers, miners, they remain behind in Europe. They watched their British counterparts go home on leave, but they could not go home on leave. They could not as they were told the sea journey was too long, we can’t spare the ships, it would take six weeks to go, six weeks to come, and it was put completely out of the question. So they actually had no leave, they worked right through. Some of the sappers stayed on for five years, clearing the mines after it was over.

And of course by 1916, we have the famous Battle of Somme which begins on 1 July 1916. On the first day of the battle, the Indians are photographed doffing their hats. In the first few hours alone, the British lost 20,000 men and 40,000 were seriously injured. Never had such a beautiful summer day seen so many dead. By mid-November, the Battle of Somme was over. The British suffered around 420,000 casualties. The total number of dead on both sides was 1.3 million. But while the Indian infantry are fighting in these trenches, there’s a different story.

I’ve also covered the first Indian pilots who are flying in the skies over France and Germany. This was actually the first time Indian pilots were flying in the First World War. The pilots come from a different class of society. They’re actually very upper class, they’ve been to Oxford, they’ve been to Cambridge. They’re very different to our illiterate peasants from the homeland. Hadik Singh Malik, a Sikh who’s the first Indian to join the Royal Flying Core. He graduated from Oxford but he had to really fight his way to get in, he had to fight British prejudice, because Indians were not allowed to be Officers. In the Royal Flying Corp you have to be an officer, so they said ‘no’ to him. He went to France and was ready to join the French Air Force. Then his tutor at Oxford heard about it, thought it was nonsense, the French are ready to have him and we are not ready to have this young lad?! So he had a big fuss and immediately Hadik Singh Malik was recruited. So he became the first Indian pilot and as soon as he joined he opened the door for the others. So waiting to become a pilot was a young 18 year old boy, Indra Lal Roy or ‘Laddie’ who’d studied here in St Pauls, Kensington. (So these were very upper class families, very elite.) He was barely out of school, raring to go; all he wanted to do was bring down German planes. His only ambition: take down the planes, and fly. He learns to fly amazingly quickly, between 9 and 19 July, he takes down nine German aircraft, becoming India’s first flying ace. But it all ended too soon for him. Flying a dangerous mission in France on 22 July 1918, just months before the end of the war, his plane was attacked by four German planes and a dogfight followed. His plane was shot. Not to be cornered, this teenager he fought back, taking down two enemy planes with him. He was only 19. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, becoming the first Indian to win this award. Even the Red Baron, the famous German flying ace flew over the sky where he had died and he dropped a wreath to remember his bravery.

Less than three months after he died, the war was over. Over 73,000 Indians died in the war, hundreds of thousands were seriously wounded, returning to India with their lives damaged forever. To acknowledge the contribution of the Indians in the war, they were allowed to attend the Imperial War Cabinet in London and the peace talks in Paris in 1919. At the Imperial War Conference, two Indians attended: the Maharaja of Bikaner, and Lord Sinhar, who represented the Indian government. The Maharaja goes on to the peace talks as well and actually signs on the Treaty of Versailles. The signing in the hall of mirrors is immortalised in a painting by William Orpen with the Maharaja standing centre stage. The attention is on him because he looks so grand.

India had backed the British war effort for a reason: They wanted Dominion status. However, they were denied this. Instead what they got was barely five months after the war, General Reginald Dyer fired on an unarmed crowd made up largely of Sikh men, women and children who had gathered at a park near the Golden Temple in Amritsar on 13 April 1919. Despite the loyalty of the Sikh troops and their contribution to the war. Dyer ordered his men to continue firing til the last bullet was over. It was an act that alienated the whole nation and the poet Rabindranath Tagore returned his knighthood in protest, and the Indian’s struggle for independence moved up a gear. Meanwhile, as political unrest and economic crisis overtook India, they’d paid heavily for this war so they had lost so much money. The crops had failed as a result. The soldiers of World War One were gradually forgotten because there were so many problems in the nation at that moment. The new Indian heroes were the ones who were fighting and dying for independence. Over the years the soldiers were forgotten, both by the masters they fought for and by their own countrymen. Only a few villages in India and Pakistan would remember their heroes. In a small hill station of Lansdowne images of Darwan Singh Negi and Gabar Singh Negi can be seen on the road with ‘our Victoria Cross winners’ written by them. So they’re very proud of them. The names of the Indian dead and missing are recorded in memorials in France and Flanders. The Indian memorial at Neuve Chappelle has writings in Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and English. The names of the soldiers are also remembered in the Bedford House Cemetery in Belgium. The names of the Indians are carved on the Menin Gate in Ypres. Those who died in England were buried in the Brookwood Military Cemetery. The Hindus who died in the hospitals were cremated in the South Downs in Patcham near Brighton. An Indian style was chattri built there after the war, and a memorial is held their every summer with the Henderson and Munta Singh families going every year.

There is also a lovely story of Sukkah, a cleaner, who came with the army. He was from the lowest caste of India, an ‘untouchable’, so nobody wanted to know him, not even the Indians. He comes along, he marches in the glorious autumn sun and he arrives at Marseille. Sukkah cleans the trenches, he gets ill, he then cleans the hospitals in Britain, and then he dies. But that isn’t the end of the story. Sukkah’s body is taken to the Hindus but they will not cremate him in Patcham as he is an ‘untouchable’. So they ask the mosque if they will bury Sukkah and they say no as he is not a Muslim. So Sukkah is lying in no man’s land, he’s got nobody. But then the vicar of the local of the local church of Brockenhurst steps forward. He says `Sukkah died for our country, he died for England, we will bury him’. The local parishioners raise money for Sukkah’s tombstone which is in a lovely, little church in Brockenhurst. Also we have the graves of two cooks who were buried in Brookwood, who had been hit by artillery fire.

At the Indian memorial in Neuve Chappelle it has names of over 4,000 Indians who died or who were never found. There was no-one there the day I visited, only the songbirds bore witness to the dead. There was a single wreath lying there with the words `our shared future is built on our shared past’. So on the 101 anniversary of this Great War I hope I’ve been able to revive some of these stories of forgotten soldiers and bring up a part of history that would have been confined to the footnotes really. Stories of these soldiers who crossed these waters in 1914 to serve King and another country.