Strange Things

John Bayley

  • Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters 1914-18 edited by David Omissi
    Macmillan, 416 pp, £17.50, April 1999, ISBN 0 333 75144 2

From the recollections of the Roman centurion who tells his story to the children in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, we learn that a Libyan cohort, the Thirds, were stationed as part of the garrison on Hadrian’s Wall, and that when crisis comes and the ships of the Winged Hats attack out of the north, these troops were faithful and resolute: they ‘stood up in their padded cuirasses and did not whimper’. They must have felt the cold, poor devils, as did the two Indian Army corps, more than a hundred thousand men, stationed in Northern France during the damp and bitter winters of 1915 and 1916. But those troops, too, stood to it and did their duty.

They seem to have enjoyed it as well, if the letters they sent home to mothers, fathers and brothers, mostly in the Punjab, are anything to go by. Similar letters home, sent by British soldiers to Surrey or Wolverhampton or Newcastle, were, it is true, mostly composed in the same vein: it was considered almost a military duty to sound cheery, and to conceal the real horrors of war from the folks back home. Besides, there was the censorship to think of: almost all the letters home to India in this fascinating collection seem to have passed through the censor’s hands; and yet few if any of the soldiers writing seem conscious of the demands of security, or to have been oppressed by them. Enthusiasm is as general in the Punjabi 19th Lancers or in Skinner’s Horse as it was among the London Scottish or the Yorkshire Pals further along the line of trenches.

There were other considerations, pertinent to the mass of complex feeling and emotion which underpinned the British Empire. In the early 19th century the warlike Sikhs had twice fought the British and won their ungrudging admiration. Now they were determined to honour that imperial and fraternal bond, as is revealed in a Sikh signaller’s letter to his brother:

Now listen. We have been fighting for 14 months and the fight has been very fierce. I have been in every fight and have fought with great valour. Our people have exalted the name of our country. Our troops have been accounted the stoutest of all the troops. At this time they are in such heart that they would stay the tiger unarmed. We shall never get such another chance to exalt the name of race, country, ancestors, parents, village and brothers, and to prove our loyalty to the government ... There will never be such a fierce fight nor such arrangements made. Food and clothing, all is of the best; there is no shortage. Motors convey the rations right up to the trenches ... We go singing as we march and care nothing that we are going to die. The fighting is strange – on the ground, under the ground, in the sky and in the sea, everywhere. This is rightly called the war of kings. It is the work of men of great intelligence.

Signaller Kartar Singh was not wrong about that, at least in one sense. On the other hand, the stupidity of the men of great intelligence, on all fronts and on both sides, would produce a disillusionment in the rank and file which would eventually play its part in destroying kings and empires. The Indian Army must have experienced this disillusionment in the same way as other armies; and perhaps the more so because the hint of patronage, conveyed almost unconsciously in Kipling’s comment about the troops on the wall, is bound to be not far off in any neo-colonial situation, even though the British Imperial system had come to depend as heavily as the Roman Empire had done on the new loyalties of troops and peoples once the Empire’s rivals or enemies.

Not the least interesting thing about these letters is their disproof of the common assumption that cavalry were able to take little part in the Flanders fighting. On the contrary: Indian cavalry were highly active, particularly during the Somme campaign. The Secunderabad Brigade successfully attacked at Morlancourt, managing a mounted advance over trenches, barbed-wire and shell-torn territory to kill and capture large numbers of Germans. David Omissi remarks on the accuracy with which Jemadar Shah Mirza (a jemadar was a junior NCO) describes the action and its short-term consequences for the enemy; as usual no general breakthrough was achieved. Letters of this date and from these regiments are notable, too, for their cryptic references to ‘black monkeys’, who seem to have been the Indian commissioned officers. Lance Dafadar Mahabat Ali Khan, another NCO, observed that ‘work in a cavalry regiment nowadays is not anything of a catch because of the harsh treatment meted out by the black monkeys.’ I cannot help wondering whether the English officers guarded a reputation for kindliness and forbearance by leaving the dirty work to their Indian colleagues.

At the battle of Loos in 1915 several Indian soldiers won the Victoria Cross. Many letters make the point that their loyalty was to the King personally, and express great contempt for the German Emperor, although it may well be that these are sentiments picked up from a prevailing climate of British opinion. The 127th Baluchis, whose trenches were only a few yards away from the German lines, took to throwing stones at the enemy, which were promptly returned. ‘It is a fine sight to see, and a fine game, the game we are playing with the Germans.’ Even so, desertion was not uncommon, particularly after a gas attack; the authorities seem to have taken a more lenient view of deserters than would have been the case in the British Army. Pathan regiments, many of whose sepoys came from across the North-West Frontier, were in any case not subject to full military discipline, and were simply sent home if any trouble broke out.

The war against Turkey was highly unpopular among devout Muslim troops, and there were three mutinies in consequence, the most serious at Basra in Iraq in a Lancer regiment which refused to ride against the Turks. This aroused great interest among sepoy letter-writers in France, and the head censor made no attempt to interfere with correspondence on the subject, no doubt because most other Indian regiments were highly disapproving of the Lancers’ dereliction of duty. The matter was eased by the revolt against Turkey of the Sharif of Mecca, the guardian of the holiest shrines of Islam. The Muslim League continued to disapprove of the Turkish war, but old-fashioned orthodox Muslims, who were heavily represented in the Indian Army, were on the whole sympathetic to the revolt.

Homesickness was a more serious problem. Rumours were continually spreading that all troops would soon be sent home. In fact, the Indian Army in France was being forcibly expanded, and various measures were tried back in India to enlist the necessary men. Conscription was discussed in 1916, but in the end the Government preferred to rely on what were virtually press-gang devices. After the war the authoritarian governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, was accused in print of having used terrorist methods. He sued for libel and won, but a good deal of bitterness remained, at all levels of Indian society. The soldiers were nonetheless welcomed home as heroes, and their experiences in the land of equality and fraternity seem to have had a marked effect in their towns and villages, as well as on themselves. Most troopers and sepoys remembered with gratitude and astonishment the kindness of their French hosts:

I have seen strange things in France. The French are a sympathetic and gracious people. We were established for about three months in a village. The house in which I was billeted was the house of a well-to-do man, but the only occupant was the lady of the house, and she was advanced in years. Her three sons had gone to the war. One had been killed, another had been wounded and was in hospital, and the third was at that time in the trenches. There are miles of difference between the women of India and the women of this country. During the whole three months I never once saw the old lady sitting idle, although she belonged to a high family. She ministered to me to such an extent that I cannot adequately describe her kindness. Of her own free will she made my bed, washed my clothes and polished my boots. She washed down my bedroom daily. Every morning she used to prepare and give me a tray with bread butter milk and coffee. I was continually wishing to find a way to reimburse her the expense, but however much I pressed her she declined. When we had to leave that village the old lady wept on my shoulder. Strange that I had never seen her weeping for her dead son and yet she should weep for me. At our parting she pressed on me a five franc note to meet my expenses en route.

This kind of relationship seems to have been not uncommon. We hear nothing of romance between French girls and Indian soldiers, perhaps because the letter-writers knew that what they wrote to a father or brother would be passed round the family and read out to wives and mothers. Nor, naturally enough, do we hear of any arrangement for brothels for Indian troops.

The statue of Joan of Arc occasioned some wonderment among the many soldiers who debarked at Rouen. No doubt the English had sound reasons for burning her alive: but what could they have been? This seems to have remained one of the unexplained mysteries of the war, of a similar nature to the greater mystery of what they were fighting for in this strange land which grew so unbearably cold in the winter, despite the lavish supplies of blankets, woollen vests, rum and tobacco which a thoughtful sirdar had laid on. Possibly Kipling’s Libyan cohort on Hadrian’s Wall had asked themselves the same kind of question. More likely they didn’t bother, in either case.