Books: World War Special

The Way of the Sepoy

Of the many poignant images in this book, none captures better the plight of the colonial soldier than the photograph in which a sepoy in a prisoner-of-war camp is seen to be washing his foot while a German soldier looks on, bemused, from the other side of a barbed-wire fence. Whether in captivity or not, the sepoy had always to contend with the gaze of those he served: on the other side of the battlelines too he would have known himself to be under constant watch, hemmed in by fences that related not only to his physical being but most significantly to the question of his loyalty, this last being a matter of such profound uncertainty that no one perhaps was more unsure of it than he himself. It is this ambivalence above all, that defines the predicament of the sepoy, not just in the First World War, but in many other conflicts before and after.

The sepoy’s way of soldiering dated back to a time when mercenary armies were the norm rather than the exception— that is to say, the mid-18th century, which was when the East India Company raised its first ‘Native Infantry’ regiments in the newly-founded Presidencies of Bombay, Madras and Bengal. The First World War sepoy is thus the embodiment of a paradox: a soldier schooled in modern weaponry and tactics but recruited, remunerated and officered by methods that belonged to another era. The sepoy was in other words a warrior of a completely different ilk from the citizen-soldiers who were the main protagonists of the First World War: this is one reason why his role in that conflict is so often overlooked, at home and in the West.

Since the creation of the East India Company’s standing armies, the sepoy had fought in innumerable British campaigns in Asia and Africa through the Mysore Wars, the Maratha Wars, the Opium Wars, and so on. Yet, across those centuries of service one thing that remained constant was the sepoy’s ambivalent relationship to his job. His loyalty could never be taken for granted; mutiny, which always simmered beneath the surface, regularly came to the boil, most spectacularly in 1857. Nor did his ambivalence end with the start of First World War: sepoys mutinied at Singapore in 1915 even as their compatriots were fighting side-by-side with English regiments at the Somme; a generation later the story would repeat itself on a much larger scale, in the same theatre, during the Second World War. This split in the sepoy’s loyalties is perfectly captured in Vedica Kant’s account of two Afridi Pathan brothers, one of whom, Mir Dast, won the Victoria Cross at Ypres, while the other, Mir Mast, deserted to the German side at Neuve Chapelle, along with 24 other sepoys.

This is why the Indian soldier’s experience of the First World War resists appropriation by those who would like to merge it seamlessly into the triumphal narrative of the winning side. The sepoy’s ambivalence, as much as the anomalous circumstances of the army to which he belonged, made sure that his story could not be fitted into the usual frames of ‘victor’ and ‘vanquished’. This is another reason why the sepoy’s role in the war is so often overlooked.

In a sense, the sepoy was himself complicit in this neglect—for not the least aspect of his ambivalence was his witholding of his own story. Through the history of his existence, 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. Consider that in the century and a half that preceded the First World War hundreds of thousands of Indians, many of them literate, served as sepoys. Yet over that entire period there exists only one first person narrative of a sepoy’s experiences, and this too is possibly an apocryphal text: Sitaram Subedar.

Nor did the First World War, which was to result in an enormous outpouring of prose and poetry in English, French and German, have a similar effect on the Indian subcontinent. While Europe produced tens of thousands of books about the war, in India only a tiny number of first person accounts were to find their way into print: to date they can still be counted on the fingers of one hand—and not one of them was written by a sepoy.

In fact two of these accounts were written by men who were not even eligible to serve as sepoys by reason of their ethnicity; they were Bengalis and thus excluded from military recruitment because of the British Indian army’s racial policies. One of these men, Kalyan Mukherjee, was a doctor in the army’s medical corps, the other, Sisir Sarbadhikari, was a medical auxiliary. Although neither of them bore arms, their writings are to my mind, among the most remarkable accounts of the violence of the First World War. This is of course a tall claim to make of a conflict that was so fecund in literary production: since neither of the two books has been translated, I am afraid the only substantiation I can provide, for those who do not read Bengali, is the evidence of the excerpts that I have translated for my own blog (several passages of which are included in this book).

As for the sepoys themselves, true to their tradition, they left behind very little: inasmuch as their voice can be heard at all it is through their censored letters, and through the various materials that were collected by scholars in German prisoner- of-war camps. These sources have only recently seen the light of day and this book is one of the first to incorporate them into a panoramic overview of the Indian subcontinent’s involvement in the First World War. It is a welcome and long-necessary endeavour but it should be noted that on certain subjects there remains a yawning gap in information: for example the role of lascars, who probably contributed more, proportionally, to the seaborne war effort than sepoys did on land. Despite the gaps in the record, Vedica Kant has succeeded, to a quite remarkable degree, in conveying a sense of the texture of the sepoy’s experience and of the conflicted, ambivalent cadences of his voice. It is a voice that cries out to be heard, precisely because its story does not conform to the mirrored Western narratives of victory and defeat: what it offers is the possibility of an alternative reading of that history—as a story both of defeat-in-victory and victory-in-defeat. To my mind this is closer to the truth of what happened on the battlefields of Europe and Asia during the First World War than many more familiar interpretations of those tragic events.

(Foreword from ‘If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me?’ India and the First World War, by Vedica Kant, Roli Books, Pages 256, Rs 1,975)


The War-Scarred By Vedica Kant

Perhaps among the most momentous outcomes of the war for several Indian soldiers was the opportunity to see and experience England first- hand. Never before had so many Indians made a collective journey to Europe. Never again would these soldiers come so close to seeing England, the imperial ruler for whom they had risked their lives. During the course of the war the imperial centre was to become the base where wounded Indian soldiers underwent treatment and recuperated. By early 1915 six hospitals had been established (usually by converting existing buildings) for Indian soldiers in England. Sir Walter Lawrence, who was appointed the Commissioner for Sick and Wounded Indian Soldiers in France and England in late 1914, was given the task of managing the hospital system to achieve two main aims. One was to return sepoys to the front as soon as possible. The second was to protect British ‘prestige’, which was usually seen to be a combination of proving to the Indian masses that British rule was just and fair and that the British ruling classes own personal behaviour was somehow beyond reproach.

These aims give us a sense of the importance of the hospital sites in the Indian experience of the war. For the British authorities, they became important sites of communication and propaganda to showcase to the soldiers and a wider audience in India the care and concern that was going into the recuperation of wounded Indian soldiers. Some of the most memorable images of Indian soldiers from the war illustrate their recuperation under the ostentatious dome and chandeliers of the Brighton Pavilion, the orientalist kitsch palace built in 1823, that had become a hospital for Indian soldiers during the war. Others show Indian soldiers meeting with British dignitaries including the King himself in the vast hospital lawns. At the same time, the hospitals also became sites of contention, reinforcing the racial and sexual hierarchies of the Empire, against which Indian soldiers often chafed and even rebelled...

From the very beginning of the war, the British were concerned that the treatment of Indian soldiers should leave no room for complaint. Lawrence, keenly aware of the politics of treating Indian patients in England, wrote to Lord Kitchener: ‘I will never lose an opportunity of impressing upon all those who are working in these hospitals that great political issues are involved in making the stay of the Indians in England as agreeable as possible.’ This was not just for fear of a revolt amongst the soldiers, but also to preclude the possibility of the treatment of soldiers abroad becoming a rallying point for nationalists in India.

Luckily for Lawrence, the Indian soldiers were welcomed just as warmly in England as they had been in France. The first large contingent of Indian soldiers arrived at Brighton in December 1914 on a dreary, cold and rainy day. Despite the weather, crowds gathered to cheer the soldiers arriving from the front. The Brighton Gazette wrote: ‘... They arrived under rather mournful conditions. A drab day, rainstorms, and a fierce sea running in the Channel, mud-laden streets, and a vista of dripping umbrellas and mackintoshes. That was the first impression the warriors got of Brighton, and it was rather chilling. But crowds assembled to voice public welcome, and the reception undoubtedly cheered the brave fellows. The hundred stretcher cases in the first train that reached the terminus on Monday afternoon constituted perhaps the most distressing of the many pathetic sights seen on similar occasions during the past four months...’

Regardless of where they were admitted, Indian troops enjoyed good medical facilities and treatment. Lawrence noted: ‘Every effort was made to keep them cheerful and provide the simple comforts, which means so much to the Indians.’ It was not an effort that went in vain. One wounded Indian soldier wrote home to Peshawar simply saying, ‘Do not worry about me, for I am in paradise.’ Another recuperating soldier, Gulab Singh, wrote to a friend: ‘The arrangements for our food are excellent… The Gora Log (British) are most attentive to our wants.’

The purpose of the hospitals was not just to heal, but also to make the soldiers fit for war again. The hospitals provided the patients space for exercise and drills, and amenities to make the sepoys’ convalescence quick and pleasant. Soldiers were able to walk outside the hospital grounds as well (although this was usually only under supervision, reflecting the concerns the British authorities had about granting too much freedom to recuperating Indian soldiers). In the Kitchener Hospital, a large recreation room was used to project scenes of Punjab life to ‘a delighted audience of soldiers from the north of India.’ In Brighton, patients were allowed weekly trips to the cinema and those at the Pavilion were treated to a weekly organ recital. Gramophones regularly played the ‘native airs of India’ at convalescent homes and soldiers were also provided books and puzzles. n

(From the chapter ‘Face-to-face with Blighty’ in ‘If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me?’ India and the First World War)