WWI: a different narrative

In the Pas de Calais in Northern France there is a small cemetery for twenty eight Indian soldiers who died in World War One. It was the 11th day of the 11th month, one hundred years after the end of that War, that we as a family of mixed British/Indian heritage, had come to the Neuville-sous-Montreuil cemetery to bring flowers in memory of those Indians who had died, unremembered, and far away from their families and their land.

The cemetery is in the midst of the rolling hills of the Sept Vallées, the seven river valleys of this region, and on a slope that goes down to the woodlands and the river below. It is late autumn and the trees are bare and as you read the names of some of the 28 laid to rest, you cannot but feel sad.

Havildar, Mohamed Khan, 82nd Punjabis, died July 23rd1915
Rifleman, Tikka Ram Pun, 2nd Edward’s Own Gurkha Rifles, died Dec 23rd 2014
Bearer, Ramasra, Indian Medical Service, died February 12th 1915
Lance Naik, Atma Singh, 107th Indian Pioneers, died January 4th 1915
Sepoy, Adram, 6thJat Light Infantry, died December 31st 1914
Driver, Mohamed Din, Royal Garrison Artillery, died December 12,1915

Here, so far from home, they gave their lives, and as we stood there in the cemetery you could not help but ask – for what?

When the War started in July 1914 the British were not in a strong position. They needed more soldiers and where were they to come from, but India which had the largest trained army in the British Empire. Within weeks they had arrived in Marseilles and by October they were on the Western Front.

Here, in the Battle of Ypres, these Indian soldiers were among some of the first to experience the horrors of trench warfare. Ill equipped and without proper winter clothing they faced the murderous weapons of modern trench warfare. Endless barrages of high explosives, the nightmare of crossing no-man’s land under heavy machine gun fire, and then in the enemy trenches fighting in savage hand to hand combat.
And in their letters home, which were kept by the censors and are now in the British Library, they conveyed the horror of modern industrial warfare – ‘Do not think that this is war. This is not war. It is the ending of the world.’ Yet terrifying as the fighting was, in the winter months there were long periods of inaction along with the misery of the rain and the winter cold. As one soldier lamented – ‘It rains day and night – both sorts of rain. I cannot describe it. If God is merciful to me, I will escape with my life.’

The winter months gave the soldiers some respite. However it was not to last, and in March 1915 came the battle of Neuve Chapelle, where there were the greatest number of Indian casualties in the War. One sepoy writing home said – ‘The state of things is indescribable. There is conflagration all round, and you must imagine it to be a dry forest in a high wind in the hot weather …. No one can extinguish it but God himself – man can do nothing.”

In fact so many soldiers and officers were killed and wounded, the morale of the troops sunk to a dangerously low level. So much so, in early 2016 the British Army decided to transfer all the regiments, except the cavalry to Mesopotamia to fight against the Ottoman Empire.

But to come back to this site on this late autumn afternoon, there is something unusual about it. It is away from any of the main battles, and it is a cemetery just for Indians. On doing some research, we discovered that the Lahore Indian General Hospital had been set up in the nearby town of Montreuil, one of four hospitals on the Western Front for Indians. They had provided care for the wounded and built this cemetery for the dead. And that is almost certainly why there is a memorial panel to these soldiers who were cremated.

Now these soldiers, mostly peasant farmers who had gone to war for work, honour and because the British simply hadn’t told them where they were going, can be remembered. Remembered now as Black and Asian people claim the right to see their history in a different light. But also remembered as people with wishes hopes and desires who suffered and died, far from their families, and who now can find their place as a part of their people and their history.

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