Now as the guns fall silent, soft ashes rain upon the many corpses afloat in these unholy trenches. I mourn all my mud-embalmed brothers locked in death’s embrace, their creed and caste undone.
Creating the Centena
Over a million Indians travelled overseas to serve, many were illiterate. Those that could read and write acted as scribes for fellow soldiers. By March 1915, the 140, 000 men sent to France and Flanders were producing tens of thousands of letters home. Military censors monitored soldiers’ translated letters, both to assess morale and to monitor for sedition against their colonial rulers.
Extracts reveal men uprooted from the familiar to the appalling conditions of the trenches. Here they were subject to an industrialised warfare that even experienced soldiers among them had not seen. Some compared it to the battles of India’s great epics, The Ramayana and The Mahabharatha:
“I am now about to return to the trenches. There is no hope that I shall see you again for we are as grain flung a second time into the oven and there is no hope that life shall come out of it.”
“Our brothers who are in the trenches have endured suffering beyond the power of words to describe. When God grants me your sight again I shall tell you the whole story.”
“This war is like the war that Hanuman made when he burnt the stones of Lanka. There can be no confidence of life or of seeing the dear children or you again. If I live I shall write again.”
“Do not think that this is war. This is not war. It is the ending of the world. This is such a war as was related in the Mahabharat of our forefathers.”
A committee was set up to provide donations for Indian soldiers at the Western front. Among pleas for cigarettes, tea and condensed milk, the holy books of Islam Sikhism and Hinduism were requested. Regiments were segregated by religion and cooks adhered to dietary laws. This respect was extended to last rites for men who survived the battle but died in hospitals on the South Coast.
Among them was Manta Singh, a subedar, equivalent to Captain. During the first major British offensive on the Western Front, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, Singh was shot in the leg rescuing injured officer George Henderson.
Manta Singh never returned to his home and family. He developed gangrene and died in Brighton, his body cremated and ashes scattered in the sea. His name is on the Chattri memorial, high on the South Downs.
A devout Sikh, I imagined Singh’s thoughts as he braved enemy fire to push his fellow soldier to safety in a wheelbarrow.
A memorial at Neuve Chapelle in Calais commemorates 4,742 Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British. Their bodies remain among the fallen, all trace of religion and race forever erased.
My partner organisation was Sampad Arts (sampad.org.uk), whose mission is to connect people and communities with South Asian and British Asian arts and heritage and to play a cutting-edge role in the creative economy.
Lives of the First World War
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