DAY 33
Bert Preece

Though you are of the border, I am of the woods

100 days
100 lives
100 words

I lost my voice to the poison gas.
It bound us like these white sheets.
But I lost my voice for a reason:
So India can begin to find its own.

Mir Dast was an Indian soldier and recipient of the Victoria Cross. The poem’s title is a Pashto proverb meaning: “I am as good a man as you.”

Creating the Centena

Why

Roughly 1.4m Indian soldiers fought on behalf of Britain in the First World War. And when I tell people this, they usually respond with, “Really?”. Lots of people in the UK still believe success for Britain was a white man’s win. Yet, though war propaganda often depicted a lone burly bulldog, draped in national colours, really, it ought to have featured a pack – the other hounds symbolising the Empire nations Britain leaned on in achieving victory.

We’re going through rocky times at the moment. Islamophobia and xenophobia in our modern-day media and a swing to the right in western politics were some of the reasons I wanted to write a polemic, subversive piece. One which championed the contribution of an unrepresented group. And this wasn’t difficult. The bravery, respect and camaraderie of the Indian soldiers was a joy to discover in my research.

Starting out

I started my research by asking my friends Ed, Sam and Husna for help, who I thought might know a thing or two about the First World War. I visited the Imperial War Museum. I read letters sent home to India during the war at The British Library. And then I started googling. I got a bit overwhelmed for a bit. My research was taking me from Tirah in Pakistan to Ypres in Belgium, from Brighton to Bombay. But I trudged on.

I learnt about the Swadeshi movement, which backed Indian independence, and was picked up with great gusto by Gandhi after the war. I learnt about the caste system used by Army officials to identify the so-called braver and stronger soldiers.

I learnt that Indian soldiers were feared by some British people, loved by others. I learnt they were subjected to racism. From their letters, I learnt some were funny and endearing too.
Bert Preece

Mr Dast carried eight men to safety with two bullet wounds in his head. When he did it, he was surrounded by chlorine gas, in an unfamiliar country, in extreme weather conditions. He came from a mountainous region called Tirah, which was in India before the Partition. He was Muslim. He spoke in Pashto. His brother, Jemadar Mir Mast, despondent, exhausted and wanting to go home, disappeared one evening and crossed over to the Germans.

Mir Dast was treated for his injuries in Brighton. The Royal Pavilion, with its domed ceilings and decadent decoration, was used as a place to treat Indian soldiers. When King George V arrived, Mir Dast got out of his wheelchair to stand and receive his Victoria Cross. That, for me, was a fantastic symbol of the respect and fortitude held by all Indian soldiers who fought in the First World War.

Mir Dast receiving the Victoria Cross from George V, August 1915

About the author

Bert Preece. At my best with a brief to beat, a story that needs to be told.

More about Bert

With special thanks

The Royal Pavilion, Brighton supported the research behind this centena. Discover their First World War stories.

Find Out More

Lives of the First World War

Discover Mir Dast’s life story on Lives of the First World War

About 26

26 is a group of writers whose purpose is to inspire a greater love of words in business and in life.