Indian Letters from World War I

 

The following letters come from the source David Omissi, ed., Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-18 (London: Palgrave, 1999) pp. 25, 33-34, 37, 61-64, 98, 107, 118-19, 122-23, and 295-96.

Most Sepoys--Indian soldiers--who fought in global/imperial conflicts came from the northern areas of British “India”: Punjab, the areas bordering Afghanistan, and Nepal. (The British believed that certain Indians were members of ‘martial races’—the most effective at fighting—and believed most of these allegedly warlike peoples lived in the north of the colony. Southern Indian and Bengali men were believed by the English to have degenerated into “effeminacy,” resulting in their being no good for combat.) Many Sepoys agreed with this perception, and many Sikhs and Rajputs joined the army as it fit their self-image. The majority of the Sepoys were non-literate rural men, peasants of middling wealth, and many of their letters were transcribed by someone else. Some landless "Untouchables" joined; very few Western-educated Indians enlisted.

Almost 30,000 served on the Western Front in the first year of the Great War, or "World War I". Casualties were heavy enough in that theater that the British ran out of officers who could speak Urdu and the like, and thus command these units effectively. Even more served in the campaigns in other parts of the world, especially the Middle East and East Africa. Many served as cavalry and were instrumental in defeating Ottoman forces in Palestine and Mesopotamia (Iraq).

By the end of the war, more than 1.2 million Indians had participated, 2/3 of those as soldiers. The peak strength of sepoys in the army was 573,000 men at one time. They made up about 1/10 of British manpower during the war. Almost 1 million Commonwealth forces died, including almost 50,000 Sepoys.

Read the following letters to get the feel for soldiers' individual experiences throughout the war. How did they perceive their own positions in the war? How did they describe its events? What did the war look like through their eyes? What historical trends do their observations reveal?

Note also that colonial subject soldiers (e.g., Southeast Asians - East Africans - Algerians - West Africans) traveled the world to fight for their metropolitan powers--Indians were not unusual in this respect.

To Naik Rajwali Khan (in India)
20 May 1915
For God’s sake don’t come, don’t come, don’t come to this war in Europe. Write me and tell me if your regiment or any part of it comes…. I am in a state of great anxiety; and tellmy brother Muhammad Yakub Khan for God’s sake not to enlist. If you have any relatives, my advice is don’t let them enlist. It is unnecessary to write any more. … Cannons, machine guns, rifles and bombs are going day and night, just like the rains [in the monsoon season]. Those who have escaped so far are like the few grains left uncooked in a pot. … In my company there are only ten men [left]. In the regiment there are 200.
Havildar Abdul Rahman (Punjabi Muslim)
59th Rifles, France

To India
1915
I’ve been wounded in the head, but hope to get better soon. …lucky [to be] alive while all my brethren have been killed. … here the earth is covered with dead men and there is no place to put one’s foot. Up to now the war has been as follows – the Germans kept firing from the trenches and we from ours. But on the 9th and 10th of March we attacked the Germans. So many men were killed and wounded that they could not be counted… When we reached their trenches we used the bayonet and the kukri [bladed weapon], and blood was shed so freely that we could not recognize each other’s faces; the whole ground was covered with blood. There heaps of mens’ heads, and some soldiers were without legs, others had been cut in two, some without hands and others without eyes. The scene was indescribable.
Amar Singh Rawat
English Hospital

To Ghulam Hussain (in France)
1915
If God grants life, then I shall see you again. But it is difficult, for we are plunged in great and grievous calamity. …Alas! Alas! What am I to say about myself, that would be fit to write? There is nothing but my corpse left. They have cut off the whole of one leg, and one hand too is useless. What is the use of my going to India thus? … They have given me a leg, but it is made of wood and vile. I cannot walk. … There is nothing left of me. I have lost a hand and a leg. What am I to do?
Rajwali Khan (likely Punjabi Muslim)
English hospital

To Raja Sajawal Khan Lumberdar
May 1915
For six months I have not taken off my boots for one second, nor taken off my uniform, nor have I had one good night’s rest. This fighting goes on day and night all the same. The Kings of England, and Belgium, France, Russia Australia are on the one side. On the other are the Emperors of Germany and Austria. But the Emperor of Germany is the greatest and most powerful of all. …The Germans have the most numerous cannons and machine guns and shells. … [At Ypres, the Allies] attacked the Germans. This attacked they repulsed by lightning, fire and smoke, blasting some to pieces and blinding others [with poison gas]. Others were killed by cannon and machine gun fire. My friend, the Germans have got the most perfect contrivances. …About half the army was destroyed. This is what happens whenever there is fighting. …At night [the Germans] send up flashlights [spotlights] which show up men two miles away. Now [our side] is preparing contrivances similar to those of the Germans. Let us hope that we will defeat them, but we can only do so when all the Kings on the face of the earth will join us…
Anonymous

To Jemadar Muzaffar Khan in France
25 May 1915
Furthermore, this present war has raised the question of a sort of perception and comparison of the characteristics of each race, and of their good and bad reputation, as evinced by the way in which they have carried out their duties; … For this reason, I am writing to you… my sincere friend, to suggest that two or three of your native officers should meet together and make a representation to some of your English officers…and ask them to say what is their opinion concerning our race, and the work we have done, and our loyalty. When they have expressed their opinion, you should then say ‘will your honours kindly represent our loyal behavior to our spiritual chief, showing with what self-sacrifice we Muslims have devoted our lives in carrying out our duties?’ …we may be able to present the letter to high military officers on behalf of the whole of the Muslims showing the facts of our state: there will be great advantage in this to all the followers of our spiritual guides…
Sayid Ghulam Abbas (Muslim)
Punjab

Early 1915
… The papers have an enormous circulation [here in England]. … Even the working classes read the papers and keep themselves informed of the state of affairs in their country and the events of the war. … [The Times] devotes its efforts to the advancement of patriotism and the service of the nation and not to squabbling with its fellows …. as do the papers of the Punjab. …

When one considers this country and these people in comparison with our own country and our own people one cannot but be distressed. Our country is very poor and feeble and its lot is very depressed. Our people copy the faults of the British nation and leave its good qualities alone. We shall never advance ourselves merely by wearing trousers and hats and smoking cigarettes and drinking. … They [the English] avoid idle chatter. Their delight is cleanliness. … As for shopkeepers, everything has a fixed price. … They do not marry until they have reached maturity. … Our boys are spoilt by our evil customs.
Sub Assistant Surgeon [unnamed] (Hindu)
Off the English coast

To Malik Fateh Mahomed Khan (in the Punjab)
1917
Our caste is very low down in the scale, just because we do not serve in the Army [normally at home, presumably]. Everyone knows I am an officer, but no one knows who the Buranas are. … The reason for this [is] that though we are a caste superior in many ways to others, we are inferior just because we are not soldiers. Now, it rests with God and with you to raise the name of the buranas. You must make a great effort and you can do it this way – by getting [Buranas enlisted]. You must emphasize this – that our caste has got to win a name by serving Government. Just look at the Biloch caste. Who used to know anything about them, and now, how do they stand? … the whole object of military service is to raise the reputation of one’s caste, and that is what we have to do.
Jemadar Sultan Khan (Punjabi Muslim)
France

To brother
1914
What better occasion can I find than this to prove the loyalty of my family to the British government? Turkey, it is true, is a Muslim power, but what has it to do with us? Turkey is nothing at all to us? The men of France are beyond measure good and honorable and kind…. Their manners and morals are in absolute accord with our ideas.
"Muslim Officer"
France

To Abdullah Jan (in France)
1915
The news is that the white men here have refused to enlist, declaring that the German Emperor is their King… An Indian black man went off to preach to them. He asked them if they were not ashamed to see us come from India to help the King while they, who were of the same race, were refusing to fight for him. But really, the way these whites are behaving is a scandal. Those who have already enlisted have mutinied.
Yusuf Khan
English hospital

To friend (in France)
1915
…the 130th Baluchis, the regiment of which two companies have gone from Rangoon [Burma] to the Andamans, one jemadar and one havildar [non-commissioned officesr, similar in rank to sergeants] have been shot. There is great excitement about this …
"Pathan" (or Pashtun, probably from territory claimed by present-day Afghanistan)
Peshawar

To friend (in France)
1915
[Five fellow soldiers] have taken an oath with me. [Our unit] The 130th refused to go to the war. Subedar-Major Sultan Mir has been court-martialled, and all the Afridi sepoys have been put in custody [ninety].
"Pathan"
Peshawar

To Shamsher Ali Khan (in France)
1915
…There is no doubt that Bulgaria’s coming in means a prolongation of the war. May God destroy this enemy – this shameless enemy – who has ruined the peace of the world. … We are very grieved to hear of His Majesty’s [English King] fall from his horse, but it is a subject for thankfulness that he was not seriously hurt. I am rather afraid that his Indian troops did not get the honour of being reviewed by him. … What you say about the apples and pears [code words for Frenchwomen] makes my mouth water, but when one thinks that bombs are more plentiful than apples, and shells than pears, and that there are more bullets flying about than grapes, it makes one’s hair stand on end. I am sure that, just as our Indians run to pick rare fruit like this, so they face fiercely the messenger of death.
Ahmad Khan
India

To Sowar Abdur Razzaq Kahn (in France)
1915
Be attentive to your duty. This is your opportunity for showing your courage, when people from all corners of the world under the dominion of King George V are sacrificing their lives.. . For one who seeks promotion over the heads of others, war is the best opportunity. Promotion thus gained is the reward of courage and devotion. It is not the promotion …won in peace time by flattering …officers and putting on their socks and boots. Such conduct is the work of a coward and a slacker. You must be careful to keep out of the ranks of such people. Do not think ‘perhaps I may be shot’. No one cane escape the fate allotted to him.
Kot Dafadar Said Ahmad Shah
Northwest Territories (present-day Pakistan)

To Mangal Singh (in the Punjab)
1917
We get everything here that we are accustomed to get in India – plenty of milk, sugar, ghi [a sort of butter], oranges and grapes [not code words for women, we think]. Every day the forces of the King continue to advance, and we expect that [soon] we shall return victorious to our native land. The Germans are so much exhausted and can do no harm whatever to our King’s army, where our King’s army inflicts heavy losses on them daily. … The Germans are reduced to misery. They have nothing to eat
Chaman Singh (Sikh)
France

 

 

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