100 YEARS OF THE END OFWORLD WAR 1
It took Santanu Das, a professor of English literature in the UK, 12 years to write his recently-released book, ‘India, Empire and First World War Culture: Writings, Images and Songs.’ His research took him to archives across seven countries in three continents. He met descendants of those who had been a part of the war and searched for anecdotes and memories within his own family. Excerpts from an interview:
Which were the major states and regions of India that sent soldiers to the First World War?
In spite of India’s vast population, the men were recruited from a narrow geographical and ethnic pool, spread across Northern and Central India, the North West Frontier Province and the kingdom of Nepal in accordance with the theory of ‘martial races’. According to this construct, only certain ethnic and religious groups – such as the Pathans, Dogras, Jats, Garhwalis, Gurkhas and Sikhs, among others – were deemed fit to fight; incidentally, these were men from rural backgrounds who had traditionally been ‘loyal’ to the government, as opposed to the politicised Bengalis who were branded ‘effeminate’. Various strands – from Victorian interest in physiognomy and Darwinism to indigenous notions of caste and political calculation – combined to form this elaborate pseudoscientific theory. Forged in the aftermath of the Sepoy Uprising of 1857, it was enormously influential and shaped the formation of India’s armed forces.
The total number of men enlisted from Punjab, including both the British districts and the Indian states, was 470,000, including 400,000 combatants and 70,000 non-combatants.
How were these men recruited?
In 1914, India had the largest voluntary army in the world, though a question mark hangs over the word ‘voluntary’. For most, soldiering was a source of livelihood. It is not, however, possible to impose a common motive for enlistment of the 600,000 combatants. If the First World War soldier is usually flattened into an izzat-driven sepoy or a hardened mercenary, we need to find a more socioculturally and psychologically nuanced vocabulary. Economic necessity or incentive, family and community traditions, an internalised ethos of ‘martial races’ and the cult of heroic masculinity were all fused and confused, hinting at a complex structure of feeling that went beyond the reductive categories of organic loyalty or mercenary impulse: instead, what we have is a complex, and at times ambivalent, emotional world where loyalty to one’s regiment and comrades would co-exist with reservations against the colonial state.
The whole recruitment campaign can be divided into three rough phases: from 1914 to 1916, it was largely ‘voluntary’, even if propelled by economic incentives; in 1917, we see the beginning of the use of force; and from April to November 1918, it was largely coercion. In the summer of 1918, the Lieutenant-Governor Michael O’Dwyer promised to raise 200,000 men over the coming year. Andrew Thompson, the chief secretary to the Punjab Government, admitted to a series of coercive measures. Indeed, the Congress Report on the Punjab Disturbances in 1919, widely held to be written by Gandhi, is particularly illuminating. During the summer of 1918, the district officers and local zaildars and lambardars, resorted to a spree of brutal measures: lists were compiled of families which had more than one son; recruits began to be bought and sold for large amounts of money; farmers who did not offer their sons were denied remission from income tax. The number of men charged with offences or ‘challaned’ went up by 300% in 1918 and charges were dropped when they enlisted; in Attock and Mianwali, men fled to the North West Frontier province to avoid being recruited; water-supply was cut off to parts of Multan.
What was the average pay for these men ?
The average pay of the sepoy or infantryman was ₹11 and he received batta or special allowance for foreign or field service; a sowar or cavalryman was paid ₹14, and an additional ₹20 for the horse, totalling ₹34.
Bengal’s participation in the war, though significant, was different in nature from that of the rest of India. Tell us a bit about it...
Due to the prevalence of the ‘martial race’ theory, the politically conscious Bengalis were constructed as ‘effeminate’ and thus barred from joining the British Indian army. However, during the war, due to the great enthusiasm and persistence of a number of prominent Bengalis, the 49th Bengalis – a regiment of ‘citizensoldiers’ – was formed, expanded from the smaller ‘Bengal Double Company’ and generating tremendous excitement. In fact, the famous Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam joined the 49th Bengalis in 1917. They were sent to Karachi for training and some of them even went to Mesopotamia in 1917 where they are remembered for their rather inglorious record. They never saw combat and struggled with the desert conditions and disease. A commanding officer divided the regiment into ‘Measles Squad’, ‘The Whooping Cough Squad’ and ‘Scarlet Fever Squad’! More seriously, there was infighting and a junior member opened fire on three senior colleagues while they were asleep, and the regiment was disbanded soon after the war.
In addition to combatants, there was a large number of Bengalis among the labourers and lascars and often one comes across Bengali names in their memorials. There were also a sizeable number of distinguished Bengali doctors, including two from my extended family – one of them, Captain Dr Manindranath Das, was awarded the Military Cross for saving lives in Mesoptamia. I had a third family member who served as a translator – Dhiren Basak. Yet, the best documented lives of two Bengalis who served in that war are those of the doctor Kalyan Mukherjee, captured through a remarkable memoir Kalyan Pradeep, written by his 80-year-old grandmother after he died in Mesopotamia; and the other is the truly extraordinary diary-cum-memoir ‘Abhi le Baghdad’ by Sisir Kumar Sarbadhikari, a medical orderly who took part in the Siege of Kut, was taken a POW by the Turks, survived the brutal 500-mile march across the deserts and spent the war years in captivity.
Then there was Indra Lal Roy, who was a student in London when the war broke out. A fighter pilot, he was credited with eight ‘kills’ and awarded the Flying Cross, the only Indian pilot to be so decorated during the war. He was killed in action in a dogfight on 22nd July 1918. He was the uncle of Air Marshal Subroto Mukerji, India’s first air chief. Another Bengali, Jogen Sen, volunteered in the opening months of the conflict in the Leeds Pals Battalion. Popular as ‘Jon’ Sen among the ‘Pals’, he was gunned down on the night of 22 May, 1916. During an interview in 1988, Arthur Dalby, a Leeds Pals veteran, said: ‘We had a Hindu in our hut, called Jon Sen. He was the best educated man in the battalion... “