Last fortnight I had the opportunity to attend Capt Amarinder Singh’s key note address in London. Held at the prestigious Great Hall of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea it was on the role of soldiers from the India subcontinent in World War 1. It proved to be a defining address as he, in the heart of UK’s historical military establishment, raised the point that how the Indian role in the Great War had been grossly underrated by historians and the western media despite the participation of 1.3 million Indian soldiers. Seventy four thousand Indian soldiers had laid down their lives and sixty seven thousand had been injured (many succumbed to their injuries) for a cause which they hardly knew about. Indians were sent to fight Shoulder to Shoulder with the British in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), Egypt, Palestine, France, Aden, Belgium, East Africa, Gallipoli and Salonika.
About twenty-five princely states contributed over 26,000 combatants. The address also set me thinking on the kind of social impact the war must have had on the Indian soldier, especially the Punjabis, since majority of them were from the Punjab province. I am not aware that how much of this aspect has Capt. Amarinder Singh explored in his upcoming book, ‘Honour and Fidelity: India in World War 1’ or if it is a purely military narrative as It was for the first time that so many Punjabis were setting foot outside Punjab and would be experiencing new landscape, agriculture, culture, weather and of course the mems. I soon found myself browsing the internet highway where I chanced upon an article (written by Shweta Desai) on the work of Prabhjot Parmar, a professor at the University of the Fraser Valley in Canada. She has been working for over a decade on retrieving the lost experiences of the soldiers from their positions abroad; be it through letters, photographs and architecture amongst other things. While studying the letters Parmar found that even though most of them contained matter pertaining to nostalgia, there were many who were attracted to Europe. The Punjabis were fascinated with opportunities the new land provided as opposed to the deplorable conditions in their homeland. In one such letter soldier Sowar Natha Singh has written to Sapuran Singh (Lyallpur District, Punjab), in Urdu, from FPO 19, France, on January 4, 1916 the following:
“The country is exceedingly pleasant. In it India is forgotten. I do not wish the war to end soon.
I should like to die in this country and I have no intention of returning to India. If you want anything, write to me. May the Holy Guru save me from India?” I also hit upon a lecture by a UK based author and researcher Amarjit Chandan which was delivered at the Imperial War Museum, London.
Titled under ‘How they suffered: World War One & its impact on Punjabis’ the author shares a poem which according to him was popularly played on the gramophone during the days of war. The poem by Bhai Chhaila Patialewala translated into English reads the following-
The recruits are at your door step
Here you eat dried roti
There you’ll eat fruit...
Here you are in tatters
There you’ll wear a suit...
Here you wear worn out shoes
There you’ll wear boot (s).
This poem perhaps best explains the never say die spirit of the Punjabis and their ability to convert war into opportunity despite staring down death.