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The battle of wits

If the First World War (1914-1918) was about the future of Europe, it was also about Asia’s, and the 1.4 million Indian soldiers on duty at the various fronts, were writing about it.

india Updated: May 04, 2014 13:27 IST

If the First World War (1914-1918) was about the future of Europe, it was also about Asia’s, and the 1.4 million Indian soldiers on duty at the various fronts, were writing about it. Their letters, documents and other memorabilia have been digitised and will be part of an exhibition at the British Library in London next month, to commemorate 100 years of the event that, experts of that time, named The Great War, and those fighting it, Doing The Job.

Deployed for the first time in a European war, soldiers from undivided India served on the Western Front in Northern France and Belgium, West Asia and North and East Africa. The army commission was voluntary but it came with riders. From a lowly soldier to Mahatma Gandhi himself, all were pressed by the British government, to step up on recruitment.

In 1915, barely a year into the war, Ram Din, a soldier still full of praise for the “great government” for being evenhanded about clothes, food and supplies, slips in a note of dissent in his letter to his family saying that he would be granted leave only in exchange for recruits. In desperation, he appeals to relatives to “get a recruit or two apiece so that they can be engaged in the army”.

Casualties, too, affected the men’s morale. Unaccustomed to trench and mechanised warfare, more than 7,000 soldiers lost their lives on the Western Front alone. The war wounded landed on English shores. Usually sent to recuperate to the southern coast, at the Brighton military hospital for Indians, their thoughts wandered, and moved sluggishly from the high to the low.

Read: How the war was won

It was not uncommon for soldiers to club, in one letter, a crib about the weather (“How can I describe the storms here? In one day there is four descriptions of storm — rain, wind, sun, cold”), be morbid and fatalistic (“I have no hope of seeing you again. It is our fate to be buried here”) and push and hustle for staying on in England as a clerk (“…will ask for a letter of introduction from a notable with connections.”).

Sick-leave also had its compensations. Sometimes, it could mean a day’s outing. When a soldier wrote to his family about such visits, his eye, naturally enough, stopped at the most foreign, the most piquant details. Drawn mostly from the lower and middle peasantry, the sights and sounds of a 20th century city were overwhelming for them — and they gushed.

Ali, a storekeeper at one of the hospitals in Brighton, wrote to his brother in Lyallpur of a trip he took to London. His impressions of British cops (“If one policeman raises his hand every single person in that direction rich and poor alike, stands still where he is as long as his hand is raised”) and British shops (“…there is no need of asking as the price is written on everything”) competed with each other as good examples of fan mail to the Empire.

The praise-and-blame game, however, seemed part of the strategy to subvert censorship. The praise was to throw the Censor off the scent; the blame, more often than not, passed through as the authorities were actually waiting for the replies. The return information from ‘back home’ was a barometer of public feeling and vital information about the movement of Indian leaders and India’s nationalist movement that had again begun to pick up speed in the war years.

In 1915, Gandhi returned to India permanently; in 1916, Tilak started the Indian Home Rule League; 1918 flagged off the Champaran agitation; it was also the beginning of the trade union movement in British India.

Overseas soldiers were not immune to these currents. Gratitude began to be replaced with national feeling; the Censor’s pencil began to be fought with code words. Khan Muhammad, of the 40th Pathans regiment, for example, writes to his mate in Hong Kong: “And there is an expenditure, too great for words, in this country, of black and red pepper [meaning Hindustani and British troops].

The black pepper which has come from India has all been used up, and they will now send for more men, otherwise there would be very little red pepper remaining, because the black is hard and there is plenty of it.” The battle of wits exhausted both sides. The Censor expressing his own frustration with the foreign troops writes in his report of a bunch of letters he has let pass: “Orientals excel in the art of conveying information without saying anything definite….”

There were other concerns. Documents in the India Office Records reveal how the British were relieved to find that most European prostitutes in Calcutta were not from Britain, “and therefore not such a challenge to social norms and the delicate balance of imperial power.” English nurses too had showed a certain regard for Indian soldiers when they had met in Brighton’s hospitals.

But from France, the news was even worse. “The ladies are very nice and bestow their favours upon us freely,” wrote Balwant Singh from France. “But contrary to the custom in our country, they do not put their legs over the shoulders when they go with a man.” Now, go figure.