Indian Soldiers, Their Letters and the Great War

From March to May 2018, the CSMCH is hosting Birgit Ampe as an Erasmus+ trainee and visiting postgraduate student. Amongst other things, Birgit is using her time in Edinburgh to pursue research on Indian soldiers during the First World War. In the first of three blog posts, she explores some of the letters that Indian soldiers wrote during the war, and what these can tell us about the relationship between Indians and the colonial administration. 

When the war broke out in 1914, it was soon termed the Great War. It was only later that it would become known as the First World War. This more accurate term envelops the true nature of the conflict: the great powers used their vast empires to march on the enemy. This was especially true for Britain, which at the onset of the war controlled over one-fifth of the world’s land mass and held a quarter of the world’s population. In the British Empire, India was seen as the crown jewel. It then comes as no surprise that most of Britain’s colonial recruits came from India. In total, 1.27 million Indian men contributed to the war effort, including 827,000 combatants. These so-called sepoy were first deployed in France and later also in the Middle East.

The majority of the Indian soldiers were recruited from the middle peasantry, which has led many historians to conclude that these illiterate men were voiceless victims of the war. This is, however, not entirely true. In the British Library and the Cambridge University Library we can find an entire collection of letters written (or dictated to scribes) by Indian soldiers. The reason for their survival is perhaps not what one might suspect. Throughout the war, Indian inward and outward mail was translated, examined, and if needed, censored by the Indian Base Post Office to ensure no inappropriate things were written. This Office made weekly reports with extracts from the letters. So thanks to censorship these letters have survived.

Some of the letters from this collection have been reprinted by David Omissi in Indian Voices of the Great War (1999). As the title already suggests, the Indian soldiers were anything but voiceless. It is of course important to keep in mind that these letters were sometimes written with censorship in mind, but as David Omissi himself explains in the introduction to his work, most letters show genuine feelings and thoughts which can provide a glimpse into the minds of the soldiers. And that is exactly what this blog post will try to do, by means of highlighting some of the main ideas and recurrent themes as presented by Omissi in his introduction.

A scribe transcribes a soldier’s letter (source: IWM, Q 53887)

At first glance, it is immediately clear that the war has a prominent place in the letters. Although the soldiers had been given strict orders not to write about the war, it was almost impossible not to do so, because this unprecedented event had inevitably become part of their lives. Interestingly, the emotions expressed in the letters seem to mirror the developments during the war. When, for example, the first battles proved to be more difficult and the number of casualties much higher, there was a marked shift in tone from hope to despair. Many soldiers no longer believed the war would be over soon, but instead urged their family members not to enlist.

Morale began to decline even further with the arrival of winter. The Indian soldiers were not used to such harsh weather conditions and the number of self-inflicted wounds increased. In 1915, Indian morale had reached its lowest point and it was feared that it would not survive another winter. The Indian infantry was consequently moved from France to the Middle East. Immediately, we see another shift in the letters. There is a less depressing tone and – apart from some despairing letters – the soldiers seem to have adjusted to the war. However, this adjustment came with a feeling of resignation and a loss of belief in personal survival. As a Sikh wrote to his mother:

I am very happy. In the end I have to die, and to die is best. Except for resignation, there is no remedy. (351)

Perhaps as interesting as what the soldiers wrote, is how they wrote it. Many of them described the war in terms of what they were familiar with. Since the majority of the soldiers were recruited from the middle peasantry, they frequently described the war using references to rural labour. For example, a soldier wrote to his uncle:

Germany fights the world with ghastly might, harder to crush than well-soaked grain in the mill. (123) 

Religious imagery is also frequently used. Muslims refer to the war as the Karbala, whereas Hindus compare it to the Mahabharata, both tales of destruction.

In fact, religion played a very important role, not only in the imagery, but in the everyday lives of the soldiers. Daily religious observances, such as eating halal, remained important to the men, even when the war made it difficult to do so. Some Muslims complained in their letters about the difficulty to come by halal food and how other Muslims had become lax in their observance. But this was not the only challenge Muslims faced. In 1914, Turkey joined the war. At the time, this country was a great Muslim power, and fighting it meant fighting the home of the Khalifa. However, from their letters we can gather that many Muslims decided to remain loyal to Britain, writing that “Turkey is nothing at all to us” (1).

The letters do not only give us an insight in how the soldiers felt about the war, but also about what they left behind. There are heart wrenching letters about homesickness, disputes about family allowances and the strain of war on marriage. It is also worth remembering that these soldiers were peasants before enlistment. Even in the midst of war, their minds were still preoccupied with the agricultural conditions back at home, as we can see in the following letter:

He said that the wheat harvest had been utterly ruined. Please write and tell me whether this is true or not. (112)

But leaving one’s own nation behind, also meant coming into contact with a new one. For most Indian soldiers this was a positive encounter, as their letters show. The beauty of France is often praised, along with the friendliness of the people and the wealth of the cities. When compared to India, the latter seems to come off as rather backward, with some soldiers even claiming that it would “take at least five hundred years for India to attain to such conditions” (58).

One reason why the soldiers made such claims is the education of women. Many Indian men were surprised that French women were so well-educated. They even wrote letters home expressing a wish that their daughters should be educated as well as their sons. Overall, the Indian soldiers wrote positively about women. Some compared them to mothers and sisters, because of the care they received from them, while others had more sexual thoughts in mind when they wrote “[t]he ladies are very nice and bestow their favours upon us freely” (171).

A final interesting point to be found in the letters is that there is a lack of Indian identity and nationalist discourse. Instead, the soldiers seem to have a strong sense of duty towards the Government or Sirkar:

I consider it an honour that I am called to do this work, and am looked upon as a loyal subject. […] Our Government has done everything possible to make things easy for us and has provided us with every comfort, but up to date I have not been able to make any recompense. Now is the time. (585)

But perhaps even more than loyalty to the Government, there was loyalty to the King. It must be stressed, however, that this loyalty was directed towards the person of the King, rather than his office.

When examining these letters and highlighting certain recurrent ideas, it becomes clear that the Indian soldiers were not as different from their British colleagues, even though they came from an entirely different culture. They are in essence just men, with their own ideas, fears and curiosity. David Omissi’s work is invaluable to the research on Indian soldiers as through these letters we get a rare glimpse into the thoughts and lives of these often forgotten people.

Birgit Ampe is an Erasmus+ trainee and visiting postgraduate student at the CSMCH. She completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Ghent in Belgium. She intends to start a second Masters degree in library studies at the University of Brussels in September 2018.

CSMCH Discussion Group screens Goodbye Lenin

For the third CSMCH Discussion Group of this semester, the students of the centre screened the film Good Bye, Lenin! by director Wolfgang Becker as a basis from which to discuss nostalgia in post-Communist Germany and the Socialist world. Anita Klingler led the discussion by presenting the context of the film and post-socialist memory in Germany. Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz sent this report.

Good Bye, Lenin! is the story of an East German family during the tumultuous year of the Wende (“Turning Point,” the term used in referring to the events surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall). The mother, Christiane, is a devout and active party loyalist who has been deeply committed to the socialist state since the departure of her husband to West Germany in 1978. Eleven years later, in October 1989, she is on her way to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the GDR with party dignitaries and observes her young adult son, Alex, clash with police during a pro-democracy protest march. The trauma of seeing her son among the demonstrators, combined with the shock of witnessing the brutality of the regime, prompts her to have a heart attack and sends her into a come for the next eight months.

Friday afternoon cinema!

While she is in a coma, the Berlin Wall falls, Eastern Germans embrace capitalism and consumerism, and Germany is catapulted toward reunification. Alex loses his job in the state-owned television repair service and begins selling satellite dishes, while his sister starts a relationship with a Wessi (West German citizen) and abandons her studies in order to work at Burger King. When Christiane emerges from her coma, doctors warn her children that any unexpected shock could complicate her recovery and potentially prove fatal. Her son Alex thus resolves to recreate the GDR in her bedroom, concealing from his mother all the changes of the past eight months.

In the course of this two-hour long tragicomic film, Alex manages to reinvent the GDR for his mother to the extent that he even thinks himself that the East Germany he has created actually exists. It was this theme that provided the springboard for the post-screening discussion.

A major theme of the discussion involved the tensions and gaps between appearance and reality, between fact and fiction. One question that arose was the way Alex rewrites the official history, like when he explained the presence of Wessies (West Germans) in East Germany due to the opening of the frontiers for the West Germans running away from the country through Czechoslovakia and Hungary.

Also, a relevant aspect of the film is how Alex’s mother believed in Socialism, but at the end of the film confesses to her children that their father had not fled to the West for another woman, as they had been led to believe. Rather, his departure had been planned with the intention of having the family follow him as soon as possible. After he went, she tells them, she lacked the courage to go through with the plan. This raised a discussion about the extent to which she was a believer in the Socialist Regime. It also raised the question of the experience of exile from a dictatorship and the consequences of this action.

A second point discussed was how the film handled the question of democratisation in East Germany with the expansion of consumerism and sexual liberation, notably with the appearance in the film of symbols of late-capitalism or globalisation like Coca-Cola and Ikea. The discussion honed in on the empty buildings abandoned by East Germans which were occupied after the fall and most of them re-used, especially as spaces for alternative cultures and consumerism. A final theme was how the film explained the union of both Germanies through the role that football played politically during the World Cup in 1990, whose victory united both West and East in the joy of celebration.

Finally, we discussed the enduring nostalgia for the Socialist past, or Ostalgie, a term that plays with the German words for East, Ost, and nostalgia, Nostalgie. Anita reminded us how in today’s Germany, along with the official memory of this past promoted by the State, the people who lived in East Germany have their own memories, which tend to emphasize the positive aspects rather than the negative. We discussed this phenomenon not only in East Germany and other ex-socialist countries, but in other places such as Spain where part of the population idealises Francoism.

To sum up, this fantastic film allowed us to have an interesting debate about memory and nostalgia in post-communist societies. Our main conclusion was that the emotional memory of a regime could shape the way we see our own present, not only in the context of post-communism, but also other dictatorships, such as Spain.

While this is probably the last event of this academic year, we will continue our discussion group next semester. We expect to continue this exciting and lively forum for debate, with many overlapping perspectives. Everyone and all ideas are welcome. Do not hesitate to write to us (either Iker or Anita), and stay tuned for more news soon!

Iker Itoiz Ciáurriz is a PhD student in History. His research interests lie broadly in the history of the European left, political theory, political violence and historical memory. His thesis focuses on the political commitment of Eric Hobsbawm and his passion for politics in a transformed world (since 1977). He is a member of the CSMCH steering commitee.

Felix Boecking book launch

Last week, the CSMCH hosted the launch of Felix Boecking’s new book, ‘No Great Wall: Trade, Tariffs, and Nationalism in Republican China, 1927-1945’ (Harvard University Press), in the company of esteemed China specialist, Rana Mitter. Our intrepid reporter, Fraser Raeburn, joined the packed audience on a snowy spring day – you can read his report and listen to the full audio of the event below.

How does one make the history of tariffs interesting? This is clearly a question that Felix Boecking (Edinburgh) has been pondering for quite some time. He was the first to acknowledge that current events made this task considerably easier, as China and the United States fire the opening shots in an incipient trade war, but even had the present been less tumultuous, the large crowd that crammed into a small seminar room to hear about his new book would not have left disappointed.

No Great Wall is premised on the idea that tariffs offer insight into more than just trade and economics. Rather, China’s unique situation in the mid-twentieth century meant that tariffs assumed a great deal of importance – fiscally, with Nationalist China’s revenues disproportionately reliant on customs duties, but also intellectually and politically. The tariff system was a legacy of European informal imperialism and ‘unequal treaties’, which made regaining control over tariffs desirable. But Western involvement also guaranteed that tariffs could be applied across all of China, lending the Nationalist Government reach well beyond the boundaries of their actual territory. The question of tariffs therefore reflected wider tensions in the Nationalist project – what sort of state was it, and what kind of state did it aspire to become?

Felix introduces his new book

The finer detail of day-to-day practice also sheds fascinating light on the construction and maintenance of sovereignty – were regional smugglers, for example, evading import dues or choosing to recognise, and thereby legitimise, different authorities than the distant Nationalist Government? How could the Japanese attempts to undermine the custom system on the northern border destabilise and delegitimise the Nationalist state?

Felix tied these issues back to what he sees as the two central questions regarding Chinese history in this period: the decline of the Nationalist state and its eventual replacement by the current Communist regime; and the impact of the Second World War. By keeping the tariff system largely intact, the Nationalist regime opened itself to criticism that they were perpetuating the legacy of Western imperialism and interference in Chinese affairs, lending the Communists a powerful propaganda device. The advent of war, however, exposed the fragility of the Nationalist state. The Sino-Japanese War saw the loss of most Nationalist trading ports, and with them the ability to collect tariff revenues. The Nationalists were forced to rely on ever more brutal methods of tax extraction to fund the war effort, undermining its legitimacy and goodwill throughout much of China.

After this short introduction, Felix handed over to the day’s celebrity guest, Rana Mitter, whose job it was to respond to the book. The first thing Rana did was to place the text within a much wider context. He pointed to a key conclusion – that states which rely on a single revenue stream are more vulnerable and less resilient – which might usefully be applied well beyond China and East Asia.

He also pointed to the importance of the book for scholars of political science and international relations, for whom concepts of ‘partial sovereignty’ have gained traction, positing that rather than being absolute and indivisible, sovereignty might best be understood as a spectrum. Nationalist China thus offers a fascinating case study of how partial sovereignty worked in practice. In pointing to sovereignty – and contested understandings thereof – Mitter tied the contemporary relevance of Boecking’s book not just to trade wars, but to the tense debates over the nature of British sovereignty with relation to the European Union and Brexit.

Felix and Rana in conversation

Content for the moment with establishing the scope of the text’s relevance, Mitter also pointed out the important historiographical interventions made, notably with regards to Fairbank’s ‘logical but inaccurate’ account of Chinese customs. This was not, after all, traditional imperialism – raising the key question of who Chinese customs agents worked for, and were perceived to work for, as well as the complexities of the complicity of indigenous civil servants in empire. Boecking’s work raised further questions about longstanding assumptions about the Nationalist finances – has, for instance, their reliance on practices such as tax farming been overstated? Such questions are vital in considering the nature of the Nationalist state – a corrupt regime doomed to failure and replacement, or a flawed developing state that might have eventually been successful were it not for war?

The event ended with a rather chaotic distribution of sandwiches to the hungry audience and a fascinating question-and-answer session, which ranged across a number of topics in Chinese and global history. The whole launch was a fitting way to celebrate the work of one of our own historians – and, at the same time, showcase what economic history has to offer to scholars of political change in the twentieth century.

Fraser Raeburn is a PhD student in History. He works on interwar Europe and Britain, ideological confrontation and the history of foreign fighters. His thesis examines the involvement of Scots in the Spanish Civil War. He is a member of the CSMCH steering committee.

Rana Mitter on postwar reconstruction in China

Our final week of CSMCH activities had a decidedly Chinese tinge to them. In the first of two China-related events, the renowned historian and broadcaster Rana Mitter (Oxford) discussed the postwar reconstruction of mainland China – and why it did not lead to the economic modernisation and democratic politics of postwar Europe, as some hoped it might. Rosalind Parr, who gives us this report, was part of a very large and curious audience.

As the world considers what role China might play in the twenty-first century, Rana Mitter’s paper on post-war reconstruction explored how Chinese nationalists responded to this question in the war-ravaged 1940s. In Chinese history, the post-war/pre-Communist moment is usually associated with Nationalist failure, while the global history of world governance tends to overlook the East Asian story. But Rana suggested that it was time to revisit this period. In his talk, he argued for a new narrative that reinstates Chinese agency and depicts 1945-47 as a dry run for the Asian developmentalism of the 1950s.

Rana draws parallels between present-day dilemmas and the postwar moment

He approached this history through the figure of Jiang Tingfu, the leftist scholar-turned-diplomat who represented China at the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) from 1943 and headed up the national parallel organisation, the China National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, in 1945/46. In exploring Jiang’s thought, he argued, we may gain insight into Chinese international relations in the present day.

He began by sketching the post-war context, drawing our attention to China’s position as the only autonomous non-Western actor involved with the new international organisations that emerged in the 1940s. At the same time, Chinese nationalists contributed to constitutional and political debates about social welfarism and liberalism in both the global and national contexts.  Although we now tend to view the 1945-49 moment in China as one of civil war and failure, the assumption at the time was that the Nationalist government would remain a significant player for some time to come.

He then moved to the figure of Jiang Tingfu himself. In his early career, he was a historian who completed a PhD in the United States before returning to China. A liberal and a social democrat, Jiang variously expressed admiration for the USSR, for the Tennessee Valley Authority, and for the Attlee government in Britain. He was also a critic of Chiang Kaishek yet, despite this, was appointed by Chiang to UNRRA and as Director of the China National Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. The levels of destruction faced in China in the 1940s brought comparisons with the Belsen concentration camp and famine-decimated Bengal – one UNRRA report stating that ‘people need everything’. Jiang’s response to this massive crisis combined short term relief measures with longer term reconstruction and rehabilitation planning.

The victory of the Communist Party in China in 1949 has obscured the brief history of this nationalist-led reconstruction.  Rana argued that we should reinstate this period as a means of accessing alternative Chinese post-war visions of progress and of China’s role in the new regional and global order. In the 1940s, Nationalist visions existed in conversation with Communist ideology and, although Maoism triumphed, Jiang Tingfu’s pro-liberal, anti-imperial stance holds contemporary relevance. In particular, the history of ideas relating to modernisation, China’s role in the world, and her anti-imperialist legacy speaks to current, unresolved issues that play into international relations in the present day.

The thoughtful comment by Konrad Lawson (St Andrews) emphasised the great significance of Rana’s paper for historical scholarship. Not only does it suggest an otherwise obscured narrative, but it opens up areas for further study. In particular, studies of Chinese intellectual history and of relief and rehabilitation in a global context, as well as those located at the intersection of the two, may productively draw on this research and, in doing so, further inform wider debates about China and the world.

Rosalind Parr is a PhD student in History. Her research interests are located in transnational and global histories of the twentieth century, particularly through the lenses of South Asian and gender history. Her thesis examines the international activities of Indian nationalist women in the period from the 1920s to the 1950s.