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.