Indians in Europe during the Great War

In the final instalment of her three-part series on Indian colonial soldiers during the First World War, our Erasmus+ trainee Birgit Ampe discusses Mulk Raj Anand’s novel ‘Across the Black Waters’ and the reactions of Indian soldiers to what they saw in Europe.

It is often suggested that the outcome of the First World War was decided not so much by the main powers, but by their colonies. This is especially the case for Britain and India. The latter’s contribution to the conflict was one of the main factors that helped to secure British victory. It comes as no surprise, then, that British propaganda praised the achievements of the Indian troops in France and Flanders.

Indian soldiers at rest

But what was not mentioned was how these Indian men had to leave their homes and families in order to get to the front. Many of them had hardly ever crossed the boundaries of their village, let alone travelled across the ocean. So how did they react when they first set foot on the shores of France and came into contact with Europe and its inhabitants?

One particular source that deals with this question is the First World War novel Across the Black Waters (1939) by Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand. The story follows Lalu as he arrives in France and is sent to fight at the front in Flanders. Throughout the novel, the reader is presented with Lalu’s opinions as he explores this strange new land.

One could argue that Lalu’s narrative is a fictional account and thus not a faithful representation of reality. But, as I already suggested in the second blog post, the novel stays true to the sentiments and ideas expressed in letters written by actual Indian soldiers.

The main protagonist of the novel, Lalu, was fortunate in his upbringing since he was able to attend the Bishop Cotton School in India and could therefore more or less understand English. His time at the school also made him familiar with the ideas of the West, and tales of its wealth and splendour. It is obvious that Lalu is already biased beforehand. So when the soldiers are given some spare time to explore the city before they go to the trenches, Lalu feels the need to justify everything he sees: “He had aspired to this Europe as to some heaven, and sought to justify everything in Blighty [informal term for Britain]. He was inclined to forget the good things at home” (44). Lalu goes on to praise the wealth of the city, the kindness of the people and the equality that seems to exist between men and women and the different social classes.

It immediately strikes the reader that Lalu’s praise mimics that of real sepoys, who expressed similar opinions in their letters. However, it should be pointed out that these sepoys were not educated in the same manner that Lalu was. Mulk Raj Anand might have created a semi-educated protagonist in order to allow for a more complex character whose opinions can change towards the end of the novel, as we will see later on. But more importantly, by being in-between, Lalu acts as a bridge between the Indians and the Europeans.

The other characters in the novel resemble the sepoys perhaps more. They are uneducated and do not share Lalu’s need for justification. Nevertheless, they are  intrigued by the beauty and wealth of France. They are very curious and marvel at the different customs of the French. But what they are most surprised about is the kindness of the people. The attitude of the French people stands in sharp contrast to that of the British who look upon the Indians as inferior. The French on the other hand are “kind and polite” (16), and treat the sepoys as equals. Their friendliness makes the Indians feel that “they had grown to the dignity of human beings and [makes them forget] the way in which they had always been treated as so much cattle in India” (37-38).

The sepoys especially enjoy the kindness bestowed upon them by the women. The outgoing character of the French women is new to the Indians and it excites them. This attraction is mostly sexual, as is illustrated by the men’s eagerness to visit a brothel. For Lalu, however, women are not just sexual beings. He is physically attracted to them and he enjoys looking at the French girls who are in his opinion more beautiful than the “flabby and tired” (19) women of India. But later on in the novel, when he meets a French farmer and his family, Lalu has more complex feelings. The wife of the farmer acts as his mother and so there is no sexual attraction. He is, however, attracted to the farmer’s daughter. But as a reader we notice that the feelings are more than merely sexual.

This mixture of feelings is also present in the sepoys’ letters. Many Indian men wrote to their families that the women they met were like mothers and sisters to them. Only a few letters revealed a sexual attraction towards the women. Perhaps the men did not want their families to know about these feelings. We can fairly assume that men felt more sexually attracted to the women than they let on in their letters. Mulk Raj Anand certainly picked up on this point and incorporated it into his novel.

Despite the kindness they receive from the women and the French people in general, the sepoys were plagued by a sense of inferiority. Colonisation had a negative effect on the colonised and it influenced the way they think and behave. Indians often felt inferior and embarrassed in the face of the coloniser.

These feelings are also present in the novel, when the sepoys feel the need to salute every white man, even a peasant. The narrator concludes that “[t]his was the most tragic element in the position of the Indian soldiers: they were face to face with death in the unknown, but they could not stare at one of the myriad faces of their French and English comrades with the impunity of human beings” (227).

Interestingly, these feelings of inferiority are hardly ever described by real sepoys in their letters. Did they hold back their opinions because they knew their letters would be read? Or did they want to prove their loyalty to the Empire by not mentioning how they truly felt?

In the novel, the difference the sepoys experienced between themselves and the French and English soldiers illustrates how they identified with their homeland and how India never left their minds. This is especially the case when they explore the city. The sepoys comment on the small rivers and are eager to visit a French farm.

I already mentioned in the previous blog post how some Indians compared certain aspects of the war to elements of rural labour, not least because most Indian soldiers were peasants before. But the novel suggests that they were also genuinely interested in agriculture. For example, when some Indians are talking to a French soldier with Lalu as an interpreter, they ask him: “Did you ask whether he owned land, whether they plough the land, like us, with oxen? Whether they use a plough to break the soil, and the scythe and sickle to cut the crop, and flail? And how they thresh? That is what we want to know” (82).

Indian soldiers marching (source: Imperial War Museum, Q 70214)

The characters in the novel generally cast India in a positive light, but Lalu, who is somewhat biased, disapproves of the outdated methods of the Indians, arguing that that “[i]n every land, even in our own country, it could be like this […] [b]ut our elders say, ‘It is not the custom to do this, it is not the custom to do that.’ Fools!” (50).

This idea was expressed by real sepoys in their letters as well. They did not use such strong language, but it is clear that they admired the West and believed that India had a long way to go before it could ever reach the same economic standard.

Towards the end of the novel, however, Lalu is forced to change his opinion of the West. The difficult life in the trenches and the meaninglessness of the war begin to take their toll on Lalu’s naive mind, and he eventually “reproached himself for his predilection for the fashionable life. … So ashamed was he of thinking of the enthusiasm which he had felt as he started out on this journey” (179).

This brief exposition illustrates the close connection between Across the Black Waters and the corpus of letters written by actual Indian soldiers. Historical sources, such as these letters, can provide valuable insight into the lives of the Indian World War I soldiers, but the element of censorship must always be taken into account when examining them. In this respect, it can be useful to look at literary sources too, since these often highlight other aspects of soldiers’ experiences and reveal new perspectives on the historical past.

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.