Archive for July, 2012

‘I spit in the face of patriotism’

July 27, 2012 in At Home and the World in Mesopotamia | Comments (1)



Within a few months of arriving in Iraq, Captain Kalyan Mukherji had arrived at a devastatingly clear summation of the war. On October 20, 1915, in al-Aziziya, he wrote a letter that is, in my view, one of the most remarkable of the 20th century.


As for the war, what is there to discuss? Unless something surprising happens suddenly – I don’t see why a war of this kind should not go on for 20 years. So long as Germany can keep itself supplied with provisions and weaponry I don’t think this side [i] will be able to advance. Nor does it seem possible for Germany to advance any further into France.

England is the teacher. The love of country that England has always taught, that same love of country whose virtues are sung by all civilized nations – that is what  all this bloodshed is for. Grabbing someone else’s country – that’s ‘Patriotism’. Patriotism – that’s what builds kingdoms and empires. To display the love of country, love of race, by seizing a piece of territory, at the cost of thousands and thousands of lives, this is what the English have taught.

Now the youth of our country have started to emulate these vile ways of loving one’s nation. As a result all kinds of horrifying things have started to happen, people are dead and bombs have been thrown at a blameless Viceroy. I spit in the face of patriotism [ii]. As long as this narrow-mindedness is not wiped off the face of this earth there will be no end to bloodshed in the name of patriotism. Whether one man throws a bomb from a rooftop or 50 men hurl shells from a cannon – all this bloodshed, this madness springs from the same cause.

In this one year of war a crore [iii] of people (English, German, Russian, French, Indian, African together) have been killed or wounded. Another one crore families are heart-broken because of “Selfish nationalism: a most inhuman sentiment”. In other words this war is proof that this brutal and selfish love of country – that this awful, malign, sentiment is an obstacle for all humankind.

There’s nothing much to report from here. I am well.

Your Kalyan [iv]


It is profoundly humbling to read this letter, written almost a century ago, in the context of the many wars and conflicts that have riven the Indian subcontinent in the decades since Independence. Extreme circumstances often produce extraordinary perceptions. It is as if the battlegrounds of Iraq had granted Capt. Mukherji a Cassandra-like gift of prophecy.

Few indeed were the statesmen, intellectuals and politicians who had an equivalent depth of perception. One of those who did was Rabindranath Tagore. Like Capt. Mukherji, Tagore was both opposed to imperialism and wary of nationalism. In Tagore’s 1916 novel Ghare-Baire (‘The Home and the World’) the character Nikhilesh expresses views on nationalist terror that are similar to Capt. Mukherji’s; and in his 1916-17 lectures on the subject, Tagore is similarly impassioned in his critique of nationalism.

‘Does not the voice come to us, through the din of war, the shrieks of hatred, the wailings of despair, through the churning up of the unspeakable filth which has been accumulating for ages in the bottom of this nationalism – the voice which cries to our soul, that the tower of national selfishness, which goes by the name of patriotism, which has raised its banner of treason against heaven, must totter and fall with a crash, weighed down by its own bulk, its flag kissing the dust, its light extinguished?’ [v]

Considered in the context of the early days of the Indian freedom struggle, Tagore’s critiques of nationalism have often been regarded as anomalous. But Tagore was always closely attuned to the international situation and he would certainly have tracked the progress of the war, in Europe and in Mesopotamia, with great care. What is more, he may even have known – at least at second hand – about the reports that Capt. Mukherji and others were sending home from the battlefield. This is not unlikely for Capt. Mukherji, like Tagore, was from a family that belonged to the Brahmo Samaj which is, after all, a small community; and nor was Capt. Mukherji the only Brahmo to serve in Mesopotamia at that time, there were several others.

Capt. Mukherji and Rabindranath Tagore followed two different routes to arrive at the same conclusion: neither of them wanted to see Europe’s history of national conflict re-enacted on the Indian subcontinent. What that trajectory represented, for Tagore, was not freedom but a different kind of enslavement: ‘Those of us in India who have come under the delusion that mere political freedom will make us free have accepted their lessons from the West as the gospel truth and lost their faith in humanity.’[vi]


[i] [edik-kar dol – note, not ‘our side’]

[ii] Capt. Mukherji’s words are: ‘Swadesh-premer mukhe jhata’: lit. ‘a jharu in the face of loving your own country’; Kalyan-Pradeep, p. 334.

[iii] Ten million

[iv] Kalyan-Pradeep, pp. 333-335.

[v] From Nationalism in Japan, in Nationalism (San Francisco, 1917) pp. 111-112.

[vi] From Nationalism in India, in Nationalism (San Francisco, 1917) p. 147

Iraq 1915: ‘A river of blood… why this bloodshed?’

July 23, 2012 in At Home and the World in Mesopotamia | Comments (5)




All of Kalyan Mukherji’s letters from Mesopotamia are reproduced in Kalyan-Pradeep. For the most part they are short, hurried and matter of fact. But some of them, as Santanu Das has remarked, are among ‘the finest in the grand pantheon of First World War letters.’

His first letter from Mesopotamia was written on April 13, 1915, soon after he reached Basra.

Ma, we’ve arrived safely. We had a good time on the ship. Dr. Puri and I were on the same ship. All the trained troops from Kohat have arrived. About 40 thousand of them.

Let that be: arré Ram! Can this be the Basra of Caliph Haroun al-Rashid? Chhi, chhi! There’s not the faintest sign of the famous roses of Basra; instead there are shallow little creeks filled with knee- or waist-deep water from the Tigris. Every one of these khuds is home to hundreds of thousands of frogs. They come in all sizes, but most are big bullfrogs. What a fearsome roar they have! It’s enough to deafen your ears. Men can’t hear each other talk…. (p. 250).



Indian Troops in Mesopotamia, answering roll call (source, Photos of the Great War:
















The tone of the letters changes when Captain Mukherji reaches the front line.  On July 26, 1915, he writes from Nasiriya:

Ma, You must have read in the papers that there’s been a lot of fighting in Mesopotamia. The English [i] have had a great victory. And there can be no doubt of it this time. It happened before my eyes, from beginning to end.

On July 16 I was about to go out for a ride in Basra – and just then we received orders to pack up our things, load them on steamers and set off, in a couple of hours.

We left our patients in the hospital and set off as soon as we could… Leaving on the 16th we arrived here on the 19th. .. On landing we knew at once that we’d reached the enemy lines. The sound of their cannon was loud and clear.

We heard that our Generals’ tents were a mile and a half from the firing line; and the Turkish trenches and nullahs were two or three hundred yards away. As for us, let alone tents – we weren’t even allowed to have cots. One set of clothes, one blanket and a raincoat and 5 doolie-loads was all we were permitted.

Why should I give up a chance like this? I’m senior, I said, so I’ll go. Leaving the junior doctor in charge I set off at 5 in the morning. Yes, and by that time two shells had hit our camp.

Around sunset, when we reached the pre-arranged spot, I let the others off and set up our dressing station. I heard that our trenches were 300 yards from there, and the enemy trenches were another 200/300 yards farther.

We were sheltered by a 4 foot wall; people warned us – when the bullets start to fly its best not to leave the shelter of the wall. There was not a breath of wind behind the wall; fiercely hot. It was swarming with mosquitoes, insects, frogs.

At ten p.m. a storm of bullets began. Just like a hailstorm. Exactly. I’m not exaggerating. Sheltering behind a wall in a date garden. Boom boom! Hiss hiss! Bullets flew – for half an hour.

Every night the enemy soldiers would waste fifty or sixty thousand rounds; but without wounding anyone. Why they would fire like that – wasting lakhs of bullets – only they know. We stopped paying attention.

As soon as the firing began everyone would go to their places behind the wall and then we would spend some time chatting. Our troops didn’t fire in reply. Every night they would fire 4/5 times, for 10/15 minutes and after that they would probably fall asleep. In the 4 days that I was there no more than 7/8 were wounded.

Anyway on the night of the 23rd we received orders telling us that the next day at dawn the fighting would start in earnest. We would attack. By 5 a.m. we had to be ready to treat the wounded, with bandages, medicines, iodine, milk, brandy etc all prepared. At 5 our artillery barrage began.

‘Boom-boom’ some 20-25 cannon firing together. After 15/20 minutes our troops moved up and began to advance, firing over our heads.

We were out of the line of fire all along. Once or twice some bullets flew over our heads but didn’t hit any of us.

After two or three hours the enemy was driven back by the storm of bullets.

And after that of course there was the suffering of the wounded to deal with.

At about three a band of enemy prisoners and wounded arrived. From six-thirty in the morning till 1 pm I didn’t have a chance to breathe. A river of blood, red – all around – I myself, soaked in blood, to the skin. Who – who should I treat first?… Why this bloodshed!! What can I say? In my life I won’t forget that sight.

Yesterday evening we came to the town of Bijit §. On the way I saw the battlefield. What I saw – I couldn’t ever describe it. Today the English have hoisted their flag here.

I left behind my bedding and all my baggage and clothing. We’ve advanced 7/8 miles. I’m still wearing the blood-soaked shirt of the day before yesterday. I’ve wired them to send on my things – can’t wait for them to arrive.

I hope you’re all well.

Your Kalyan

[My translation, from: Kalyan Pradeep: Captain Kalyan Kumar Mukhopadhadhaya, I.M.S.-er Jiboni, by Mokkhoda [‘Mokshada‘] Debi (1928) [Kalyan Pradeep: The Life of Captain Kalyan Kumar Mukherji, I.M.S.] pp: 289-294.]

[i] Kalyan Mukherji’s choice of words when he is writing about the British-Indian force is revealing. He usually writes of ‘the English’ or ‘this side’ – not ‘our side’.

§ This is a literal transcription of the Bengali spelling. I haven’t been able to identify the town.


At Home and the World in Iraq 1915-17: part 2

July 20, 2012 in At Home and the World in Mesopotamia | Comments (0)



The tension between the voices of the grandmother and the military historian runs through the length of Mokkhoda-debi’s Kalyan-Pradeep. It is reflected even in the form of the book: the sections are numbered in the manner of a military dispatch.




Here is Mokkhoda-debi the military historian, writing about the expedition’s departure:









8. On October 7, 1914, A.D., the Government of India appointed Brigadier-General Delamain[i] the commander of the expeditionary force for the invasion of Iraq and sent him these instructions: ‘When ‘A’ Force departs for Europe from Bombay on 16th October, ‘D’ Force must leave with them. Your orders are to part company with ‘A’ Force while at sea and to sail on to the Persian Gulf. When you reach the British-controlled islands and territories of the Gulf you and your forces are to make inquiries about the Turkish forces and their readiness. You must use your own judgement. Another force will soon be dispatched to reinforce you. You orders are to safeguard British rights and interests in the Persian Gulf; the Shaikh of Muhammara is our ally, you must support him. When the fighting starts, you must take every measure for the protection of Basra.’ (p. 227)

9. On 10th October a special messenger carried these orders from the Military Department in Simla to General D in Bombay. On 16th October twelve large troopships departed from Bombay as ordered, carrying ‘A Force’ and ‘B’ Force; D Force was secretly mixed in with them. The forces were escorted by British warships.

     Three days out to sea another British warship was sighted. Now at General Delamain’s command, the troops and equipment of D Force were separated from the others and moved to four ships. The next day it was announced that their destination was the Persian Gulf island of Bahrain. Upon their arrival two days later it was learnt that a transport ship and a warship had been sent from Karachi carrying the rest of their equipment. (p.228)



Indian Cavalry Regiment in Mesopotamia









And here is Mokkhoda-debi the grandmother describing Kalyan’s departure:


7. In March (1915) it was more or less decided that Kalyan and Dr. Puri would go to the port of Karachi with their regiments  – he was to leave Kolkata  by train as soon as the date of his ship’s departure was wired to him. So he decided to await his orders in Kolkata.

8. One by one Kalyan visited all his friends and relatives, taking his leave and seeking their blessings. At this time he stayed mainly with his mother and did his best to console her. One day he said to her: ‘Ma, aren’t I your loving son? Look, if God brings me safely back from the theatre of war then the womenfolk of Bengal will regard you as the mother of a hero. Just think how proud you will be. Don’t make yourself sick by crying and falling into despair. In your mind you must hold on to hope.’

9. Dr. Puri came to Kolkata from Kohat on March 10 and after that he and Kalyan spent most of their time in Fort William. They would come home late in the afternoon.




            A wire came ordering them to leave on March 13.  I went to see Kalyan the day before his departure, in the late afternoon. Binota [Kalyan’s daughter] was then as cute as an English doll.  Her hair was all curly-curly and there was always a smile on her face. But when she saw me she became quite sombre. Kalyan tried to make her smile by playing with a handkerchief and some orange peel but this had no effect on Binota. Then Kalyan said: ‘You see Grandma, she’s going to grow into a grim-faced woman – was I like that when I was her age?’ I understood then how much he loved his daughter.

10. I spent a long time with Kalyan that evening, with his daughter on my lap. Then I blessed him and went home. That was my last meeting with him. I didn’t see him on the day when his yatra began, but I prayed constantly for his good. I did not think that I wouldn’t see him again. (p. 209-11)



[i] General Walter Sinclair Delamain

The ‘Home and the World’ in Iraq 1915-17: Part 1

July 17, 2012 in At Home and the World in Mesopotamia | Comments (7)



Mokkhoda (Mokshada) Debi’s Kalyan Pradeep,



(published 1928)is, in essence, the author’s tribute, as a grandmother, to her daughter’s son, Kalyan, who was a casualty of the Mesopotamian campaign of 1915-16.


Mokkhoda Debi was a minor literary figure in Bengal at the turn of the 19th century. Like Rabindranath Tagore she was born into the Brahmo Samaj, and like many Brahmo women she was well educated and widely read. She married a lawyer and spent many years in Bhagalpur in Bihar. Kalyan Mukherji was her daughter Binodini’s son. Born in 1883, he lost his father at the age of eleven and was brought up in straitened circumstances. While still quite young he seems to have conceived the ambition of becoming a doctor and joining the Indian Medical Service. This was the British Indian army’s medical corps and many distinguished doctors served in it, including Ronald Ross, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1902 (he figures prominently in my Calcutta Chromosome).

For an Indian, joining the I.M.S. was no easy matter. As with the Indian Civil Service, the examinations were held in England. Kalyan studied medicine in Calcutta and then managed to work his way to England as a ship’s doctor. In England he was taken in by a relative who had married an Englishman: they supported him and sent him to Liverpool for further studies in medicine (Mokkhoda Debi’s account of Kalyan’s life in England is one of the most interesting parts of the book).


Dr Kalyan Mukherji



Kalyan passed the medical service examination on his first try and returned to India. After serving for a while on the North-West frontier, he married, had a daughter and moved back to Bengal. In March 1915 he was ordered to join the Expeditionary Force that was being assembled to invade Mesopotamia. He left Calcutta on March 13, 1915, with another Indian member of the I.M.S., a Dr. Puri who was a close friend of his (Dr. Puri figures in both Kalyan-Pradeep and Abhi Le Baghdad; he was evidently an admirable man, courageous, loyal and a fine doctor).







Kalyan died of a fever two years later in a Turkish prisoner of war camp in Ras el-Ain. He was 34. For his role in the campaign he was awarded a Military Cross.


Indian Troops on Parade, Mesopotamia 1915 (source:










While in Mesopotamia Kalyan wrote several letters to his family. The letters are reproduced in full in the book, but they account for only a small portion of the text (which is 429 pages long). The rest of the book is devoted to family history, reflections on the Indian past, and, most significantly, to a detailed account of the disastrous British-Indian campaign in Mesopotamia in 1915 and 1916.

Mokkhoda Debi was clearly a woman of great gifts. Although some of her ideas are undoubtedly odd and even objectionable, her account of the Mesopotamian campaign is painstakingly researched and carefully narrated.


Mokkhoda (Mokshada) Debi



But what makes the book truly extraordinary is its curious juxtaposition of domestic life and war – ‘the home and the world’ in other words. Tagore’s great novel of that name (Ghare-baire; ‘The Home and the World’) was of course published in 1916 and Mokkhoda may well have read it. Yet the manner in which she creates her own connection between her home and the world is completely different from that imagined by Tagore.








This is perhaps the most compelling thing about Kalyan-Pradeep – its extraordinarly intellectual and imaginative ambition. Mokkhoda-debi was clearly no rebel, socially speaking. Yet the book is itself an act of rebellion, for it is an assertion of her right to narrate the story of the world, as a woman. She lays claim to this right through grief and bereavement, as a grandmother’s privilege.

The voice of the book is profoundly maternal, at times nurturing and at times riven with grief. Yet the story is one of soldiering, imprisonment and war. It is as if the very act of describing masculine violence, in a woman’s voice, were a way of restoring a primal balance.




From Iraq 1915-17: Lost Treasures of Indian Writing

July 12, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (2)



Race, Empire and First World War Writing (ed. Santanu Das, Cambridge University Press, 2011) is an ambitious collection:


it attempts to cover the whole spectrum of non-European involvement in the First World War, with articles on soldiers and auxiliaries from China, Vietnam, India, West and North Africa, Jamaica and elsewhere.









For an idea of the scale of this involvement, here are some numbers, culled from some of the articles in the collection:

– 140,000 contract workers from China were recruited by British and French govts between 1916-18; they did most of the cleaning up of the battlefields of Flanders (‘An Army of Workers’: Chinese indentured labour in First World War France, Paul J. Bailey).

– between 1915 & 1919 48,922 Vietnamese soldiers and 48,254 Vietnamese workers were recruited to serve in France. They were sent to battlefields, hospitals, construction sites, commercial businesses and agricultural regions. (Sacrifices, sex, race: Vietnamese experiences in the First World War, Kimloan Hill).

– the total number of Indians who served in the war, up to Dec 31 1919 was 877,068 combatants and 563,369 non-combatants, making a total of 1,440,437. In addition there were an estimated 239,561 men in the British Indian army serving in Mesopotamia. (Indians at Home, Mesopotamia and France 1914-1918; towards an intimate history, Santanu Das).



Senegalese soldiers with the flag of the 43rd battalion (image, Wikimedia Commons)

– 140,000 West Africans were recruited into the French Army to serve as combatants on the Western Front. (France’s legacy to Demba Mboup? A Senegalese griot and his descendants remember his service during the First World War, Joe Lunn).









In other words the major imperial powers, France and Britain drew heavily on their colonies in fighting Germany, a latecomer to the colonial race. What did the Germans make of this?

Christian Koller addresses this question in his contribution to the book: Representing Otherness: African, Indian and European soldiers’ letter and memoirs.

He writes: ‘German Propaganda met the introduction of colonial troops on the Western Front with a deeply racist campaign that represented the non-white colonial soldiers as beasts. They were described in terms that negated their quality as regular military forces: ‘a motley crew of colour and religions’, ‘devils’, ‘dehumanised wilderness’, ‘dead vermin of the wilderness’, ‘Africans jumping around in a devilish ecstasy’, ‘auxiliary rabble of all colours’, ‘an exhibition of Africans’, ‘an anthropological show of uncivilised… hands and hordes’ or the catchphrase ‘the black shame’ which quickly rose to common usage in the early 1920s when French colonial troops were stationed in the Rhineland area. In summer 1915, the German Foreign Office put into circulation a memorandum titled Employment, contrary to International Law, of Colored Troops upon the European Theatre of War by England and France, in which many atrocities were attributed to colonial soldiers, including the poking out of eyes and the cutting off of ears, noses and heads of wounded and captured German soldiers.’ (128)

‘Another objection raised by German propaganda against the employment of colonial non-white troops on European battlefields was its alleged impact on the future of colonialism and the supremacy of the ‘white race’. If African and Asian soldiers were trained in the handling of modern arms, if they saw the white nations fighting each other and were allow to participate in this fight and experience the white soldiers’ vulnerability, they would lose their respect for the white race once and forever. After the war, they would turn their weapons against their own masters. German propaganda argued that the French and British policy of deploying colonial troops in Europe was a flagrant breach of white solidarity and should be condemned by every civilised nation.’ (128-9)

The view that the use of non-white troops on European soil amounted to a war crime seems to have been quite widely held in Germany during the war. But as Koller shows, these views were not held by Germans alone: ‘In spite of the significant differences between the French and British attitudes towards their respective colonial troops, certain common perceptions and prejudices were discernible, moving between racism and exoticism. Many of these find their most vicious and exaggerated form in German discourses. Such prejudices could also be found among the neutral voices from the front.’ ( 134). Santanu provides a revealing quote from the Times History of the World: ‘The instinct which made us [British] such sticklers for propriety in all our dealings made us more reluctant than other nations would feel to employ coloured troops against a white enemy’ (12).

The articles in this collection are, almost without exception, of absorbing interest, especially those that discuss women’s responses to colonial troops.

Yet I must admit that I am particularly beholden to Santanu’s contribution –  it motivated me to hunt down two books that I had heard about but never read (mainly because the books are extremely difficult to find). They are: Kalyan Pradeep: Captain Kalyan Kumar Mukhopadhadhaya, I.M.S.-er Jiboni, by Mokkhoda [‘Mokshada‘] Debi (1928) [Kalyan Pradeep: The Life of Captain Kalyan Kumar Mukherji, I.M.S.] and Abhi Le Baghdad [On To Baghdad by Sisir Sarbadhikari (1957).

In my view both books deserve places of honour in the canon of 20th century Indian writing: they are truly extraordinary. Yet they are almost completely unknown, even in Bengal. They were both self-published and have been out of print for decades (I was fortunate to find copies in the National Library in Kolkata §).

Both books are about the Mesopotamian theatre of the war and both were written in Bengali. This is in itself quite remarkable because at that time Bengalis, like most Indians, were not classified as a ‘martial race’ and were ineligible for recruitment in the British Indian army. They could  join only as doctors or medical auxiliaries (Kalyan Mukherji was a doctor and Sisir Sarbadhikari was a private in the Bengal Ambulance Corps).

Even though both books are war narratives, they are strikingly different from their Western equivalents. They both owe their existence as much to the writers’ families as to the army: war might be the their main subject, but family (and female relatives in particular) were essential to the making of both. Santanu has interviewed Romola Sarbadhikari, Sisir Sarbadhikari’s daughter-in-law, and will be writing about her in his forthcoming book (one of the many reasons why I am eagerly looking forward to its  publication).

This is how Santanu describes Kalyan Pradeep and Abhi Le Baghdad: ‘Captain Mukherji, a member of the Indian Medical Service, was appointed a military doctor to Indian Expeditionary Force D. He was in Mesopotamia from his arrival at Basra on 9 April 1915 till his death from high fever in 1917 and was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. After his death, his eighty year old grandmother wrote his biography Kalyan Pradeep … extracting his war letters in full. Sarbadhikari’s memoir, on the other hand, has a tantalising textual history. It was based on his secret Mesopotamia diary, written in captivity, which was broken up into individual pages and hidden in his boots during the horrific march from Samarra via Mosul to the POW camp in Ras-el-Ain in July 1916. Later, the contents of the faded pages were copied into a new diary which was hidden underground and retrieved at Ras-el-Ain. Both men were Bengalis from Kolkata, yet due to differences in rank their experiences varied significantly.’ (p. 78)

I believe these two books to be of inestimable value – as literature, as testimony and as historical documents. It is shocking, and deeply unjust, that they have vanished from public memory. In my teens and twenties, I devoured First World War writing, but the writers I read were all Westerners: Graves, Blunden, Manning, Sassoon, Owen, Brooke, Hemingway, Junger, Remarque and so on. I would go to the British Council Library in Kolkata to seek out those books. I had no idea that Kolkata had produced its own First World War books, just as good if not better than those I had been reading. .

But it is not too late to give these books their due: if anything, it is urgently necessary – not least because it needs to be recognized that global engagements are not new to Indian writing.

To that end I plan to devote my next several posts to these two books.



§ I owe a great debt of gratitude to Dr. Swapan Chakraborty and Ashim Mukhopadhyay of the National Library for their help.



‘When the War Began We Heard of Several Kings’

July 8, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Among recent publications on the Indian role in the First World War, one of the most important is a collection entitled  When the War Began We Heard of Several Kings: South Asian Prisoners in World War I Germany, by  Franziska Roy, Heike Liebau and Ravi Ahuja (Social Science Press, 2011). §
The volume has an excellent introduction, in which some very pertinent questions are asked about why Indian soldiers and sailors have suffered such neglect in public memory (not for nothing has it been said that ‘more words have been written about the British war poets than about all the non-white troops put together’.)¶







What makes this collection especially valuable is that it deals with some very unusual archival materials – data collected in German prisoner of war camps.


Thousands of Indian soldiers and sailors were captured by German forces during the war.







They were imprisoned primarily in two camps, in the towns of Zossen and Wünsdorf, near Berlin: one was known as the ‘Weinberg Camp’ and the other as ‘Halfmoon Camp’.










Few cities in the world had as great a concentration of scholars as Berlin and the camps did not escape their attention. Through the war years the ‘Indian camps’ and their inmates were extensively studied by teams of linguists, anthropologists,




ethnomusicologists, legal scholars and the like.




The Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission also sent teams to the camps, to make recordings of the prisoners’ voices. This resulted in an extensive audio archive, which is now housed in Berlin’s Humboldt University.



The book’s title is taken from a recording of a Sikh soldier by the name of Sib Singh: it was made at the Wünsdorf camp in December 1916:  “The German Emperor is very wise. He wages war against all kings. When the war is over, many stories will be printed. In India the Englishman rules. We had no knowledge of any other king. When the war began, we heard of several kings.”



Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book is that it comes with a CD. This permits us, literally, to listen to the lost voices of these soldiers and sailors: we can actually follow Sib Singh as he chants in Punjabi: ‘German badshah bahut akalmaand hai, sab badshahan naal larai karda hai, jis vakht larai hategi saam kisse bahut chhapange aur India me Angrez badhsah hai aur sannu kisi badshahan da pata nahi si.’



There is a touching song sung in Nepali, by a Gurkha soldier called Jasbahadur Rai. I would have liked to post it here, but unfortunately my technical skills were unequal to the task.

The CD also includes other invaluable materials, among them copies of the camps’ newspaper, ‘Hindostan’, in Hindi




and in Urdu;











a few of the prisoners’ paintings, such as this one;








and a spreadsheet that lists the names of the thousand or so inmates whose voices were recorded. The spreadsheet includes some other details too: for example, age, education, place of birth, caste and language. It suggests that most of the prisoners were in the late-twenties to middle-thirties age range.

But one fifty-year-old is also listed – a ship’s steward from Calcutta by the name of Mohammad Hussein. He is one of those whose voice can be heard on the CD. Speaking in Bangla he tells us: amra kolikatar manush… amra gorib manush – ‘we are from Kolkata – we are poor men….

The youngest soldiers on the list were nineteen. Many were probably the sons of sepoys for several seem to have studied in regimental schools, among them one Jit Singh, a Gurkha, who had studied in Almora, and Piar Singh, also a Gurkha, who had been schooled in Darjeeling.

The great majority of the listed soldiers were from the north of the subcontinent: from Garhwal, Kumaon, Punjab, the North-West Frontier and of course Nepal. The lascars on the other hand were largely from Calcutta. The overwhelming majority of the soldiers were farmers. In the ‘caste’ column the entries that occur most commonly are Gurung, Thapa, Rai and Limbu for the Gurkhas; Burathoki (Magar), Dudumdara, Thakur and Brahmin for the Hindus; Chakkar, Chawan, Pathan and ‘Balutsch’ for the Muslims. No castes are given for the Sikhs – they are listed simply as ‘Sikh’. There is also a lone Christian from Calcutta by the name of Albert Newton. He had studied in missionary school and was employed as a ‘Captain’s Boy’ on a ship.










Germany’s wartime leadership perceived the camps as a possible means of furthering some of their war aims. Some emigre Indian revolutionaries, like Lala Har Dayal and Virendranath Chattopadhyay, also sought to propagate their views in the camps.

What did the inmates make of their efforts? One of the strengths of When The War Began is that this complicated issue is addressed with great care.

When The War Began is an immensely valuable contribution to our knowledge of the Indian experience of the First World War. I strongly recommend it to everyone with an interest in that era. Fortunately it is easily available on Amazon and Flipkart.



§ I would like to thank the authors for helping to obtain permision for the use of the pictures that are posted here.The credits are as follows: Photos: Otto Stiehl, Repros: Ute Franz-Scarciglia, Copyright: Museum Europäischer Kulturen – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

¶ Gail Braybon, quoted by Santanu Das in his introduction to Race, Empire and First World War Writing, CUP, 2011








‘Indian Voices of the Great War’

July 3, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)




The last few years have seen a long-overdue awakening of interest in the Indian soldiers and auxiliaries who participated in the First World War (it goes without saying that I use the word ‘Indian’ here in its pre-1947 sense, when it applied to people from all over the subcontinent).

David Omissi, the military historian, was one of the pioneers: his Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldier’s Letters, 1914-18 (Palgrave, 1999)  is a monumental work. It is an edited collection of the correspondence between Indian soldiers in Europe and their families in the subcontinent. These letters were examined by censors, which is why they have been preserved. Of course the soldiers knew their letters would be scrutinized so they were careful to watch what they said (a comment in the first letter below is evidence of this: ‘Even this I have had to write very prudently, otherwise it would be withheld’). But these letters are still uniquely valuable in that they have preserved the words of a group of men whose voices are very rarely heard.

Below are some examples.


















Daya Ram (Jat) to Kalu Ram (Ambala City, Punjab)

[Letter No. 394.]

2nd Lancers                                                                                                        [Urdu]

France                                                                                                              6th September, 1916


I went into the trenches on 7th August and returned on 28th August. Some of our men were wounded. I am not permitted to give any fuller details. The battle is raging violently, and various new ways of fighting have been introduced. The ground is honeycombed, as a field with rat holes. No one can advance beyond the trenches. If he does so, he is blown away. Mines are ready charged with explosives. Shells and machine guns and bombs are mostly employed. No one considers rifles nowadays, and serviceable rifle ammunition is lying about as plentifully as pebbles. At the trenches, thousands of maunds of iron, representing exploded shells, lie on the ground. At some places corpses are found of men killed in 1914, with uniform and accoutrements still on. Large flies, which have become poisonous through feasting on dead bodies, infest the trenches, and huge fat rats run about there. By the blessing of God the climate of this country is cold, and for that reason corpses do not decompose quickly. It rains frequenly and that causes much inconvenience. At the present time we are suffering, as the horses are tethered outside and the rain has converted the ground into slush. Sometimes we have to march in the rain and then the cold is intense. However after two years’ experience, we have grown used to all these troubles and think lightly of them. I have lots to write about, but I have no leisure, nor have I permission to do so. Even this I have had to write very prudently, otherwise it would be withheld.

[the letter was passed by the censors]

[Indian Voices of the Great War , p.231]
















[Letter No. 401]

Jemadar Indar Singh (Sikh) to Chattar Singh (Ludiana Disst, Punjab)

FPO.42                                                                                                                                    Urdu

France                                                                                                                          15th September, 1916


I am off for a cavalry attack on the 15th September. It is quite impossible that I should return alive because a cavalry charge is a very terrible affair, and therefore I want to clear up several things which are weighing on my heart at present. Firstly, the sharp things you have written to me have not annoyed me. Don’t be grieved at my death because I shall die arms in hand, wearing the warrior’s clothes. This is the most happy death that anyone can die. I am very sorry that I have not been able to discharge my obligations towards my family because God has called me already. Well, never mind; you must forgive me. I have abandoned to you all my worldly possessions which you must make use of without hesitation. Don’t worry your grandparents after I am gone. Give my love to my parents and tell them not to grieve as we must all die some day. Indeed this day of death is an occasion for rejoicing. [Letter passed]














And in a different vein, Letter No. 408.

Farrier Major Khan to Wali Mahomed Khan (Punjab Muslim, 18th Lancers, France)


Jhelum                                                                                                                         [Urdu]

Punjab                                                                                                                          19th Sept 1916


I have heard all about your amours with the French women and how the officers forbid it. I can quite imagine how, if you know enough of the language, you have a great time and try to make yourself out a trustworthy person. I have no doubt you are always meeting the French people. It is a great pity that you never write any real account of the war in France. No doubt your officers read the letters. But cannot you devise any way of dodging them? I will tell you what to do. When you write a letter, on one page write in invisible ink made out of lemon juice and I will read everything. If you cannot get this, take some lime which has not been wetted and grind it up and mix it with water and write and I shall be able to read it all…


[Indian Voices of the Great War, p. 239]



Indian Soldiers' Beds in the Royal Pavilion, Brighton











And, on opium:


[Letter no 431]


Kartar Singh (Sikh) to Sirdar Ram Rakha Singh (Jullundur District, Punjab).


6th Cavalry                                                                                                                     [urdu]

France                                                                                                                          6th Nov, 1916


You say in your letter that the postmaster of Adampur had taken out some opium. What was the necessity of telling him? You should not have said a word on the subject to him, and should not have mentioned it in your letter. When you send opium you should not mention it, but should say you are sending a preparation for the beard and should send it off secretly. You have made a great mistake. I get everything you send.

[a footnote appended to this letter says: ‘The censor commented, ‘this advice about the dispatch of opium has been deleted from the letter.’]





‘Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature’

July 2, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (1)

First World War writing is an old interest of mine so when I came upon a book with the intriguing title

‘Touch and Intimacy in the First World War I picked it up at once.

The writer had an Indian-sounding name, Santanu Das, but I had never heard of him before.

The book’s first chapter is called ‘Slimescapes’ and it is about the ways in which First World War writers dealt with the tactile experience of trench warfare. ‘In everyday trench life, the boundaries of the body can no longer be policed, as bodily fluids are perpetually on the brink of spillage. In Blasting and Bombardiering, the officer breaks wind at the sound of shelling; men vomit as they collect corpses in Graves’s Goodbye to All That and Cloete’s A Victorian Son. Winterbourne defecates in his trousers in Death of a Hero, as does the young boy in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.  Just as bodily fluids leak out, similarly mud and slime seep in: Céline speaks of ‘eating Flanders mud, my whole mouth full of it, fuller than full’; in ‘A Night of Horror’, the narrator writes: ‘The suffocating mud and slime/ Were trickling down my throat’. Remarque, towards the end of his novel, observes: ‘Our hands are earth, our bodies mud and our eyes puddles of rain.’ Membrances have become permeable: the skin can no longer separate the inside and outside, the self and the world.’ (p. 52)

I read the book at a stretch, finishing it in a couple of sittings (I don’t think this has ever happened to me before with a book of literary criticism). But one thing puzzled me: if the writer was Indian, as his name suggested, why had he made no reference to the one million Indians who were on the Western front during the First World War? Was this deliberate and if so why?

I went to the Net and googled Santanu Das. I learnt that he was on the faculty of Queen Mary college in London, and that ‘Touch and Intimacy’ had been awarded Britain’s prestigious Leverhulme Prize, which carries a cash reward of 70,000 Pounds Sterling!

I discovered also that Santanu had already addressed some of my queries: he had recently edited a book called Race, Empire and First World War Writing (CUP, 2011) for which he had written a long introduction as well as an essay called: Indians at Home, Mesopotamia and France 1914-1918; towards an intimate history.

I had the impression that Santanu had studied in Kolkata at some point so I wrote to a friend, Sukanta Chaudhuri, who, together with his wife Supriya Chaudhuri, has inspired a generation of literature students at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University. Sure enough it turned out that he had taught Santanu briefly. He introduced me to Santanu over the Net.

I don’t often write fan letters, but I relished writing this one.


Dear Santanu (if I may)

I read ‘Touch and Intimacy’ a few months ago and have wanted to tell you since then that it is the best work of literary criticism I’ve read in years. As I said to Sukanta, it is is really very rare nowadays to come across critics who actually seem to like the bodies of work they’re writing about – and since it is perhaps even more rare to come across one who actually writes comprehensible prose, it could be said that you are in danger of becoming the Snow Leopard of Literary Criticism! (I should add here that I am sure Sukanta and Supriya played an important part in steering you away from the prevalent fashions… it’s wonderful to see that some aspects of Calcutta’s intellectual legacy have survived against all the odds).

In any event your empathy for the First World War writers was very moving to me because I’ve been interested in that body of work since my college days ( I feel I have an almost familial connection with Robert Graves et al because my wife wrote a biography of Laura Riding and spent a long time in Mallorca, talking with Beryl Graves). I was  glad also to see that your book has been very well received – this recognition is richly deserved. Congratulations!

Santanu wrote back to say that a friend had given him a copy of The Shadow Lines when he was leaving for Cambridge and that he had done his undergraduate thesis on the book. So our correspondence got off to a good start.

It so happened that I was due to travel to London soon afterwards. I arranged to meet Santanu


and we had a long talk, over dinner.

I was glad to learn that Santanu’s new project is a book that explores, at greater length, some of the themes and materials he addressed in his essay: Indians at Home, Mesopotamia and France 1914-1918; towards an intimate history (I will be writing about this article at greater length soon).

Since then Santanu has sent me a few paragraphs about his current project and a few photographs as well. I plan to post them later this week.

Journey to the ‘Heart of Whiteness’

in Uncategorized | Comments (1)


[The text and photographs below were sent to me by Santanu Das: they are posted here with his permission.]


A turban used by an Indian Sepoy


Of all the colonies of the European empires, British India contributed the highest number of men, estimated around one and half million men (including both combatants and non-combatants) to the First World War.


French barn where Indian sepoys billeted


‘This is not war, this is the ending of the world’ wrote an Indian sepoy from France.


In a grotesque reversal of Joseph Conrad’s vision,  over a million Indians were voyaging  between 1914 and 1918 to the heart of whiteness and beyond – Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine and East Africa – to witness ‘the horror, the horror’ of Western warfare.


Zehrendorf Indian Military Cemetery, Germany


What were the responses to the war in India? How were the Indian troops perceived in Europe and in Mesopotamia?

Above all, what were the experiences and emotions of these sepoys as they encountered new countries, new people, and romance as well as new forms of killing?


Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium


Based on archival research in several countries, India, Empire and First World War Culture aims to at once recover and examine Indian war experience and literature:



the lives, stories and writings of the soldiers, the ways they were represented in the literary and cultural consciousness of the time, both in Europe and British India, and the relation of the war experience to nationalism, decolonisation and present-day memory.


Indian Chattri and graves at Bedford House Cemetery, Zillebeke, Belgium

It unearths a variety of fresh material from and beyond the archives


– from letters, diaries and memoirs by sepoys and army doctors to sound-recordings of Indian POWs held in Germany to photographs, sketches and films held in various collections to trench objects and memorabilia found in Belgian battlefields and French farmyards.

Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium


My twin aim in this book is to uncover and understand the private tremulous world of the Indian sepoy as well as to embed the memory of the First World War in a more international and multiracial framework.


ucuz ukash