Archive for the ‘Shared Sorrows’ Category

Shared Sorrows – 18

March 10, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (2)



Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 18


On November 26th Sisir and his comrades reached Tripoli; and on December 4th they embarked on a ship that took them to Port Said.

But before they could embark, there ensued one of the strangest episodes in this story. At the centre of it was one of the BAC’s ‘camp-followers’, a sweeper called Jumman. It’s best that Sisir tells the story himself:



Indian soldiers with Armenian orphans*

Indian soldiers with Armenian widows and orphans*




When we were marching [northwards] from Mosul, Jumman saw an Armernian child on the banks of a stream near Ras al-‘Ain and picked him up. His mother must have died, and his father must have been killed… Jumman took on the responsibility of looking after the boy and named him Babulal. He used to call Jumman father (‘Baba’).’ (p.175)[i]

This story would be hard to believe if it were not confirmed by other sources. But E.A. Walker, an English oficer, came upon a group of Indian sepoy prisoners in a holding camp at Ras-el-Ain’ in 1916. He noted in his diary, which is now in the Imperial War Museum, that they ‘had with them a ‘small Armenian boy of about ten or so’ who was the sole survivor of thousands of Armenian women and children who had been massacred.’’[ii]

Sisir notes that Babulal soon began to speak Hindi and that once he was old enough he began to work as a fifer for the Bengal Ambulance Corps [iii]. This was a job that by long tradition of British Indian army, had been performed by orphaned Eurasian boys – so the tale is not as unlikely as it may sound.

But at Tripoli a problem arose: ‘Before embarking on the ship to Suez Jumman was told that he would not be allowed to bring Babulal with him. An Armenian padre came to take Babulal away. But why would Babulal go to him? He made a huge fuss and cried up a storm of tears; and Jumman wept too, holding on to the boy. In the end Jumman was allowed to take Babulal home with him.’ (p.175)

Babulal, Jumman, Sisir and their surviving comrades reached India on January 8th, 1919.


[i] In the text this story is told out of chronological sequence.

[ii] Heather Jones, op. cit. I am very grateful to Santanu Das for bringing this reference to my attention. The catalogue number of E.A.Walker’s diary is: IWM 76/115/1 Diary of E.A.Walker, 17/7/16.

[iii] In the British Indian Army, by long tradition, fifers and drummers were recruited from orphanages for Eurasians. The recruits were often children.

* Photograph courtesy the Armenian Genocide Museum, Yerevan, Armenia (thanks to Anna Aleksanyan). The picture did not have a title as such but I was told that it was of Indian sepoys with Armenian widows and orphans in 1917-18 period. Unfortunately I was unable, for technical reasons, to post another picture from their collection with the title ‘Young Armenian Orphans Rescued by Indian Officers’.



Shared Sorrows – 17

March 6, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)



Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 17


Sisir Sarbadhikari went to the station early to wait for the train that was to carry the Indian POWs out of Ras al-‘Ain. Along with four friends from the Bengal Ambulance Corps, he was able to get a covered wagon. They occupied it at about nine that night.

After an hour or so,’ writes Sisir, ‘we heard Yakob’s voice whispering to us from the outside. When we went to him he said that we had to make space for him somehow in our wagon.’ (p.198) We said have you gone mad? How can that be done? To take you into our wagon will be dangerous not just for you but for us too. If the Turks find out they’ll give you such a beating that you may die of it; and who knows what will happen to us? There’ll probably be a court-martial. We can’t do anything like that.’ (pp. 198-9)


'Orphan refugees, who are hoping to reach some town where there is bread.' Nat Geog: Volume XXXVI, Number Five, November 1919, p. 410

Orphan refugees, who are hoping to reach some town where there is bread.’ Nat Geog: Volume XXXVI, Number Five, November 1919, p. 410



















But Yakob was stubborn, he began to weep. He said the blame would be his alone; if the Turks caught him then there was nothing to be done; he would die anyway if he remained in Nisibeen; if he was going to die then he might as well make an attempt to get away. In the end we let him in. It was only the four of us in that wagon– Phoni, Jagdish, Bhola and I. Had there been anyone else we wouldn’t have dared.

Although we let him in, we couldn’t of course let him sit on a bench where anybody could see him; he had to be hidden. The only hiding place was under the bench. Here lay the problem. Yakob may have been young but he had a big belly; it was impossible to get him under the bench. In the end Bhola pressed his belly and somehow shoved him in. Yakob’s pants’ buttons popped open and his chest and stomach were grazed and bloody. He remained there that whole night and the next day and night as well. After that he got off at a station; he said he would be all right from there on.’ (p.199)




Shared Sorrows – 16

March 3, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)



Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 16


Aroundthe end of  October 1918, when it was clear that Germany and its allies were facing defeat, the hospital in Ras al-‘Ain was abandoned by the German doctors who had been running it. The Indian POWs and Armenian refugees were left to subsist on the hospital’s remaining stores of food. (p.191)


British and Indian troops were known to be advancing northwards but there was still no sign of them. This created great confusion.


10 October 1918, 2nd Battalion Black Watch (7th Meerut Division) arrive in Beirut after marched 96 miles (154 km) in 8 days from Haifa (Wikimedia)

10 October 1918, 2nd Battalion Black Watch (7th Meerut Division) arrive in Beirut after marched 96 miles (154 km) in 8 days from Haifa (Wikimedia)

We run into our Armenian colleagues every day,’ writes Sisir. ‘They’re in despair. But what can we do for them? If the British arrive soon, they’ll be safe.’ (p.193)









At the beginning of November 1918, Sisir writes: ‘I’m overjoyed at the thought of going back home, but in the midst of that I am despondent at the thought of the [Armenian] mohajers and their fate. We’ve worked together for so many days; we’ve shared sorrow and joy. 




Armenian refugees (Lib of Congress)

Armenian refugees (Lib of Congress)

They have become like our own. I wonder, even if the Turks don’t kill them, what will they find when they get home? Who will they return to? Who knows if they even have any homes left!’ (p.194)









On November 17th, all of a sudden, the POWs were informed that a train would come for them that night. Sisir and his companions went to the station well ahead of time because they were concerned about finding a covered wagon. Sisir explains that this was because Turkish trains ran on firewood, there being a shortage of coal in the country: the engines couldn’t work up much steam: ‘At the slightest incline the engine would wheeze as if it had run out breath, and flames would shoot out of the chimney burning everything nearby.’ (p.198)



This was a hazard in an open wagon, because cinders and flames would be blown back, and would often cause fires.








Sisir recounts that he was once traveling in an open wagon, with one of the Bengal Ambulance Corps’ camp followers, a sweeper by the name of Jumman. A flaming cinder happened to fall on Jumman’s turban and flames shot up from it. Between the two of them they managed to put out the fire, but Jumman said afterwards, ‘lucky that I’m not a Sikh or my hair would have been burnt.’




Shared Sorrows – 15

February 28, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)


Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 15


The fate of his Armenian friend Ilyas weighed heavily on Sisir Sarbadhikari. Later in his memoir he writes: ‘I still think of [Ilyas]. A boy of fourteen or fifteen; a really good fellow. Did he manage to get back to Erzurum in the end? Or did he die on the way? What happened to his mother and sister? It’s not that these questions arise only in relation to Ilyas, thousands of Armenian families are dealing with this.’ (p.189)[i]


'His parents have been slain, he starves', National Geographic, 1919

His parents have been slain, he starves‘, National Geographic, 1919

In early October, the situation in the camps suddenly changed. Sisir was told that the hospital was to be shut down at once and all the patients were to be discharged.













This had a dramatic impact on the mohajers.


The Armenian women began to weep,’ writes Sisir. ‘For so long they had been sheltered by the Germans – it was like being in the shelter of a mountain; the Turks couldn’t do anything to them. Now they were afraid that as soon as the Germans left they would be slaughtered; this time even the women wouldn’t be spared.










Every day Yakob would come to us, lamenting and crying; he would say that he was trapped while Ilyas had got away in time (but did he get home? Poor Ilyas!) [But] we didn’t worry so much about Yakob, he was a clever fellow, tricky one might even say. (p.190)

Within a few weeks, things came to a head. ‘Everything’s in an uproar!’ writes Sisir. ‘[Only] the Turkish soldiers seem to be indifferent; secretly they must be glad it’s over.  When the fighting’s over they’ll heave a sigh of relief. It’s the Germans who are the most fearful; they’re worried that they’ll get stuck in Turkey and fall prisoner to the British. But the greatest terror is amongst the poor Armenians. Old Mary, Dudu, Haiganoush, Jarohi all of them are crying out loud, asking: what will happen to us now? Amongst them Dudu speaks some English. She has a boy of six or seven, and to please the Germans she had named him William. She’s a clever woman, with an eye to the main chance. Now maybe she will change the name.



Most of [the mohajers] are from Diyarbakir, Urfa, Siwas, Kaisariya, Maras, and Aindhab or Mardin. Later they had begun to come from Van and Bitlis.’ (p.191)


[i] It isn’t clear whether Sisir wrote this episode from memory or had notes to rely on. Chronologically, the episode occurred after the resumption of his journal. But in the book he tells the story out of chronological sequence.



Shared Sorrows – 14

February 24, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)


Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 14


Sisir Sarbadhikari was not the only Indian in the Ras al-‘Ain camp for long: it soon began to fill up with British, Russian and Indian POWs including many other members of the Bengal Ambulance Corps, his friend Bhola among them (p.172).


Indian Cavalry charge, Mesopotamian front

Indian Cavalry charge, Mesopotamian front

As the months went by the prisoners learnt that there had been a revolution in Russia; that Istanbul had been rocked by unrest; and that British and Indian troops were making rapid advances in Palestine and Mesopotamia.






By the middle of 1917 it was apparent that tide of war was turning in the Middle East and the Germans and Ottomans were in retreat.[i]

For the Armenian refugees, this created a new set of anxieties for they were now seized by the fear that the Turks, faced with the prospect of losing the war, ‘would slaughter those of them who were still alive – and this time even the women would not be spared.’ [ii]

But it still came as a surprise to Sisir and his friends when they discovered that the Armenians were planning an escape: it was Ilyas who revealed this to them.



Ilyas looked on Bhola and me like older brothers,’ writes Sisir, ‘and we too loved him like a younger brother. In 1918, towards the end of August or the beginning of September, when the Turks were in a much-weakened state, Ilyas came to us one night.

At the time Phoni, Bhola and I were living in one room… Ilyas and Yakob were living a little distance away. What he whispered, after waking us, was this:

… For a few days [the Armenian mohajers] had been conferring in secret on matters such as how best they might escape to places that were now under Russian or British control. It seemed that they had not included Yakob in all this, perhaps because those who were planning to escape (p.177) were all residents of Erzurum and its surrounding areas. Yakob’s home was much further south.



Now their destination had been decided on – where it was Ilyas did not yet know. They would flee that night, horses had been arranged. He had come to take his leave of us. Whatever warm clothing we had between us we gathered together and gave to Ilyas – the poor fellow had hardly any clothes.











He held me tight! None of us could say a word; nor was there any need for anything to be said.

‘In the dead of night Ilyas left. We never saw him again

Did he manage to reach home? Did he find his mother and his sister?

Here Sisir quotes a line from a poem by Tagore:’Those who lose everything gain the whole world.’ (p.178)[iii]


[i] Chronologically speaking Sisir was once again able to rely on his journal from this point on for his notes resume from April 1918 (the gap dates back to April the year before).

[ii] The word that Sisir uses to describe these killings is worthy of note. Earlier, when writing about the killings of Armenians he generally uses the word kâtâ : literally ‘to cut’ or slaughter. But here he uses the word hatyakanda, literally ‘killing-deed’, signifying mass killings.The word ‘genocide’ had not of course yet been invented, nor its Bengali counterpart.

[iii] The poem is ‘Hatobhagyer gaan’, written in 1899 (1305 by the Bengali reckoning); it is included in Tagore’s Gitobitan. I am grateful to my sister Dr Chaitali Basu and Dr. Swachhatoya Bannerjee for tracing the poem.



Shared Sorrows – 13

February 21, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)



Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 13


Amongst Sisir’s particular friends in the hospital there was an Armenian called George. ‘His home was in Diyarbakir;’ Sisir writes, ‘his sons and daughters had all been killed; he had somehow managed to escape to Aleppo with his life. George was given the job of cleaning the toilets. There was a huge hall, with many toilets side by side. George lived in one corner of this hall – he ate and slept there. On cold evenings we used to sit with him and warm ourselves at his brazier, and then we would talk.’ (p.159)

Sisir’s stay at the hospital came to an end around June 1917, when most of the Indians were discharged. But for a while his luck held: amazing to relate, while other Indian POWs were dying of hunger and disease at Ras al-‘Ain, through a providential turn in the wheel of fortune Sisir and Bhola were sent to a rest-home (Liaqat-khana) to recuperate. The rest-home was  in the Jewish area of Aleppo and they spent two months there. Only after their discharge did they learn that the Hindu POWs were to be sent to Ras al-‘Ain once again, while the Muslims would go to Islahiya, and the British to Belemedik. (p.165)

On returning to the vicinity of Ras al-‘Ain, Sisir found many changes. The railway line had been extended in the months that he had been away, and the Indian camps had advanced with it. The construction of the lines was being overseen by Germans, and they had taken charge of many of the area’s camps and hospitals.




For a while Sisir was in a camp that looked towards the town of Mardin[i], which he describes as being ‘in the interior of Armenia’. He writes: ‘We heard that the city of Mardin was empty … there were no people in it. The houses were abandoned and it was like a ghost town.’ (p.168)







Sisir was then dispatched to another camp before finally ending up in a German-administered hospital in Nisibeen. It was here that he would become deeply enmeshed in the fate of Armenian refugees. ‘When I reached Nisibeen,’ he writes, ‘there were no Indian, British or Russian prisoners there. I was the only prisoner of war. The rest were Armenian mohajers (refugees); they were all women, only one had a little boy with her.’ (p.170)




I was given a small tent to live in and the big tents of the mohajer women were close by. There was no one to speak Hindi or English with, let alone Bengali – only with Meinhof [a German officer] would I exchange a few words in English.







When there were chats and conversations with the mohajers it was always in Turkish. One of the mohajers, old Mary, would patiently inquire after the smallest details of my home and family. She was sad to learn that I had lost my mother; she would say that this was why I had been able to go to war; if I’d had a mother she would not have let me go.’ (p.170-1)

Sisir was assigned to the camp’s hospital but his duties were mainly administrative. ‘Two Armenian mohajer boys, Yakob and Ilyas, worked for me in the office,’ he writes. ‘Yakob was some twenty years old; he was from a very ordinary family, and couldn’t do anything that required reading and writing. Ilyas was from a well-off background: he was about fifteen and knew a little French; he didn’t have much to do – his job was to write down telephone messages. (p.175).

Ilyas’s home was in Erzurum. He and his father, mother, older sister and brother lived there in peace until the war started. When the Turks began to kill the Armenians, Ilyas’s father and brother were not spared. They were dragged out of their Erzurum house and driven along, here today and there tomorrow. There were many others in their group – apart from all the Armenians of Erzurum, all the others in the towns and villages along the way were also herded together, with them. They were brought to a place where they were told: Now the menfolk have to be separated from the others – they have to go to a separate camp. (p.176)


‘[The Armenians] knew already that the men would be killed, so they realized that there was no other camp; it was a lie – they were actually being taken off to be slaughtered. There was much weeping and many tears, the women clung on to the men and would not let them go. But what could come of that?










The men were dragged off by force, Ilyas’s father and brother among them. The next day one male from that group managed to escape, bringing back the news that all the men had been killed. He had himself been badly wounded but was still alive. After a few hours he succumbed to his wounds.’ (p.176)

After that the women and children were driven along, to be abandoned in cities along the way. They had to forage for themselves, keeping themselves alive as best they could. On the way Ilyas was separated from his mother and sister; after much wandering he ended up in Nisibeen. When the Germans started building the railroad they assumed the responsibility for the Armenian mohajers and that made things a little better for them.’ (p.176)

From what we hear these terrible mass killings were not perpetrated by Turkish soldiers; they were done by Chechens and Kurds. Before we got to Ras al-‘Ain many Armenians had been brought there and killed. Sachin [a BAC volunteer] was in Ras al-‘Ain long before us; he told us that he had once witnessed the killings. A group of Armenians was made to stand up, their hands were tied, and their throats were slit one by one. Sachin said that those who did the killings were Kurds. There was a hill behind our camp in Ras al-‘Ain, it was on the other side that these deeds were done; Sachin once stole off there in secret and witnessed them with his own eyes.’ (pp. 176-7)


[i] Mardin once had a substantial Armenian population. The 19th century British traveler, J.S. Buckingham, in describing Mardin, writes ‘The population is thought to amount to twenty thousand, of which, two-thirds at least are Mohammedans, the remainder are composed of Christians and Jews. Of the Syrians, there are reckoned two thousand houses, of the Armenians five hundred, and of the Jews four hundred’, Travels in Mesopotamia, London 1827 (191-2).



Shared Sorrows – 12

February 18, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)


Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 12.


The Indian POWs who were being treated at the Central Hospital in Aleppo, in 1916, discovered soon enough that they had many commonalities with their erstwhile ‘enemies’ – that is to say, the Turkish soldiers who were also being treated there. ‘We would talk,’ Sisir Sarbadhikari writes in his memoir Abhi Le Baghdad,about our countries and about our own joys and sorrows. If we said that we have this or that in our country but you don’t have it here, they would say how can things improve in our country? All we do is fight, and that too with big and powerful countries. If you go into our country you’ll see, even the fields are lying fallow. Who’s to do the work? Everyone’s away fighting; only the women are at home.’ (p.158)


Evacuation of Ottoman wounded (Wikimedia Commons)

Evacuation of Ottoman wounded (Wikimedia Commons)



‘One thing they always said was this: What are you going to gain from this war? Why are we cutting each other’s throats?






You live in Hindustan, we live in Turkey, neither of us have ever met, we have no quarrel with each other, but at the behest of a couple of men we’ve become enemies overnight.’ Sisir pauses to ask: ‘Is this what’s in the heart of every soldier, in every country, at all times?’ (p.158)

Then he continues: ‘There was a man from Edirna-le or Adrianopolis who used to say, how will things improve? Sultan Abdul Hamid put a curse on our heads because of which we’ll have to be at war for a hundred years.Why he put such a curse on us I cannot say kardesh.’ (p.159)


Ottoman soldier, WW 1

Ottoman soldier, WW 1


Sisir tells some touching stories about his kardeshes. For example: ‘An old Turkish soldier came to our ward to collect cigarette butts. He was bent over with age, but he happened to look up and he caught sight of a young Turk in one of the beds.








He gave a shout and then we saw that they were hugging each other with tears rolling down their faces. After they had calmed down a bit we learnt that they were father and son; for three years they had had no news of each other – and today this sudden meeting! … In Turkey this kind of thing is not unusual – fathers don’t hear from their sons; the sons don’t know where their fathers are; householders go off to fight and don’t know what’s going on at home. They get news when they go back, or when others from their area return from leave.’ (p.155)


He follows this with a story that graphically illustrates the conditions of soldiering at that time: ‘There was a Turkish soldier in our ward, about thirty years of age, he had been wounded in the fighting.


Ottoman soldiers at Gallipolli

Ottoman soldiers at Gallipolli


With him was a pretty young girl, of about five or six. Her name was Farida. She used to play with all of us. The soldier had no one at home to leave his daughter with, so he took her with him when he went to fight – he brought her to the hospital too.










During the fighting he would leave her in some safe place in the care of one of his comrades… (One day) I asked him: Kardesh, if you had been killed in the fighting what would have happened to your daughter? He smiled and said ‘Allah bilior’ – or ‘only Allah knows’… I never saw this kardesh looking gloomy. And the girl? She was always cheerful, busy playing.’ (pp. 155-6)




Shared Sorrows – 11

February 14, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (1)


Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 11.


Towards the end of November 1916, after he had spent a couple of weeks at the Central Hospital in Aleppo, Sisir too was struck down by the typhus. For about a month he was so sick that at times he does not know whether he was dead or alive (p. 148). But in December, he was once again the beneficiary of a stroke of good fortune: his friend Bhola was also sent to the General Hospital in Aleppo. After that Sisir’s health began to improve steadily.

In Sisir’s description, the conditions at the General Hospital in Aleppo appear as a startling contrast to the situation in the camp at Ras al-‘Ain, where Indian prisoners were suffering terrible hardships. In the hospital, on the other hand, the POWs were in some ways, better off than the Turkish soldiers who being treated there.



Turkish Soldiers Returning from the Front Line (

Turkish Soldiers Returning from the Front Line (


Sisir often remarks on the difficulties that the Turkish soldiers had to deal with: ‘They were in a bad way,’ he comments, ‘they didn’t have money for cigarettes and would beg from us.’ (p.160)








Elsewhere, he writes: ‘Today there was a pitiful sight in our ward. The Turkish soldiers don’t receive any pay; they are all poor; they don’t even have money for cigarettes.



Turkish soldiers returning from the Balkans (Wikimedia)

Turkish soldiers returning from the Balkans (Wikimedia)


Some of them ask us for money; but mainly they pick up butts from the street, take the tobacco out and use it to roll cigarettes. Four or five butts yield one cigarette. (p.154).’











Sisir evidently made great progress with the Turkish language during his stay at the hospital. ‘We were quite friendly with the Turkish soldiers,’ he writes. ‘None of them were literate but they were friendly and warm. They used to say, you can’t fight us now, so we are all brothers or kardeshes. The word kardesh was much in use[i]. If they saw someone they didn’t know they would call him kardesh. We did the same.’ (p.157)



Ottoman Army Bootmakers

Ottoman Army Bootmakers

The Turkish soldiers at the hospital were themselves quite a diverse group. While most were from Anatolia, there were also some from Bulgaria and Albania. (p.158)








Sisir notes that there ‘there was no lack of bad men amongst them … Many times we were insulted by them and we often had to suffer their blows.’ He describes how he once went to the hospital’s barber for a shave, and was spat upon for no reason; he also mentions a corporal who would beat Indian patients for no reason at all. (p.159)


[i] Vedica Kant suggests that this term was: ‘kardeç (pronounced kardesh) which is the term for brother.’ I have followed her suggestion here although Sisir’s spelling of it would properly be transcribed as ‘kardash’.’







Shared Sorrows – 10

February 10, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (0)



Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 10



Even as prisoners within the Ottoman Empire, Sisir Sarbadhikari and his fellow Indian POWs were constantly reminded of their inferiority in the imperial hierarchy. Sisir touches on this theme often, especially in relation to the sums that were disbursed to the POWs according to the laws of war. On February 12th 1917, he remarks that an official had visited the hospital and distributed money to the prisoners: ‘Five liras for the whites, four for the Russians and three liras for us. The money comes from British or Indian POW funds, but still the Russians get more than us. Not only are we a defeated race, we’re also black.’ (153) [i]

Next year, in July he returns to this theme: ‘Some funds have arrived for us from the Red Cross Society – 3 liras for the British, and one and a half liras for us. We all refused it… [But] After much persuasion … we agreed to take the one and a half liras. What we said when we refused the money was that white soldiers are paid higher salaries in India (bharatvarsha) because they are serving in a foreign country and therefore have extra expenses.’… But that argument doesn’t work in this instance. Turkey is not our country, just as it is not theirs … The differences and distinctions that have been created between whites and blacks in all things is deeply insulting to us. A Hindustani sepoy receives  half the pay that a white soldier gets; his clothing and uniform is different too – the white’s is better. But the white Tommy and the black sepoy both put aside their love of life to go to war, they both suffer equally – yet in the midst of shared hardship, everything possible is done to make things better for Tommy.[ii] Even his rations are different – Tommy drinks his tea with sugar, we drink it with jaggery. And what tea it is! Sacks of it lie in front of the store; people walk over it with their boots. If there’s a canteen then we aren’t allowed into it; only whites can buy from them… A lot can be written about this.’ (187-8)


[i] Racial issues recur constantly in both British and Indian writing about the colonial army, irrespective of class and rank. Writing about the diaries of Amar Singh, a Rajput nobleman, Santanu Das observes: ‘‘Slur’ is a recurrent word and emotion in the diaries; a constant oscillation between class privilege and racial discrimination forms their emotional core. Experiences of ‘slight’ range from the refusal of the English soldiers to salute him (though he was King’s Commissioned Officer) to being teased for not eating beef to being ‘very rudely’ asked to leave the room when important military details are discussed. The personal and the racial are interlinked’ (Indians at home, Mesopotamia and France, 1914-1918: towards an intimate history, in Das, Santanu (ed.): Race, Empire and First World War Writing, CUP, 2011. Elsewhere, in the same article Santanu points to the British insistence on maintaining racial boundaries: ‘In In Kut and Captivity (1919), Major Sandes writes that on reaching Baghdad, ‘our first business was naturally to get separate accommodation for the Indian officers’: ‘we explained also that Indian officers … were always of inferior ranks to British officers’.[i] Even in captivity, the colonial, racist hierarchy is put forward as ‘natural’.’

[ii] In this passage, as elsewhere, Sisir consistently uses the Bengali words gora for to refer to ‘white’ soldiers. He uses kalo (black) to refer to himself and other Indians.




Shared Sorrows – 8

February 5, 2013 in Shared Sorrows | Comments (1)



Shared Sorrows: Indians and Armenians in the prison camps of Ras al-‘Ain, 1916-18 – 8.


On September 7 1916, one hundred of the Indian prisoners who had marched to Ras al-‘Ain with Sisir Sarbadhikari started working on an Ottoman rail line .



[This picture is from the  Imperial War Museum (via the First World War Poetry Digital Archive & the Ottoman History Podcast).  It is tagged as ‘Indian Engineers in Mesopotamia’  with no other details. I remember seeing, on the Net, a similar picture of Indian POWs working on the Ottoman railway line north of Ras al-‘Ain: unfortunately I haven’t been able to find it again. A link would be much appreciated.]



Sisir Sarbadhikari and his fellow paramedics from the Bengal Ambulance Corps worked in the camp hospital and did not have to go out to the rail line. A few weeks after their arrival in camp, the Turkish guards turned the officers’ quarters upside down, during a search. It was now that Sisir buried his diary, fearing that it would be found. He did not dig it up again until the trouble stopped. (p. 140)

Over the next few weeks the camp’s medical facilities were expanded. New doctors arrived, among them some Armenians. The relations between the Indian medical staff and the Armenian doctors were not always easy.

One day,’ writes Sisir, ‘the hospital’s Armenian doctor swore at Champati [an Indian NCO] and had Sundar Singh [an Indian paramedic] thrown behind bars. The reason was that an Armenian prisoner from Russia complained about the hospital being staffed by Indians; he said they gave the Indian patients better food. Being an Armenian himself the doctor created an incident without inquiring further. On informing Captain Puri, Sundar Singh was let off. There was always friction between us and the Russian prisoners. After this it got worse.’ p. (141)


In November typhus broke out in the Indian camp. An epidemic of the disease had already ravaged many of the Armenian camps in the Ras al-‘Ain area.



Armenian deportation camp, Ras al-‘Ain 1915-16


It now began to take a serious toll on the Indian prisoners. Several members of the Bengal Ambulance Corps went down with it, among them Sisir’s friend Bhola – the 16-year-old who had exaggerated his age to get into the corps.



Sisir himself escaped this outbreak of the disease. He was occupied in tending to the stricken when it was decided that he would take the most serious patients to Aleppo (Halbe).[i]









Sisir was reluctant to go because he did not wish to be separated from his friends. He did not know it of course, but the order that sent him away from Ras al-‘Ain was a blessing in disguise. The coming winter would decimate the prisoners who remained in Ras al-‘Ain. Many would die of disease, exhaustion, and the cold. Had Sisir not been sent to Aleppo at this time, he may well have been among the casualties. Later, he would write: ‘That was our first winter in Turkey and we had no clothes to speak of; many didn’t have boots… [The prisoners] would be taken to work barefoot on the line, in the snow. They would get frostbite at first and then the flesh would fall off and the wounds would turn gangrenous’ (p. 167-8). [ii]

E.A.Walker, a British officer, estimated that 75 per cent of the Indian prisoners died in that first year. [iii]



From 'War in the Garden of Eden' by Kermit Roosevelt (

From ‘War in the Garden of Eden‘ by Kermit Roosevelt



[i] Sisir generally uses the Arabic words Halbe or Halab for Alleppo.

[ii] Santanu Das writes: ‘according to a British eye-witness account, [the Hindu prisoners were like] ‘animated skeletons hung about with filthy rags’.’ Cf. Indians at home, Mesopotamia and France, 1914-1918: towards an intimate history, in Das, Santanu (ed.): Race, Empire and First World War Writing, CUP, 2011.

[iii] ( IWM 76/115/1 Diary of E.A.Walker, 17/7/16), quoted in Heather Jones, Imperial Captivities: Colonial Prisoners of War in Germany and the Ottoman Empire, 1914-1918, in Das, Santanu (ed.): Race, Empire and First World War Writing, CUP, 2011.


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