Archive for July 12th, 2012

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.



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