Turkish POWs in India and Burma: First World War – Part 1

September 14, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (0)



Guest post by Vedica Kant:



A number of posts on this blog over the last few months have focussed on the experience of Indian soldiers and army officers in foreign lands during the First World War. The most recent posts have looked at the experience of two Indians in the Mesopotamian campaign, where more than half a million Indians played a major role in the campaign, and some stayed as an occupying force to aid in the administration of the province long after the war was over.



I am writing about another aspect of the Mesopotamia campaign – India as the site for camps for Turkish Prisoners of War captured during the battle. It has been argued that the First World War was the first ‘total war’ where the distinction between war and civil society blurred[1]. While Indians played a huge role in the war effort in theatres of war outside India, the geographical space of the British subcontinent was not divorced from the war either. When I started looking at India’s role in Mesopotamia, it was an enquiry that was very much informed by a geographical focus on the Ottoman lands.










I was surprised to learn of the other side of the equation – that the British sent captured prisoners all the way to the Indian subcontinent. When I moved into my new flat in Istanbul, my neighbour, an old Istanbullu lady who has the air of secular republicans who constituted the Kemalist elite in the 1950s, told me that I was the first Indian she had met, but her father had fought in Mesopotamia in the Great War and she had heard stories of the Indian soldiers he had fought against. Later he had been captured and sent to India as a POW (she was vague on the details of where exactly), and because he was educated had become a translator between the British officials and other prisoners.


The main POW camps for Turkish POWs were in Sumerpur (Rajputana), Bellary (Bombay Presidency), and Thayetmyo (Burma). There were smaller depot, quarantine and convalescence camps at Calcutta, Rangoon and Shwebo respectively. (Other than POW camps, there were also a number of internment camps in the country where civilians of enemy nationality were kept.) I still have not reached the bottom of why the prisoners of war were sent all the way to India, when they could have been interned at other, closer locations. The journey to India, and especially Burma was arduous. To reach Thayetmyo, for example, prisoners would be gathered at Basra, where they would stay for two to four weeks for observation. Once a convoy had been made up it would be be taken by steamer to Bombay or Karachi and then across the country to Calcutta by train. From Calcutta, the prisoners would be taken to Rangoon by steamer and from Rangoon by large flats up the Irrawady to Thayetmyo. I imagine this randomness was just another way the Empire worked. Someone decided that prisoners would be sent to a remote camp in India or Burma (perhaps because manpower was needed, perhaps because India, given its role in the war, was expected to house prisoners) and the imperial machinery lined up to ensure that this was made possible.




[1] Roy, F., Leibau, H., Ahuja, R., eds., 2011. ‘When The War Began We Heard of Several Kings: South Asian Prisoners in World War I Germany’. Delhi: Social Science Press.

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