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dalsingh101

Letters Of Indian Soldiers Of World War 1

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I picked up a very interesting book called ‘Indian voices of the great war: Soldiers’ letters, 1914-18’ by David Omissi, who works at the University of Hull (Dept. of History and Centre for Indian Studies).

It contains the contents of letters sent by (and to) soldiers from the then undivided Indian subcontinent during the first world war. These have been translated in English from the original languages/scripts in which they were transcribed (mainly Gurmukhi, Urdu, Hindi with some other occasional variations like Bengali). These letters are extant because the texts passed through British censorship, which was concerned with (and keeping an eye open for) potential disaffection amongst the Indian soldiery at the time. The book is useful as a tool to help us understand the motivations and concerns of the soldiers involved. The letters are presented chronologically by date and there are 657 in total, being of varying lengths and from soldiers of diverse backgrounds.

It is not uncommon to hear lamentation that whilst we have plenty of white soldiers accounts relating to this conflict, we don’t have corresponding texts written from the perspectives of the brown men that were present. The book helps fill this gap to an extent. The following is based on its introductory essay which (amongst other things), describes the nature of recruitment at the time. This may (at least partially) help explain the aforementioned scarcity of narratives from the brown side:



“How were the letters written? It is clear some men wrote or addressed their own letters, but the vast majority of letters were probably written by scribes on behalf of their senders, since most Indian Army soldiers were illiterate. In the Punjab at this time no more than 5 percent of the population could read; among rural military communities, however literacy was would have been very much less, since the British deliberately recruited from the least educated segments of the rural population, who were thus least effected by ‘dangerous’ Western political ideas. Indeed, some of the letters contain explicit references to the ‘writer’s’ own illiteracy, while others refer to scribes.”



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A wounded soldier dictating a letter.


Whilst it must be borne in mind that certain restraining factors would have influenced what was being divulged in these communications (awareness of censorship being an obvious factor), they still provide valuable insights into the thoughts and situations of the soldiers even with these limitations. Some of the letters that were sent by soldiers were indeed ‘suppressed’ by the censors and the criteria for the said suppression included:

“incitements to crime, and even murder; accounts of sex with white women, which were seen as damaging to white prestige; particularly distressing letters from men who had been badly disabled by wounds; letters which were flagrantly dishonest, mentioned drugs or included slighting references to whites; and accounts from prisoners of war of receiving good treatment from Germans, which might have encouraged desertion. In each case, either the offending passage was deleted or the offending passage was deleted or the entire letter was destroyed.”


The picture emerging from the self referencing included in texts reveals communities conspicuously stratified along both religious and caste lines. When we consider the impact of the by then firmly entrenched ‘martial races theory’ used by the British to categorise and organise the soldiers of the ‘jewel of the crown’, it’s difficult to tell just how far these identity constructs were truly reflective of pre-colonial self-identifications (that had carried over from that time) or whether the policies introduced by the imperial administration played a large part in moulding the self perceptions? The opportunity is open for future research to delve into this matter through comparison with pre annexation texts, which could prove useful in trying to establish earlier Khalsa attitudes towards this now thorny issue and how exogenous British ideas may have altered the previously prevailing perceptions. In theory, this could help shed some light onto the argument that British policies influenced the nature of the caste system as existent amongst Panjabi Sikhs today.

A general pattern emerges from the letters with the exhilaration exhibited prior to battles and immediately after early conflicts giving way to ‘sighs of resignation’ and ‘despair’ as time progressed. Interestingly the narrator of the book mentions that only the Mahsuds (a Pathan people of NWFP) seem to have been unaffected in this way. Some letters later give warnings to relatives and friends to stay away from the war and avoid enlisting. Not surprisingly the cold European weather seemed to have a particular effect in lowering morale. It is suggested that this was the cause for eventually removing infantry soldiers from this front and redeploying them to the more familiar climes of the Middle East. Those that did remain in Europe where attached to the cavalry it seems and saw significantly less intense action than their infantry compatriots had previously. This coupled with the fact that instructions were explicitly given by commanders to discourage writing what could be deemed as despondent, means that the accounts in later letters do not contain as many despair tinged references as before. This was, of course, the dawn of modern mechanised warfare as we know it today, characterised by remote mass destruction; something that would have come as a shock to even previously battle hardened foot soldiers.

Whilst Muslims equated the battles to Karbala, Hindus used the analogy of Mahabharat to describe the mass carnage they were witnessing. Interestingly Sikhs had no such previous conflict which they used in similar comparative terms. Some letters acknowledge the receipt of religious material such as Korans and the Guru Granth Sahib. As could be expected, faith played a big part in the lives of those facing death on a constant basis. It would however be a mistake to think of these soldiers in strictly puritan terms and mention is made of a certain erosion of ‘religious orthodoxies’. Some letters make brief references to sexual relationships between the soldiers and the indigenous females of Europe for instance. As could be expected after the earlier experience of the mutiny, the imperial hierarchy were keen to avoid a repetition of such a scenario and strove to meet the religious dietary requirements of the soldiers. A photo of Sikhs dispatching some goats’ jhatka style is provided (see attachment to post). Interestingly, Sikhs and Hindus shared a common space for slaughtering animals, whilst Muslims had their own separate location.

The matter of later recruitment in Panjab is touched upon and it appears as if there were some difficulties in this area. The book describes the scenario (somewhat shockingly) as follows:

“From the autumn of 1916, various forms of coercion were also used to secure recruits. The Government of India discussed conscription, but preferred to employ informal methods of compulsion, especially in Punjab. For example, Indian officials were told to produce a given quota of men on pain of losing their posts if they failed. Some men were simply kidnapped, or their womenfolk held hostage until the men enlisted. After the war, the authoritarian Governor of the Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, was even accused of using ‘terrorist methods’ to find recruits. He fought and won a libel case over the phrase, but there remained no doubt that forcible recruitment was widely resented.“



Odwyer.jpg
Michael O'Dwyer

(Note that the aforementioned General O’Dwyer was later assassinated by Udham Singh in London in 1940 in retaliation for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre).

Overall the book is invaluable for those interested in Indian involvement in the first world war and helps shed light onto many aspects of the conflict in relation to the people who traveled to a far off continent to fight in a foreign war. It provides a thought provoking window into the relationship between the colonised and the colonisers.

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Edited by dalsingh101

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Haven't read the book, but the bit about pressganging is surprising. So not all Punjabis were willing lambs to the slaughter like they are often made out to be. I wonder how the people on SikhSangat would feel knowing that the ancestors they are so proud of having served in the British Indian army may have been forced to do so?

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Almost all Indian Martial races served under British Indian army but Sikhs lost much of their martial spirit.

Pathans of Pakistan are still some of fieriest people in the world .I think we should do lot of soul searching what went wrong from our side rather than blaming brits.

KDS asked the above question on another thread and I think some of the material I came across in this book may be helpful in relation to it.

Most of us here will be familiar with (at least) the broad contours of the British 'Martial Race Theory' that heavily influenced policy during the Brit colonisation of our heartland. As KDS points out, the 'martial' epithet wasn't solely limited to Sikhs and other communities of North India fell under this rubric. Some of the information gleaned from this book seems to highlight very different attitudes towards 'fraternity in faith' by the Muslim and Sikh soldiers in WW1.

The following is a footnote from letter 1:

The entry of Turkey into the war confronted Muslim soldiers (who made up some 30% of the Indian army) with a difficult choice; doing their duty to the King-Emperor might involve fighting against the Ottoman Empire, the home of the Khalifa, the spiritual head of Islam. Most soldiers decided to fight on (this [letters] writers response, presumably written to reassure his family, is fairly typical) but there were some discipline problems. By 1915, for example the rate of desertion amongst Pathans (particularly those from Afghanistan) reached alarming proportions. There were also three mutinies in Muslim units - the 130th Baluchis at Rangoon, teh 5th Light Infantry at Singapore and the 15th Lancers at Basra.

When you read the letters of Sikhs it shows a complete subjugation towards the British cause, usually hinged on a perceived relationship with the King. The letters are almost childlike in their simplicity and political naivety. To paraphrase Omissi they [the soldiers] had become exactly what their overlords wanted them to be. The ways the various subgroups competed with each other (along religious, ethnic, caste fissures) tells us a lot too. This obviously worked to imperial advantage.

What is telling is how, the mere idea of fighting other Muslims caused serious problems from Pathan soldiers whilst the Ghadr movement (of which the soldiers seem aware) didn't seem to have the effect of 'swinging' the Sikh soldiers in a similar way?

A Gurmukhi letter from a Khatri Sikh to friend in France (dated 30/1/1915) says:

Here in the Panjab dacoities have become common. The people in their sin do not remember that the government which protects us is fighting an enemy. They are getting up a mutiny (ghadr) and what trouble is brought upon the government. we pity their ignorance. The Lord will give them sense. In one week there were 15 dacoities. When will God give peace? The government has made many arrests and in the investigations it was discovered that the dacoits where men who had been turned back from America.

KDS. What this suggests to me is that by this time, lumpen sections of Sikhs had totally shaken off the psychology of independence that characterised the original Khalsa and a large part of this was down to the Brit supported version of Sikhi that was being propagated. In this, complete loyalty to the British sovereign was cleverly packaged into the faith so that maintaining this subordinate position actually came to be perceived as synonymous to following the faith itself. That is writ all over the letters written by Sikh soldiers in the collection. Plus we also have Macauliffe's statement that by this time, the Amrit ceremony that British soldiers undertook included a vow of loyalty to the English King, highlighting just how cleverly the imperial agenda had become intertwined with what these people believed was Sikhi.

In short, despite the fact that they were fighting in a war, most [??] of those Sikh soldiers seemed to have lost that important psychological and religio-theological construct of 'independence' which characterises the conspicuously difficult to control. It's hard to explain.

Edited by dalsingh101

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This coded letter sent by a Pathan is very interesting. The writer seems to believe that the Urdu will be readable by the censor whilst the Pashtu section would not:

A Pathan to a dafedar of the 19th Lancers in France.

[urdu]Such a time as this comes upon brave young men. In the bravery of youth you must not lose your spirit. Whatever is fated of God, that comes to pass.

[Pashtu] These words that I have written above I have written only for this purpose:that if any great folk open the letter, they may be pleased. So far as is possible, look after your life and your brothers life. This is not such a war [as warrants you taking unnecessary risks] and to preserve your life is your duty. This is my prayer, that God may bring you home safely.

Omissi believes the phrase 'not such a war' means 'not a religious war'.

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Is it really as simple as that?!

Many Sikhs kept on fighting. They just didn't do it for themselves as a nation.

KDS was asking why Sikhs stopped learning to fight and stopped teaching their children, akin to how the afghans spread their military knowledge. I really do believe that many Sikhs decided that war isnt useful. Not all Sikhs thought this way, but by then they were a minority.

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The Pathans revolted because the war was against the Ottoman Empire whose head was also the Caliph. No similar situation was involved with the Sikhs. If anything they would have relished a chance to fight the 'turks' given how turks are regarded in the rehatnama literature. The only situation which could be regarded on par would have been the 1984 attack and many Sikh soldiers also mutinied as the pathans had done during world war 1.

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The Pathans revolted because the war was against the Ottoman Empire whose head was also the Caliph. No similar situation was involved with the Sikhs. If anything they would have relished a chance to fight the 'turks' given how turks are regarded in the rehatnama literature. The only situation which could be regarded on par would have been the 1984 attack and many Sikh soldiers also mutinied as the pathans had done during world war 1.

True. For the Pathans, it was also an Islamic duty to stand by their Khalif. The Calif on his part had also declared a Jihaad knowing how many Muslim soldiers were in the British army, he probably thought they would all mutiny. But only the Pathans did. Interestingly the Punjabi Muslim soldiers remained loyal to the British despite the fact that the opposing side was the Khaliffa.

While the British were occupied with WW1, Sikhs in India in the form of the Gaddarite movement were planning to overthrow the British rule known as the Lahore conspiracy case. If the Sikhs had succeeded, then it is very likely that India would have become independent way back then as Ireland was. But due to a traitor it was not meant to be.

During 1984 many Sikh soldiers had mutinied and some were even butchered or imprisoned as a result, many lost their jobs. But the Indian army was also smart that they had before hand separated the Sikh regiments to far off corners of India so it would be impossible for them to reach Punjab in case of a mutiny. Most of the work the Sikh soldiers were used for was for the cleaning up of Darbar Sahib complex after the attack was finished.

Edited by Mithar

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While the British were occupied with WW1, Sikhs in India in the form of the Gaddarite movement were planning to overthrow the British rule known as the Lahore conspiracy case. If the Sikhs had succeeded, then it is very likely that India would have become independent way back then as Ireland was. But due to a traitor it was not meant to be.

I think this sell out bastard's name was Kirpal.

Edited by dalsingh101

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True. For the Pathans, it was also an Islamic duty to stand by their Khalif.

What is interesting is that Sikhs soldiery seem to have seriously bought into the idea that it was their religious duty to stand by the King of Britain. Obviously, other Sikhs (like the Ghadrs) saw things differently.

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Interesting extract from a Hindi letter sent to India. The soldiers makes observations on French society and religion also commenting on the perceived state of religion in India:

The dresses are very fine, both of men and women. The Indians can hardly make distinctions in dresses of rich and poor, of a Lord or farmer. Every business is exceedingly clean and neat. The features of the people are very beautiful. Their colour is reddish white. The inhabitants are honest and very politie.

The morals are also good as regards civilisation, but as regards spirituality I am very sorry. They are all and all for sensual enjoyments. It seems to me that 'eat, drink and be merry' is their motto in life. They have a Catholic religion which is alomost reduced to nothing but etiquettes. And owing to this weakness they are very weak in spiritual morality, and at best I have come to the conclusion that with the loss of spirituality they will loose their national strength as our India did.The present bad condition of India is due to the loss of spirituality. In India also the religion is nothing but etiquettes.

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Codes seem to have frequently been used as in this letter from a wounded soldier in Brighton to a friend in India. Here black pepper refers to Indian soldiers whilst red pepper refers to British troops:

Buglar Mausa Ram (Jat 107th Pioneers) to Naik Dabi Shahai (121st Pioneers, UP) - 2nd April 1915

I have received you letter dated 24/2/1915 and mastered its contents. The state of affairs here is as follows; the black pepper is finished. Now the red pepper is being used, but, occasionally the black pepper proves useful. The black pepper is very pungent, and the red pepper is not so strong*. This is a secret, but you are a wise man. Consider it with your understanding.

* 'The Indian troops fight more fiercely than the British troops'

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Here is a letter from a hospitalised Pathan soldier (Yusuf Khan of the 40th Pathans) writing from Brighton. Interestingly the censors deemed the contents sufficient cause to detain the letter:

Letter 156

The news is that the white men here have refused to enlist, declaring that the German emperor is their King no less than is the King of England. An Indian black man went off to preach to them. He asked if they were not ashamed to see us come from India to help the King while they, who were of the same race, were refusing to fight for him (1). But really the way these whites are behaving is a scandal. Those who have already enlisted have mutinied. [Letter detained (2)]

(1) This may be a garbled reference to the conscription controversy.

(2) Presumably because of slighting reference to whites.

Edited by dalsingh101

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Here we have a fascinating window into a Sikh's experience of the modern warfare he was witnessing in a Gurmukhi letter written in France to a Mahant Partab Das in Patiala (possibly a priest of sorts who was pushing proBritish propaganda to the soldiery?):

What you say in your letter about not being disloyal to the Emperor, and it being the religion of Sikhs to die facing the foe - all you say is true. But if only you yourself could be here and see for yourself! Any shriveled charas sodden fellow can fire the gun and kill a score of us at our food in the kitchen. Ships sail the sky like kites. Wherever you look machine guns and cannon begin to shoot, and bombs fly out which kill every man they hit. The earth is mined and filled with powder; when men walk upon it, the powder is lit and up go the men! There is no fighting face to face. Guns massacre regiments sitting ten miles off. Put swords or pikes or staves in our hands, and the enemy over us with like arms, then indeed we shall show you how to fight face to face! But if no one faces us, what can we do? No one stands up to fight us. Everyone sits in a burrow underground. They fight in the sky, on the sea in battleships, under the earth in mines. My friend, a man who fights upon the ground can hardly escape. You tell me to fight face to foe. Die we must - but alas not facing the foe! My friend the cannons are such that they throw a shell weighing 12 maunds which destroys the earth 500 paces around where it falls. We are in France. It is a very cold country ... It is a fair country and the people are like angels. All they lack is wings...

This letter was detained.

Edited by dalsingh101

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Some other interesting extracts:

48

Sepoy Gurdit Singh to his father in Amritsar – 6th April 1915 from Brighton hospital

Here it is being said men are being forced to enlist by order in India, and they also say plague is rife. Write me some news of our country... So long as the war goes on, no sound man can return to India – only those who have lost a limb can return. In my heart I feel that I shall have to go back to war.

65

A Sikh sepoy in France to Gurun Ditta Mal of 47th Sikhs in UP (India) - 12th May 1915

You will be hearing about this country (France) from the wounded who have gone back from England. Some of them will tell fine tales about the number of water-drawing machines [code for women]. I long to see England. When the war is over perhaps the regiment will go there. There are crowds of ‘machines’ here also, and the sight of them delights us, but we are ashamed to touch them lest we lose caste. The men and women of this place treat us lovingly.

The coy, reserved sentiments of the brother above weren’t shared by all Sikhs as demonstrated in the intercepted coded Gurmukhi letter below:

171

Balwant Singh (France) to Chet Ram (Amritsar) – 24th October 1915

The ladies are very nice and bestow their favours upon us freely. But contrary to the custom in our country they do not put their legs over the shoulders when they go with a man.

(The above letter was intercepted and deleted by the censors presumably because of the references to sex with white women).

A Panjabi Musalmaan wrote:

Maula Dad Khan (Sialkot Cavalary brigade) to his father (India) – 24th October 1915

M. Khan’s letter dated the 27th Sept. Reached me on the 22nd Oct. When I read it every hair on my body stood on end. Before that i was happy but after I read it I was very vexed. It is true that I wrote to Allah Lok Khan for a pair of [women’s] shoes. The fact is, father, that a young Frenchman acquaintance of mine asked me to send for something from india. He asked me to get him some shoes which would fit his wife. I wrote that. Of what do you suspect me? My father I swear in the name of God and His prophet and declare that there is no [ground for suspicion].

This letter seems to refer to an incident of rape by some Sikh soldiers.

175

Ressaidar Kabul Singh (Sikh, 41) to Risaldar Bahadhur Mohinddin Sahib, ADC to HE the viceroy (Remount Base Depot, Marseilles) – 29th Oct 1915

Asil Singh Jat and Harbans have done a vile thing. They forcibly violated a French girl, 19 years of age. It is a matter of great humiliation and regret that the good name of the 31st lancers should be sullied in this way.

67

Havildar Abdul Rahman (Panjabi Musalmaan) from France to Naik Rajwali Khan in Baluchistan – 20th May

For God’s sake don’t come, don’t come, don’t come to this war in Europe. Write and tell me if your regiment or any part of it comes and whether you are coming with it or not. I am in a state of great anxiety; and tell my brother Mohammad Yakub Khan for God’s sake not to enlist. If you have any relatives my advice is don’t let them enlist. It is unnecessary to write any more. I write so much to you as I am Pay Havildaar and read the letters to the double company commander*. Otherwise there is a strict order against writing on the subject. Cannons, machine guns, rifles and bombs are going day and night, just like the rains in the month of Sawan (July – August). Those who have escaped so far are like the few grains left uncooked in a pot. That is the case with us. In my company there are only 10 men

. In the regiment there are 200. In every regiment there are only 200 or 280 [the average number of soldiers in a full regiment was approx. 760].

*Here the writer refers to the censorship process and his part in it, explaining how he has bypassed it.

This brother waxed lyrically in Gurmukhi poetry to his wife. The letter was withheld by the censors, presumably for its despondent character?

146

Sant Singh to his wife (from France?) – 18th Sept. 1915

We perish in the desert: you wash yourself and lay in bed. We are trapped in a net of woe, while you go free. Our life is a living death. For what great sin are being punished? Kill us, Oh God, but free us from our pain! We move in agony but never rest. We are slaves of masters who can show no mercy. The bullets fall on us like rain, but dry are our bodies. So we have spent a full year. We cannot write a word. Lice feed upon our flesh: we cannot wait to pick them out. For days we have not washed our faces. We do not change our clothes. Many son’s of mothers lie dead. No one takes any heed. It is God’s will that this is so, and what is written is true. God The Omnipotent plays a game, and men die. Death here is dreadful, but of life there is not the briefest hope.

184

Storekeeper D. N. Sircar (Maratha Brahmin) to Telegraphist S. K. Bapat (Indore, Central India) writing from Kitchener’s Indian Hospital in Brighton, England. 12th Nov. 1915.

This place is very picturesque and the Indians are very much liked here. The girls of this place are notorious and very fond of accosting Indians and fooling with them. They are ever ready for any purpose, and in truth are no better that the girls of Adda Bazar of Indore. (This letter was deleted by the censors).

In the next letter we can see how religious sentiments were used by the Brits to goad soldiers into action:

199

A sepoy of the 47th Sikhs (Sikh) writing from Brighton hospital to his friend in India – 14th December 1915

Chur Singh has suffered martyrdom in the war. The 47th Sikhs were charging. [The] sahib said ‘Chur Singh, you are not a Sikh of Guru Govind Singh, [you who in fear remain in the trench!’ Chur Singh was very angry. Chur Singh gave the order for his company to charge. He drew out his sword and went forward. A bullet came from the enemy and hit him in the mouth. So did our brother Chur Singh become a martyr. No other man was like Jemadar Chur Singh.

Edited by dalsingh101

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Balwant Singh (France) to Chet Ram (Amritsar) – 24th October 1915

The ladies are very nice and bestow their favours upon us freely. But contrary to the custom in our country they do not put their legs over the shoulders when they go with a man.

lol

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146

Sant Singh to his wife (from France?) – 18th Sept. 1915

We perish in the desert: you wash yourself and lay in bed. We are trapped in a net of woe, while you go free. Our life is a living death. For what great sin are being punished? Kill us, Oh God, but free us from our pain! We move in agony but never rest. We are slaves of masters who can show no mercy. The bullets fall on us like rain, but dry are our bodies. So we have spent a full year. We cannot write a word. Lice feed upon our flesh: we cannot wait to pick them out. For days we have not washed our faces. We do not change our clothes. Many son’s of mothers lie dead. No one takes any heed. It is God’s will that this is so, and what is written is true. God The Omnipotent plays a game, and men die. Death here is dreadful, but of life there is not the briefest hope.

I think the original in Gurmukhi must have been beautifully written. I wish I could read it in the original.

These letters are wonderful to read. My grand father fought in France and in the middle east during WW1. He was only a teenager at the time. Just wondering, but are these letters available to read in Punjabi? These letters in the form of a Punjabi book would be well received amongst Apne.

So much of History is written in the form of letters. Too bad people don't write letters anymore. emails have taken over. But writing letters was such a beautiful thing. I have preserved so many letters in my family going back to my grand father's time.

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So much of History is written in the form of letters. Too bad people don't write letters anymore. emails have taken over. But writing letters was such a beautiful thing. I have preserved so many letters in my family going back to my grand father's time.

That's really good. Maybe one day you can publish some of your family history based on these letters? Would be really good to show how concerns may or may have not changed over the generations!

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Right. These are the last extracts I’m going to post from the book. As you can tell, it goes a long way in helping us understand what was going on around the soldiers at ground level. Well worth a read.

Itirza in Hoshiarpur District to Havidar Thuia (Rajput, 38th Dogras) in France – July 1915

In every village the war is the leading topic and chief affair, and you will not meet many men. Wherever you go there are two, three men engaged in recruiting duty. The rains have began and the crops have been sown.

Some marital problems are also evidenced as in these two examples:

Qasim Khan (Punjabi Musalmaan of 36th Jacob’s Horse) from France to his father in Shahpur District – 7th Dec. 1915

....I am very grateful to you. God prolong your life. But I do not at all like what you say. Now I will tell you – never mind her. Do not think of her anymore. Let people say what they like, but give up thinking about her. If she gives you any further trouble about money, tell her to ask for money from her [new] master. I have nothing to do with it. When anyone asks me, I shall count out payment to them in such sort, that they will remember it all their lives... I shall make a report that he [Nur Khan] has dishonoured me, in that while I was away from here at war, he enticed away my wife and took her to his own house. His motive for doing so was this – that he might at his ease eat the money which is paid for by the government to the wives [of the men on service].

Some wives were unhappy with the absence of their men:

429

To Dafadat Nasab Ali Khan (Pathan 9th Hodson’s Horse, France) from his wife in Hazara (NWFP)

If you want to keep your izzat then come back here at once; but what you are after is wealth. Have you got anyone except God who can run your house? Then why do you not return? Your mother has gone out of her mind and does not sleep at home, so I am alone all night. The winter and dark nights are ahead now and how can I, a lone women, stay by myself? If you agree, I will go to Darwaja. If you do not answer at once I will go to [illegible] and report the affair to the Officer commanding at the Depot, and you will be sent back with a flea in your ear. I go around begging the neighbours for water and wood, yet you never think if all this. You write that you have been made a lance dafadar. I don’t care a rap if you have been made a dafadar. If you were a man you would understand, but you are no man.

A few letters mention the kindness and stoicism of the French. The emotional reserve demonstrated by French women on the news of the deaths of loved ones must have been striking to the Punjabi men who would have been accustomed to witnessing wild shrieking by womenfolk in reaction to similar news.

Sher Khan (Punjabi Musalmaan) to Raja Gil Nawaz, BA,LLB (Jhelum) – 9th Jan 1916

I have seen strange things in France. The French are a sympathetic and gracious people. Some time ago we were established for about three months in a village. The house in which I was billeted was the house of a well to do man, but the only occupant was the lady of the house, and she was advanced in years. Her three sons had gone to war. One had been killed, another had been wounded and was in hospital, and the third, at that time was in the trenches. There was no doubt that the lady was much attached to her sons. There are miles of differences between the women of this country and the women of India. During the whole three months, I never once saw this old lady sitting idle, although she belong to a high family. Indeed, during the whole 3 months she ministered to me to such an extent that I cannot adequately describe her [kindness]. Of her own free will she washed my clothes, arranged my bed and polished my boots – for 3 months. She used to wash my bedroom daily with warm water. Every morning she used to prepare and give me a tray with bread, butter milk and coffee......When we had to leave that village the old lady wept on my shoulder. Strange that I had never seen her weeping for her dead son and yet she should weep for me. Moreover, at [our] parting she pressed on me a 5 franc note to meet my expenses en route.

470

Sher Bahadur (Punjabi Musalmaan) to Raja Khan Alim Khan (Shahdara, Delhi) – 17th Jan. 1917 (Urdu)

I have seen such examples of fortitude and bravery amongst the French that I can hardly express myself. I saw one day a peasant ploughing, and a bicycle orderly came up to him and gave him a telegraph and went off. I asked the orderly what he had given him and he said it was a telegram telling him his son had been killed. The old man read the telegram and waited 2 or 3 minutes and then went on ploughing. I have seen many cases in which the old people have lost 3 or 4 sons and yet have remained unshaken by the blow. There is no wild lamentation as with us in the Punjab, nor do they get into the same state as us due to our ignorance.

Major Jivan Singh to his wife in Gurdaspur 7th Feb. 1917 (Urdu)

It is very wrong of you to work yourself up into a state of illness through anxiety for me. Just look at the people here. The women have their husbands killed yet they go on working just as hard as ever. It does one’s heart good to see them . May God teach our women to behave like them! You must let these words sink into your heart, you must be as brave as a man.

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This is very interesting Urdu letter sent by a Sikh police inspector in Panjab (Eshar Singh) to Jemandar (junior officer of infantry of cavalry) Jai Singh of the 6th Cavalry in France. It provides a clear insight into just how successfully colonial forces had entwined their own propaganda in relation to some men’s perceptions of the Sikh faith. Remember at this time, the Amrit ceremony used by the British for Sikh recruits interpolated vows of loyalty to the British monarchy. Despite the staggering simple mindedness on display here, it is worth remembering that other Sikh men, such as the Ghaddrites obviously didn’t swallow the imperialist version of Sikh identity.

222 – From Punjab to France -19th Jan. 1916

We are all thinking of you and this is our prayer in the presence of the Almighty – that the Guru may bring you back with victory. You must know that you are very fortunate in that you have got a chance to defend your country and to serve the British government. You will remember that the British rule was foretold by our true leader Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru. It was established in India only for the protection and help of us Sikhs. It was on the voice of the Guru that the Eternal sent the English here. The blessings which this rule has brought to India is not concealed from you. The rise of the Sikhs is due solely to this power. But for this, the poor Sikhs would have brought their unhappy existence to an end in some crows’ pond [sic]. I shall be very pleased to hear of your valorous deeds. You are a brave soldier. Now it is time to display your manhood. Now is the time for loyalty. You are a true Sikh. By the Guru’s order you must remember the promise of the Almighty, who said:

Recognise the hero in him who fights for his faith; Though cut to pieces he will not quit his ground.

This for Sikhs is a religious war, because the war is directed against the [british] rule which our Guru established.

Contraband drugs seem to have been sought by at least some personnel. A number of letters request narcotics, providing advice on how to successfully hide the substances in packages. Presumably the availability of such substances was not unknown to the soldiers on the receiving end:

Bir Singh (6th cav. Or 19th Lancers) to Jowala Singh (Ambala District, Panjab) – 28th Jan. 1916 (Urdu)

You say the parcel came back from Bombay. What sort of parcel was it? If you wrote ‘opium’ on it, do not do so again, but put ‘sweets’ or ‘dainties’ on it, and send off the opium. Have no fear; parcels are not opened on the way and cannot be lost. So keep sending the drugs. Let Indar Kaur be the sender. [Omissi makes the comment that this letter was passed which was unusual for requests for drugs, see below]

431

Kartan Singh (6th cav.) in France to Sirdar Ram Rakha Singh (Jullunder) – 6th Nov. 1916 (Urdu)

You say in your letter that the post master 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. [The advice about the dispatch of opium was deleted from the letter by censors]

177

Naik Sarju (Brahmin) to Halvidar Suchut (Mhow, Indore, Central India); 20th hospital Merrut division. Oct 1915 (Hindi)

Please send me 1 seer of tobacco and in it enclose 5 tolas of charas and 2 tolas of opium. If you can do this, it will be a great favour. [Words deleted]

Open western style relationships witnessed by the soldiers, who were accustomed to the conservative, restricted nature of interactions between genders in Panjab are commented upon a few times. It appears as if some soldiers viewed the practice of choosing one’s own partner favourably as can be seen below.

Dafadar Chanda Singh (France) to his wife Pertab Kaur in Lahore – 15 Feb. 1916

This [France] is a very fine country. The father and mother invite a visitor to kiss them. If he declines they are offended. Then all the family, men and women, indulge in indecent talk and are very much amused. In the presence of the father, one will say to two others ‘go sleep together’, and they will all laugh. It is indeed a very free and easy country. Nothing is prohibited, whatever may be done. In the presence of a father and brothers one [a man] will catch another [a girl] by the arm and lead her outside. They [the father and brother] will say nothing. They are quite at ease*.

*The censor remarks that the letter portrays a ‘curious picture’ which one may hope is hardly typical. The passage was excised from the letter as being calculated to convey a wrong impression and discredit our allies.

656

Teja Singh (2nd lancers) to Ganga Singh in Sialkot - 6th March 1918

If God spares me to return I intend to start new customs. Look, in our country people ruin themselves over marriage and lawsuits. In this country rich and poor, high and low, go to church together and worship, and there is no distinction between them there. In this country, moreover, people never spend money unnecessarily. In our country, the fools of people spend money for show and they ruin themselves over marriages and law suits. This is all due to ignorance. The very best custom in this country is that a man chooses his own wife, and a women her own husband, and there are no disagreements and troubles after marriage. The same custom used to obtain in our country formerly; but later it was set aside by the intrigues of the Brahmins.

334

Dafadar Teja Singh (9th Hodson’s Horse) to Sirdar Sadu Singh (NWFP) - 26TH June 1916

...As regards marriage, there is affection first between the two parties, who are never less than 18 years of age. After marriage there in never any discord between husband and wife. No man here has the authority to beat his wife. Such injustices occurs in India only. Husband and wife dwell together here in unity.

Maharajah Ranjit Singh’s granddaughter, Sophia, makes contact with the Sikh soldiers:

Kartar Singh (Milford-on-sea) to Gurdit Singh (Raswind, Punjab) – 24th Feb. 1916

And my friend this is a photo of our King’s granddaughter - he who was king on the Sikhs, Ranjit Singh. She has distributed her photo amongst the Sikh brethren at the depoy [Milford] on the evening of the 23rd Feb. At five o’clock. [written on the back of a photo of a lady friend, signed Sophia A. Duleep Singh, 1916].

Comments about the education and treatment of daughters:

448

Dafadar Ranji Lal (Jat) to Prem in Rohtak District, Panjab – 26th Nov. 1916 (Urdu)

Grandfather dear, I understand these things perfectly well, though they are still hidden from my revered elders. I know well that a women in our country is of no more value than a pair of shoes and this is the reason why the people are low on the scale. You educated Ramjas, and got him a situation, but you never thought of educating any of the girls. You said to yourself: “Ramjas will be able to help me in my old age, but the girls will get married and leave the house and will not be able to do anything for me.” I should like to write to my wife but she would have to get the letters read by somebody else and all the home secrets would come out. When I look at Europe I bewail the lot of India. In Europe everyone man, women, boy and girl is educated. The men are at the war and the women are doing the work. They write to their husbands and get their answers. You ought to educate your girls as well as your boys and our prosperity will be the better for it.

572

Ressaidar Bishan Singh (Jat) to Choudari Dobi Dyal (Jullunder) 28th Aug. 1917

My prayer to you is that you will give up your foolish customs and extravagant expenses, and if you love your country will get others to follow you example. All our eyes have been opened since we came to this country. There are no beggars and no poor here. The country produces less than ours. Why then are they so much richer? Because they do not waste money on marriages, funerals and birth ceremonies, and do not put jewellery on their children. The children in India go about in ragged, torn clothes and eat bread made of gram, and yet when they are married we spend thousands of rupees on the ceremony. Then comes the money lender with his decree and attaches the property, and we go out and wander about in search of employment to keep us alive. What we have to do is educate our children, and if we do not we are fools, and our children will be fools also. Give up bad customs and value your girls as much as boys.

655

Ishar Singh to Jassu Singh in Ludhiana – 4th March 1918

Do not worry yourself thinking as to how you are to marry the girls. I ask you, why are girls brought into this world? Consider, both girls and boys are brought into the world, and if the girls are neglected or killed off, these families that have boys had better kill them off too! ....Both are of the same value in God’s eyes, and one should devote the same amount of care to their bringing up, and should treat them in precisely the same way.

The lack of literacy and reliance on outsiders to write is mentioned thus:

452

Jawand Singh to Sirdar Dur Singh (Amritsar) – 3rd Dec 1916

What you say about there being no letter writer handy is in no doubt correct. It is a well known saying that ‘the water carrier is always thirsty and the cobbler, ill shod’. The point is that the school is no more than ten paces from you, and yet you say you cannot find anyone to write a letter!

Some men contracted venereal diseases:

509

Clerk Bhagat Ram in Jullunder (Hindu Panjabi) to Khan Shirin Khan (Remount Depot, Rouen, France) – 19th April 1917

Do not set your heart on those scentless and artificially lovely flowers [women]and do not become infatuated with their seemingly innocent appearance. Where, in God’s name, can you get in any temperate climate that delightful, beautiful thing which grows in the tropics? There [France] the outward appearance is cold; but within rages a fiery furnace. If you should be scorched in that flame, it would be difficult for you to escape*. But if you should be unfortunate, do not be like that wretched sowar who used to sit near your tent and bewail his condition. Rather, stand in the open, sword in hand, and call everyone to witness what the enemy has done. Do this and then there will be no delay in your getting the Victoria Cross (a cure).

**The French women look attractive, but have venereal diseases. If you catch one it will be hard for you to find a cure.

Sympathy to the Ghaddarites can be detected in this Urdu letter sent by a 3rd year Sikh student in Agra Chank.

280

Kalwant Singh to Kot Dafadar Ghamand Singh (3rd Skinners Horse) - 2nd April 1916:

A terrible affair has taken place here. The Supplementary Lahore conspiracy case has been decided in a way that spells disaster to the Sikh people*. One hundred of our beloved Sikhs were sentenced to death, and our brother Nand Nir Singh got transportation for life. Now may the Guru help the Sikhs and rescue the drowning ones! It will be a long time before the Sikhs can raise their heads again! [Letter detained]

*The Lahore Conspiracy was an attempt by revolutionaries to subvert the discipline of the Indian army.

Men were under serious pressure to recruit back in Punjab:

625

Zaildar Jawala Singh (Lyallpur) to Dafadar Kartar Singh (France)

May God grant speedy victory to King George, that the anxiety of hearts may be removed! I am in great trouble. My child of 8 months is dead, and your sister in law is dead, and thirdly I am threatened with dismissal from my position of both zaildar and lumbardar. If my life would depart, that would be the best solution of the difficulty! On the 29th Nov. , the Deputy Commissioner sent for me and gave me a month to finish my recruiting., saying that if I did supply the men in that time I should be dismissed from both my zaildarship and lumderdarship.

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Some interesting stats from Omissi’s study:

Indian army recruitment November 18 by province*:

(*These figures appear to refer to the provinces of British India only; but they seem to include recruitment to the Imperial Service Troops, as well as the Indian Army.

Province Combatants Non-combatants Total

Punjab 349,688 97,288 446,976

UP 163,578 117,565 281,143

Madras 51,223 41,117 923,40

Bombay 41,272 30,211 71,483

Bengal 7,117 51,935 59,052

NWFP 32,181 13,050 45,231

Bihar & Orissa 8,576 32,976 41,552

Burma 14,094 4,579 18,673

Assam 942 14,182 15,124

CP 5,376 9,631 15,007

Ajmer-Merwara 7,341 1,632 8,973

Baluchistan 1,761 327 2,088

Total: 683,149 414,493 1,097,642

Recruitment by class, Aug 1914 – Nov 1918

Punjabi Muslims 136,126

Sikhs 88,925

Gurkhas 55,589

Rajputs 49,086

Jats 40,272

Other Hindus 38,546

Hindustani Muslims 36,353

Pathans 27,857

Dogras 23,491

Brahmans 20,382

Ahirs 19,544

Gujars 18,296

Tamils 16,390

(Source VanKoski ‘The Indian Ex-soldier’)

Edited by dalsingh101

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When I read this one I can't but help cringe at the overt, unabashed sycophantic, straight simpleminded lullooness on display.......talk about taking the bait. forget the hook, line and sinker......this guys swallowed half the rod as well. What a dick.

We are all thinking of you and this is our prayer in the presence of the Almighty – that the Guru may bring you back with victory. You must know that you are very fortunate in that you have got a chance to defend your country and to serve the British government. You will remember that the British rule was foretold by our true leader Tegh Bahadur, the ninth Guru. It was established in India only for the protection and help of us Sikhs. It was on the voice of the Guru that the Eternal sent the English here. The blessings which this rule has brought to India is not concealed from you. The rise of the Sikhs is due solely to this power. But for this, the poor Sikhs would have brought their unhappy existence to an end in some crows’ pond [sic]. I shall be very pleased to hear of your valorous deeds. You are a brave soldier. Now it is time to display your manhood. Now is the time for loyalty. You are a true Sikh. By the Guru’s order you must remember the promise of the Almighty, who said:

Recognise the hero in him who fights for his faith; Though cut to pieces he will not quit his ground.

This for Sikhs is a religious war, because the war is directed against the [british] rule which our Guru established.

Edited by dalsingh101

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A lot about WW1 soldiers in the media these days. So I thought I'd bump this old thread up. 

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On 9/21/2011 at 3:53 PM, dalsingh101 said:

Zaildar Jawala Singh (Lyallpur) to Dafadar Kartar Singh (France)

 

May God grant speedy victory to King George, that the anxiety of hearts may be removed! I am in great trouble. My child of 8 months is dead, and your sister in law is dead, and thirdly I am threatened with dismissal from my position of both zaildar and lumbardar. If my life would depart, that would be the best solution of the difficulty! On the 29th Nov. , the Deputy Commissioner sent for me and gave me a month to finish my recruiting., saying that if I did supply the men in that time I should be dismissed from both my zaildarship and lumderdarship.

They say you never stop learning.....

I first posted this over 7 years ago, and in all honesty (I can now say) I don't think I really grasped certain implications of what I read back then. 

If you analyse the above extract it really paints a sad picture that  illustrates the dynamics and realities of imperialism outside of propaganda. Look at this 'Zaildar'. The poor guy had just lost his infant daughter. He appears to be suicidal: "If my life would depart, that would be the best solution of the difficulty!"

Despite this, his superiors are ruthlessly riding him in this obviously distressing time and demanding that he enlists even more men for the war effort despite his personal loss, threatening to remove his livelihood if he fails. 

Really heartless.

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