Loyal India: Part 3 of 3 by Elizabeth Weigler
Despite the rhetoric of loyalty and the majority of soldiers’ satisfaction with their officers and host nation, the war took its toll on the men’s morale. As the war progressed, the high number of casualties, length of engagements, cold and rainy climate, homesickness, culture shock, and incessant returns to the front demoralized the soldiers. The men’s letters reflect these turns in morale throughout specific battles, seasons, and events taking place in the Punjab. Families receiving letters from soldiers wrote back that they were “not surprised that exile, and bad weather, and many other troubles have disturbed your mind.”
There seems to be some contention among historians as to the extent to which the weather disrupted the morale of the men. The letters support that the soldiers suffered from frostbite and cold exhaustion. Historian George Morton Jack commented that the majority of men in the Indian Army were used to cold conditions in the Himalayas and therefore were not adversely affected, while David Omissi considers them greatly affected by it. Evidence from the letters suggest that the men were suffering from cold exposure, but are not specific as to whether or not they had been accustomed to the temperatures. It would seem that they were distressed both by the cold itself and the length of time they were asked to endure it. One soldier wrote in February of 1915, “Snow falls day and night and covers the ground to a depth of two feet. We have not seen the sun for four months. Thus we are sacrificed,” while another man writing during the same timeframe commented, “Here an extraordinary amount of rain falls and the mens’ feet become frost-bitten from the snow. Six months have passed since I saw the sun, because there is constant rain and clouds.” A more specific and perhaps important factor was that the cold was coupled with rain and snowfall. Even if they had been accustomed to both the temperature and precipitation, they were not accustomed to experience them together. This seems to be the main concern of the troops, and morale dips drastically during the early winter months of the war judging by the overall tone of the letters from that time. The same sentiments are mirrored from October 1915 to February 1916, while letters from the summer months are decidedly more positive. Even if Jack is correct in that many of the soldiers were from regions that experienced snowfall and heavy rains, it is clear that the soldiers perceived the climate as much different in terms of duration and precipitation volume.
Heavy losses took their toll as well. As it has been pointed out, the Indian troops suffered heavy losses, about 20,000 troops in the course of the war from an original 14,000. It has also been pointed out that these men were not only company comrades, but were childhood friends and close relatives. These two factors made the losses especially difficult for the troops. Many letters sent back home describe engagements in which several personal acquaintances with whom both the writer and receiver were familiar with or related to, died. Morale becomes much lower during and directly after major battles, most notably second Ypres, Loos, Festubert, and the battle of Neuve Chapelle.
The second battle of Ypres was one of the first engagements in which the Meerut and Lahore divisions saw action. It took place from April 26 to the 27, 1915. Some letters written in early May specifically remark on it and there is one additional letter from July 1915 in which the soldier writing was still in the hospital from wounds sustained during the second Ypres. The shock seems to have been compounded by their relative inexperience in European warfare, as these letters are coupled with disbelieving accounts of weaponry and are generally detailed in their geographic descriptions, as though they were trying to make sense of their position.
The battle of Festubert began May 9, 1915. The battle claimed 401 of the 645 men in the 41st Dogras alone, of which Luddar Singh was a part. He wrote a particularly haunting and detailed letter to his brother in India enumerating the exact losses and his longing to be home.
My brother, on the 9th of May, there was an attack by the whole of the English and the French, and the whole line of Indians… when my regiment went up to the trenches for the attack, it had a strength of 850 men. When the attack began, in the course of one hour 411 men were wounded, and 80 were killed…
The destruction that occurred in the other brigades, God alone knows. I cannot write it, for over the whole earth, and the ground between the trenches, bodies were lying on bodies like stones in heaps (which no words can be found to describe or relate)… When a man dies in this world, we think it a great event. But here in this war, corpses are piled one upon another so that they cannot be counted.
Many letters from that time stress the overwhelming number of men lost in that engagement. Cultural differences and discomforts seem to have been nothing in comparison to getting away from the war and its horrors.
The battle of Loos took place on September 25, 1915, and letters from October speak quite a bit about the battle. It seems that the Indian Army took a larger part and heavier casualties than during second Ypres, and that the shock mirrored that of the battle of Festubert.
Finally, one of the engagements at Neuve Chapelle, which took place March 10-25, 1915, seemed to have been a particularly important ordeal. This was perhaps the most talked about action in the letters. The majority spoke of the bloodshed, but the success they had there create an interesting dichotomy in the letters. One letter in particular was written in two parts by Amir Khan in the trenches from the 12th to the 13th. The first part of the letter was presumably written on his way to the front on the 10th. The tone of the letter is hopeful, as by his account
The enemy is weakening… 5,525 Germans were taken prisoners of war… I speak with certainty, our King- God bless him- is going to win and will win soon.
The second part of the letter, written at an unknown time, presumably in the trenches, is both horror stricken and exhilarated by success. He wrote,
There is now a deluge, bodies upon bodies, and blood flowing. God preserve us, what has come to pass!… our guns have filled the German trenches with dead and mad them brim with blood. God grant us grace… Oh God, we repent! Oh God we repent!
From these examples it is clear that the shock of these battles left their mark upon the men of the Indian Army. The melancholy that surrounds the engagements is clearly seen throughout the collection. Every one of these battles was followed by a mourning period and a pick up of letter writing as they presumably grasped for the comfort of home from thousands of miles away.
Aside from the carnage, shock of modern warfare, and loss of close friends, engagements also brought another fact to the forefront for soldiers. This was that, even if they were wounded, many would be sent back to the front after they had recovered. This practice was a major point of contention for the soldiers. Many letters make reference to the injustice and disappointment they felt having narrowly escaped one battle, just to be sent back for another.
One letter in particular exemplifies the frustration of the soldiers when he wrote,
I have been wounded twice, and now this is the third time that I am being sent to the trenches. The English say it is all right. How can it be all right! As long as one is unhurt, so long they will not let one off. If Parmeshwar [God] allows I will escape, but the butcher does not let the goat escape.
This was so much of an issue that several petitions to stop the practice were written or asked of the Emperor out of desperation. Since only the very badly maimed were sent back home, the feeling began to arise that, “no man [could] return to the Punjab whole.”
Culture shock accounts for many bouts of demoralization as well. Soldiers’ initial arrivals in France are marked with a particularly high number of cultural references that are confusing to them. Many remark on the difficulty they faced describing their experiences, while others try to speculate on their cultural meaning. One man upon seeing the Christian shrines on the side of the roads hypothesized that criminals in France were nailed to crosses, and that was the reason for their honesty in the markets. Yet another remarked that he was sending as many pictures as he could home of a “woman who stands, clad in armour, with her glance turned up towards heaven [Joan of Arc], and [who] seems to be a very fine, handsome, young woman” because he liked it but their sale had been stopped. After asking his officers and locals to explain who she was, he came to the conclusion that the French Government did not want its people to break their alliance with England when they remembered that the English had burned her. Numerous other examples of culture shock and confusion are available throughout the collection as well.
Aside from the battles, changing situations back home in the Punjab had the greatest effect on morale. During times of famine and drought, morale significantly decreases. Aside from the sheer length of time spent abroad, personal news of unfaithful wives, skirmishes on the boarders, and poor crops significantly contributed to demoralization as well.
In the words of one group of wounded soldiers,
When we, here at war, receive good news from home, we work cheerfully; but when we receive news that makes us anxious, our hearts are no longer in our work…
So, news from home played a major role in the performance of the Indian Army in France.
There seems to have been a slight drop in Sikh morale during the beginning of the war due to unrest from the Ghadr plots. The Ghadrs were a group of Sikhs from abroad that used the war to try to create an independent Sikh Punjab. Local authorities cracked down on the insurrection, but many Sikhs were terrorized in the process. One Sikh writing to a Sikh soldier in France commented, “there is great unrest in our villages. Letters are coming from outside [Ghadr propaganda] and the people are very frightened…” Demoralization also occurs in late 1917 with the outbreak of two epidemics, and October of 1915 during a period of famine. One of the worst times for the Punjab appears to have been in April and May of 1915, during which time many families wrote of plague and famine. For the sepoys and sowars fighting so far from home, their homes held particular significance in their lives and deaths. As one man, writing to his father said,
My thoughts are ever turning homeward… It is my constant prayer that God in His mercy may grant me my life to see you and my brothers once again.
For all these reasons, as the war lagged on, a general degree of demoralization emerged among the ranks. This was especially prevalent in the wounded in hospitals and men who were returning to the front that had been previously wounded. There are quite a few references to malingering in the letters. For some, the horrors of the trenches proved to be too much for them to handle. One simply mentioned to his family, “I am ‘sick’, but do not be anxious. I am quite well.” Others went to great lengths to escape the front; either shooting themselves or concocting elaborate plans including using “the smoke of the bhalwa plant… to cause an inflammation.” One man even requested timuru (a plant to induce illness presumably) from his family members in India. It is debated among historians whether or not malingering was any more or less prevalent within the ranks of Indian troops. The letters themselves are inconclusive since malingering was obviously of great interest to the censors from which the collection came. In addition, many of the letters are to men back home on how to appear ill to avoid going to Europe, not to avoid their duties once they were there. It would seem men in France were finding ways to save their loved ones from the experience of the Western Front. Malingering was, of course, not the norm for any units within His Majesty’s Army. The point here is two-fold; the Great War was overwhelming for some men, and not all soldiers handled the pressures of war the same.
Although the majority of soldiers maintained their loyalty and executed their commands, a general attitude of hopelessness began to emerge. This sentiment is echoed in a letter from one soldier to his elder brother in June of 1915 in which he wrote, “I am not certain for the future and have no hope of life.”
Conclusions: Meaning in the Soldiers Lives
By the beginning of 1916, most of the sepoys left France for theatres in the Middle East and Mesopotamia. Some regiments of cavalry however stayed behind in France as emergency reinforcements. The war would continue until November of 1918, by which time India had provided some 827,000 combatants and lost 49,000 sepoys alone. From the letters they left behind, it is possible to reconstruct their perceptions, triumphs, failures, gain, and losses while serving on the Western Front. They left behind a very personal and, in some ways, a unique account of a global war that took the lives of millions.
The sepoys and sowars were imbued with a strong sense of Government loyalty and held themselves to high standards. Their reputations as members of the “martial races” were a constant motivation to stay strong in the face of hardship, while a steadfast sense of loyalty to and concern for fellow troops moved them to everyday feats of valor. Most of the soldiers were convinced of their place as full participants in the British Empire’s struggle for moral truth.
It is easy to see the major themes that roamed their minds during their hours in the trenches. Letters are full of concern for their fellow combatants and the peoples they were fighting to preserve. Perhaps the biggest influence that shaped the majority of sepoys and sowars worldviews were their families and religion. A lot of energy was put into ensuring their families were taken care of. They endeavored to assure their families that, despite the unknown distances between France and India, they were always present in their minds. As one soldier writing to his family expressed it,
The whole day passes in expectation, and the whole night in consternation, but your letter never comes… I regret that my mother and sisters will not be with me at my last moments…
Similarly, letters contain countless references to the religious traditions that created their worldviews. In the end, their religious convictions dominated their lives as well as their expectations for death.
The Great War took the lives of many unsung Indian soldiers. Their goals and thoughts live on, however, in the correspondence that expressed their need to remain connected with their families and friends in a time of great duress. The letters the soldiers of the Indian Army left behind are a testament to the reality of the hardships they endured, the convictions they stood by, and the people they cared for.
Experiences and Perceptions of Sepoys and Sowars Serving on the Western Front during the Great War
by Elizabeth Weigler — Part 3 of 3
Elizabeth Weigler graduated from Ripon College in May of 2010 with a BA in Anthropology and History, and is currently enrolled as a graduate student of cultural anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She plans to research Sikh religious and ethnic acts of self identification in the United States for her dissertation. Her prior work has focused on Sikh history and intergenerational gaps in Pune, India.