Loyal India: Part 2 of 3 by Elizabeth Weigler

Experiences and Perceptions of Sepoys and Sowars Serving on the Western Front during the Great War
by Elizabeth Weigler — Part 2 of 3 — Read Part 1 Here

Sikh Soldiers in Battle

Sikh soldiers attacking the German trenches at Leper in April 20, 1915

Sepoy and Sowar perceptions of the Great War

The sepoys and sowars that fought on the Western Front looked at the war in terms of the context in which they were brought up. As they experienced new things, they endeavored to write to those back home of what they saw, and their descriptions remained rooted in their original framework.

It is unclear whether this was the way in which they themselves perceived these experiences, or whether they were describing things thus for the benefit of those back home. The style in which they wrote, however, and the great pains they took in order to describe in detail and explain new concepts and terms suggests that the majority were writing from their own perception. As is often seen, if they had learnt the term to describe what they saw, they used it and explained it once to their family. From the writing, it would seem they were often working out what they had seen for themselves as well as their families.

Like almost all soldiers who participated in the Great War, the Indian soldiers were shocked and horrified by the carnage of modern warfare. Everything about their letters suggests they were unprepared for the trials ahead. Almost every religious group likened the carnage to a battle of particular religious significance. Hindus spoke of the battles in terms of the Mahabharata, an ancient Hindu epic in which several particularly shocking and gruesome battles take place between various types of beings (some of whom are supernatural or celestial).

Similarly, Muslims likened the battles to Karbala, a historic battle that took place in Iraq in which the Prophet’s grandson was killed. Sikhs often described it merely with the phrase, or one similar to it, “not of this world” denoting an almost surreal and disbelieving account of the war. It could be that Sikhism did not have a particular battle to relate to the front since it was and still is such a young religion, or denote the war in opposition to what is often seen as a beautiful and just world, per God’s divine plan.

The letters have a strong current of horror and disbelief at what they had seen. There are countless numbers of letters that make reference to the carnage. One writer may be used to sum the feelings of all when he wrote.

So many men were killed and wounded that they could not be counted…When we reached their trenches we used the bayonet and the kukri, and blood was shed so freely that we could not recognize each other’s faces; the whole ground was covered with blood. There were heaps of mens’ heads, and some soldiers were without legs, others had been cut in two, some without hands and others without eyes. The scene was indescribable. If I survive I will tell you all… the whole world is being destroyed …

Another reason for their shock may be attributed to the unfamiliarity of the weaponry they encountered. The letters speak of machine guns, bayonets, bullets, and cannons with familiarity. Airplanes, gas, and the overwhelming volume of bombs seem to be new experiences. During the early part of the war, one Muslim wrote to his friend in India in February that “they set light to some substance which causes a suffocating vapour, and then they attack. How can I describe this? The like shall never happen in the world again…” The man is obviously shocked by the idea of such a weapon. Similarly, a Sikh describing the war in April of 1915 recounts all the “arrangements” of the Germans:

They have many machine guns. Their little bomb guns [mortars?] throw bombs to a distance of 500 yards, and they spray vitriol acid [gas?] which burns our clothes and dries up our bodies. At night they send up star shells, and also make light with electricity. The war is a great sight at night.

War Planes

War Planes

In similar terms from the same month, another letter recounts that “the German… ships sail the clouds and drop shells from the sky; his mines dig up the earth, and his hidden craft strike below the sea. Bombs and blinding acid are thrown from his trenches…”

The grasp of the soldiers on the various technologies of modern warfare were obviously not good. It is suggested by comparison to other letters that if they had known the names or how the technologies worked, they would have tried to convey it to the people back home.

This can be seen in a letter from a Garhwali to his elder brother in India when he wrote, “there are the aeroplanes which move about dropping bombs and causing great havoc. They are like the great bird of Vishnu in the sky.” In addition, as the war progresses, fewer and fewer references are made to these new technologies, and they are lumped with the more familiar implements of war. They no longer become objects of interest, shock, or awe.

The weaponry took its toll on the morale of the soldiers as they had envisioned the battle to go on much as it had on the boarders, although they do not refer to specific engagements. They were used to brutal and bloody hand-to-hand combat, but only for a short duration, and this was large scale and impersonal carnage. A few of the soldiers comment on the order of battle, and lament not meeting the German enemy face to face. One in particular wrote back home saying, “I get no opportunity for fighting with the sword, although I came here with that very purpose.” In fact, it is generally agreed upon by historians and had been noted by the commanders of the Indian Army that Indian soldiers did better when they were allowed to attack under cover of night and engage the Germans in skirmishes.

For the most part, the soldiers don’t seem to have fully understood the reasons for the war either. To most, the war was explained merely as great princes fighting one another; it was condensed down to feuding tribes and kings taking each other’s forts. They relied on the supreme right of the “princes” to use their men as they would to describe their experiences; explanation by the kings does not seem to have been necessary for them to continue fighting.

Sikh soldier holds a captured Nazi flag

Sikh soldier holds a captured Nazi flag

If pressed, their explanation relies either upon a vague reference to German moral inferiority, or their invasion of Belgium. One soldier writing back home noted, “Thus, loving the truth, the British Government have given Belgium complete assistance.” In the opinion of the Indians, the British Empire, in which they were a fully participating member, had come to the aid of the Belgian people. They were now protecting France preemptively from the same atrocities. Though they had not seen these themselves, they readily believed reports from the British Government. A couple letters make reference to German atrocities towards Belgian citizens during their invasion. One soldier writing home understood it accordingly:

At first in Belgium the Germans thus treated the inhabitants- they cut off the hands and feet of little children and let them go; and also in the case of women they cut off one hand or one foot or blinded one eye. The whole Kingdom of Belgium has been destroyed, and half of France. But up to now we have escaped and we have stopped the Germans, and on both sides fortified trenches have been constructed.

The situation here seems very straightforward; the British Empire is protecting France and liberating Belgium from the wrongful actions of the Germans.

Here, there was no gray; a wrong has been committed by one nation, and was being stopped by another. They probably took such atrocities to heart because the Punjab was a border state and therefore in a constant state of unrest. They likely knew villages that had undergone something more similar to the story told than perhaps the Belgians themselves had as several letters to soldiers recount similar engagements back home.

Between these two micro and macro causations, the soldiers had their own personal reasons for fighting. As mentioned previously, they wished to perpetuate the “martial race” ideal so as to uphold personal and family honor that could best be achieved through valor in battle. The majority of letters from both the soldiers and their families express this ideological purpose. They also saw themselves as indebted to the Government since they collected regular pay and provisions with the understanding that their job was to fight to uphold the Government and its ideals. There was also the notion that death in battle would fulfill their karmic destiny and they would be rewarded according to their particular religious beliefs. This created an interrelated logic for loyalty and fighting. The Emperor provided for their physical needs by providing food, salary, and shelter. He also provided for their spiritual and cultural needs by providing the opportunity to participate in war. All these factors tied back into the logic of sustained loyalty to the Government and Emperor. By participating they gained notoriety, proved their right to be considered of the “martial races”, and fulfilled their dharmaor purpose. The interplay of Government loyalty, economic concerns, and spiritual concerns can be clearly seen in one letter from a Hindu Maratha who wrote,

This material universe is merely an illusion… even if my life should be lost, it should cause you intense joy. First, for many days I have eaten the salt of the Government. Second, such an opportunity to die is never likely to reoccur. Such a death is a true liberation from future birth.

Very rarely is one of these reasons found in a letter without at least one other. A soldier writing his friend said of the war, “this is the time to show one’s loyalty to the Sikhar, to earn a name for oneself. To die in the battlefield is glory. For a thousand years one’s name will be remembered.” Yet another wrote back home that their “grand attack” at the battle of Neuve Chapelle had “glorify[ied] the name of the Punjab throughout Europe.” The interplay of all these ideas is seen in many letters. The spiritual merit of a soldier’s death is often coupled with the fulfillment of the duty of brotherhood. This is exemplified in many letters, particularly one in which a Sikh writing back home to his fallen friend’s father said,

I kept him [Kartar Singh] constantly under my eye… [We] had almost galloped through it when one fatal shell fell on us, killing Kartar Singh and another outright… Do not be dismayed. Your son is a hero who has given his life for his King. He is not dead; he lives for ever. He has gone straight to Paradise, because that is the reward of death in the field of battle in the service of the king. He has in fact achieved in an instant that which saints can only hope to secure after many years of trial.

Ideals with regards to the end of death and rebirth within the Hindu and Sikh traditions are mimicked in many other letters as well. Even in the face of demoralization, these remain as strong rallying factors.

Pressure from home, although almost always accompanied with love and support, reflects the soldiers’ ideology as well. One woman wrote to her husband:

Fight with all your might and come away, rifle in hand, victorious… You will not only add glory to the name of mother India, but will also induce peace of mind, prosperity, and long life to our gracious King George V, the Emperor of India, and his subjects.

Another letter to a sepoy on the front with a message from the “we” of the village states, “…you should serve the Government loyally and well. God will reward you, and you will increase the reputation of our people.” Castes outside the “martial races” back in India thought this way as well, referring to the war as “the business of the military caste.” It would seem from this that expectations from home definitely fed into the soldiers’ perceptions of themselves and why they were fighting. It appears that the boost of support and pressure to uphold the family name contributed to the soldiers will to carry on with the war.

Sikh Regiment returning after the Battle of Ypres

Sikh Regiment returning after the Battle of Ypres

Somewhat less intrinsic, but making equal contributions to this logic was the component of loyalty to the Emperor and Government. In some regards the men simply saw it as their job. A common sentiment has to do with “earning their salt”, or pay as soldiers. One man remarked,

It is fitting for anyone who has eaten the salt of the great Government to die. So it is necessary and proper for you to be loyal to the Government for that is the reason why it employs you.

Similarly, anothersoldier encourages his friend by telling him, “we and you have eaten of the salt of the Sirkar, and it is for us to show loyalty in return.” It is not clear whether or not any one of these sentiments would have been as prominent had not the others fed into it. What is clear, however, is that there was a strong sense of loyalty to the Government and need to uphold caste and familial honor.

Tied into the logic of loyalty to the Government was an intense loyalty and appreciation for King George V. Many letters refer directly to the Emperor as the man for whom they are fighting and his role as the means by which entire nations are contented. As mentioned earlier, the soldiers looked to the Emperor as a validation of their endeavors and the patron of their livelihood. He became the tangible embodiment of a being to which they could channel all their Government loyalty; a symbol of the pride and sense of accomplishment they felt when a battle was won, and the conceptualized benefactor of everything they gleaned from military service. A good example of this can be found in a letter from a group of wounded Indian soldiers in a Barton hospital on May 1915. The address on the letter states, “Let no one except the King open this”. The contents list all their grievances and they mentions several times “your Majesty’s order”. All power to help them rests in the hands of the “Emperor of India” in their minds. Most of the letters in question make reference to the King and the British Government interchangeably. A letter written by a soldier to his home explains,

The family of Gulab Shah have received a letter from His Majesty himself, sent by the Viceroy, expressing the King’s regret at the death of Gulab Shah. Just look at the kindness of our Government which joins in the mourning for an ordinary sowar.

Here, the King is representative of “the kindness of our Government” as well as the Government itself.

In a culture that did and still does idealize power and stand in respect to hierarchical differences and the benefits a superior has the power to bestow on an inferior, the Emperor was an idealized monarch. Many letters express intense excitement and gratitude at having seen him.

King George V made several visits to the hospitals to visit the soldiers, at times accompanied by his wife and the princess. In addition, he bestowed all medal awards mentioned in the letters. Many letters remark on these visits, one states that the Emperor visited “spoke very kindly to the patients,” and that his presence had “delighted the hearts of all.”

It can be seen from the letters that the interplay between the concepts of religion, honor, duty, and loyalty heavily impacted the soldiers’ lives. These concepts helped make up the map by which the sepoys and sowars constructed their self-identity as warriors.

Perceptions of Europe

Indian Army arrived in Marseilles in September 1914

Indian Army arrived in Marseilles in September 1914

When the Indian Army arrived in Marseilles in September 1914, they were confronted with a world very different from their own. Despite the peculiarity of their situation, they were generally very positive about their experiences in England and France (independent from warfare). Many of their letters express the same kind of disbelief seen in other aspects of their experience, and cultural misinterpretations are rampant. Overall, they seem struck by the accuracy of newspapers, the ready availability of food and clothing, the cleanliness of the people and buildings, and the industrious nature of the Europeans. In France, the soldiers seem to have had a very good rapport with local French. Part of reason for the Indian’s warm reception probably had to do with the newspaper stories that had preceded them, painting the Indian Army as kindly exotics come to save France and the Allies. So, although the soldiers themselves couldn’t read the newspapers, what was reported directly affected their relationships with the native populous. In England, they appear very appreciative of their treatment in the hospitals and the British’s consideration of special cultural or religious requirements. Obviously, the sepoys and sowars looked upon Germany in a very negative light conversely. There,reports of the ferocity and lack of compassion on both sides fueled the animosity that naturally sprung from the day-to-daycombat. The sepoys’ perceptions of the “native castes” of Europe seem to stem primarily from personal experiences abroad and cultural practice backin India.

France is painted in a very positive and picturesque light in the soldiers’ letter. The homes are described as sturdy and clean, the country and people beautiful, and the climate as generally agreeable. One soldier’s rant exemplifies general attitudes by saying,

I am sending you a bundle of newspapers… You will see from them how up-to-date the papers of this country are… You may rely on almost everything being reported in different papers… Even the working classes read the papers and keep themselves informed… They are very energetic… do their work justly and do it well…obey their superior officers and masters… Their delight is cleanliness. Even a sweeper will not remain in a bare house. He will adorn it with some green plants and flowers and will take pains to improve his condition. Never under any circumstances do they tell lies. As for shopkeepers, everything has a fixed price… They do not marry until they have reached maturity… The children are very pretty and well mannered… little children smaller than my Madan come boldly up to stranger and put out their hands to shake. The children are very clean… If a woman is walking alone and does not wish to speak to anyone, no matter whether she be respectable or not, it is a breach of good manners to talk to her first… This is very different from India…

The men were taken by the clothing of everyone and the seemingly egalitarian state in which they lived. One soldier wrote, “Very many people come to see us, and one cannot tell lord from beggar. They are all alike…” and another commented, “The dressed are very fine, both of men and women.” All the soldiers seem to have been particularly taken with the children of France. They are described as “clean”, “brotherly”, well spoken and educated, “intelligent”, and “beautiful”. The adults are similarly described positively as “industrious,” “very beautiful… very honest and polite.”

Despite the beauty of France and the native peoples, many of the soldiers found French morality lacking however. Several comment on the French people’s amoral pursuits of sensual pleasure. One soldier wrote:

As for beauty, I believe France is the home of beauty. Here everything is beautiful… but as regards spirituality I am very sorry. They are all and all for sensual enjoyments. It seem to me that ‘eat, drink, and be merry’ is the motto of their life. They have a Catholic religion which is almost reduced to nothing but etiquettes. And owing to this weakness they are very weak in spiritual morality…

He continues, as most did, to relate the things he saw back to Indian culture. He mused that the French “will lose their national strength as our India did” due to the weak morality. Quite a few letters comment on the looseness of French women, while others consider them to be strong and liken them to sisters and mothers. Still others considered them wives, as in the case of Mahomed Khan who married a French woman. It seems many of them found exactly what they were looking for when it came to French women.

What was more important, however, were the bonds that the soldiers made with French locals. One sepoy wrote back home with some embarrassment that the French people were “civilized, and that they have a great affection for us. Believe me that they honor one of our soldiers to an extent of which we are not- and could never be- worthy.” Another sepoy wrote to his suspicious father that the women’s shoes he had requested were for a young man he had made friends with who was eager to impress a girl with something from India. Whether the shoes really were for a French boy or a French woman is not important. Both scenarios denote an attachment to the locals that is mirrored in other letters that recount crying widows that had cared for the men as sons and other tales of friendship. One soldier commented to his family back in India that “the men and women of this place treat us very lovingly.” So when the sepoys left France, it seems they remembered it as being “beyond praise” as the French had paid them “great attention”.

The only things said about the English outside of the context of the Government, were said about hospitals. This is because for the most part the sepoys and sowars were only in contact with England if they were taken to the hospital or structured sightseeing tours. A great number of letters comment on the excellent care they received while there.

Injured Indian soldiers of the British Army at the Brighton Pavilion

Injured Indian soldiers of the British Army at the Brighton Pavilion

They seem to have been particularly grateful for the high quality and ready availability of material goods they were given, the care taken to uphold religious and cultural traditions, and the concerned shown to them by the nurses. One wounded Sikh said of the nurses.

Here the ladies tend us, who have been wounded, as a mother tends her child. They pour milk into our mouths, and… [They] are kind to us without any further motive. The ladies even carry off our excreta, so kind are they; and whatsoever we have a liking for, they put into our mouths. They wash our bed clothes every week and massage our backs when they ache from lying in bed.

There are some cultural differences between England and India that render the nurses’ care less impressive by Western standards. In India, handling waste of any kind from the body is a polluting action which even family members do not do out of religious tradition. To the English, it would not have carried the same cultural taboos that it did for the Indians. That aside, the level of care received and the soldiers’ impressions of hospitals abroad were a point of which they were much impressed and grateful.

Soldiers often wrotehome addressing their families not be anxious about them despite their wounds, as they were being “very well looked after.” One soldier said of his time in the hospital:

The English doctors pay great attention to the Indian sick. We get very good good, beds, etc., and I cannot sufficiently praise the building… Old pensioned officers and their wives come to the hospital and enquire after our health, and give fruits and sweetmeats to the sick, and we also get fruit and sweetmeats from the state… The King and Queen themselves came to visit the sick in the hospital…

They also greatly appreciated the pains the British Government and the Indian Soldiers Fund went to in order to make sure they were provided with clothes, food, and reading materials. On two letters, one requesting a flute and another requesting a copy of the Quran, notes were made by the censors for the Indian Soldiers Fund to take note of the requests so as to provide for individual soldier needs. Whether the requests were fulfilled or not is unclear however.

Food was served by “caste-fellows” as well in an endeavor to be culturally accommodating, and the British tried to make it as easy as possible to observe religious holidays. Several letters comment on the accommodating attitude the British took towards religious holidays both within and without the hospitals. One in particular recounted that his officer:

…made excellent arrangements and takes great trouble for us Muslims. His arrangements for our food during the fast [Ramadan] are very good… I cannot describe how good his arrangements are.

So with regards to both hospital care and arrangements within the regiments, the sepoys and sowars seemed much impressed with their treatment by the English. The whole of their immediate contact with England came in the form of hospital stays, so their perceptions of England, hinged upon the care they received while sick or wounded. Since the British Government was seen as their government as well, hospitals were usually the only purely English experience they had.

A Sikh soldier escorting German prisoners of war

A Sikh soldier escorting German prisoners of war

Obviously their attitudes towards the German enemy were much different. Where the French and English are described as being the exact same except for their language, the Germans are the cultural and moral other. Not surprisingly, they were spoken of with contempt, in straightforward terms. Letters often denote a sense of awe as to their fighting spirit, strength, and weaponry as well, conveying a degree of respect for their martial skill. One man regarded the Germans as cowards, illustrating that there were some discordances among the letters due to personal perception. What does remain throughout the letters is the sense that the Germans were marked by brutality and moral inferiority.

Much is also said of their role in starting the war. One letter states, “May God… annihilate the mad German who has upset the whole world,” while others describe them as a “race of savages.” As morally inferior, they are seen as setting the standard for warfare. As one soldier put it, “… what is to be done? When things are done with such malevolence, our British Government must follow their example.” These sentiments are not surprising, and probably not much different from those of other allied soldiers with a better understanding of the circumstances of the war.

When creating these images of the German soldier, it is unclear where they came from. The soldiers do not mention any particular places from which they are getting their information. Analysis of the letters suggests that initial information must have come from their officers, since they were the only Europeans with whom they could accurately communicate with in their native language. Information that the Germans had started the war and were brutal and amoral must have then been reinforced by the carnage they saw. The type of warfare they came in contact with had not been seen in India, but the British Government had a strong presence there, even in the border regions of the Punjab. The Sikhs had fought against the British in the Sikh Wars, and the destruction was nothing like what was seen on the Western Front. The natural conclusion, it would seem, would be to attribute the new horrors to the new German enemy.

From the letters, it is clear that the Indian soldiers framed their perceptions of Europe in reference to their experiences in India. Everything, including French morality, English care, and German guilt, was weighed against what they knew and how they lived their lives in India.

To be continued…

Experiences and Perceptions of Sepoys and Sowars Serving on the Western Front during the Great War
by Elizabeth Weigler — Part 2 of 3 — Read Part 1 Here

Elizabeth Weigler

Elizabeth Weigler

Click here to view the Bibliography

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.


Be Sociable, Share!

You may also like...