Letters from Indian Soldiers in France, 1916
The memory of the First World War, its events and consequences, its victims and victors, remains very much alive today. It has become part of the individual and collective memory of Europe and of countries across the world – the stories of soldiers and their families continue to be told and published from generation to generation. To mark the centenary of its outbreak in 2014, a consortium of national libraries and other partners from eight European countries that found themselves on different sides of the historic conflict will make an unparalleled collection of more than 400,000 digitised items relating to the First World War freely available to the public for the first time through the Europeana online portal.
As part of the Europeana Collections 1914-1918 project, the consortium members will be adding a new blog post every month that looks at some of the stories behind just a few of these 400,000 images. This month, our colleague John O’Brien at the British Library has uncovered some poignant letters written by Indian troops, as they explain below.
Letters from Indian Soldiers in France, 1916 – By the team from the British Library
The British Library’s India Office Records hold the Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, 1914-1918. The Censor was concerned with letters to and from Indian troops serving in France and Mesopotamia, and his reports include translated extracts from soldiers’ letters. The Government feared that uncensored letters might provide military information to the enemy and that accounts of Indian soldiers suffering in France could distress their families at home, and so lead to political instability in India. There was also a desire to prevent seditious material reaching the troops.
The letters in this series passed through several layers of interpretation. As many Indian soldiers were illiterate, scribes took down the letter on the sender’s behalf. The letters were then censored at the Regimental level in order to remove military information. Lastly the letters were censored by the Censor’s Office, based for most of the War in Boulogne. The chief purpose of this Office was not to suppress letters, but to gather information about the morale of the soldiers. The Head Censor would prepare regular reports for the information of Government and the Army, and to which would be appended the translated extracts.
Bound in 27 volumes, the letters describe vividly the experiences of the Indian soldiers, and their longing to return to their families back in India. The letter from Daya Ram of the 2nd Lancers (British Library reference: IOR/L/MIL/5/826/6 f.876), dated 5 July 1916, describes the conditions the Indian troops lived in, with the sounds of battle all around, day and night, and the discomfort they suffered living in the trenches. Despite this, Daya Ram still notes how ‘splendidly built’ the dug-outs were, with wire beds and room enough to contain ‘many men at once’.
Being so far from India, and living in what must have seemed a very alien environment, many Indian soldiers naturally felt an acute longing for home and family. The letter written by Gholam Rasul Khan of the Secunderbad Cavalry Brigade, on the 24th May 1916, to his father in Bihar, is a poignant example of this (British Library reference: IOR/L/MIL/5/826/5 f.711). In the letter he says that a photo of the family is his most valuable possession, as it gives him comfort to look at it. Tellingly he comments that it is in the desire to see home and family that “…hundreds and thousands of men are daily sacrificing their lives”. Gholam’s mood in the letter swings between hoping for that day and despairing that he will not live to see it.
Further reading: David Omissi, Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-18, (MacMillan Press, 1999)