May 21 2016
Troops (including Jamaicans) and other ancilliary support (Chinese) from Britain’s colonies fought and assisted in substantial numbers in the First World War but until recently, the vital contribution of these men and their continuing legacy was largely forgotten…
FAR TOO LITTLE is known about the Indian soldiers who fought in the First World War – especially in the wider popular consciousness.
The ‘Blackadder’ image is the prevailing one – mostly (white) impoverished human beings pushed to the frontline as cannon fodder in poor conditions and experiencing quite unimaginable levels of suffering and torment.
Thanks to a new generation of artists and writers the forgotten legacy of Asian troops is now being recognised for what it was – an immense sacrifice and one that helped Britain and her Allies defeat the Germans.
Just recently, French-based filmmaker and writer Vijay Singh presented his docu-drama, “Farewell My Indian Soldier” at the 69th Cannes Film Festival. The piece controversially looks at relationships between Indian soldiers and French women at the time and focuses on one family in particular.
A bit closer to home Ajay Chhabra’s Nutkhut will mount an art installation/drama piece, “Dr Blighty” at the Brighton Royal Pavilion, where wounded Indian Soldiers in the First World War were treated, between May 24-29 and it will performed (for free) as part of the Brighton Festival.
And now just drawing to a close in its month-long nationwide run is a play by Ishy Din, called “Wipers” – this is how the town of Ypres, in Belgium, came to be colloquially referred to by the Indian soldiers who fought there.
Among them was the first Asian recipient of the Victoria Cross (VC) – the highest award for bravery.
Khudadad Khan was a veteran of the British Indian Army and he valiantly defended an Ally position, while scores of his comrades perished – but in holding off for so long, it allowed for French reinforcements to hold up the German advance.
It’s widely recognised now that without the intervention of the British Indian Army in 1914, the Germans would have overrun Belgium, gained entry to France and presented a looming threat to Britain by being just across the Channel.
For Din, who shot to prominence with his first play, “Snookered” (2011), an intimate and at times visceral examination of young Muslim men growing up in the North of England, “
Commissioned by the Curve Theatre in Leicester*, where it first played last month and directed by Suba Das, an associate director there, Din admitted to www.asianculturevulture.com he didn’t know much at all about the role of Asian troops in the First World War.
“I had a vague knowledge that Indian soldiers fought in the Second World War but when I started to look into the First World War, it was really eye-opening – the sheer numbers and the effort to bring them to Europe.
“And one of the first things I came across was Khudadad Khan getting a VC. That attracted me straightaway.”
It was made all the more poignant for Din, when he discovered that Khan was from Chitwal, now in modern day Pakistan, and not far from the village Din’s own parents had left in the 1960s to come to Britain.
In 2014, travelling to the region to attend a cousin’s wedding he met Khan’s relatives.
“I met his grandchildren, they were very helpful and showed me pictures and gave me information, they were very aware,” he reported.
But it would be wrong to think that “Wipers” is based on the life of Khan, it is much more than that.
Centred around just four soldiers, three Indian and one British Commander, it is a powerful reminder these men of very differing backgrounds and perspectives came together to fight for King and Country in a strange land.
What Din’s play marvellously articulates is the both the camaraderie and the inherent tensions the men feel towards each other and the mission in hand.
For Khan there was a compelling force driving him to write “Wipers”.
“It was an incredible sacrifice and contribution by Indian troops.
“The Allies were on their last legs before these men started turning up, that’s clear from the history.”
Of course, you can read about this in history books, but there is nothing like a play or an artwork to really illustrate what it was like to fight and die in such a war.
“I wanted to bring out the humanity of the soldiers, these were young, scared, cold, lost men fighting, but not really knowing why they were fighting, who they were fighting or what they were fighting for…except out a loyalty to the King.”
Many think that the seeds of Independence were sowed by Indian soldiers who fought in the First World War and started to ask hard questions about their own freedom and liberty.
Din covers this, but his focus is more on the men and how they respond to danger and death differently and what they see as their place in the Empire.
“I wanted people on one level to just enjoy a piece of theatre – it is an examination of these men’s journeys and what has affected them as youths and how that has manifested itself (during the War) and then on then another level, I want people to be more knowledgeable about the contribution and what happened.”
Khan himself, had a happy life, it would seem. He was given land, lived till 1977 and visited Britain several times as a guest of the British Victoria and George Cross Societies. At his funeral, many of Pakistan’s top officers paid their last respects.
“People couldn’t really connect that with the man, that he was a war hero. Khan lived a simple life as a humble farmer,” Din revealed.
“Wipers” is an important piece of theatre, and we hope it will return to a stage in the UK or abroad and continue to show the world that the children of Empire helped to save Europe from a marauding Germany in the last century.
Final last performance (Matinee 2.15pm and 8pm) ‘Wipers’ by Ishy Din, Belgrade Theatre, Belgrade Square, Coventry CV11GS.
Box office: 0247655 3055
Production pix: Pamela Raith
*Was also staged at Watford Palace Theatre.