December 13 2016
Put together completely by volunteers, the men who left the sub-continent to fight in the globe’s most deadly conflict are not just merely remembered in new a exhibition…and all ranks and even non-combatants are represented in a still all too unfamiliar story…
By Suman Bhuchar
IT IS ONE of the most startling facts of the First World War but for much of a century it was barely acknowledged – 1.5 million men from the subcontinent fought for King and Empire.
It is still believed to be the largest volunteer army ever raised – and these men outnumbered all the other troops assembled from the outposts of British Empire (including Canada, Australia and New Zealand).
While there is debate as to how voluntary this army actually was – many of those who signed up to fight were escaping poverty and were promised self-rule – something a little short of independence but still a very significant loosening of the British stranglehold on the subcontinent.
What is even less well-known is how these men lived and how their day to day army life was organised and who these ordinary and extraordinary individuals were.
And now a new exhibition, Far From the Western Front, provides some fascinating insights.
There were songs and propaganda posters to entice you to join the army and one went like this:
“The recruits are at your doorstep,
here you eat dried roti, there you will eat dried fruit..
Here your clothes are in tatters; there you will wear a suit
Here you wear worn out shoes, there you will wear boots!”
All over the Indian-subcontinent there were posters; recruitment fairs all encouraging men to sign up, while someone like Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner actually wrote to King George V: “I implore your imperial majesty most earnestly to give me an opportunity for personal military service.”
He got his chance and commanded the Bikaner Camel Corps and served in France, Egypt and Palestine. He was also the first Indian to be part of the Imperial War Cabinet.
There are other more fascinating characters to be found in this exhibition – such as Sisir Sarbadhikari, a sepoy (like a private in modern army parlance) in the Bengal Ambulance Corps, who wrote a diary describing the dreadful conditions of the siege of Kut (December 7 1915-April 26 1916) – a city 100 miles south of Baghdad and one of the worst defeats for the Allies.
Sarbadhikari, kept his diary in a safe place – in his boots and one of his entries reads: “For food, all we had was a little horse meat and some flour mixed with dust.”
Over 60 volunteers worked on this project for more than a year, researching and uncovering more about the roles played by South Asians during the First World War and to remember the soldiers through their stories.
Their discoveries now form the exhibition currently on that the Karamel Centre, Wood Green, in London.
Britain has been running a lot of anniversary events from 2014 onwards to mark the centenary and remember the lives of people who fought and died during the First World War – in fact this commemoration has been going on across the world.
In the UK, the government (through the Heritage Lottery Fund), has been encouraging everyone to get involved and discover more about the war and mark the centenary in some way, and as part of that initiative, the Council of Asian People, a community organisation based in North London, applied for funding for this project.
Volunteer Ann Richardson, who spoke at the opening of the exhibition last month, said that a large number of the men (600,000) were non-combatants, who were involved in the war, had no name and were not treated as human beings.
“These were people who did the fetching and carrying and were often referred to as ‘behisti’(porters and similar) and it is difficult to find information on them” – which basically means that we have no way of remembering them.
Pictures (except top lead) courtesy: ©Eleanor Harding
‘Far From The Western Front’ until January 15 2017, at Karamel Gallery, Wood Green, London, N22 6UJ. Free. Check home page of venue for timings/ more: http://karamelrestaurant.com/events/
*More on the First World War and the British Empire
British Library – http://www.bl.uk/world-war-one/themes/race-empire-and-colonial-troops
Other highlights of the First World War commemorations
*Arts organisation Nutkhut film on BBC iplayer – see also social media #DrBlighty
*BBC Radio 4 series, ‘Tommies’
This series has been on the air since October 7 2014, and is narrated by Indira Varma – it is based on war diaries and follows a conflict exactly one year to the day – last aired on December 2 2016 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b083r2fd – the episode was written by Avin Shah and is about the life in a Turkish POW Camp