100 years ago – Indian Army in World War 1

100 years ago – Indian Army in World War 1

Seema Anand Chopra

As the wrath of the weather Gods turned my umbrella inside out on a rainy November afternoon at Brighton in England ,I managed to escape into the Brighton Dome where an Exhibition was in progress. Abandoning the umbrella in its designated corner we commenced looking at the unflattering labeled – Brighton and Hove Black History Exhibition ; commemorating the 100th year of the World War I in 2015. The Exhibition was an eye-opener for the frequently forgotten important role of the Indian army in the World War I .

The Brighton Dome

Brighton Dome Exhibition
Brighton Dome Exhibition

In 1804, the Prince Regent asked multitalented English architect William Porden to build Brighton Dome as a Riding school while being a part of the Brighton Royal Pavilion Palace ,the once Royal residence that we were to visit later in the day. The Indo-Saracenic structure of the Brighton Dome holds a beautiful unique mosaic tiles interior consisting of a Concert and Exhibition Hall along with a restaurant .

100 Years Back

Transported back to the black and white era of photography ; each photo was a revelation and a heroic chronicle of the soldiers of the British Indian army of the World War 1, we embarked looking at the Exhibition . British India consisted of what became Pakistan, Bangla Desh and Burma so the recruits came from all parts and religions, besides Nepal. Most recruits were from North India particularly from the Punjab Province as the British believed and identified them as ‘martial races’ possessing fierce courage.

A large map displayed the upper part of the Indian subcontinent of 1914 from which the recruitment of the

Map of regions of Recruitment of Volunteers
Map of regions of Recruitment of Volunteers
volunteers for Indian army in World war 1 took place. Only Kashmir, Punjab, Nepal and Bengal were marked on it alongwith regiments from these provinces- Pathans from Afghanistan, Dogras from Jammu and Kashmir, Gurkhas from Nepal, Sikhs from Punjab, the Jats and the Punjabi Muslims from Punjab as well, so half of the British army was provided by Punjab !

Below this was mind boggling info on how the of Indian soldiers numbered at 240,000 in 1914 ,at the commencement of the War swelled to 550,000 and finally to 700,000 by 1918 out of which 74000 soldiers were killed and 70,000 were wounded ! The rest were details of which regiment fought where- In Belgium, in France and Mesopotamia.

The Active Service in Europe and Middle east

Thereafter we walked over to the next exhibit designated as the Active Service of the Indian army in Middle east and Europe. Printed on a side of a photograph of the Sikh soldiers in Belgium was the information that 700,000 Indian soldiers served in the World War 1 at various locations. Next photo taken in 1916 showed the bicycle ridingBattle of Somme

Indian troops with horseback British officers in the Battle of Somme. The subsequent photograph was heart-touching which showed the Sikh regiment being led by a soldier carrying Guru Granth Sahibji on his head in Mesopotamia! The Mesopotamian campaign was piloted entirely by Indian army in which 11,012 were killed, 3985 died of wounds ,12678 died of disease and 51836 were wounded !

Below it was a photograph of few soldiers of the Indian Army with an Australian soldier taken in Agyle Dere which had a note attached to it on the unfortunate Gallipoli campaign in which 3 Gurkha battalions and one Sikh Batallion were sent . The Sikh battalion was almost wiped out and the Gurkhas were mistakenly shelled by the Royal Navy !! The last photograph on this display was of the brave-hearted Khudadad Khan who was the first Recipient of the Victoria Cross. He and his fellow Baluchis prevented the German army from entering vital ports of France and Belgium.

Why Indians in World War 1

In the beginning of the War British and French forces were outnumbered by the Germans so reinforcements were brought in from British colonies and hence the entry of Indian soldiers .Most of the soldiers were from poor rural background and illiterate who joined the army for their ‘izzat’ and the pay money. They were not trained to face machine guns, heavy artillery and poison gas ! Neither were they prepared to face the bitter cold and dampness ! For months they did not receive warm clothing !The morale of the troops at the Western Front in Europe was the lowest .

Sikhs served in the World War 1
Sikhs served in the World War 1

By the end of 1915 , 14000 soldiers were injured . New Hospital facilities were urgently required. When the first Indian troop of injured soldiers arrived at the beautiful Brighton Pavilion, the Brighton Gazette wrote ‘greatest of the British pleasure towns has been made the center of the greatest hospital system in the kingdom.’ A misleading impression was given that the King and Emperor of India had given up his Royal palace for use by Indian soldiers !

The Royal Pavilion Hospital, the Chatri and the India Gate

Afterwards we moved on to the next set of black & white photographs captioned The Royal Pavilion Hospital, the Chatri and the India Gate – the mute testimonies to the pain of the valiant Indian soldiers. The first photograph showed the splendid ,domed, multi minarets of the front porch of the Royal Pavilion Palace hospital through which the first wounded soldiers were bought in December 1914 in a Military Ambulance.

Military Ambulance arriving with indian soldiers ar the Royal PavilionjPalaceHospital
Military Ambulance arriving with indian soldiers ar the Royal PavilionjPalaceHospital

The next photograph displayed the high ceilinged grand Palace room – the Dome with a large ornate chandelier above and below were rows of hospital beds with Indian army patients on them. Here great care was taken to respect the religion of the soldiers and 9 kitchens supplied to their needs. The subsequent photograph of 12 convalescent Sikh soldiers had a printed gurmukhi letter translated into English , on its left , from Iswar Singh of the Sikh 59th Rifle to his friend in 50th Punjabi India which echoes these actions – ‘Do not be anxious about me for I am taken good care of alongwith fine food and milk supply. Our hospital is in the palace of the King’s Throne who has given orders that no trouble be given to black men(Indians ) at the hospital. Men are tended to as flowers and visited by the King and Queen too!’
ward and Memorial Chhatri
The 3rd photograph was that of the traditional Chatri – a Memorial to the thousands of Sikh and Hindu soldiers who perished in the World War 1. It showed His Royal Highness Prince of Wales dedicating the Memorial, at a well attended ceremony at Sussex Downs, Patcham in February of the year 1921. A funeral ghat had been created there for mass cremations and the ashes were scattered on the sea !The deceased Muslim soldiers were taken to two cemeteries- at Woking and Brookwood Cemetery ; later all bodies were moved to the latter Cemetery.

We reached the final photograph of the inauguration of the India Gate or the Indian Memorial Gateway- a 16th century canopy-gate unveiled by Maharajah Patiala Bhupinder Singh in 1921 ,to commemorate the Indian soldiers nursed in all Brighton hospitals. The Maharajah called it the India Gate- a gift from the Princes and people of India as recognition of the services of the Brighton hospitals particularly the Royal Pavilion for the ‘abounding hospitality’ to the wounded Indian soldiers.

Walking towards the Royal Pavilion near the Exhibition Brighton Dome, i could not help but feel great distress for the courageous Indian soldiers who left their homes never to see to them again, united in the end with water and earth of Britain .

Maharajah Kapurthala Brigadier Sukhjit Singhji on World War 1

Back home at a meeting with His Highness Maharajah Kapurthala Brigadier Sukhjit Singh ji comments that – Truly stupendous contribution was made by India to the British Empire cause in World War I in Europe when an undivided India, in those days, provided lakhs of men under arms to the Allied cause in Europe and in the Middle East, fighting in a War that was not theirs, for a King Emperor many of them had never even seen and in Countries that many did not even know existed !! These gallant troops suffered some 74,000 fatalities and almost another 67,000 were wounded or badly disabled But for this exemplary response to the call to arms and their unhesitating sacrifice on the part of the Indian soldiery, Britain may well have been overpowered by the ferocity of the assault launched by Germany and its allies. It is not without a sense of eternal gratitude that the French Government erected that superb memorial to the “Dead of the Indian Armies in France and Flanders – 1914 – 1918” at Neuve Chapple in France which was inaugurated in 1927 at which function, my late Grandfather, His late Highness Maharaja Jagatjit Singh Sahib, represented India.

Royal Pavilion – a Royal Residence to an Indian Military Hospital

On a wintry cold afternoon the rain had stopped temporarily when we reached the Royal Pavilion Palace in Brighton England . For a minute we kept gazing at the magnificence of Thomas Nash’s 19th century indo-Saracenic architecture – numerous domes, minarets and towers of the Royal Pavilion set against the grey sky with the rain soaked ,lush green grass below . For the next two hours we were lost in the world of Kings and Queens for every room in the Palace is an ode to splendor that transported us into the stories attached to each nook and corner of the palace.

Royal Pavilion Palace – a Royal Vision to an Indian Military Hospital

Royal Pavilion Palace
It was tough to envisage the makeovers that the Royal Pavilion Palace went through in 35 years to look as we see it today. It was the visualization of King George that converted a simple Lodging house into the modern Villa Marine Pavilion and finally the exquisite Royal Pavilion Palace ! After watching the Exhibition at the Brighton Dome next door ; we had walked to the to Royal Pavilion Palace that was converted into an Indian Military Hospital for the thousands of Indian soldiers injured during the World War1 between December 1914 to January 1916.

An injured Sikh soldier at the Brighton Hospital
An injured Sikh soldier at the Brighton Hospital

Octagon Entrance Hall to Long Gallery

We got away from the cold by crossing the threshold to the Octagon Hall and then the Entrance Hall. We were told that these rooms had ‘deliberate ordinary interior’ by orders of King George V , to surprise his visitors with ornate decoration in rooms further down ! We passed a rosewood Grand Piano as we entered into the first of the richly decorated room- the Long Gallery. Besides the Bamboo furnishings and cast iron staircase, the other two highlights of this room are- Prince Regent’s1880 Drummer Boy Clock and 18th century figures of Chinese Court Officials of unfired clay. Looking around we imagined the royal visitors making conversation and playing cards in the bygone days.

Banqueting Hall to the Great Kitchen

After this lies the glorious Banqueting Hall used for the Kings guests. The 1820 made 8 Pedestal Lamps in the hall were the main attraction made of blue Spode china with gilt brass mounts and motifs from India and China. The one ton , 9 meter high splendid Chandelier dominated the Hall. Admiring the Regency Silver Gilt on display we moved into the Great Kitchen which was true to its name as Menus featuring upto 60 dishes had been prepared here ! We were impressed by the ‘modern for its time Kitchen’- with high ceiling and Copper canopies to remove smells, heat and steam. In addition to the 550 copper utensils , the other worth seeing display is the Smokejack – the mechanical spit for roasting meats and poultry ,powered by rotary vane in the chimney turned by hot air rising from the fire ! We then entered the Banqueting room Gallery where guests retired after dinner for cards and liqueurs. Befitting the use of the room; lavish golden Dolphin furniture was exhibited.

The Saloon and the Indian Military hospital

Now we reached the oldest part of the Royal Pavilion which was done up with magnificent golden carved work on the pillars and upper walls- the Saloon. Furthermore a unique Egyptian boat shaped Couch caught our attention. All around us work was in progress to recreate the Wallpaper to match the original .
This room had been converted into Ward 2 of the Indian Military hospital during World War 1 between 1914- 1916 and had signs in Hindi Urdu and Gurmukhi. Disquieting were the 2 taps made at both the ends of the Ward for Indian soldiers of 2 religions . Caste and religion governed everything in the Hospital right from food to bathing and sanitation. Previously, we had seen a black & white photograph of the Saloon at the Brighton Dome .

Music room – Ward 5 for the Indian soldiers

We passed through the Music Room Gallery with white walls and gilt decoration. Most of the furniture of this room had been moved to Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle; presently used royal residences. The Gallery led us to the spectacular Music room dominated by the huge ceiling to floor Music organ. The rich red and gold wall paintings are original but mirror-frame, carpets and curtains are close and special recreations of the original.

This was named Ward 5 and the Indian soldiers in convalescence were brought here to listen to the Music Organ which they had not ever heard before or heard only outside the Church. A memorable quote that I read here regarding the magnificence of the Royal Pavilion was that by Subedar Major Sardar Bahadur Gagun of 6th Jat regiment ,1915 – ‘ Felt like we were in a Fairyland…. As if one were in the next world’.

King’s Apartments to the Yellow Bow rooms

After learning about the connection of the Indian soldiers and Brighton Pavilion we continued towards the King’s Apartments on the ground floor. They had been moved here due to the King being hugely overweight and suffering from Gout and Dropsy diseases. Regency-collector Thomas Hope’s green and gold furniture is outstanding. Up the stairs we reached the North Gallery of the Royal Pavilion palace which displayed the history of its restoration and leads to the beautiful Tea Room. Resisting the temptation we proceeded to the Yellow Bow rooms named such after the beautiful yellow wallpaper .The window and bed draperies in printed chintz lined with blue or green calico were recreated from the originals to maintain the authentic look.

Queen Victoria’s Apartments

Near it are the Queen Victoria’s Apartments where she lived between 1837- 1845. The four poster mahogany bed, the bright wall paper, the silk drapes and even the straw-hair-feather mattresses are perfect reproductions of the originals used by the Queen herself. Then we went to the South Gallery which previously held the Kings apartment that were later shifted downstairs due to his immobility- the one’s we had seen before. It also held guest bedrooms and Breakfast rooms.
Lastly we headed for the Royal Pavilion Tearooms and Shop for a well deserved break.

Indian Memorial Gateway

We could not explore the Royal Pavilion Estate in detail due to the incessant rain except the visit to the Indian Memorial Gateway a 16th century canopy-gate inaugurated by Maharajah Patiala Bhupinder Singh in 1921 ,to

The India Memorial Gate inaugration by Maharajah Patiala
The India Memorial Gate inaugration by Maharajah Patiala
India Memorial Gate inaugurated by Maharajah Patiala in Brighton Pavilion Palace as seen today
India Memorial Gate inaugurated by Maharajah Patiala in Brighton Pavilion Palace as seen today
commemorate the Indian soldiers nursed in all Brighton hospitals during the World War 1. We looked out for the name of the Royal Pavilion in the inscription on the Wall. Whilst opening it with a Golden Key he informed that 28000 troops had been sent by his own Patiala State. We had earlier seen the inauguration photograph at the Brighton Dome Exhibition on worthy role of Indian Regiments in World War 1.

As we drove back the grandeur and opulence of the Royal Pavilion Palace faded into the thoughts of the valiant Indian soldiers specially those who had no homecoming.