To commemorate the centenary of India’s service in the First World War, the British historian David Omissi collected the letters of Indian soldiers away from home in Indian Voices of the Great War, published this year by Penguin. These eloquent letters offer a poignant glimpse into the lives of these Indian soldiers, whom history forgot.
A wounded Sikh to his father
[Gurmukhi] Brighton Hospital
18th January 1915
Tell my mother not to go wandering madly because her son, my brother, is dead. To be born and to die is God’s order. Some day we must die, sooner or later, and if I die here, who will remember me? It is a fine thing to die far from home. A saint said this, and, as he was a good man, it must be true.
Ram Prasad (Brahmin) to Manik Chand (c/o Sikander Ali, Bamba Debi Bazar, Marwari Water Tank, Bombay)
[Hindi] Kitchener’s Indian Hospital, Brighton
2nd September 1915
And send me fourteen or fifteen tolas of charas, and understand that you must send it so that no one may know. First fill a round tin box full of pickles and then in the middle of that put a smaller round box carefully closed, so that no trace of the pickles can enter. And send a letter to me four days before you send the parcel off. [Letter withheld]
Ser Gul (Pathan, 129th Baluchis) to Barber Machu Khan (57th Rifles, serving at the front)[Urdu] Indian Hospital, Rouen
13th September 1915
I have no need of anything, but I have a great longing for a flute to play. What can I do? I have no flute. Can you get me one from somewhere? If you can, please do, and send it to me. Take this much trouble for me. For I have a great desire to play upon the flute, since great dejection is fallen upon me. You must, you simply must, get one from somewhere. I have no need of anything else. But this you must manage as soon as you can. Make a small wooden box, put a little cotton wool in it, and put a flute to play on in the middle of the cotton wool. Then put a little cloth over it. Get Umar Din to write the address in English and it will reach me all right. Pack it so that the flute will not shake about. I shall be very grateful. I have no need of anything else … You must arrange this as quickly as possible. [Letter passed]
Balwant Singh (Sikh) to Pandit Chet Ram (Amritsar, Punjab)[Gurmukhi cipher] FPO.39 [France?] 24th October 1915
The ladies are very nice and bestow their favours upon us freely. But contrary to the custom in our country they do not put their legs over the shoulders when they go with a man. [Deleted]
Maula Dad Khan (Punjabi Muslim) to his father (India)[Urdu] Brigade Office, Sialkot Cavalry Brigade, France
24th October 1915
Muhammad Khan’s letter dated the 27th September reached me on the 22nd October. When I read it, every hair on my body stood on end. Before that I was happy, but after I had read it I was very vexed. It is true that I wrote to Allah Lok Khan for a pair of [women’s] shoes. The fact is, father, that a young Frenchman of my acquaintance asked me to send for something from India. He asked me to get him some shoes which would fit his wife. I wrote that. Of what do you suspect me? My father, I swear in the name of God and His Prophet and declare that there is no [ground for suspicion]. Am I such a wretch and such a blackguard as to leave my noble wife and child and behave thus? … There are very strict orders against such action on the part of our people. I came from home to earn money and renown, not to put such shame upon you. [Letter passed]
Sepoy Baldar (Afridi) to Sepoy Minadar Khan (57th Rifles, France)[Urdu] Frontier Constabulary, NWFP, India
10th November 1915
I have married Jabar’s wife and paid him Rs. 560. I have sold my sister to Yar Baz for Rs. 560. My other wife I have sold to my father for Rs. 640. Do not be anxious. When you come back, I will find you a wife. [Letter passed]
Bir Singh (Sikh) to Jowala Singh (Ambala District, Punjab)[Urdu] 6th Cavalry or 19th Lancers, France
28th January 1916
You say that the parcel came back from Bombay. What sort of parcel was it? If you wrote ‘opium’ on it, do not do so again, but put ‘sweets’ or ‘dainties’ on it, and send off the opium. Have no fear; parcels are not opened on the way and cannot be lost. So keep on sending the drugs. Let Indar Kaur be the sender. [Letter passed]
Dafadar Ram Nath (Jat) to Headmaster Baldav Singh (Jat School, Rohtak, Punjab)[Urdu] 20th Deccan Horse, France
4th November 1917
My idea is that, since it is now four years since I went to my home, my wife should, if she wishes it, be allowed to have connection according to Vedic rites with some other man, in order that children may be born to my house. If this is not done, then the family dignity will suffer. Indeed, this practice should now be followed in the case of all wives whose husbands have been absent for four years or more. It is permitted by Vedic rites, if the wives are willing. Everyone knows that that article, the consumption of which is increased while the production is stopped, will in time cease to exist. If any article is allowed to decrease through ignorance, no one is to blame; but when every one knows that an article is being consumed to extinction, while at the same time they are aware of the steps available to supplement production, they are greatly to blame if they hesitate to take those steps.
Kala Khan (Punjabi Muslim) to Iltaf Hussain (Bhatinda, Patiala, Punjab States)[Urdu] Indian Labour Corps, France
27th December 1917
You enquire about the cold? I will tell you plainly what the cold in France is like when I meet you. At present I can only say that the earth is white, the sky is white, the trees are white, the stones are white, the mud is white, the water is white, one’s spittle freezes into a solid white lump, the water is as hard as stones or bricks, [and] the water in the rivers and canals and on the roads is like thick plate glass. What more am I to say? Our kind-hearted Sirkar has done everything possible for us to protect us from the cold. We are each provided with two pairs of strong, expensive boots. We have whale oil to rub in our feet, and for food we are provided with live Spanish sheep. In short, the Sirkar has accumulated many good and wonderful things for our use.
Khalil Ullah (Hindustani Muslim) to Ganiullah (Muttra District, UP)[Urdu] 2nd Lancers, France
3rd March 1918
I am sending you a picture of an American lady aviator, I want you to study it and see what the women of Europe and America are doing. I want you to contrast them with our womenfolk, and to think what sort of education they can give to our children when they themselves are lacking in knowledge and training. I am hopeful that, if you pay careful attention to what I have written, you will be able to effect some improvement. The advancement of India lies in the hands of the women; until they act, India can never awake from her hare’s dream. Forgive me if I have spoken too strongly.
Extracts from Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-18, edited by David Omissi. Reproduced with the permission of Penguin Books India.
David Omissi is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Hull.