During the First World War, over 130,000 Indian soldiers served in France. Their major military contribution on the Western Front took place in the first year of the War. At the end of 1915 the majority of infantry brigades were withdrawn and sent to the Middle East. A small number of the cavalry brigades (who fought as infantry) remained in France for the duration of the war, and were later supplemented by a Labour Corps.
The Indian wounded from the trenches of the Western Front were hospitalised in Britain. A large number of Indian civilians (medical personnel, clerks, store keepers, cooks etc) were also recruited for the hospitals and for the front.
At the beginning of the War, in response to an Indian 'revolutionary' distributing 'subversive' literature, a Censors office, under Captain E.B. Howell, was set up in Boulogne to censor Indian out-going as well as in-coming letters, both from the front and from the hospitals in England.
The Extracts from the Censored Mails are of great sociological importance and provide vivid testimonies of how Indian soldiers and civilian personnel saw the War, France, and Britain, as well as their views on hospital arrangements in Britain.
Letters from the trench:
The views of two wounded Indian soldiers in British hospitals extracted from Censor of Indian Mails [IOR: L/MIL/5/ 828]:
"Government has made excellent arrangements for the sick and wounded. There is no trouble of any kind. We pass our days in joyful ease while government showers benefits upon us. We bless God continuously and pray for his bounty." (From a wounded soldier at York Place Hospital, 10 November 1915.)
"Alas we are not free to go about at will. In fact we Indians are treated like prisoners. On all sides there is barbed-wire and a sentry stands at each door. Leave London out of the question; we cannot even get to see New Milton properly. If I had known that such a state of affairs would exist, I would never have come. If you ask me the truth, I can say that I have never experienced such hardship in all my life. True, we are well fed, and are given plenty of clothing but the essential thing -- freedom - is denied. Convicts in India are sent to Andaman Islands; but we have found our convict station here in England." (From another soldier 2 December 1915).
The main entrance of the Indian Military Hospital at Royal Pavilion, Brighton. [OIOC: photo 24]. © The British Library Board.
Former Music room of the Royal Pavilion. [OIOC: photo 24]. © The British Library Board.
Wounded Gurkhas in Brighton. [OIOC: photo 24]. © The British Library Board.
Rozina Visram: 'The First World War and the Indian Soldiers', Indo-British Review, A Journal of History, vol xvi, No. 2, June 1989. (Theme: Indians in Britain - Past and Present, ed., Antony Copley and Rozina Visram).
David Omissi, Indian voices of the Great War: Soldiers' Letters, 1914-18, (Macmillan, 1999). Letters selected and introduced by the author.
India's contribution to the First World War [IOR: L/MIL/17/5/2383]
Report on the Kitchener Indian Hospital, Brighton, 1916 [IOR: L/MIL/17/5/2016]