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In search of graves: One man's unique approach to documenting the role of Indian soldiers in World War I

He can’t afford to buy fresh flowers in bulk when in foreign lands. But compelled to pay his respects, he buys paper flowers in hundreds to offer floral tributes at the graves of Indian soldiers who died fighting World War I — anywhere in the world. This curious search for the graves of slain soldiers has taken KJS Chatrath, a 76-year-old retired civil servant, to obscure places to make fresh ‘discoveries’ about unsung Indians and to document his findings for a book.

By documenting the mention of their names on gravestones, Chatrath is trying to do some justice — the justice Indian soldiers didn’t receive in life and in death.

 In search of graves: One mans unique approach to documenting the role of Indian soldiers in World War I

The Indian Army in Britain during World War I. Wikimedia Commons

Several well-researched books and films on the role of Indian soldiers in World War II have captured people’s imagination (the latest being Raghu Karnad’s Farthest Field). On the other hand, distance in terms of time and a lack of proper documentation leaves a huge gap in our understanding of the contribution of Indian soldiers in World War I.

A traveller and researcher by temperament, Chatrath developed a rather unusual passion for graves 20 years ago, while documenting inscriptions written on the French graves in India, in places colonised by the French, namely Pondicherry, Chandannagar, Yanam, Karaikal and Mahe. He found that most graves belonged to young women, in their 20s, who died of childbirth, while infants died mostly in the monsoon season, aged between four days to three years, unable to cope with the tropical weather. He published his findings in a book titled The Last Post-Inscriptions on French Graves in India.

Thereafter, he couldn’t resist the temptation to visit graveyards, and curiosity gave way to inquiry. On finding graves of Indian soldiers, he wondered, how did they cope with the European weather, under their colonised status in foreign lands? The startling number of casualties prompted him to document what he observed.

For World War I, 877,068 combatants and 563,369 non-combatants — making a total of 1,440,437 — were recruited by the British, in undivided India. The total number of Indian soldiers who died is pegged at 74187 and the wounded at 69214, though these figures are not universally accepted. Moreover, all these numbers are not accounted for.

Also read on Firstpost: Raghu Karnad on winning Windham-Campbell Prize, his book on India's role in WWII, and forgotten histories

“Deeper research is required”, he says, “I won’t be able to say how many of these 74,187 names are documented, perhaps the names of soldiers have been substantially accounted for.” The figures and names of non-combatants is another story; huge gaps exist in the documentation of their existence and death.

Chatrath’s work focuses on the Indian soldiers and non-combatants lying commemorated in France. There are 169 graveyards in France, where Indian soldiers of World War I lie buried/commemorated. The memorial at Neuve Chapelle, bordering Belgium, commemorates the highest number of Indians (4653), followed by Mazargues (993 Indians); the Meerut Military Cemetery, St Martin Les Boulognes (312 Indians); La Chaplette-Peronne Cemetery (315 Indians); and the St Sever Cemetery, Rouen (270 Indians), and so on.

Graves of Indian soldiers in

Graves of Indian soldiers in Mazargues, St Severs and the Meerut Military Cemetery

There are no graves at Neuve Chapelle. The names of 4653 soldiers are engraved on a slab, though the number of identified casualties was 4742. “I looked at one name at random — it was Amar Singh. I found the list to contain 20 Amar Singhs from India who died in the battle of Neueve Chapelle. Further checking revealed that 11 out of the 20 were Sikhs and nine, Garwhalis. Besides there were two Amar Bahadurs from Nepal! The next name I saw was of Channan Singh and found a list of six Channan Singhs who fought to death at that ground. One of the Indian soldiers whose name is engraved there was Rifleman Gabar Singh Negi, of 2nd/39th Garhwal Rifles, hailing from Manjaur in Tehri Garhwal, the then United Provinces, who was awarded the Victoria Cross, “For most conspicuous bravery on 10th March, 1915, at Neuve-Chapelle.” There are names of soldiers who hail from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, the undivided Punjab and Nepal. They all fought side by side and died side by side.”

These men were fighting a war that had nothing to do with their country, and facing European weather. Racial discrimination only made things worse for them. “The first units of the Indian Expeditionary Force landed at Marseilles in the south of France around 24 September 1914, after taking a tough sea journey for over a month. Within six days of their arrival, these units were sent toward the Front Line in railway horse carriages! They were not given any time to acclimatise to Western front conditions. Around the same time, an army unit arrived from another British colony: Canada. This 1st Canadian Division, was put to training in England for six months, because they were white!"

Also read on Firstpost — Medals and Bullets: Indian troops who fought in World War I are focus of a new exhibition of paintings, letters

The Meerut Military Cemetery came up on the site of a hospital in Saint-Martin-Boulogne which, between October 1914 and November 1915, cared for the wounded soldiers of the Meerut Division of the Indian Corps. The Meerut Division was part of the Indian expeditionary force which landed in Marseilles in September 1914. The soldiers of the Indian Corps were transferred to the front in Flanders between Ypres and La Bassée. In March 1915, they took part in the British offensive at Neuve-Chapelle and Aubers where they suffered the loss of 4,047 men. The Cemetery is named after the hospital. It contains 339 burials and commemorations, including a memorial to 32 officers and men of the Indian Army, whose bodies were cremated in the cemetery in 1915.


A total of 1,440,437 Indians were recruited by the British for World War I. Wikimedia Commons

The area around Rouen is dotted with cemeteries where Indian soldiers and non-combatants lie commemorated. St Severs (Extension) is one such cemetery where 270 Indians are resting. Out of 270, 230 or 85 percent were non-combatants — the fodder for the war of their colonisers. Of these, 118 were labourers, 76 drivers (Mule Drivers), 30 Followers and 4 Misc. These categories do not carry arms and are easy prey to enemy guns. The British put non-combatants from India in the line of fire, as the large number of casualties show.

66 out of these 230 non-combatants were labourers from the North East, which works out to 28 percent of the non-combatants. They belonged to Manipur (18), Khasi (11), Garo (11), Lushai (10), and Nagas (4). Nine were from Burma and three from Chin Coy. Peronne was identical; the town was freed by the Sikh Cavalry in 1917. “When I visited this town, it was planning to hold a festival to salute Indian troops on the hundredth anniversary of liberation. The cemetery had a good number of headstones of Indian soldiers and non-combatants that need replacement/re-engraving, as the names and the inscriptions on them have become almost illegible with the passage of time,” says Chatrath. Like most other places, he found, here too, out of 315 Indians resting in the cemetery, 289 or 91.5 percent were non-combatants.

Chatrath observes that the role played by the Indian Army in World War I has been generally underrated both by Britain and France, but a specific component whose sacrifices have been totally neglected even during the commemoration of the centenary of the war is the services of the non-combatants of the Indian Army or, the personnel who were there to assist the soldiers. The Followers, the Labourers, the Drivers (Mule Drivers), Bearers (Stretcher Bearers), personnel to take care of the horses, the cooks, the barbers — they were unarmed, incapable of defending themselves.


The British put non-combatants (who could not defend themselves) from India in the line of fire, finds Chatrath. Wikimedia Commons

The stretcher bearers, for example, had the responsibility of carrying the wounded to safer areas during and after the fighting. They could not defend themselves. All these categories were regarded as dispensable, as the colonial powers did not want their personnel to handle the fatal jobs. Taking the graves in Mazargues Cemetery in Marseilles as an example, one finds that almost 74 percent of the Indians commemorated there were non-combatants. At Gallipoli (Turkish peninsula) too, India lost close to 16000 men, 80 percent of all men of the 14th Sikh Infantry Battalion and thousands of mule drivers. “Some of them were prisoners from prisons in India who were sent there on sanitary duties. We do not have detailed accounts of those men. I planned to visit Gallipoli, but had to drop the idea," Chatrath says.

From among the non-combatants, recognition has not been given for the work put in and sacrifices made by the labour from the North Eastern states, Odisha and tribal areas of Ranchi and Bihar.

Chatrath has photographed 2000 gravestones for documentation. But the canvas of the book is broader than just the graveyards. It explores the human elements, even though it is limited to the problems and experiences of Indian soldiers and non-combatants in France during World War I. It delves into their pay, food, clothing, the weather issues they faced, and what caused such large numbers of casualties. “Looking at the recorded causes of death of the buried/commemorated at Neuville Sous Montreuil Cemetery, one could ascertain the cause of death of only 11 out of the 28. The list hints at a sad state of living conditions of both the combatants and the non-combatants, as it shows that over 50 percent of these deaths were not due to war wounds but because of pneumonia, bronchitis, meningitis, stomach problems etc. All these show exposure to cold climate without proper clothing, inappropriate/insufficiently nourishing food and a general lack of care of the men,” he adds. This has to be examined further by analysing causes of death from other cemeteries too.

His self-funded research, soon to be published in a book, he hopes, could be of use to those who like to probe the subject and take it forward. “I respectfully put a yellow marigold paper flower in front of the memorial stone of each Indian and Nepalese soldier.”

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Updated Date: May 08, 2019 10:31:32 IST