Illiterate but Literary: The Censored Correspondence of Indian Soldiers in France, 1914-18


I’d like to start by stressing the title of the talk, ‘Illiterate but Literary’, comes from a workshop I’ll talk about
at the end of the talk. It was my friend Santanu Das of
King’s College, London, who uttered this phrase and it was
too good not to borrow. So I want to just thank Santanu – I didn’t actually ask his
permission to use it – but for coming up with it. So, I’ll talk a little bit about the book from which much of this talk comes, ‘Indian Voices of the Great War’, recently reissued in an Indian edition. It’s a collection of about 600 letters
written to or from Indian soldiers serving on the Western Front. The letters all passed through a British military censor’s office in France. And this collection of letters includes letters from soldiers in France to their families
in India; letters from families in India to soldiers
in France; letters from the wounded soldiers in hospitals
in England to their families or other soldiers in France which came through
the Post Office in France; and correspondence between men serving in France who’d been cross posted from regiments in India. The only thing all of these letters have in common is that they went through this one Post Office
in France. And so that’s essentially what is the basis
for the book. I want to start with a quotation from one
of the letters in the book. It’s from someone, we don’t know her name, she’s the mother of a soldier called Waris Khan. He was a Punjabi Muslim, probably from what
is now Pakistan, and he was killed on the first day of the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915. And she’s asking in this letter for the repatriation
of her son’s body. And she writes: ‘All your letters have come thrusting fresh spears of grief into my heart. ‘Til this day I have not regained my senses. The fatal news reached me on 17 October. I have written one letter before this to Anwar Khan, telling him to inform all the men of Dharabi
and Kot Sarang from the grief-stricken mother of Waris Khan that they must ask the CO [commanding officer] of the 69th Punjabis’ – his regiment – ‘for the body of my dear, only son, for whose sake alone we seven women live,
who fell in France. Let his body be quickly sent home, that his
grave may be made here, and we may spend the rest of our lives
weeping over it.’ A very moving letter. Now this letter has been much on my mind recently. Of course, the 100th anniversary of the Battle
of Loos was in September and this woman received the news of her son’s
death 100 years ago last month. Almost certainly her request for the repatriation
of his body was not granted – it simply wasn’t practical. He’s probably buried somewhere in France. I want to make just a few observations about
this one letter, because a lot of the talk will hang on certain
issues that this letter raises. Almost certainly, the woman was illiterate, so she must have dictated the letter
to some local scribe. The letter is an example of
emotional literacy – it’s very moving, it’s intended to purge the grief that she’s experiencing because of her son’s death. It uses a vivid image – ‘thrusting fresh spears
of grief into my heart’ – but it’s also an example of pragmatic literacy, she’s trying to influence others behaviour, she’s trying to achieve an outcome – getting
her son’s body repatriated. It’s also a public document at both ends, at the receiving end and at the sending end. She must have got someone to write this letter
down for her, but she knows it’s going to become a public
document, at least within the regiment. She says ‘telling him to inform all the men
that they must ask the CO’, so she knows this letter is going to be read
out and circulated. These issues and these themes are common to many of the many of the letters in the collection. Written by illiterate people,
they’re public documents, they’re both pragmatic and emotional. And I’ll return to each of these issues at
some point in the talk. I’ve structured the talk, broadly speaking,
into three main parts. I’m first going to talk about the creation
and the provenance of the censorship archive on which
the book is based. I’m then going to move on and look at some
issues around censorship and literacy. How did illiterate people write letters? How did they deal with the problem of writing
under conditions of censorship? I’m going to try and illustrate some of these with quotations from Indian soldiers’ letters. Most of the quotations will come from the book, there are many letters that have not
been included. And then we’re going to talk a little bit
about the reception history of the book – reviews, academic and community reception –
and how the letters have been used. And I’m going to end with some examples of
the use of the letters in public and with some reflections about how they might
have been translated, which is something I’m cogitating about
at the moment. The book grew out of a monograph about the
Indian Army in the 19th and 20th century that I wrote and published about 20 years ago. As I think some people in this room will know,
the history of the Indian Army is a much more fashionable subject now
than it was when some of us started working on it all
those years ago. When I was working on the monograph I came across this collection of letters, I came across this censorship archive in the
British Library in the oriental… they keep changing the name,
but up until recently it was called the Oriental and
India Office Collections. And I wove quotations from soldiers’ letters
into the monograph in order to illustrate some of my arguments about the importance to the soldiers of the
Indian Army of things like honour, religion,
caste and warriordom. But I always wanted to follow up with an edition
of the letters. We’ll just say a little bit about the Indian Army. It was sent to Europe, two infantry and two
cavalry divisions were sent to Europe in 1914-15 most importantly because the Indian Army was
the only source of trained troops within the British Empire beyond
the British Army. The Canadian and Australian, the Dominion armies, were not immediately trained and available. Indian troops fought at all the main battles
on the Western Front – First Ypres in 1914 and then Second Ypres,
Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Loos amongst others in 1915. The letters come from an archive of military
censorship which consists mainly of excerpts from Indian soldiers’ letters which
have been translated into English. The censorship archive had a purpose, it was to gather information about the morale
of the troops. It was not primarily to suppress their correspondence. The British authorities were quite keen that
Indian soldiers were able to communicate with their families, although the censors did sometimes
suppress letters and I’ll come to some of those later on. Similar archives must once have existed for Indian forces in other theatres of war. We know there was one in Egypt,
probably dealing with the letters of soldiers in what is now Iraq
and Palestine. I think that archive has now been lost. After a year’s work in France the censor made
a report on his work, the chief censor, he was one of a team of
about half a dozen. And this report contained the following observation: ‘Apart from all present value the record of extracts taken from the Indian correspondence constitutes a document of some historical
value and no less psychological interest. If the publication of selection should ever
be permitted a very entertaining book would result.’ I couldn’t resist this sort of open invitation
to produce an edition coming from, of all people, a censor. That quotation is towards the end of the introduction
to the book and the full report is in one of the appendices. Now in editing this collection there was a number of core questions that I had to address. How much of the collection should I publish? The entire collection is about 4,000 pages
should I have published all of it? One option was to digitise the whole thing. My next door neighbour in the department at
Hull, John Palmer, was in the process of digitising the whole
of Domesday Book. And he rushed through it in about 30 years.
[LAUGHTER] I decided against that for two main reasons, partly because the censorship report was
information gathering, so there was a lot of repetition. Secondly, unlike… John had 100 years of really serious scholarship on Domesday
to build on, I didn’t have anything like the same
to go on. And thirdly, I wanted to use that quotation
about an interesting book, which meant it had to be one volume. I wrote an introduction to the selection. When I did that, I read all the selection
I’d made – 650-odd letters – but I read them again in reverse
chronological order to try and see the letters in a new light. And this slightly strange method does seem
to have worked. I also made sure that every one of the letters
in the book is referred to by number in the introduction, so you can read the introduction and then
read the whole book by referring forwards to the letters. There are also lots of cross references
in the book so you can pick up the book at any point and just keep reading until you get to
a cross reference. I want now to move on to pick up
some of the themes that are in the book and in the collection. First, most obviously, the one…
the theme of censorship. Indian troops knew that their officers, British
or Indian, would read their letters, which were sometimes read out before
one or two officers. This censorship, however, became fairly cursory as officers with the necessary linguistic
skills were killed. But the main censorship that I’m drawing on was based for most of the war at this Post
Office in Boulogne, where all the letters passed through
the Indian Post Office. There was one Indian civil servant assisted
by a small team of retired civil servants and Indian Army officers. They read and translated a small selection
of the letters each week. There were far too many for them
to read them all, but each week they prepared a report with attached translated extracts from about
50 or 100 of the letters. The main aim of this censorship was to monitor
the morale of the troops and to pre-empt any problems, particularly
around food or religion. Almost all the original letters I think must
now be lost, but I’ll end with one of them that we’ve found. How did soldiers and their families write
their letters? The census of India show that 94 per cent
of the Indian population was illiterate. A few soldiers might have been literate, such
as officers or company clerks, but most soldiers and their families must
have used letter writers and letter readers to read and write their letters. And this, of course, affected what the correspondents
were prepared to say, since they knew the letters were…
it was possible that they might be read aloud. Letters could, however, be privatised by including instructions to the letter reader such as: ‘To the person who reads this letter to my father, it is to be read out only to him and alone.’ The sheer quantity of the correspondence,
despite the fact the troops were illiterate, suggests that the letters mattered. In 1915 there were about 20,000 letters a
week coming from Indian troops in France, a huge number from four divisions. For most troops it was the only way they could
communicate with their families. One wounded man in hospital in Brighton wrote home, ‘As long as there is life in me, I will worship
and love and write. It is my one prayer that you should do likewise.’ One of the first and most striking features
of the letters, unsurprisingly enough, is reaction to the war. ‘There is a river of blood flowing here,’
wrote one man home. Soldiers started writing to prepare their
families for their deaths. One man wrote home, ‘This is a fight of heroes. Men will remember this war all their lives and say that so-and-so died in the German war.’ By this he means that his family’s status
as a military family will be enhanced by his death,
which he sees as imminent. They also write very pragmatically home letters about what should happen to their pensions when
they get killed. And some also write home urging their families not to enlist because the losses are so high. These letters were passed by the censor because he felt that they were simply trying to prevent harm happening to their families, rather than expressing disloyalty. There was a great reproach when a soldier learnt that one of his family had joined up. ‘It is a matter for regret that you,’ he wrote, ‘as a sensible man should put your foot into
the blazing fire.’ In areas where blood feuds were practised,
some soldiers used the military post as a vehicle for continuing feuds that were
going on back home. When a Pathan, for example, learnt that his father had been killed in a feud, he wrote home, ‘If you have any sense of honour, and if you
are a real Pathan, then you should take your revenge by killing
two enemies quickly,’ – meaning they lose two people
for the loss of one. This letter would be one that would be suppressed. Incitements to murder were normally suppressed, but since the censors are only reading a small proportion of the letters, incitements
to murder must have got through. There is another side to this picture of courage
and loyalty, however. Problems of morale did become fairly evident
early on in 1914 and soldiers write fairly despairing letters, particularly towards the end of the First
Battle of Ypres. One man wrote home, ‘The butcher does not
let the goat escape,’ – a typical animal image that soldiers often use. Others compared themselves to maggots, who
are being killed in their thousands. There was some evidence of self-inflicted wounds and these occasionally surface in the letters, normally in very coded forms, like: ‘I’ve been wounded in the trigger finger. Do not worry about me.’ What particularly bothered the Indian soldiers
in France was the practice of returning wounded men to the front once they
had recovered. And there are lots of references to this in
the correspondence. One Sikh wrote home to his father, ‘There is no hope that I shall see you again for we are as grain that is flung a second
time into the oven and life does not come out of it,’ – meaning once they’ve recovered they’re sent
back to the trenches, and again using this image,
this rural image of grain. The soldiers and their families felt that
this practice was very unfair for two main reasons. Given the casualties,
this meant that a wounded man was likely to be wounded a second time or even killed once he was sent back
to the trenches. And secondly, it meant that… the policy meant that the only wounded men
who could return to India were those who had been disabled by wounds
and hence economically disadvantaged. In the end, the soldiers in hospital in Britain
sent a petition to the King, the King Emperor, on this subject in May 1915. The petition was written in Roman Urdu, that
is Urdu written in Latin script rather than in Persian script, making it easier
for the King to read. Actually it made it more difficult for the
censor to translate. And it read: ‘Address: England, The Emperor,
Let no one except the King open this,’ – so showing an awareness that these letters
are being opened. ‘From the Indian sick in hospital,’ –
that’s on the envelope. And then inside the letter reads: ‘Your Majesty’s order was that a man who had
been wounded once should be allowed to return to India, or if
he had recovered he should not be made to serve again. The heart of India is broken. Any man who comes here wounded is returned
thrice and four times to the trenches. Only that man goes to India who has lost an
arm, a leg or an eye.’ Now, this act of petitioning was an appeal to, and of course a reinforcement of, royal authority. The petition is a classic form of pragmatic literacy, intending to influence the behaviour of others. I think the timing of this petition, May 1915,
is also significant. It comes just after the Lahore Division, one
of the two Indian infantry divisions, suffered very heavy losses at the Second Battle
of Ypres in the last week of April 1915. I’d like to quote now some of the letters
written around the time of Second Ypres, that had been in my mind recently because
I’d been finishing, putting the finishing touches to a chapter
about the Indian Army at Second Ypres for a book on the Second Battle of Ypres that’s coming out next month
for the 100th anniversary, at least of the year, not of the month. It was around this time that rumours began
circulating among Indian troops that they were being sacrificed
to save British lives. And this rumour crops up in the form of a
simple code in a number of the letters. One man writes home, ‘Please do me the favour of letting me know what is the condition of the market
for black pepper. That which I brought has all been finished
and some more has been sent. You probably know that there is lots of red
pepper, but they want black.’ In this case, as in others, red pepper stands
for British troops and black pepper for Indian. And this idea that Indians were being sacrificed
to spare British lives was a potentially politically explosive idea, because the rumour starts then circulating
in India. I’ve seen evidence from the National Archives
in India of British officials overhearing this rumour in railway carriages
in the recruiting grounds. In the chapter, among other things, I’ve looked
quite closely at the deployment of British Gurkha
and Indian battalions in the Lahore Division at Second Ypres, and
in detail at the casualties. And I think there’s no evidence at all that the Indians were in fact being
deliberately sacrificed. Soldiers were, of course, aware of the censorship and so this collection, and the use of
codes within it, is an example of what some scholars called
writing through repression, the use of simple codes. Rupees are used to stand for casualties
and fruit is used to stand for sexual relations with white women. So there’s lots of talk about ripe fruit and
walking through orchards and so on. Now these codes were mostly fairly easy for
the sensors to understand – they take a while to cotton on to
the one about fruit – but the codes could take more sophisticated forms. What you find is Indian writers start working
Punjabi proverbs and nursery rhymes into their letters. They include Urdu poetry and sometimes even
Persian poetry. Even when the censors can translate these
proverbs and these poems they can’t understand what exactly the soldiers
are driving at. Only people who’ve been brought up on these
poems and proverbs, particularly in the nursery rhymes, could
really understand what they mean. I sometimes speculate could the people receiving
the letters actually understand what they meant either. The censors actually admired the ability of
the soldiers to do this. According to one report by the chief censor,
he said, ‘Orientals,’ he observed, using the language
of the time, ‘excelled in the art of conveying information
without saying anything definite, although the news conveyed was exceedingly
vague and gave rise to wild rumours.’ The men then were not literate but they were literary, to borrow Santanu’s phrase and hence the title
of the talk. And I think writing under censorship actually
stimulated the soldier’s creativity. The letters have many of the qualities that
we normally associate with literature, notably apposite and arresting images, like at the start ‘thrusting fresh spears
of grief into my heart’, and I’ll talk about some of these when I discuss
the reception history of the book. Soldiers might write a letter in two languages
– Urdu and Pashto, for example – thinking that Urdu will be understood by the censors because it’s the lingua franca of the Indian
Army but Pashto would not. They used veiled or coded language, often
flagged by a sign such as: ‘Think this over and you will understand it,’ or ‘Think about this, you are an intelligent man.’ What I’ve also included in the Second Ypres chapter are some letters about the Germans and about Indian reactions to
the German’s use of gas, as it was the first time gas had been used
on the Western Front in April 1915. There is some admiration in the letters for
the fighting power of the German armies. A wounded Sikh writes home, for example, ‘The German King is very powerful. When there is a new invention, it is he who
first puts it into place. The English copy it when they see it. The German King is very clever. He is the master, the English are his disciples.’ Mostly, however, the soldiers are very negative
about the Germans who are often described as rascals, villains
and black-faced savages. After Second Ypres and the first use of chlorine
gas, this theme of barbarism emerges in connection with the breach of international
conventions. One man wrote home, ‘Look at this German show. They are now using poisonous shells and
asphyxiating gas. What is to be done? When things are done with such malevolence, our British government must follow their example. The proverb “Against blaggards one must be
a blaggard” is quite apt here.’ And, of course, the British did retaliate
as well, at Loos. One of the things that really emerges from
the letters is the centrality of religion to Indian soldiers’
experience of the war in Europe. The letters are full of religious imagery,
references to Karbala, for example, the battle in Iraq and important to Muslims. And there are many letters asking for
religious advice. How does our religion survive in our sojourn
in a foreign land? Or asking for artefacts, particularly korans
and granths, Sikh scriptures. And a friend of mine in Sweden has just won a research grant to study the charitable work which involved donating miniature scriptures
to Indian soldiers, particularly by Indian royalty – a pretty difficult thing to research on I think, and she’s got a research assistant. The British authorities were very aware of
the importance of religion. They didn’t want another Indian mutiny on
the pattern of 1857, which was widely perceived as having been
caused by British officials and officers giving offence
to Indian religion. And they take great care with the provision
of religious artefacts, both in the hospitals and at the front. For example, Sikh religious artefacts –
metal combs, knifes, and so on – were especially made to an approved design
by a firm of cutlers in Sheffield and then distributed to troops after the censors
found letters complaining that these artefacts were not available in
sufficient numbers at the front. Another issue was the involvement of the YMCA in distributing notepaper to the troops. This notepaper had Young Man’s Christian Association
symbols on it and the censors took great trouble to erase
any Christian symbols that appeared on letters as a way of making
sure there was no rumours being spread back in India that the men were
being converted to Christianity. I said earlier that very few letters were
actually suppressed and in the collection it’s normally indicated whether a letter had been suppressed or not. And we can normally speculate why it might
have been. The censors were particularly sensitive to
derogatory remarks about white people or any indication that caste rules or religious
observances were not being followed. One of the major themes in the collection
are the soldiers’ reactions to Europe. The Indian cavalry staying in France for three
years they write a lot about European customs and European learning and so on. I’ve written about that elsewhere, there’s
quite a bit about it in the book, but I just will for reasons of time, I’ll just move on to letters about Europe
that were suppressed. One of the reasons that sending Indian troops
to Europe was controversial was the possibility that they might have
intimate contact with white women which was taboo… sexual contact between an Indian man and a
white woman was normally taboo in India. And we do have some examples of letters of
this nature that were suppressed. I love this one. In November 1915 one soldier wrote home, ‘If you want any French women, there are plenty
here and they are very good looking. If you really want any, I can send one to
you in a parcel.’ And this obviously… becoming very aware
of the effectiveness of the military postal service, and that one
was obviously suppressed. My all time favourite of these is, however,
from a Pathan, Tura Baz Khan, who’s in hospital in Brighton. And he wrote home, ‘This is the woman we get. We have recourse to her. If you like her, let me know and I will send her.’ And his letter was suppressed along with its
enclosure, which was a cigarette card on which was reproduced a portrait by Sir Joshua
Reynolds of Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon. To travel is not only to leave home, but often
to see home in a different light and to reflect on home and to reconsider home. And there’s many letters about India from
the soldiers reflecting on France and reflecting on what they’ve learnt about
French life. They give lots of advice to their families. They often compare India rather unfavourably
to France. They’re amazed by the wealth of France, by
the success of French agriculture. And they often are astonished by the fact
everybody in France can read and write and they often write home urging families
to send children to school. Easier said than done, of course, in rural India. I hadn’t approached a publisher when I was
editing the book for what seemed to me the obvious reason –
not to them – that no publisher would be so mad
as to turn it down. Well, I assumed that all I had to do was send the introduction and scholarly apparatus, together with a sample of about 50 letters, and it would be snapped up straightaway. Initially I thought about publishing it with
the University Press to give it some academic weight, but I got
a series of polite refusals. At this point I was beginning to get
rather concerned because I’d spent four years editing the book
and if it wasn’t going to appear then I’d have to answer some rather difficult
questions from my head of department and the faculty who’d helped fund the project. So I sent it off to Macmillan, who’d published
the monograph on the Indian Army which had come out a few years earlier and
had received good reviews, and they were very enthusiastic about it and
wanted to publish it. That was a very serious relief. It’s come out in a slightly different version, I was going to talk about the illustration. On the original Macmillan version
the cover illustration, which I think you’re going to do for the National Army Museum thing about this
aren’t you, shows cavalry with lances, Indian cavalry
with lances in 1917. Simply I wanted to make the point on the cover
that it’s often argued that the cavalry had no function on the Western
Front after 1914 and this picture shows…
a staged picture perhaps, but it shows that perhaps they did. The book came out a while ago now and I want to say a little bit about
how it was received. The book reviews were mostly positive. The Sunday Times ran a review which they said
they were going to illustrate, they didn’t in the end, but the review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture section and I just want to focus on one aspect of
this review. It was by Patrick French, quite a distinguished,
popular historian, of India. He described the collection as ‘important and endlessly fascinating, a sad
feast of a book’, which obviously we were happy about. But more significantly he also quoted from
one of the letters and it’s one of my favourites in the review. It was written by a wounded soldier in hospital
in Britain, reflecting on the fact that once he has recovered he will have to go back to the trenches. And this issue crops up again and again,
as I suggested. But sadly, he’s no longer got the courage
to do this. So he writes home in a wonderful image, ‘I am like a man who, once burnt,
is afraid of a glow worm.’ It’s a wonderful image,
drawing on the natural world, like so many of these letters. The BBC picked up on the book and turned it
into a Radio 4 programme with readings from the letters broadcast on
Armistice Day, 1999. They interviewed me and Linda Colley, a much
more famous historian than me, and they had actors reading extracts
from the letters. I was really impressed by the editing of this, because I was interviewed in London and Linda
was interviewed in London but on different occasions. And when it was all edited, it sounded like
we were in the same room having a conversation,
it was really quite clever. The book has recently come back into public
view in certain ways because, of course, of the 100th anniversary
of the First World War and it’s renewed interest in the history of
the Indian Army. And I was invited to be part of
the congregation at the service for the Commonwealth held at Glasgow
Cathedral on 4 August 2014 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the
day the Commonwealth joined the war. The guests included Commonwealth governors,
general and high commissioners and the service included hymns,
bible readings and poems, and readings from Scottish and Commonwealth
soldiers’ letters. India was represented by
the High Commissioner for India and he read out two extracts from the Indian soldiers’ letters,
both in the book. And these are the two that
they chose to read out. I want to talk a little bit about
these two extracts, both of which I think leap off the page. I’ll read them out and offer
some reflections on them. I stress I had no input into the choice of
the letters that were read out. The first was from a Punjabi Rajput, a warrior caste North Indian,
writing in January 1915. He wrote home, ‘Do not think this is war. This is not war, it is the ending of the world. This is just such a war as was related in the Mahabharata about our forefathers.’ I’d like to make three observations about
that passage. I’d cited the phrase ‘This is not war. It is the ending of the world’ in my earlier
monograph about the Indian Army, the phrase just leapt out at me. Sir John Keegan, sadly no longer with us,
wrote a review of the monograph for the TLS [Times Literary Supplement], and then after reviewing the book
he then went on to write his own history of
the First World War and he quoted that letter in his own book
about the First World War. Then the people who put together the service
in Glasgow picked up on the phrase. So the phrase ‘the ending of the world’
obviously resonates because it’s done for the three of us in completely
independent ways. And I think it’s important in the service
in Glasgow Cathedral that it resonates particularly in a Christian
theological context, even though the author is a Hindu. Secondly, we are, of course, accustomed to thinking of the First World War
as ending a world. The war brought about the Russian revolution
and the end of four empires: the Russian, Austro-Hungarian,
German and Ottoman. The world really was never going to be
the same again. But when we normally think of this, we think of it in a European or
Middle Eastern context. It’s really interesting that a North Indian
Rajput makes the same observation, and as early as January 1915. And for the soldiers of the Indian Army on
the Western Front, the world really was ending and they suffered
appalling casualties, as did the British Army as well, of course. And thirdly, when this man tried to convey the enormity of what is happening in Europe back to those in India who have no direct
experience of it, he uses an image drawn from classical Indian
literature, the Mahabharata. And this was quite common practice amongst
Hindu soldiers. And this man was, like most rural Punjabi Rajputs, probably illiterate but he had literary awareness. The second reading was from a Sikh sowar,
or cavalry man, this second reading in Glasgow. And he wrote home, ‘The state of things here
is indescribable. There is a conflagration all around and you
must imagine it to be like a dry forest in a high wind in the hot weather with abundance of dry grass
and straw. No one can extinguish it but God himself. Man can do nothing. What more can I write? Here thousands of lives have been sacrificed. Scratch the ground to a depth of one finger and nothing but corpses will be visible.’ I’d like to pick up on two things
from this extract. The first is the imagery. He uses the image of the forest fire, the conflagration, the dry grass and straw. And again this is typical of the language
that’s found in many of the letters. Secondly, he uses the language of sacrifice. It was a letter from a Sikh soldier, but very appropriate for
a Christian memorial service. And it echoed the sort of language that was
being used at the time in Christian Europe, language of sacrifice. But interestingly it is not typical of the language used by most Sikhs at the time. Sikhs were much more likely to evoke the warrior traditions of Sikhism, and I’ll
come onto that. One of the things that struck me about the readings in general
at the Glasgow service was that at a British religious service of
major international importance, five of the readings –
St Matthew, St Mark, Thucydides, and two from the Indian soldiers – were translations into English. And I’ll come back to the issue of translations about which I’ve been thinking recently. Interestingly, the letters read out were from
a Hindu and a Sikh. There was no letter from a Muslim. There may have been Pakistani officials at
the service, I don’t know, but Pakistan was not officially represented
in the order of service – a striking omission I thought, given that
in 1914 the British Empire, as Winston Churchill was fond of saying, was the greatest Muslim power on earth, and that Punjabi Muslims were the single most
numerous class of soldiers represented in the Indian Army
in both World Wars. So I’d like to rectify this omission and move on to some readings from Muslim soldiers to give an idea of the variety of Muslim responses
to the war. The first is from a Muslim officer writing
in December 1914, we don’t know his name. This is just after Ottoman Turkey
had joined the war, putting the Indian Army’s Muslims into a position where their loyalties were often
potentially divided. And he wrote home,
‘What better occasion can I find than this to prove the loyalty of my family
to the British government? Turkey it is true is a Muslim power, but what has it got to do with us? Turkey is nothing at all to us.’ Clearly he’s expressing
very openly loyalist sentiments and at this early date,
he probably wouldn’t have known about the existence of Boulogne censorship office. But he would have known that his own officers,
regimental officers, would have read his letter before it was posted. So there might have been an element of
self-censorship there. But the language of qualified loyalism is a characteristic Muslim voice in the collection, with some significant exceptions. I want to read a second letter now. It’s from an elderly Hindustani Muslim to
his son serving in France. He writes, ‘Formerly I had experienced
but one sorrow and that was the death of your mother. My childhood and manhood were spent very happily. Now in my old age I have had to endure the sorrow of long separation from you, and as a consequence my eyesight
is failing rapidly. It is not fitting that I should die late on
my infirmities and up to the present time your brave words of comfort and hope have sustained me. But many people like me have, through grief for the loss of their offspring,
departed this life. I live in the belief that by the mercy of
the pure God, that day will come when my sightless eyes
will again look upon your face and will regain their lustre.’ A very moving letter there from a father. The letter was written in August 1916, fairly
typical of the letters that were written by families in the middle
period of the war, and even more so in 1917, from families urging their men folk at the front to come home. It’s a very moving and beautiful letter and we can empathise with the man’s situation. But I think there’s more to that letter that moves an English-speaking audience. And I would now like to turn my attention
to the issues of the translations. How good were the translations? I was asked this question a few weeks ago
at Ilkley Literature Festival and I gave an impromptu response and I’ve
reflected upon it since. I think the translations were very good, were
probably very good, we don’t know, we don’t have the originals. It’s difficult to say without the originals. But I think the translators
were Indian civil servants, Indian Army officers with long experience
of Indian languages. But I was struck by the phrase ‘It is not fitting that I should die late
on my infirmities’. That is not the English of 1916. It is the English of Shakespeare
and the King James Bible. Specifically, it echoes St Paul’s Second Letter
to the Corinthians. And my brother, an English teacher,
suggested it echoes Richard III – ‘descant on my deformity’,
I think is the echo. Also the use of the word ‘lustre’ when he writes ‘And looking will regain
their lustre’ I think echoes King Lear, echoes the scene when Gloucester is blinded – ‘Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?’ I think the translator here
is self-consciously creating an English literary artefact
out of an Urdu original, composed by someone who’s
almost certainly illiterate. That letter has gained in translation. The chief censor, Evelyn Burkley Hale,
was born 1877, an Indian civil servant who worked mainly
in the Punjab before he went to France. He actually went on to publish a volume of
translated Urdu poetry, I think in the 1960s when he must have been
fairly elderly. It’s worth remembering that translations can
be great literature in their own right. In English, think only of
‘The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam’ or the King James Bible, so much part of our
intellectual furniture. As an undergraduate, for example,
I had to study Richmond Lattimore’s translation of ‘The Odyssey’, which was seen as a great work
of English literature. Now, I want to return to the subject,
moving on from translations, return to the subject of Muslim soldiers – just to note that it’s worth remembering that the first Indian soldier
to win the Victoria Cross, after Indians became eligible
for that award in 1911, was a Muslim, Khudadad Khan, a Baluchi. And I think there’s a portrait of him in the
National Army Museum. Am I right in thinking that? Well, we can find out. We don’t have letters from him, I believe, but we do have letters from the fourth Indian to win the Victoria Cross, Mir Dast. He won his award for bravery at
the Second Battle of Ypres and he was presented with his VC
by the King in August 1915. And his reaction is remarkable,
and this is in the book. He writes, ‘By the great, great,
great kindness of God, the King with his royal hand has given me
the decoration of the Victoria Cross. God has been very gracious, very gracious,
very gracious, very, very, very, very gracious to me. Now I do not care – the desire of my heart
is accomplished.’ After he received Russian and French decorations, he became the most highly decorated Indian
officer in the Indian Army. He’d also receive
the Indian Order of Merit in 1908, then the highest award for bravery available
to an Indian, so effectively his VC was almost
a VC and Bar. But even he was ambivalent. He wrote home in another letter,
‘The Victoria Cross is a very fine thing, but this gas gives me no rest. It has done for me.’ His brother Mir Mast, also a jemadar,
a junior Indian officer, had earlier deserted in March 1915. He’d gone over to the Germans with 24 troops
and he’d ended up in Kabul with a party of German agents in August 1915 and their plot was to try to bring Afghanistan
into the war against India. So a very complicated and I think
an interesting example of the complexity and ambivalence
of some Muslim reactions. The Sikh community has picked up on the book
in several ways. I was asked to give a paper in Sweden to an
audience which included local Sikhs. And in that paper, and in the book chapter
that resulted, I used this quotation which illustrates something
about, I think, the warrior values of the Sikhs. And it describes the death of a Sikh officer. Someone who writes home, a wounded soldier, ‘The 47th Sikhs’ – a crack Indian regiment –
‘were charging. The Sahib’ – the British officer – ‘said, “Chur Singh, you are not a Sikh of
Guru Gobind Singh, you who sit in fear inside the trench.” Chur Singh was very angry. Chur Singh gave the order
to his company to charge. He drew his sword and went forward. A bullet then came from the enemy and hit
him in the mouth. So did our brother Chur Singh become a martyr.’ There are two points I’d make about this letter. Despite the reference to martyrdom, the main emphasis in the Sikh officer’s motivation appears to have been warriordom, honour and identification with Gobind Singh, who
was a military guru. Rather different from the language of sacrifice
that was used in the letter from a Sikh soldier read out
in Glasgow. Secondly, it’s a British officer who in the
first instance uses this language. He obviously understands what will motivate
his colleague to risk his life in battle, that being a Sikh of Guru Gobind Singh is
more important than dying in battle. I’d like to close with two observations. One, a few remarks about a recent exhibition
in London, it was last year I think at the Sultan of
Brunei’s Gallery at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies]. It was called Empire, Faith and War and it
was curated by the British Sikh community. They collected artefacts from families
to do with the Sikh experience of the First World War, and I was asked to give a talk then. And that’s when Santanu came up with that
expression: ‘Illiterate but literary’. But one of the items they found was one of
the original letters. It had been written by a teenage girl,
they think, to her father serving at the front. We don’t know which front. It was written in Gurmukhi, Punjabi written
in the script of the guru. And, interestingly, in the letter she was
telling her father that she’d learnt to read and write. She had done this in order that she could
read his letters out to her mother instead of having to rely on
a village letter reader. So there was less risk of his letters home
becoming subject to village gossip. I was very touched both by the idea
in the letter and by the fact that one of the originals
has been rediscovered. Others may surface. I’d like to end with the dedication
of the book which is, of course, to the Indian soldiers. There was never any doubt as a Jersey man
in my mind what this dedication would be. It was an extract of Norman French
medieval poetry written by Maistre Wace who, like me,
was born in Jersey. To medieval scholars it’s a very famous passage, and many people in Jersey know it, too. I put it as a dedication and I deliberately
left it untranslated for several reasons. First, of course, poetry is difficult to translate,
particularly if, like me, your main languages are French, German and
Italian, not medieval Anglo-Norman French. Secondly, I wanted it to stand out as the
only passage not in English in a book in which virtually all the letters
are translations into English. And thirdly, I wanted to weave a passage of
poetry into the book in a language that many readers would not
immediately understand, just as the Indian soldiers had woven poetry
into their letters to confuse the censors. I’m not going to try to read it out in medieval
Norman French, but I will approximate a translation into English, only my translation is probably not very good. It reads, ‘Everything starts to decline,
everything falls, everything dies, everything comes to an end. Unless a scholar puts it in a book,
it cannot last nor live.’ Thanks a lot.

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