Speaking Volumes: Unbleaching the First World War


(Published in the Business Standard, August 11, 2014)

Mall Singh’s voice carries from 1918 across to this century, telling the story of the First World War as it is only now being told:

There was once a man. He used to eat butter in his native Hindustan.

This man then came into the European war

Germany captured this man. He wishes to return to India.

If God has mercy, he will make peace soon.

This man wishes to go away from here.

If he goes back to Hindustan, he will again get the same food.

First World War historian Santanu Das explains that the recordings were made by the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission, between December 1915 and December 1918. “The soldiers were asked to stand in front of the phonograph, and made to read out a text, or sing a song or tell a story,” Mr Das writes; there were 2,500 recordings, many made by the numerous non-white troops who fought in World War One.

In Race, Empire and First World War Writing, a collection of essays by many scholars and historians, Mr Das sets out what many are beginning to recognise – the truth that the world war was not a white man’s war at all.

“Among the various colonies of the British empire, [undivided] India contributed the largest number of men, with approximately 1.4 million recruited during the war up to December 1919. The dominions – including Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Newfoundland – contributed a further 1.3 million men.”

“In addition to the 90,000 troupes indigenes already under arms when the war started, France recruited between 1914 and 1918 nearly 500,000 colonial troops, including 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans.” Well over four million non-white men (combatants and non-combatants) took part in the war.

Reading Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone, I came across a photograph of one of the many First World War sites that commemorate the 100th anniversary of the war. It shows a group of captured Allied soldiers. The range of nationalities was far more representative than most of the images of the First World War we had grown up with – Tunisian, Senegalese, Sudanese, English, Anamite (Vietnam), Russian, American, Portuguese. It was a long distance from the bleached whiteness of the men who skirmished in the Commando comics, the Royal Flying Corps pilots who inspired Biggles & Co, the fact that most photographs of World War One in the public domain until recently featured relatively few non-white faces.

Ms Shamsie’s novel encompasses the story of subcontinental troops who fought at Ypres (“Vipers”). In one passage, an injured soldier from Peshawar meets another man at the hospital in England: “It was the sepoy whose ankle had been shattered by a bullet … soon he would be sent back to France. His letter had been addressed to the King-Emperor himself, complaining that wounded Indians were sent back to the field with injuries that would allow an English solider to return home. Qayyum wrote down every word the man said, knowing it would never reach the palace. The letter ended: if a man is to die defending a field, let the field be his field, the land his land, the people his people.

In the absence of written memoirs and records, since so many of the troops came from non-literate backgrounds, Mr Das and his fellow historians and researchers draw on other sources – government archives, interviews, songs, films. He mentions a Chinyanja marching song still sung in some villages in Africa: “Helter-skelter! Helter-skelter! What have you done, Sir? Germany has completely finished off our young men/Germany has completely finished off our young men.

Not all of them died on the field of battle; some, brought in to provide the essential labour that would dig trenches, died before they even reached Europe, as was the tragic fate of the 617 members of the South African Native Labour Continent, drowned on board the SS Mendi.

In a separate series, four short Penguin Special essays span China’s experience of the First World War, from the siege of Tsingtao to the reaction of the bustling and multi-ethnic corporate world in Shanghai to the Chinese humiliation in Paris at the end of the war. In The Chinese Labour Corps, Mark O’Neill writes that the workers were called maizhuzai, meaning “pigs that are sold, a term that aptly described their place in the social order”.

When they arrived in Britain, they were asked to strip naked, doused with disinfectant and issued identity bracelets. The coolies were “so much cargo, livestock”, occupying poorly ventilated holds on the troop ships. And yet found time to band together under the Work Study Movement, which ran evening classes and explained the war to the workers.

The histories of what happened after the war are still being compiled, but what’s there makes for sad reading. Troops who had been welcomed with joyous cries of “Vivent les Hindous” often found that there was less of a welcome for them in the lean post-war years. The Chinese workers went back via the Canadian front. Mr O’Neill writes: “While Canadian soldiers returning from the front were greeted as heroes with welcoming parties, bunting, and smiling girls, the Chinese were ignored.”

The gaps in the official record became gaps in public memory, even though the personal stories of great-uncles who’d been to the war lingered. In his “Introduction”, Mr Das cites the trench notebook of Jemadar Mir Mast, possibly the only surviving example of its kind written by an Indian soldier in the Great War. A line divides the page into two; Urdu words are written with their counterparts in English on the other side. “Retire”, “retreat”, “newspapers”, “hungry”, “university”, and then the poignant trio: “nephew”, “niece”, “children”.

The jemadar comes into focus; a man writing down words in an alien tongue, in a trench situated in a field not his field, fighting a war not his war. Like so many others, from all across the colonies, the dominions, the non-white world that went to war for Europe.


One response to “Speaking Volumes: Unbleaching the First World War”

  1. Bill Hayes Avatar

    This is important information that needs keeping in the public domain. The disgusting disregard for those who helped our nations in times of need reveals an Imperial hypocrisy that is alive today. The interpreters who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan for the allied forces are now being denied sanctuary in the USA and the UK on spurious immigration technicalities despite the fact that their lives are in real danger.

    Thank you for posting this.

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