In this weeks podcast Inara interviews the poet Daljit Nagra. Daljit recently published this in the Guardian on letters written by Indian soldiers during WW1. We talk to him about the personal stories he came across whilst researching the letters at the British Library.
In February the Curzon Institute was welcomed by Derby Moor Community Sports College to speak to two groups of Year 10 citizenship students about the Commonwealth contribution to World War 1. The students plan on exploring their personal connections to both World War 1 and World War 2, so our lecture was particularly timely to help in fostering the students’ investigations into their family history. The Year 10 students were particularly interested in the case studies of Khudad Khan and Dr Jessie Scott. Following both lectures we took a poll of how many students knew of family members who had fought in either of the World Wars, with a surprising number of students being aware of their family histories and many others excited to find out more at the end of the school day. One student was so impressed by the presentation that he was intrigued to find out about the presenters personal links to the subject matter, showing a level of engagement that was particularly encouraging. We hope the follow up with Derby Moor Community Sports College our educational tool kit (soon to be launched), which the teachers were very excited about. We would like to thank the College for providing such a warm and friendly reception for the Institute and we look forward to working with them in the future.
Saltley School in Birmingham was the host of our presentation on Tuesday 11th February. The audience consisted of the school’s Year 9 history students, who were covering WW1 at the time; including the causes of the war and war propaganda. So, the Commonwealth Contribution to WW1 lecture was a timely addition that both enhanced and reinforced their knowledge about the wider implications of WW1. The students really enjoyed the presentation and had so many questions we ran out of time afterwards! However, the ones that we did manage to take were interesting and well thought out. The students were keen to learn more about the personal aspects of the Commonwealth Contribution, with several questions about the long and tiresome journeys Commonwealth soldiers faced as they made their way to the battlefronts. Several girls were very interested in how the Commonwealth, especially geography and socially, changed after WW1. This led to more questions about the relationship between Great Britain and the Commonwealth countries today, especially given the huge sacrifices that were made in WW1. Other students wanted to explore more about the military relationship between Great Britain and the Commonwealth at the time, asking specific questions about how the advances in military technology, covered in the lecture, were shared between the Commonwealth countries. The Curzon Institute was incredibly impressed with the enthusiasm and high levels of knowledge that Saltley School Year 9 history students displayed and we look forward to working with them in the future.
The Curzon Institute was honoured to present at Dialogue Institute, partnered with Faith Matters as part of their armed forces engagement engagement project. Hugo Clarke shared the stage with Imam Hafiz, an Islamic adviser to the Ministry of Defence and previously a military chaplain. The debate was lively and engaging, with questions about how the legacy of the Commonwealth contribution can help to engage young ethnic minorities in the UK today with the work of military. The audience were impressed with how diverse and flexible the talk was, with suggestions that the lecture be delivered at diverse religious institutions across the country.
Hugo Clarke spoke to students and members of the community at Leicester Grammar School about the Commonwealth Contribution to WW1. The lecture was aimed at history students, but was publicised widely within the community with a remarkable attendance of around 230 people. Following the presentation Hugo fielded questions on the effects of WW1 on specific countries, the nature of standing armies at the time. The audience posed insightful and relevant questions on what the personal implications of Muslim Indians fighting Muslims Turks, for example at Gallipoli campaign, were and how these were addressed at the time. The audience were keen to address the social side of the Commonwealth Contribution, especially the racial segregation that would have occurred in the armies during WW1. We would like to express special thanks to Andrew Picknell for organising such a wonderful event, which we were very pleased to be part of.
The first week of February marked the official UN World Interfaith Harmony Week. As part of this celebration, and the centenary of WW1, The Curzon Institute was invited to Shah Jahan Mosque, the first purpose built mosque to be built in the UK in 1889. Hugo Clarke appeared on a panel with Jahan Mahmood, a military historian and Brigadier Mark Abraham OBE, the Chief of Staff Headquarters Support Command. Mr. Mahmood spoke specifically about the roles of Muslim soldiers in WW1 and WW2, and this was built on by Mr. Clarke’s lecture on the wider Commonwealth contribution to WW1. Brigadier Abraham spoke about the role of faith in the armed forces, and the diversity that exists within the armed forces today. The event was followed by a networking lunch between speakers and participants. The mosque plans to cultivate its own links with Commonwealth soldiers who fought in both World Wars by developing a Peace Garden in addition to the current WW1 war memorial in its grounds.
The year of the centenary of the Great War gives us an amazing opportunity to look at and commemorate the sacrifices that individuals made a hundred years ago. Television and radio has been doing a fantastic job educating us about the history and conditions of the war, but it is the individual stories that can really help us to understand what these sacrifices meant both at the time and now.
Many organisations and individuals have been unearthing personal accounts, especially in the forms of letters, from WW1. But what do these letter tell us about personal experiences of WW1?
Standing armies from around the Commonwealth were sent off to far away lands to fight in countries they may not have even heard of. Not only would this have been a culture shock to men who often had never even left their villages, but coupled with the horrific conditions they faced personal testimony gives us a unique and fascinating insight into their experiences. This post will look into how, despite the alien and tumultuous conditions, letter writing became a creative outlet for soldiers from Undivided India.
The British Library has an amazing online database of resources including letters home, in this post I will have a look into some of the letters from that database and beyond written from the fronts.
In a letter written by Pay Havildar Shadma, of the 40th Pathans to Gunner Hafis Nawat as he recovers from his war wounds in Brighton we see that, despite the tragedy and horror Shadma has experienced, he is able to write eloquently and artistically about the war.
“There is a full crop of ripe barely. Crowds are gathering around the woman who parches the grain. She parches the whole lot at once. Her stove is very hot.”
In this instance, the “woman who parches the grain” is used as a metaphor by Shadma to refer to the enemy. This is probably to avoid censorship, but also by visualising and describing the enemy as such Shadma’s letter takes on more poetic meaning. This extract shows the all-consuming nature of the war on Shadma, and the ferocity of his experience with the enemy.
Censorship led to soldiers processing their experiences in both cathartic and creative way. Although this was not the intention of censorship, that being to ensure correspondence did not contain information of military value to the enemy, it can still be seen as an outlet and a way to begin to come to terms with the horrors of WW1.
Mohammed Agim, a subedar in the 57th Rifles, also wrote from Brighton hospital writes
“What can I say of war? It is a manifestation of divine wrath. There is no counting the number of lives lost. We have to deal with a terrible and powerful enemy, who is completely equipped with every sort of contrivance…In my regiment absolutely none (men) are left…Not a single British or native officer of the old regiment is left. It is just like the grinding of a corn mill.”
Agim writes poignantly and forcefully about this, at the time, new type of warfare. A kind of war he would not have been used to in Undivided India. He notes the characteristic of the war as a “manifestation of divine wrath”. The religious allusion shows that even he cannot begin to comprehend the loss of life he has witnessed. He appears humbled that both Commonwealth and British officers fought and fell together, but shocked by the scale of death he was witnessing. Agim’s comparison of war to the grinding of a corn mill offers an effortless and stark imagery of the everyday attrition war enforces upon soldiers.
Another soldier from India wrote wistfully and contemplatively about the potential return of soldiers home, “No man can return to the Punjab whole. Only the broken limbed can go back.”. Physical injury was just the beginning of the trauma suffered by soldiers, not only did they return home with broken limbs but broken spirits. Those who served recognised this, and one may wonder whether through their correspondence they wanted to prepare their families and communities for their return. The lucky ones who survived to return home to undivided India, like their counterparts around the world, returned with a new perspective on the world, shaped by the experiences and relationships they had encountered during the war.
Some soldiers creative talents extended beyond their letters home. A soldier swearing allegiance to the king,
“Our Lord the King is wondrous kind / May God the wreath of victory bind / Upon his brow…Like tigers [The British], spring upon the prey / And tear the German goat away… As a man climbs a plum tree and shakes down the plums [so that] they fall and lie in heaps, so are men here fallen …””
It is likely this soldier was from a rural area of the Punjab, and possibly from an agricultural family as so many were. This would explain his use of animal imagery, and also emphasises how the war came to make men feel de-humanised and almost animalistic through the death and destruction they witnessed. By equating the ease with which fruit falls from a tree the reader begins to comprehend how easily and quickly death surrounded the men.
These excerpts are just the beginnings of beautiful and harrowing letters written by Commonwealth soldiers from the frontlines. They speak with frankness and raw emotion of the experience of war and the effect that this had on the mind-set of men, although tempered by censorship. The fluency and artistry with which they are written shows us that although these men served in dreadful conditions, they did not completely lose spirit. The ability to write home, without even knowing if you would be alive when the letter was read, offered soldiers in WW1 the opportunity to maintain a connection with the families and communities they left behind. This was even more poignant for soldiers from the Commonwealth fighting in unknown lands so far away from home. The next blog post, later this week, will look at ANZAC letters detailing the horrors of war.
Welcome to the first post for the WW1 Contribution Commonwealth blog. 2014 marks the centenary of WW1, and other pages of our website can give you some insight into the history of WW1 and the Commonwealth contribution in general. This blog hopes to tie together the activities the project undertakes as part of this. In addition, we hope to share interesting examples of Commonwealth soldiers and people who contributed to the war effort. We hope to launch an online podcast archive of oral history and contributions from academics and experts on WW1, especially the Commonwealth Contribution. If you are interested in contributing to this part of the project please contact Inara
January and the start of February saw The Curzon Institute speaking to over 2000 school pupils and members of general public about the Commonwealth Contribution to WW1. Highlights from specific lectures will be covered in subsequent blog posts, but just to give you an idea of the reception the project has received so far. The audiences have varied from Year 9 -11 pupils, to interfaith groups and more general public seminars. The students who we have spoken to have often been covering WW1 in history or citizenship classes, so our lectures have sought to reinforce the knowledge they have already gained and introduce them to an aspect of WW1 that is often not taught, or falls by the wayside. The students have been keen to learn more about the content of the lectures in our question and answers sessions, with pupils from Graveny School and The Clarendon Academy specifically asking about the treacherous and long journeys that Commonwealth soldiers faced form their home countries to the various battlefronts. Whether the war would have occurred without the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand was another popular area of exploration. Pupils and the public both expressed concern for the social implications of WW1, for example the racism and mental health issues that faced soldiers noth during and after the war.
The launch of the WW1 Commonwealth Contribution project was held at the Royal United Services Institute in London. We were honoured and privileged to have support from Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, a longstanding champion of the links between the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, and pupils from The Harris Academy and Bishop Challoner School.
Baroness Warsi’s opening remarks captured the spirit of the project, with she herself acknowledging that she was unaware of the scale of the Commonwealth contribution to the WW1, and in this respect it has become a part of our past which has been overlooked and “a chapter torn from the book of our history”. This is a poignant reminder of why it is so important to remember the Commonwealth contribution to WW1, especially as we no longer have any living survivors of the war. Baroness Warsi highlighted that it is through a shared history combined of multi-ethnic and multi-faith stories that we can begin to understand out place in the world today, and we hope that this project can help individuals in that quest.
See Baroness Warsi’s opening remarks here:
Afzal Amin, an advisor to the Curzon Institute, echoed Baroness Warsi’s sentiments, emphasising that this project fits into a bigger objective, to strengthen the relationship between the government and communities through a shared history. Mr. Amin noted that it is through realising that we have a shared past that we can begin to heal tensions in our communities.
Hugo Clarke, the Director of the WW1 Commonwealth Contribution project gave an insight into the content of the lectures, with a specific focus on the stories of individuals. He hopes that the series of lectures will not only help people to understand a forgotten part of history, but also help to foster the investigative side in all of us.