Letters from the fronts.
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.
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