Friday, 9 March 2018

The Voice of the Sepoy

A blog post from Jo

Learn as if you were to live forever.

One of the amazing things about being an archivist is that you never know what you might be called upon to learn about next. When cataloguing, you might have to teach yourself about how a building society works, in order to understand how the records were created and therefore how they should fit together in the catalogue. In the searchroom, you might have to bone up on the railway plans in the county, so that you can advise a researcher in that field.

There is always something to learn about, and that has been especially true of the Durham at War project. Neither Victoria nor I were experts on the First World War when we started the project and, while I don’t think either of us would claim to be experts now, we have certainly increased our knowledge to a great extent.

One of the things that I do for the project is to research, design and deliver educational sessions. I very much enjoy this part of the job, partly because I like to see the reactions of the young people that we work with, but also because it gives me a chance to delve into our collections, the collections of other repositories, and generally to read more widely on all sort of topics linked to the First World War.
The girl boxers on their visit to the Record Office, 2018
Most recently, I have delivered a workshop to a group of young women from Newcastle, aged 8-14 years. They come from Muslim households whose families originate from South Asia. As well as studying the idea of “Otherness” during the First World War, the girls are learning to box. So, my challenge was to put together a workshop that included the South Asian experience of the First World War and try to sneak in a bit of boxing! It was going to be a steep learning curve.
D/DLI 7/217/5(27) A boxing match with crowd taken at Rennbahn prisoner of war camp, c.1916
Fortunately, I knew that James Fish would not let me down. James trained at Bede College in Durham and served with 8th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry. He was captured and spent much of the war at Rennbahn prisoner of war camp near Munster. James seemed to have been an avid collector of photographs and his album of camp photos is a gem. His pictures show life in the camp, including the theatre performances and boxing matches that prisoners arranged to keep themselves busy. So, not only did he tick the boxing box (or should that be ring?) for me, but his photographs of the inmates at the camp helped me to find a way in to the South Asian men who served during the war. His photographs show a wide cross-section of the men in the camp, including Scots in kilts, Sikhs in turbans, Gurkhas and West African troops. Do have a look, they are online on the Durham County Record Office catalogue:
D/DLI 7/217/5(34) Photograph of a prisoner of war at Rennbahn prisoner of war camp, c.1914-18
The photographs really are fantastic (one of the most vocal members of the group became quite somber and thoughtful when she described the power and sadness of one of the Indian men depicted), but I wanted to go further. What were these men thinking? How did they react to fighting in a war so far from home in an alien environment? I rolled up my cardigan sleeves and began to dig.

Luckily, I came across an article by Santanu Das on the British Library website:

In it, he discusses the British Library’s collection of letters written by men from pre-partition India to their families back at home. The British authorities were worried about the Indian independence movement and so these letters were censored with particular care. As well as being censored at regimental level, all of the Sepoys’ correspondence went through the hands of a central censor who created monthly reports of the extracted and translated letters. It is these reports that survive at the British Library, and which (albeit through several layers) allow us to hear the voice of the Indian soldier during the First World War. The following is the example that I used with the girls.

From Giyan Singh, a Sikh, at Indian Artillery Depot, Milford-on-Sea, to his brother in India. (Gurmukhi, dated 15/4/15): “The German is very strong. His ships sail the clouds and drop shells from the sky; his mines dig up the earth and his hidden craft strike below the sea. Bombs and blinding acid are thrown from his trenches which are only 100 or 50 yards from ours. He has countless machine guns which kill the whole firing line when in attack. When he attacks we kill his men. The dead lie in heaps. England is full of wounded. No man can return to the Punjab whole. Only the broken limbed can go back. The regiments that came first are finished – here and there a man remains. Reinforcements have twice and three times brought them up to strength, but straight away they were used up. The German is very strong.”
(British Library, IOR/L/MIL/5/825/3 f.11) 
Looking at different sources, 2018
Nearly 1.5 million men from pre-partition India, which included the present countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Myanmar, volunteered during the First World War. Indian army troops were quickly shipped to Europe at the beginning of the war and Sepoys were involved in some of the earliest battles. According to the British Council, 50,000 Indian men were killed, 65,000 injured and 10,000 reported as missing. 

The British Library has digitised all of the Sepoy letters and they are available to view online. This amazing collection gives us a chance to continue learning about the war from a different perspective, and to carry on uncovering hidden histories of the First World War.

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