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Indians in Britain during the First World War

The people of Brighton offered a warm welcome to the Indian soldiers sent to convalesce at the Sussex resort in the First World War. But the military authorities found much to be nervous about.

Six months after the outbreak of war the Brighton Herald of January 16th, 1915, reported an encounter between a small group of Indian soldiers and the people of the town. It took place outside the York Place secondary school, which had been converted into a hospital for wounded Indians, newly arrived from the First Battle of Ypres. The Herald's reporter was covering a visit by two members of the royal family: Princess Beatrice, who had lost a son in the same battle just months before, and her sister, Princess Louise, who had recently lost her husband, the former Governor-General of Canada, John Campbell, 9th Duke of Argyll. The recently bereaved pair, daughters of Queen Victoria and thus a direct link to the first Empress of India, would have been thought highly suitable ambassadors to the Indian troops. But it was an impromptu incident that day which caught the reporter's attention:

On the outskirts of the crowd were three Indians, one of whom, possibly in honour of the Royal visit, had adorned his khaki turban with a spray of ivy. To the small children, as well as to the elders, the Indians were a centre of the keenest interest. And the Indians were as much interested in the children as the children were in them. At length the inspiration seized a small boy to hand a baby brother up to one of the Indians to be held in his arms. The Indian took the child with eagerness. That set the fashion. The next minute girls and mothers, too, were handing up their small children freely, either to shake hands with the Indians or to be taken in their arms ... [One soldier patted a baby's] woollen covered toes with a joy that would have done credit to a proud young father handling his first-born. What stories there will be to tell these babies when they grow up – how they had been fondled by wounded Indian soldiers who had come over to fight for Britain in the Great European War.

There seems no doubt of the mutual captivation that existed between the Indian soldiers sent to Brighton to convalesce from their war injuries and the people of that town. The encounters would be short-lived, however. In late February 1915 the military authorities took the highly unpopular step of locking the soldiers into the hospitals and guarding them with military police. What had gone on and why did the military react in this way?

Bachetar Singh, a soldier recovering in Brighton, wrote to a friend in India on March 15th, 1915: 'How can I describe this war? It is like a furnace in which everything becomes ashes on both sides.' For Singh and hundreds of other recovering soldiers, contact with civilians in Brighton had been relaxed for the first two months of 1915 and it had been a source of fascination and pleasure. We know this from the letters the Indians wrote home, which were read and translated by the British censor: 'These people love us from the bottom of their heart', reported one, and, according to another: 'The people of this place pay us great honour & attention & keep on saying “How do you do?” & treat us with great respect.'

Brightonians pass Indian soldiers at the gates of the Kitchener hospital, 1915.

Three large buildings in Brighton had been converted into hospitals for the Indian wounded: the York Place School, the Royal Pavilion and the Brighton Workhouse, which became the largest of the hospitals and was known as the Kitchener Hospital. The Royal Pavilion was thought to provide a particularly appropriate setting for the convalescing soldiers. Its exotic interior – filled with hospital beds and recovering soldiers – was to become the subject of several paintings. Local newspaper reports showed compassion and empathy for the Indians. When a train bearing a large contingent of wounded Indian soldiers arrived at Brighton railway station from a hospital ship in Southampton, the Herald's reporter was there to describe the scene:

It is a moving sight to see stretcher after stretcher shifted from the train to the ambulance vans, each stretcher with its motionless figure, some with their faces covered, others looking out upon their unaccustomed surroundings with expressions of patient endurance and with that aspect of mystery and melancholy which lurks in the eyes and feature of so many Indians ... in some cases where both legs were wounded the Indians were carried by their English comrades.

Language could be a barrier, but not always, for there were some Brightonians who had lived in India. A Sikh soldier was able to converse with a Hindi-speaking reporter on the Herald, telling him, for example, about the recent fighting, with its constant machine-gun fire and exploding hand grenades. A Brighton policeman, who had spent several years in India 'was immediately the centre of a group who recounted their experiences'.

The seafront presented a host of entertainments. These included now-forgotten diversions, such as rides in carriages drawn by goats. The two piers had booths with gaming machines, including recently installed ones that allowed the public to fire rifles at German soldiers. There were the trappings of commerce: a monster soda bottle on the roof of a house to advertise the drink was another singular sight that we know the Indian soldiers found amusing. The Indians noticed straightaway the warmth of the Brighton people. In a letter from February 1915, a Mahratta medical subordinate wrote:

The people are so very good & kind that they make no difference between black & white. Everyone seeks every opportunity of becoming fast friends with us & of serving us in any way in their power.
In the evening we always go for a walk. The people treat us very well indeed. Men and women alike greet us with smiling faces and take great pleasure in talking with us.

One thing that struck the Indians was that the English they were meeting behaved altogether better than those they had met back in India. Sub-Assistant Surgeon J. N. Godbole wrote to his friend in Poona:

We do not hear the words 'damn' and 'bloody' at all frequently as in India. But this only applies to those who have not seen India. Those who have gnash their teeth at us, some laugh and some make fun, but there are not many who do this. The people here are charming. It is impossible to ask why they become so bad on reaching India.

From the pages of the Herald we learn of a spontaneous act by a young Brightonian. The Indian soldiers were out on parade and quite a few small boys had joined in:

One boy rather older than the rest marched all the way by the side of a good-looking young Indian in the rear. They could not speak a word to each other, but the boy marched along with all the mingled pride and solicitude of the 'big brother'. He had clearly taken the Indian under his care. And the last thing one saw before the great gates of the Pavilion closed upon the party was the boy and the Indian shaking hands in farewell. India and Britain will be closer than ever before.

Here we have a moment of connection: one young man singling out another and showing his brotherly concern. Brighton was full of families who each weekend greeted thousands of visitors: publicans, shop-keepers, hotel and café-owners and a host of other individuals who made their living through providing entertainments or selling ice-creams on the seafront. In short, people were used to welcoming strangers. Some families had Indian troops staying in their homes. One Parsee medical subordinate wrote to his friend in Bombay on January 26th, 1915:

Tomorrow we proceed to Bournemouth to take our HQ there. We are very sorry to leave Brighton & especially our billeting place and such comfort and motherly & fatherly feelings as we received from Mr and Mrs ____ who so proudly sheltered us for 14 days.

Brightonians learned to say 'salaam' on meeting the Indians. This was easy enough, but a feature in the Herald in March 1915 introduced readers to Hinduism and its rituals, explaining how the morning bath was a daily baptism and quoting from the Rigveda. Efforts at cultural understanding would grow as the hospitals became better established.

That January, snow had fallen on Brighton and the published a photo of the Indians making a snowball on the Pavilion lawn. The report described how the Indians 'looked out upon the captivating scene spread before them with wonderment and delight'. The tone may seem condescending today. In 1915 it would not have.

Another report that same January caught a moment of real sympathy for a group of Indians being taken on a drive on an especially cold day:

They came with bandaged hands, with arm in a sling, or with hurts to feet and legs that had left them unable to walk save with the support of the Red Cross soldiers. Careful handling indeed was needed to get these maimed warriors into the seats of the covered-in car. To the keen interest of the group of onlookers the delicate task was at length accomplished. As the car moved away up the London road, the crowd, unable quite to muster up the cheer that they felt in their hearts, waved their hands in token of good wishes. Smilingly the Indians, who ever manifest the most friendly disposition, acknowledged the salutation.

These soldiers were evidently too badly wounded for such a journey, which must have jolted them for a full three hours. The crowd of onlookers seems to have sensed this and felt it was too much.

Inevitably it was encounters with the women of the town which produced the most complex set of responses: 'The women here have no hesitation in walking with us. They do so hand in hand. The men so far from objecting, encourage them. The fact is that this is the custom here', wrote Sub-Assistant Surgeon M.M. Pandit to a friend in Sholapur. One Sikh wrote to his father of afternoon encounters with English women, who gave them fruit and of one woman who said to him:

We have never seen such men. Only have we heard of them that they are the Sikhs of India who once fought against England. Now do we see them with our own eyes as we see our son.

'Who once fought against England' is presumably a reference to the Anglo-Sikh wars of the 1840s. Here is an unknown Englishwoman, seemingly wanting to push aside past prejudice. But the easy relations of early 1915 came to an abrupt end. Writing home in the spring of 1915, Dhunjibhoy Chinoy reported that new restrictions were in place:

We are not allowed to go anywhere and are hard pressed and we do not like it ... At first the 'salas' allowed us more freedom and we acted according to our pleasure and stayed out sometimes all night. We were even placed outside in billets; but some men abused the privilege and it was entirely stopped ...

In late February 1915 Sir Bruce Seton, commanding officer of the Kitchener hospital, took the decision to clamp down on the Indian soldiers' freedoms by locking them into his hospital. He went to the very top and wrote to Lord Hardinge, Viceroy of India, voicing his concerns about 'the too frequent intercourse with Indian attendants and patients'. Sir Walter Lawrence, the Commissioner in Charge of the Welfare of Indian Troops, thought it was unfair, although his objections were not particularly strenuous: 'The Indians are behaving like gentlemen and it is rather a pity that Bruce Seton should have alarmed Lord Hardinge needlessly.' There was some discussion of the Coronation in 1911, when around 700 Indian soldiers had been billeted at Hampton Court. That had not been a town however: it was the urban environment which gave the military concern. Barbed wire was put on top of the walls surrounding the hospital and a band of military police formed from among the patients to enforce the new rules. Seton later defended his action:

It was evident, from the very first, that drink and that the sex problem were factors which would have to be reckoned with. A large proportion of the followers, the sweepings of Bombay city, were found to be habitual drunkards; and the ill-advised conduct of the women of the town, although partly innocent in intention, was bound to result in the gravest of scandals.

Alcohol may have been partly to blame: there was a court case against a contractor who had brought strong liquor into the hospital. But the prospect of liaisons with local Brighton women was the main reason. In February 1915 the Brighton Women's Co-Operative Guild asked that something be done 'to prevent the nuisance in connection with the Indians in Pelham Street' and asked that the garden in nearby Trafalgar Street be 'immediately boarded up'. The gardens were close to the entrance to the York Place hospital and it seems that Brighton women – with whatever motive – were congregating there to meet the Indians.

Troops in a charabanc in front of the statue of Queen Victoria on Brighton’s Grand Avenue, c.1915.

The military in fact knew a lot more about the Indian troops' relations with civilians than they were letting on and what they read gave them much to worry about. Marseilles in particular, where the Indian troops had disembarked, was mentioned a good deal by the censor:

It would appear from the tenor of certain letters passing between the Base Camp at Marseilles, where the scum of the Army has naturally tended to collect, and the front, that the Indian soldiers in camp at Marseilles have been able in some cases to obtain access to the women of the neighbourhood and that a certain amount of illicit intercourse with them is going on.

Letters to the Indians intercepted from Marseilles offered tantalising evidence of liaisons, but the precise nature of them was rarely clear. The prospect of a similar situation developing in Brighton was alarming. There were just too many opportunities for sexual adventure.

There was very likely a class aspect to this concern. In his 1909 history of Brighton, Lewis Melville bemoaned the social decline of the town. The arrival of the railway had changed things for the worse. Brighton had become 'the Cockney's paradise, the Mecca of the stock-broker and the chorus girl'. Unlike nearby Brockenhurst and Barton-on-Sea, also the sites of hospitals, Brighton was associated with pleasure-seeking Londoners and, for the British Indian Army officers, would have seemed to harbour all kinds of low-life. The idea of the Indians consorting with barmaids and other lower-class women touched a particular nerve. The issue of European prostitutes and barmaids operating in India had produced a major scandal in the 1880s and, like all scandals, it cast a long shadow in the military mind.

There was also irritation at the apparent affection that white women felt towards the Indians. A Liverpool journalist, reporting from Paris in 1914, observed:

The Cult of the Asiatic, always strong in France, is now, thanks to the added sentiment for the brave ally, almost an obsession. A young princeling in my hotel is embarrassed by many kind smiles and glances. A motor-car will drive up and disgorge a bevy of heavily-furred ladies in the lounge where he is sitting. All through dejeuner their eyes will wander to him. The interest of course is half military and patriotic, and half due to the romance that dwells in everything remote.

English women were also criticised for their behaviour when encountering Indians. A British Indian Army medical official wrote to his wife that Brighton was 'covered with girls who make a lot of the natives. They are seen to go arm in arm with ward servants and are very fond of coloured people'. I have been able to find just one example of a letter from an English woman to an Indian soldier in the censored correspondence at the British Library. It was sent by a Londoner to a 'Muslim clerk' in France. It starts 'Dear Gummie' and thanks him for sending her money. A few lines later the writer says that there are not many soldiers in London now. One wonders whether this is a woman who had come to rely on payment for sex from soldiers on leave in London, but it is impossible to know. Perhaps 'Gummie' had sent the money on behalf of his superior. The letter ended 'love and kisses for the Captain and yourself'. We can imagine how the censor's office must have reacted. Here was proof to the censors that some kind of relationship had developed and it can only have fuelled their concerns. There was evidence in the Indian soldiers' letters, too. Writing home to a fellow-soldier in January 1915, a Muslim sub-assistant surgeon reported 'I have been to the theatre. Enough, don't you ask me anything. I am not tied up [by scruples] as you are. I go about to enjoy myself'.

With whom was this enjoyment being had? For the military a host of possible scenarios presented themselves. The war was starting to give more freedom to women and this posed all kinds of risks. So-called 'khaki-fever' and war babies were discussed in the press around this time and women police patrols were formed across the country to curb 'unruly behaviour'. The prospect of mixed-race babies being born was disturbing but, more than that, the notion of sexual relations between Indians and British women challenged the very foundations of the British imperial edifice. Behind Seton's concerns – and those of other senior military officers – was the fact that, by this time the Indian presence in the UK had become a highly polished project.

A wounded Indian soldier dictates his letter home to a scribe, Brighton,  c 1915.

The tone of much of what was written in the newspaper reports was both possessive (references to 'our Indian troops') and condescending (phrases such as 'gallant warriors'). The newspapers of the day helped reinforce a notion of the Indians that placed them firmly in the imperial hierarchy. They made much of the colour of Indian skins and far less of the terrible fighting they had been part of just weeks before. As reporters wrestled with describing the mass of men with whom they could not converse, they drew on appearance to speculate on the Indians' characters and the physical attributes of the different racial groups. Not infrequently this gave rise to comparisons with children: 'Filled with a child-like faith in their own religion, they seem as innocent as children, but in reality they have the hearts of lions for bravery.' Every opportunity was taken to promote the notion of the Indians' loyalty and dependability. Conducted visits to London – a regular activity for the convalescing soldiers – took them to Madame Tussauds and to West End stores. But they were also made to give formal salutes to the statue of Queen Victoria outside Buckingham Palace and were photographed doing so.

There was a degree of self-satisfaction at Britain's largesse in treating the Indians so well and an expectation of gratitude. In A Short History in English, Gurmukhi & Urdu of the Royal Pavilion Brighton (1915) there is a description of it as a hospital for Indian soldiers. The author imagined the Indians recalling their time there after the war: 'Their faces will then glow with pride as they tell of that day when they were lying wounded in a Royal Palace and the king and queen came to their bedsides and spoke to them words of tender sympathy and cheer.' Willcocks later remembered how obsessed the senior military and political elite were with the Indians. If we look at the records of the Indian Soldiers Fund, set up in October 1914, we get some sense of this enthusiasm. The Fund's organising committee comprised a long list of aristocratic men and women. Infinite care was poured into the scheme, with large quantities of tobacco, spices, chutney, pagri covers, balaclavas, coconut oil and sweets purchased to be sent to the front. The effort was well meant, but the rush to support and the determination to be listed on committees and lists of donors spoke of an almost fanatical interest. This ambitious campaign, now inextricably linked to the influential and highly inter-connected British elite, had to be guarded against any scandal or taint.

Being a cause célèbre was not easy for the recovering soldiers and produced its own pressures. With so much adulation and fussing, the Indians had to be circumspect about anything that might provoke criticism from the locals. Gambling had helped pass the time in the hospitals, but it was officially forbidden. A Hindu soldier reported to his friend in India: 'We only have a game on the sly now and then, so that the Officers may not know. You see we are held in great respect here. But if they were to know what we do, what would become of the respect?'

There was an incident in which a 15-year-old local errand boy stole money from a Sikh soldier. At the court hearing that followed, the soldier – despite needing the money – was at pains not to make a fuss. The relationship between Indians and their hosts had become strained. The Indians were under intense pressure to conform to expectations. The British were anxious that the Indian soldiers' presence was packaged and presented to the best effect.

It became apparent that the main reason for devoting so much effort to nursing the Indians back to health was to return them to the fighting fronts. The letters home began to show resentment that Indian soldiers were being seen as cannon fodder. Ragbir Singh of the 59th Rifles wrote:

I have been wounded twice, and now this is the third time that I am being sent to the trenches. The English say it is all right. How can it be all right?

For the Indians to have been locked in, after a period of freedom in Brighton and in contrast to conditions in France, seemed undeserved. Soon the soldiers were writing with real bitterness of the frustration they felt. Writing home in June, Pirzada, a sepoy, warned,

Our people are very angry. They do not allow us out to the bazaars etc. They do not let the French or the English talk to us nor do they let us talk to them. The English have now become very bad. They have become dogs. Our Indian soldiers are very much oppressed, but they can do nothing.

In the following month an unnamed Indian soldier wrote home to Ahmedabad:

Brighton is a large city but I am ignorant of its contents.

To have curbed relations in the way the British military had was not surprising, but it was heartless. The French authorities tended to be much more lenient. There were even some marriages between Indians and French women. We know from the letters written about encounters with French families, moreover, just how much these interactions were generally appreciated. We know also from the thousands of letters and diaries in the Imperial War Museum archives how much soldiers – throughout the 20th century – took comfort from chance meetings with civilians in wartime. It was mothers, sisters and grandmothers who were missed, not just wives. Many of the Indian soldiers in any case had their own taboos about sexual liaisons with women not of their caste. The opportunity to get to know the people of Brighton – with all the healing benefits it would have brought – was lost.

Fraternisation threatened the very cornerstone on which the Empire was built: a presumption of the supremacy of the British over the Indian. Within this construct stood an ideal of British womanhood. In his memoir Willcocks recalled the example of Lady Minto, the wife of an earlier viceroy, who had crossed the Malakand Pass into tribal districts, rarely visited by white women:

She spoke to all the Indian officers and men of the wild transborder chiefs, and years afterwards the memory of her visit was still a theme of conversation amongst the Maliks beyond Chakdara and en route to distant Chitral. You can do much in the East by personal example, you can do little without it.

This was the preferred image of British womanhood: brave, aloof, untouchable. The encounters in Brighton's Pelham Street gardens presented a very different scenario – one best avoided.

Suzanne Bardgett is Head of Research at Imperial War Museums.

Indians in Britain during the First World War

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