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‘Without death there is no victory, but I am alive and very well’: Letters from Indian soldiers during World War I

These five letters, describing the experiences of Indian men in the army during the Great War, have been excerpted from Indian Voices of The Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-1918 by David Omissi. Omissi’s research reminds us of the Indian Army’s involvement on the Western Front, and reveals how the experience was about more than front line combat for these men. (First edition published by Palgrave Macmillan in 1999. The new edition (2014) contains a foreword by Mark Tully.)

1. A Muslim officer to his brother (Central India)

[Urdu]
December 1914
France

What better occasion can I find than this to prove the loyalty of my family to the British Government? Turkey, it is true, is a Muslim power, but what has it to do with us? Turkey is nothing at all to us. The men of France are beyond measure good and honourable and kind. By God, my brother, they are gentlemen to the backbone! Their manners and morals are in absolute accord with our ideas. In war they are as one with us and with the English. Our noble King knows the quality and the worth of his subjects and his Rajas alike. I give you the truth of the matter. The flag of victory will be in the hands of our British Government. Be not at all distressed. Without death there is no victory, but I am alive and very well, and I tell you truly that I will return alive to India.

2. A Garrison Gunner (Sikh) to a relative (France)

[Gurmukhi]
3rd December 1914
China

The English have suffered severely. Nothing is put into the news, but we know a good deal from day to day. The German ship Emden has sunk forty English ships near this land, and is sinking all the seventy English ships of war. She has not been much damaged although she gets little help.1 The English have eight kings helping them, the Germans three. We hear that our king has been taken prisoner. Germany said that if she were paid a lakh of rupees by five o’clock on the first of the month, she would release the king. The money was paid, but Germany refuses to let him go. I have written only a little, but there is much more for you to think of.

3. An unknown writer to a Jemadar (34th Sikh Pioneers, France)

[Urdu]
[early January 1915?]
Gobind Garh
Punjab

I was distressed to hear that you had been wounded. But God will have pity. Keep your thoughts fixed on the Almighty and show your loyalty to the Government and to King George V. It is every man’s duty to fulfil his obligations towards God, by rendering the dues of loyalty to his King. If in rendering the dues of loyalty he must yield his life, let him be ready to make even that sacrifice. It is acceptable in the sight of God, that a man pay the due of loyalty to his King. God grant you life and happiness. Those heroes who have added lustre to the service of their country and King, let them offer this prayer before God, that victory may be the portion of their King, and let them show the whole world how brave the people of India can be. The final prayer of this humble one before God Almighty is this – that God may make bright the heroes of Hindustan in the eyes of the world and with his healing hand may soften the sufferings of the wounded and restore them to health, so that they may go back to the field of battle and render the dues of loyalty to their King of peace, the King of kings, George V, and secure the victory for him.

4. Subedar-Major [Sardar Bahadur Gugan] (6th Jats, 50) to a friend (India)

[Hindi]
[early January 1915?]
Brighton Hospital

We are in England. It is a very fine country. The inhabitants are very amiable and are very kind to us, so much so that our own people could not be as much so. The food, the clothes and the buildings are very fine. Everything is such as one would not see even in a dream. One should regard it as fairyland. The heart cannot be satiated with seeing the sights, for there is no other place like this in the world. It is as if one were in the next world. It cannot be described. A motor car comes to take us out. The King and Queen talked with us for a long time. I have never been so happy in my life as I am here.

5. A Pathan to a friend in the 57th Rifles (France)

[Urdu]
13th January 1915
40th Rifles
Hong Kong

Return this letter signed and with your thumb impression on it, on the very letter itself. Of the dead say ‘so and so sends you greeting’ and of the wounded say ‘greetings from so and so’.Indian Voices of the Great War 2014 edition