On Remembrance Sunday, 8 November, in many parts of Britain and the Commonwealth, millions of people will fall silent to mark one hundred years since the First World War – the Great War – got into its stride on its destructive path.
By the time the guns fell silent in 1918, too many millions had been lost and, it appeared, the earth could be churned up no longer.
World War 1 commemorations in countries such as Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada are deafening in their solemnity.
However, alarmingly little is heard of the more than 1.5 million men and boys who left towns and villages across South Asia to fight in the battlefields of Western Europe, North Africa and elsewhere.
It is an anomaly that Calcutta-born, London-based journalist, author and historian Shrabani Basu was determined to correct. The result is a new book titled ‘For King and Another Country’.
Author Shrabani Basu.
In the book, Basu tells for the first time the personal stories of some of Indians who were sent to the Western Front: from a grand turbaned Maharaja to an illiterate peasant who was honoured with the Victoria Cross – the highest medal for bravery.
This excerpt from the book tells the extraordinary story of one of them – one among innumerable others.
“In the peaceful calm of the surroundings of Brockenhurst in the New Forest, Sukha the sweeper lay ill in the Lady Hardinge Hospital. He had journeyed a long way from his village in Uttar Pradesh to come to this war.
It had seemed like a good idea to volunteer for service. The pay was good, better than back home. At least it was regular. He had been funerals promised food and clothes and a chance to serve the King Emperor. He had nothing to lose. Or so it seemed at the time.
Sukha watched the nurses as they walked between the beds in his ward in their starched aprons talking to the orderlies and wounded soldiers. All of them spoke Hindustani and some had lived in India. Occasionally one of them would walk by Sukha’s bed and ask him how he felt. He was too sick to reply, and would just nod to them weakly. His lung was infected and he had been suffering from pneumonia for weeks. He wanted to go back home, where he could feel the hot summer sun burn his back as he worked in his Sahib’s house.
He had not seen the sun for months. He pulled the warm turkey twill quilt over himself and fought back the tears that were threatening to overcome him. The series of huts that made up the Lady Hardinge Hospital had been Sukha’s home for the past month.
The locals called it ‘Tin Town’.
There were 500 beds in the hospital but as there were more injured soldiers than beds there were men lying on mattresses and makeshift beds. Those who managed to walk limped around the room or through the corridor which connected the huts. The Matron, Edith McCall Anderson, was a kindly lady whom Sukha saw occasionally. She was assisted by nineteen nursing staff including two senior nurses. There were twenty wards in the hospital with twenty-four beds in each room and the nurses looked after fifty beds each.
Their job was supervisory. They did not tend to the wounded soldiers or change their dressing. Nursing work was done by the orderlies. The Indians worked as cleaners and cooks. Some Indian students worked as volunteers. The Indian officers had a separate room. They had been sent presents of dressing gowns by Lady Rothschild and they looked smart and warm in their dark blue dressing gowns with red facings.
Sukha wished he had a dressing gown. He had been given a muffler. English ladies were knitting mufflers all around the country and sending them to the hospitals. There were some Indian soldiers who wore the mufflers as turbans. Sukha had wrapped his around his neck.
It seemed like an age since he had boarded the ship in Bombay and left for the front all set to have the adventure of his life. He, Sukha Kalloo, had been recruited as a sweeper, Service Number 16, in the Supply and Transport Corp.
Kalloo wasn’t really his last name.
He was called Kalloo (‘Blackie’) as he was dark skinned. Sukha did not have a last name. He had been given a uniform and a bronze metal badge number which rattled on his lanky chest. He was an ‘untouchable’, and the high caste soldiers had nothing to do with him. His only job was to clean. Sukha had prepared the ship in Bombay before the soldiers embarked in their smart khaki uniforms with their rolls of luggage.
He had swept and cleared the mess made by the mules and horses. He had kept the ship clean on the five-week journey. He had marched in the crisp October air in France behind the soldiers listening to the roar of the French crowds shouting ‘Indienne’, ‘Indienne’ and welcoming him like he had never been greeted before. He had marvelled at the beauty of the women and the rosy-cheeked children who had mischievously pulled at his hand.
Sukha had swept and cleaned in the camps and even been sent to the trenches to clean up. He had seen things he had never seen before and never wanted to see again. Bodies piled on bodies, some of them men who had been laughing and joking a few days before. He had heard the moans of the injured, seen the vacant look on those about to die. He had seen mud and blood and incessant rain that had been nothing like the monsoons in his country. But he had battled on, cleaning the sewage and garbage left behind, preparing the trenches for the next set of soldiers who would spend up to forty-eight hours standing in them.
The damp and rain had seeped through his bones, but he had not complained. The number of injured had gone up and there were no Indian sweepers in the hospitals in England. Strict caste and religious regulations meant that they needed Indian sweepers.
The Bandobust Sahib, Walter Lawrence, had urgently appealed for sweepers. The Empire depended on Sukha and his broom. When Sukha was ordered to go to the motherland, he was relieved to get away from the guns.
He didn’t feel too well himself, but he consoled himself looking at the wounded soldiers. Some were missing limbs, others had lost their fingers and toes from frostbite. Some had damaged their backs as whole trenches had collapsed and fallen on them during the heavy bombing. Yet they were men who had once had a past and a home. Sukha had seen them on the ships sailing to Marseilles, bright and enthusiastic, rearing to play their part in the war. They had not noticed him, but he had heard them sing and had listened to their chatter.
Now they looked like ghosts as he travelled with them on the hospital ship to England. The soldiers’ chatter had been replaced with deathly moans.
He looked after them, sweeping their mess and cleaning the ship. They still did not notice him but he did not mind. Sukha wished he too could lie down for a while. He was suffering from a cold but he had a job to do. Ambulances had taken them from the Port of Southampton to the hospital in Brockenhurst.
Sukha got a fleeting view of green countryside and wild ponies. The hospital was set on a rising ground and was clearly a newly constructed one made of temporary huts. Sukha was explained his duties by an Indian orderly. His job was to keep the wards and lavatories clean. He would have to scrub the wooden floors which got messy quickly as the doors opened straight into the surrounding grounds which were often muddy in the rain.
Sukha marvelled at the way the hospital was run. They had built Indian-style toilets for the soldiers and there were two kitchens for Hindus and Muslims. The neat wards had lockers with each bed, on which lotas were placed, aluminium for the Muslims and brass for the Hindus. The plates, mugs and other crockery were also labelled to distinguish between the two religions: the crockery enamelled dark blue outside and white inside was for the Muslims and that of the Hindus was white with a blue border.
Over the beds hung different coloured discs, marking the different diets of which there were six. It made the job easier for the two cooks who served the food – chicken mutton and dal soups, milk, sugar, rice and chapatis in various combinations. Sukha himself had no diet restrictions and was happy to eat anything except, that of late, he had lost his appetite.
The part of the hospital he liked best were the wide corridors connecting the various blocks. They were warm and furnished with divans covered with thick rugs and scattered with fat bolster cushions with blue, red and green velvet covers on which the soldiers sat around and chatted.
The atmosphere reminded him of the houses back in India. The cold that had been troubling Sukha for some time felt instantly better when he worked in these bright warm areas of the hospital. There was also a recreation room similarly furnished with a comfortable carpet, bright cushions and low tables on which the men could play cards or chess and other board games. This was the room in which they smoked cigarettes or makeshift water pipes.
Often the soldiers would put on a song on the gramophone and Sukha enjoyed the music as he swept. When they were ghazals about love and longing the soldiers would applaud as they listened. Sometimes there were folk songs or devotional music. The banter of the soldiers also kept him amused. They mostly described their experiences in the trenches or in the French and Belgian countryside.
They despaired that the war showed no signs of ending and spoke of the loved ones they had left behind. Hindus and Muslims sat together and shared news of their villages, some read out letters from home, others dictated them to a volunteer who would write the letters for them.
‘Like nightingales we’ve left the woods we know/May God keep others from the way we go,’ a soldier wrote from the Lady Hardinge Hospital. Sukha heard the lines of the verse recited as it was being written.
But it was to end all too soon for Sukha. His cold and congestion got worse. One day as he swept the wards, he felt dizzy and fell to the floor clutching his broom. One of the doctors examining Sukha told him he had to rest.
Sukha had pneumonia. His body had finally yielded to the relentless cold of the West. Soon he was lying in one of the hospital wards that until recently he had been sweeping.
Sukha Kalloo died on 12 January 1915, a few months after he had arrived to serve King and another country.
But even in death, there was no peace. When it was suggested that Sukha be cremated in the ‘burning ghats’ at Patcham, the Hindus objected saying he was from a low caste and could not be cremated at their site. An appeal was then made to Maulvi Sadr-ud-Din in Woking.
However, the response from the mosque was negative as well. Sukha was clearly not a Muslim, said the Maulvi, and he could not be buried there. Sukha the sweeper was in no man’s land, this time because of the caste and religious prejudices of his own countrymen.
It was then that the vicar of St Nicholas Church in Brockenhurst stepped forward saying that Sukha had died for England and that he would be buried in the church graveyard.
And so it happened that Sukha Kalloo found his final resting place in the quiet graveyard of a church in the heart of the scenic New Forest.”
‘For King and Another Country’ by Shrabani Basu is out now.