Abstract: Beyond the Western Front

Proposal for Beyond the Western Front – The Global First World War
Presentation and short screening

Subject: The contribution of camp followers and non-combatants from undivided India and Nepal

The First World War involved an immense amount of activity before, in addition to, and after the actual fighting. Of the 1.5 million who went from undivided India and Nepal to fronts across the world, nearly 600,000 went as non-combatants and camp followers. They were stretcher-bearers, mule drivers, cooks, tailors, barbers, construction workers, water bearers and cleaners, and their work was indispensable.

However, their crucial contribution has been largely overlooked, not least because of the difficulties of researching their experiences, compounded by lack of official recognition and by the dearth of personal recollections left by these largely illiterate groups.

Yet their experiences draw out interesting themes, relevant to the experiences of all those from South Asia who took part in the war (and to Far From the Western Front, a community project examining the motivations and contributions of South Asians in the First World War). Non-combatants were, like all others in the British Indian Army, classed as volunteers, but the existence of convict labour corps, drafted from jails, raises questions about the nature of this ‘voluntary’ army. Examples of dissent and dissatisfaction, as well as personal accounts, shed light on some of the motivating factors behind enlistment and the continuing contributions of South Asian participants throughout.

We will sketch out some of these issues, drawing on original research to propose new ways of looking at the contribution of South Asian participants through the lens of the camp follower’s experience.

In addition, we will present our digital story, researched, written and produced by project volunteers, bringing to life the story of non-combatants and camp followers.

Want to join us at the conference or help write the paper, make the digital story, or do the research? Email eleanor@asiancentre.co.uk to get in touch.