What would you like to find out more about?

Take a look at the categories below and tick the ones you’d like to explore. You can follow one person’s story through the war, find out about the Siege of Kut from multiple perspectives, or see how different climates affected South Asian soldiers’ experiences of war. You can even dig out our blog and find out how the project developed.

Take a look!

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Panchbir Mal joins the Indian Army

January 23, 1908
Panchbir Mal joins the Indian Army

Panchbir Mal was a member of the Indian Army long before the First World War began.

Find out more about Panchbir Mal and his war experience here.

Why did the British like recruiting Gurkhas? Why do they still?

January 24, 1908
Why did the British like recruiting Gurkhas? Why do they still?

Ever wondered who the Gurkhas are? Or why they’re part of the British Army?

Sanju, a former Gurkha, wrote a blog post explaining it all.

Mohammad Aslam joins the Army

March 24, 1912
Mohammad Aslam joins the Army

We don’t know very much about Mohammad Aslam, but we’re guessing he joined the Army before the war started.He didn’t leave any written records of his time in the army and we haven’t found any official records of him. These will have been lost or destroyed because, as a sepoy, the lowest-ranking soldier in the Indian Army, he wouldn’t have been considered very important.

So how do we know anything about him at all?

Satoori Devi marries Gabar Singh Negi

March 23, 1914
Satoori Devi marries Gabar Singh Negi

This picture shows what the ceremony might have looked like.

You can see the picture in better quality here.

Britain declares war on Germany

August 4, 1914

The Maharaja of Bikaner throws himself into the war

August 5, 1914
The Maharaja of Bikaner throws himself into the war

The Maharaja of Bikaner cables the King from his palace in Jodhpur, offering his services.

“I implore Your Imperial Majesty most earnestly to give me an opportunity for that personal military service which is the highest ambition of a Rathore Rajput Chief… I am ready to go anywhere in any capacity for the privilege of serving my Emperor… This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

Find out more about the Maharaja’s First World War.

News of war reaches Singapore and the ears of Ghulam Mohammad Khan

August 10, 1914
News of war reaches Singapore and the ears of Ghulam Mohammad Khan

In 1914, Ghulam Mohammad Khan was stationed in Singapore on the other side of the world from the trenches of Europe. He was a professional soldier from the Punjab. He would have been considered part of a ‘martial race’ (suited for soldiering) so he was just the kind of recruit the British wanted to attract.

Find out more about Ghulam M Khan’s war here.

Britain declares war on Austria-Hungary

August 12, 1914

 

Would you join the army?

August 20, 1914
Would you join the army?

Whether willingly or unwillingly, more than 1.5 million South Asian men signed up for basic training and a journey far from everything they had known before.

Panchbir Mal sets sail for Europe

September 1, 1914
Panchbir Mal sets sail for Europe

Indian Expeditionary Force A sets sail for Europe within a few weeks of war being declared. The regiments are well-trained and professional – and Panchbir Mal is among them. He embarks ship at Bombay with his regiment, 9 Gurkha Rifles.

You can watch him on his journey here.

The Maharaja travels to Europe

September 14, 1914
The Maharaja travels to Europe

The Maharaja embarks ship at Karachi and heads for France, a three week journey.

Panchbir Mal arrives in Europe

September 30, 1914
Panchbir Mal arrives in Europe

Panchbir Mal arrives at Marseilles with the first Indian Expeditionary Force and is moved to the Western Front, equipped with modern but unfamiliar rifles.

The Maharaja is refused permission to go to the front line

October 8, 1914

The Maharaja arrives at the Western Front, but as a member of HQ staff – he was safely behind the front line and not permitted to lead charges against the enemy. “Dull doesn’t even begin to describe it.”

Why was the Maharaja so keen to fight?

Khudadad Khan wins India’s first Victoria Cross

October 31, 1914
Khudadad Khan wins India’s first Victoria Cross

Khudadad Khan was the first of eleven South Asians to be awarded at Victoria Cross during the First World War. Younes brings the story to life in this blog post.

Brrrrr!

December 1, 1914
Brrrrr!

The winter of 1914 in France was very cold but the uniforms of the South Asian soldiers were not equipped for the snow.

Panchbir Mal fights at the Battle of Festubert

December 19, 1914
Panchbir Mal fights at the Battle of Festubert

Panchbir Mal is one of the soldiers at the Battle of Festubert, the defence of a small town in northern France. Relentless shelling by the Germans and non-stop rain had left the trenches filled with water and mud, but Panchbir was recommended for a VC for his courage in action.

Find out more about the life of a Gurkha through this short film of a Nepalese song.

South Indians on the homefront

December 22, 1914
South Indians on the homefront

Most young men in India would have expected to spend their whole lives working in the fields. Would joining the army have been a more appealing option?

Who is Dr Brighton?

December 30, 1914
Who is Dr Brighton?

South Asians who were seriously injured on the Western Front were sent to Brighton, where a hospital had been set up in the Royal Pavilion. Read all about it in Melanie’s blog.

A South Indian signs up

January 9, 1915
A South Indian signs up

This man is the face of a recruitment poster saying:

“By joining the military, you get paid 50 rupees cash in hand. By recruiting another, you get 15 rupees cash in hand. After 6 months, everyone gets 24 rupees.”

The man is talking to us in Tamil, a language spoken in southern India, and points behind him to a typical south Indian beach scene. The picture is ambiguous – he could be a soldier, but his uniform could equally be that of a high-ranking non-combatant. His reasons for enlisting are clear though! Would you have signed up?

See the poster in full here.

What was it like to be a camp follower?

January 10, 1915
What was it like to be a camp follower?

Nearly 600,000 of the 1.5 million South Asians who served in the First World War were non-combatants. Read the unsung story of the hard-working camp follower.

Why did the South Indian sergeant sign up?

January 11, 1915

Panchbir Mal awarded a medal

January 12, 1915
Panchbir Mal awarded a medal

Panchbir Mal receives an Indian Order of Merit (Second Class) for his actions at Festubert.

What did he and other South Asians think of being awarded a medal? Find out here.

The Maharaja heads to Egypt

January 17, 1915
The Maharaja heads to Egypt

Hearing that his daughter was seriously ill, the Maharaja left the Western Front and headed home – taking time in Egypt to inspect the soldiers and camels he’d lent to the war effort.

Watch his journey here.

The Maharaja charges the Turks – on a camel

February 9, 1915
The Maharaja charges the Turks – on a camel

Under attack by the Turkish Army, the Maharaja of Bikaner himself charged the enemy at the head of his camel-mounted cavalry, the Bikaner Camel Corps.

See this picture of a camel charge in big!

The Singapore Mutiny erupts!

February 15, 1915
The Singapore Mutiny erupts!

While Ghulam M Khan is in hospital, recovering from malaria, violence breaks out in his regiment, the 5th Light Infantry. He goes outside and sees:

‘20 or 30 men … all armed with rifles…they were going towards Tanglin [Barracks]. They passed me at 30 yards distance.’

11 Europeans are killed at Tanglin Barracks later that day.

What sparked the mutiny?

47 soldiers are sentenced to death

February 22, 1915
47 soldiers are sentenced to death

A total of 47 South Asian soldiers are sentenced to death by the British, some of them before the court of inquiry which examines the violence is begun.

Ghulam Mohammad Khan is not one of them but he is close enough to where the executions took place that he can hear the shots as they are fired.

Why did the Singapore Mutiny happen?

February 23, 1915

A court of inquiry is held to establish why the mutiny began. Have a look at this to consider some of the possible reasons why.

Sisir Sarbadhikari pulls strings to enlist

March 3, 1915
Sisir Sarbadhikari pulls strings to enlist

Sisir Sarbadhikari wanted to enlist, but he wasn’t able to sign up as a soldier: the Army refused to recruit Bengalis. With no medical training, Sisir joined the Bengal Ambulance Corps, a non-combatant unit providing medical support. He and another 116 men received three months’ training and set sail from Bombay in the summer of 1915. A week later, theylanded in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).

“I’ve just passed my B.A. and have nothing much to do. No that isn’t quite correct, I’ve actually entered my name in the rolls of the Law College, and am looking for a job. In the meantime the First World War breaks out.”

Why couldn’t Bengalis enlist?

The South Indian sergeant goes to Gallipoli

March 22, 1915
The South Indian sergeant goes to Gallipoli

We don’t have any information about a South Indian who signed up – though we know they were there! So imagine he joined the Army as a non-combatant – a mule driver – and was sent to Gallipoli shortly after signing up.

Under enemy fire, mule drivers worked relentlessly to make sure food, water, ammunition, and medical supplies made it from supply depots to the troops on the frontline. They faced danger and death, just as the soldiers did, but did not find themselves in line for the same rewards and status as soldiers.

It takes more than soldiers to win a war.

Satoori Devi hears of her husband’s death

April 10, 1915
Satoori Devi hears of her husband’s death

Satoori Devi received news of her husband’s death with the Victoria Cross that he had been awarded for bravery.

“I weep so much I am becoming insane…” Read more from the letters of women on the homefront.

The Gallipoli Campaign

April 25, 1915
The Gallipoli Campaign

The campaign at Gallipoli was an eight-month confrontation between Allied troops, including South Asian men, and the Turkish Army. It is well-known for the contribution made by Australian and New Zealand troops, but the service of South Asian soldiers and non-combatants is rarely mentioned.

Recently it has been suggested that there were 15,000 South Asian men in action at Gallipoli, three times more than listed in the official statistics published by the War Office in 1919.

Find out more about this research into the South Asian experiences at Gallipoli.

Or how about some background to the story of our South Indian mule driver? CHANGE LINK

Ghulam Mohammad Khan sets sail … for West Africa

July 3, 1915
Ghulam Mohammad Khan sets sail … for West Africa

After the court of inquiry concluded, the 5th Light Infantry were sent to West Africa. Follow Ghulam M Khan’s journey here. Watch out for the whale!

A day in the life of a non-combatant at Gallipoli

August 9, 1915
A day in the life of a non-combatant at Gallipoli

In a devastating battle at Gallipoli lasting days, the cooks and water carriers from a Gurkha regiment helped carry ammunition and bombs to the front lines, risking death – one was killed. As the fighting died down and they were no longer needed, they returned to their daily duties of providing the soldiers with food and drink.

On the same day, Subedar-Major Gambir Sing Pun from 6th Gurkha Rifles was awarded the Indian Order of Merit when he led an attack with bombs on a Turkish trench.

Would a non-combatant from southern India ever have received an award for bravery?

Find out more about “the most desperate battle in history”

The South Indian sergeant dies

October 1, 1915
The South Indian sergeant dies

Over 1500 South Asians died at Gallipoli, with another 4000 wounded. Our South Indian sergeant could have been among the deaths announced in the 71st list of casualties from the Mediterranean, published in The Pioneer (Allahabad) on 1 October 1915. Here are just a few of the names.

1st Mule Corps Driver 1698 Karim Hyder
9th Mule Corps Driver 880 Fateh Khan
11th Mule Corps Drivers 1581 Gul Zaman, 760 Khuda Bux
33rd Mule Corps Driver 2040 Abdullah

You can follow the sergeant’s journey to Gallipoli here.

Medals for cooks

November 11, 1915
Medals for cooks

It’s easy to forget how important the cooks – and all the non-combatants – were in making the war possible. Here, Tiur considers whether we should have medals for cooks.

Sisir Sarbadhikari is besieged in Kut

December 7, 1915
Sisir Sarbadhikari is besieged in Kut

In December 1915, Sisir and some 11000 other South Asian and British men were besieged in the walled town of Kut, 100 miles south of Baghdad. The Turkish Army which surrounded them held the Allied forces there for over four months, until the British commander surrendered in April 1916.

Mohammad Aslam sets out for the Middle East

January 3, 1916
Mohammad Aslam sets out for the Middle East

Winning a medal in the Relief of Kut

January 21, 1916
Winning a medal in the Relief of Kut

A 14 year old girl learns to read

February 6, 1916
A 14 year old girl learns to read

The literacy rate for women in India by 1921 was only 1.8%. But Kishan Devi, a 14 year old girl, wrote a letter to her soldier father in the Middle East, telling him that she had done just that.

Read the letter here.

Why did Kishan Devi want to write her own letters?

February 6, 1916
Why did Kishan Devi want to write her own letters?

The fact that Kishan could read and write meant that she and her family no longer had to receive their letters via someone else. This freed them to say what they wanted, unlike others, who sent letters home saying

“I should like to write to my wife, but she would have to get the letters read by someone else and all the home secrets would come out.”

Read some of the other letters sent between men in the Army and their families here.

Food begins to run out in Kut

February 29, 1916

February 29th: Food was short, and on top of that, because of the shortage of clothing, we had to wear just one
set of clothes. We couldn’t change; nor could we bathe. Everybody was covered with lice. They would swarm all
over us, under our clothes. The torment was indescribable. For lack of meat or fresh vegetables, scurvy broke out.

Read Sisir’s full description of life under siege in Kut.

Ghulam Mohammad Khan sets sail again… for East Africa

March 1, 1916
Ghulam Mohammad Khan sets sail again… for East Africa

Panchbir Mal fights to lift the Siege of Kut

March 1, 1916
Panchbir Mal fights to lift the Siege of Kut

Panchbir Mal was part of attempts to defeat Turkish forces besieging the town of Kut, southeast of Baghdad. Over 23,000 men died in the failed attempt to lift the siege.

Mohammad Aslam is part of the attempts to relieve the Siege of Kut

March 1, 1916
Mohammad Aslam is part of the attempts to relieve the Siege of Kut

Mohammad Aslam was part of the 106th Hazara Pioneers. Pioneer regiments repaired roads and bridges, worked on fortifications and trenches, moved supplies and cleared mines, often under intense shelling. They were widely considered to have the hardest job on the battlefield.

The Loop of the Tiger

March 10, 1916
The Loop of the Tiger

Sophie delved into the archives to learn more about the Siege of Kut in people’s own words.

Panchbir Mal wounded at Kut

April 24, 1916
Panchbir Mal wounded at Kut

Panchbir Mal was wounded seeking to relieve the Siege of Kut. On the same day, five of his fellow soldiers from 9th Gurkha Rifles died.

Sisir describes the day food runs out at Kut

April 28, 1916
Sisir describes the day food runs out at Kut

April 28th. There’s not a grain left of our rations.

By the end of March, daily rations had been reduced to only 170 grams of flour, 113 grams of unground barley, 15 grams of ghee and any grasses or herbs they could gather. For those who were willing to eat horsemeat, there was also 500 grams available a day but many South Asian sepoys refused because of the cultural and religious dietary restrictions they observed.

The end of the Siege of Kut

April 29, 1916
The end of the Siege of Kut

General Townshend surrenders Kut to the Ottoman Turks after a four-month siege. The men inside the town are weak, starving and about to face a 4000 mile march across the desert. Sisir Sarbadhikari is one of those men. Find out how he got to this point.

British and Indian forces surrender at Kut

April 29, 1916

Sisir becomes a prisoner of war

April 30, 1916
Sisir becomes a prisoner of war

During this time, Sisir kept a diary:

“I had to tear up many of my notes for fear that they would be found; I re-wrote some of them later; but I couldn’t with some. You mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that the diary that I’ve referred to so far, and which I’ll refer to again, was my original diary. After the surrender at Kut, I ripped apart my diary, tore the pages into pieces, and stuffed them into my boots; using those scraps I filled out a new journal later – in Baghdad. This journal was also ruined when I crossed the Tigris on foot. But the writing wasn’t completely effaced because I had used a copying pencil. I dried the book and used it for my notes of the march from Samarra to Ras al-‘Ain. At Ras al-‘Ain I had to bury the diary for a while but it didn’t suffer much damage. In the infirmary at Aleppo I wrote it out again.”

You can read more of his diary here.

Conditions in East Africa were hard

June 10, 1916
Conditions in East Africa were hard

Conditions in East Africa were terrible. Malaria and dysentery made men too weak to fight and deaths from disease far outstripped deaths in combat. All the accounts from the East African campaign talk of encounters with wild animals. War diaries record elephants damaging rail tracks, hippos attacking boats, and giraffes knocking over telegraph poles. Wherever Ghulam Mohammad Khan walked, he had to watch out for jigger fleas burrowing into his feet and laying eggs under his skin.

Ghulam Mohammad Khan dies

April 6, 1917
Ghulam Mohammad Khan dies

Ghulam Mohammad Khan died somewhere along the Rufiji River in German East Africa. We don’t know where or how he died, but based on the statistics, we guess he died of disease – he was probably particularly prone to fevers, having suffered from malaria in Singapore.

POW! Life in the Half Moon Camp

August 5, 1917
POW! Life in the Half Moon Camp

Conditions in the prison camp

May 4, 1918

Conditions were terrible: 4000 of the 10000 taken prisoner at Kut died on the way to the prison camps, or while there. You can read more about Sisir’s time in the camps here.

African porters in the East Africa campaign

July 1, 1918
African porters in the East Africa campaign

The stories of South Asian soldiers are not the only ones which have been neglected over the last century. Over 1 million local people were recruited as porters – often by force – to carry troop supplies over long distances too difficult to cover by motorised transport, train or pack animals.

Some 100,000 African porters died, through malnutrition, illness and exhaustion. They were not included in official commemorations of the First World War dead.

India’s only flying ace is killed

July 22, 1918
India’s only flying ace is killed

Indra Lal Roy defied the odds to become one of the British airforce’s most successful fighter pilots. You can hear his story, in words we’ve imagined, here.

It wasn’t just the enemy Mohammad Aslam had to watch out for

August 7, 1918
It wasn’t just the enemy Mohammad Aslam had to watch out for

Mohammad Aslam remembered wearing goggles to stop birds attacking their eyes and to prevent sand and grit from blinding them.

Peace is declared in Europe

November 11, 1918
Peace is declared in Europe

Germany, Britain and France sign a peace agreement to put an end to the First World War.

Fighting stopped immediately on the Western Front and huge celebrations were held in the streets of cities across the world.

Mohammad Aslam starts the work of securing Mesopotamia under British control

November 12, 1918
Mohammad Aslam starts the work of securing Mesopotamia under British control

The British replaced the defeated Ottoman Empire as the ruling power in Mesopotamia and they used Indian Army units already there to establish their rule. Mohammad Aslam and the 106th Hazara Pioneers were employed to drive a railway through the Hamrin Mountains in northeastern Iraq and establish communications lines from Sherqat to Mosul.

When Kurdish fighters began resisting British interventions in northern Mesopotamia in 1919, the 106th Hazaras were pulled in to support British armed forces fighting in very difficult, mountainous terrain.

Can we really say that the war was over?

Sisir is released from the prison camp

November 17, 1918
Sisir is released from the prison camp

After over two and a half years in captivity, Sisir was released from the prison camp. He wrote: ‘I’m overjoyed at the thought of going back home’.

You can read more about his time in the prison camps here.

Fighting ends in East Africa

November 25, 1918

News of the Armistice only reached East Africa on 14 November. It then took 9 days for the Germans in Africa to formally surrender.

The Maharaja represents India at negotiations for peace

January 5, 1919
The Maharaja represents India at negotiations for peace

The Maharaja is summoned to England to represent India in the peace negotiations that followed the declaration of the end of the First World War.

He mostly stays at the Ritz.

Sisir reaches home

January 8, 1919
Sisir reaches home

Sisir finally reaches home! You can watch his entire journey here.

And after all that, when the Second World War began twenty years later – he signed up all over again!

Panchbir Mal takes the long road home

April 13, 1919
Panchbir Mal takes the long road home

Panchbir Mal heads home – on foot, via Afghanistan. When did he finally get back?

You can trace his footsteps here.

The Maharaja signs the Treaty of Versailles

June 28, 1919
The Maharaja signs the Treaty of Versailles

The Maharaja of Bikaner is the only South Asian person to sign the Treaty of Versailles, the peace treaty which officially brings the war between Germany and the Allied forces to an end.

The Maharaja sets sail for India

June 29, 1919
The Maharaja sets sail for India

The Maharaja wasted no time in returning home – he sent this cable immediately after the conference finished:

Peace signed today with Germany. Starting for Marseilles. Sailing tomorrow, twenty-ninth. Maharaja.

You can watch his wartime travel here.

The war goes on for Mohammad Aslam

November 11, 1920
The war goes on for Mohammad Aslam

Thirteen men from the 106th Hazara Pioneers are listed on the Basra Memorial with dates of death from 18th November 1918 to 5th July 1921.

For soldiers like Mohammad Aslam who continued to serve in hostile territory, the armistice did not bring an end to the dangers they faced.

Mohammad Aslam finally goes home

July 14, 1921
Mohammad Aslam finally goes home

Satoori Devi uses her husband’s medal

March 10, 1980
Satoori Devi uses her husband’s medal

Satoori wore her husband’s Victoria Cross on her chest until she died. She chose to use this memory, and the memory of her husband, to encourage young men to join his former regiment. She must have been proud of her husband’s sacrifice.

You can read more about Satoori and other women’s experiences of war here.

What can we learn from the Imperial War Museum?

November 11, 2015
What can we learn from the Imperial War Museum?

We took a trip to the IWM to see how they present the South Asian contribution to the First World War and Simon shared his thoughts.

Mohammad Aslam’s grandson, Raza, tells his story

March 12, 2016
Mohammad Aslam’s grandson, Raza, tells his story

Raza told us his grandfather’s memories, which had been told to him by his father, Mohammad Aslam’s son. Without these shared memories, we wouldn’t know anything about Mohammad Aslam’s wartime experiences.

You can read more of Raza’s memories here.

Desert sand on the pages at the National Army Museum

March 20, 2016
Desert sand on the pages at the National Army Museum

Sophie shares some of the things we found in the National Army Museum on our visit there to explore the archives.

“I have a great longing to play the flute…”

April 22, 2016
“I have a great longing to play the flute…”

Ellie writes about why music and poetry are an important way of accessing the past.

Telling stories about the truth

May 26, 2016
Telling stories about the truth

The making of… our digital stories, which you can watch here.

Lest we forget

June 12, 2016
Lest we forget

November’s a big time for commemoration but in June every year, the contribution of South Asians is marked near Brighton. Sophie went along. CHANGE LINK

Installing the exhibition

November 4, 2016
Installing the exhibition

Take a quick look at our whirlwind day putting up the exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society.

CHANGE LINK