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!
Panchbir Mal joins the Indian ArmyJanuary 23, 1908
Panchbir Mal was a member of the Indian Army long before the First World War began.
Why did the British like recruiting Gurkhas? Why do they still?January 24, 1908
Ever wondered who the Gurkhas are? Or why they’re part of the British Army?
Mohammad Aslam joins the ArmyMarch 24, 1912
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.
Satoori Devi marries Gabar Singh NegiMarch 23, 1914
This picture shows what the ceremony might have looked like.
Britain declares war on GermanyAugust 4, 1914
The Maharaja of Bikaner throws himself into the warAugust 5, 1914
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.”
News of war reaches Singapore and the ears of Ghulam Mohammad KhanAugust 10, 1914
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.
Britain declares war on Austria-HungaryAugust 12, 1914
Would you join the army?August 20, 1914
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 EuropeSeptember 1, 1914
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.
The Maharaja travels to EuropeSeptember 14, 1914
The Maharaja embarks ship at Karachi and heads for France, a three week journey.
Panchbir Mal arrives in EuropeSeptember 30, 1914
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 lineOctober 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.”
Khudadad Khan wins India’s first Victoria CrossOctober 31, 1914
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
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 FestubertDecember 19, 1914
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.
South Indians on the homefrontDecember 22, 1914
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
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 upJanuary 9, 1915
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?
What was it like to be a camp follower?January 10, 1915
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 medalJanuary 12, 1915
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 EgyptJanuary 17, 1915
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.
The Maharaja charges the Turks – on a camelFebruary 9, 1915
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.
The Singapore Mutiny erupts!February 15, 1915
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.
47 soldiers are sentenced to deathFebruary 22, 1915
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 enlistMarch 3, 1915
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.”
The South Indian sergeant goes to GallipoliMarch 22, 1915
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.
Satoori Devi hears of her husband’s deathApril 10, 1915
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 CampaignApril 25, 1915
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.
Ghulam Mohammad Khan sets sail … for West AfricaJuly 3, 1915
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 GallipoliAugust 9, 1915
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?
The South Indian sergeant diesOctober 1, 1915
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
Medals for cooksNovember 11, 1915
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 KutDecember 7, 1915
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 EastJanuary 3, 1916
Winning a medal in the Relief of KutJanuary 21, 1916
A 14 year old girl learns to readFebruary 6, 1916
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.
Why did Kishan Devi want to write her own letters?February 6, 1916
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.”
Food begins to run out in KutFebruary 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.
Ghulam Mohammad Khan sets sail again… for East AfricaMarch 1, 1916
Panchbir Mal fights to lift the Siege of KutMarch 1, 1916
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 KutMarch 1, 1916
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 TigerMarch 10, 1916
Sophie delved into the archives to learn more about the Siege of Kut in people’s own words.
Panchbir Mal wounded at KutApril 24, 1916
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 KutApril 28, 1916
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 KutApril 29, 1916
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 KutApril 29, 1916
Sisir becomes a prisoner of warApril 30, 1916
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.”
Conditions in East Africa were hardJune 10, 1916
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 diesApril 6, 1917
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 CampAugust 5, 1917
Conditions in the prison campMay 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 campaignJuly 1, 1918
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 killedJuly 22, 1918
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 forAugust 7, 1918
Mohammad Aslam remembered wearing goggles to stop birds attacking their eyes and to prevent sand and grit from blinding them.
Peace is declared in EuropeNovember 11, 1918
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 controlNovember 12, 1918
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.
Sisir is released from the prison campNovember 17, 1918
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’.
Fighting ends in East AfricaNovember 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 peaceJanuary 5, 1919
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 homeJanuary 8, 1919
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 homeApril 13, 1919
Panchbir Mal heads home – on foot, via Afghanistan. When did he finally get back?
The Maharaja signs the Treaty of VersaillesJune 28, 1919
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 IndiaJune 29, 1919
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.
The war goes on for Mohammad AslamNovember 11, 1920
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 homeJuly 14, 1921
Satoori Devi uses her husband’s medalMarch 10, 1980
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.
What can we learn from the Imperial War Museum?November 11, 2015
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 storyMarch 12, 2016
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.
Desert sand on the pages at the National Army MuseumMarch 20, 2016
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
Ellie writes about why music and poetry are an important way of accessing the past.
Lest we forgetJune 12, 2016
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 exhibitionNovember 4, 2016
Take a quick look at our whirlwind day putting up the exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society.