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Illiterate but Literary: The Censored Correspondence of Indian Soldiers in France, 1914-18

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 2 November 2015

Dr David Omissi, Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Hull, examines the personal correspondence of Indian soldiers who fought on the Western Front.


Dr David Omissi:

I'd like to start by stressing the title of the talk, 'Illiterate but Literary', comes from a workshop I'll talk about at the end of the talk. It was my friend Santanu Das of King's College, London, who uttered this phrase and it was too good not to borrow. So I want to just thank Santanu - I didn't actually ask his permission to use it - but for coming up with it.

So, I'll talk a little bit about the book from which much of this talk comes, 'Indian Voices of the Great War', recently reissued in an Indian edition. It's a collection of about 600 letters written to or from Indian soldiers serving on the Western Front.

The letters all passed through a British military censor's office in France. And this collection of letters includes letters from soldiers in France to their families in India; letters from families in India to soldiers in France; letters from the wounded soldiers in hospitals in England to their families or other soldiers in France which came through the Post Office in France; and correspondence between men serving in France who'd been cross posted from regiments in India. The only thing all of these letters have in common is that they went through this one Post Office in France. And so that's essentially what is the basis for the book.

I want to start with a quotation from one of the letters in the book. It's from someone, we don't know her name, she's the mother of a soldier called Waris Khan. He was a Punjabi Muslim, probably from what is now Pakistan, and he was killed on the first day of the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915. And she's asking in this letter for the repatriation of her son's body.

And she writes: 'All your letters have come thrusting fresh spears of grief into my heart. 'Til this day I have not regained my senses. The fatal news reached me on 17 October. I have written one letter before this to Anwar Khan, telling him to inform all the men of Dharabi and Kot Sarang from the grief-stricken mother of Waris Khan that they must ask the CO [commanding officer] of the 69th Punjabis' - his regiment - 'for the body of my dear, only son, for whose sake alone we seven women live, who fell in France. Let his body be quickly sent home, that his grave may be made here, and we may spend the rest of our lives weeping over it.' A very moving letter.

Now this letter has been much on my mind recently. Of course, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Loos was in September and this woman received the news of her son's death 100 years ago last month. Almost certainly her request for the repatriation of his body was not granted - it simply wasn't practical. He's probably buried somewhere in France.

I want to make just a few observations about this one letter, because a lot of the talk will hang on certain issues that this letter raises. Almost certainly, the woman was illiterate, so she must have dictated the letter to some local scribe. The letter is an example of emotional literacy - it's very moving, it's intended to purge the grief that she's experiencing because of her son's death.

It uses a vivid image - 'thrusting fresh spears of grief into my heart' - but it's also an example of pragmatic literacy, she's trying to influence others' behaviour, she's trying to achieve an outcome - getting her son's body repatriated.

It's also a public document at both ends, at the receiving end and at the sending end. She must have got someone to write this letter down for her, but she knows it's going to become a public document, at least within the regiment. She says 'telling him to inform all the men that they must ask the CO', so she knows this letter is going to be read out and circulated.

These issues and these themes are common to many of the many of the letters in the collection. Written by illiterate people, they're public documents, they're both pragmatic and emotional. And I'll return to each of these issues at some point in the talk.

I've structured the talk, broadly speaking, into three main parts. I'm first going to talk about the creation and the provenance of the censorship archive on which the book is based.

I'm then going to move on and look at some issues around censorship and literacy. How did illiterate people write letters? How did they deal with the problem of writing under conditions of censorship? I'm going to try and illustrate some of these with quotations from Indian soldiers' letters. Most of the quotations will come from the book, there are many letters that have not been included.

And then we're going to talk a little bit about the reception history of the book - reviews, academic and community reception - and how the letters have been used. And I'm going to end with some examples of the use of the letters in public and with some reflections about how they might have been translated, which is something I'm cogitating about at the moment.

The book grew out of a monograph about the Indian Army in the 19th and 20th century that I wrote and published about 20 years ago. As I think some people in this room will know, the history of the Indian Army is a much more fashionable subject now than it was when some of us started working on it all those years ago.

When I was working on the monograph I came across this collection of letters, I came across this censorship archive in the British Library in the oriental... they keep changing the name, but up until recently it was called the Oriental and India Office Collections. And I wove quotations from soldiers' letters into the monograph in order to illustrate some of my arguments about the importance to the soldiers of the Indian Army of things like honour, religion, cast and warriordom. But I always wanted to follow up with an edition of the letters.

We'll just say a little bit about the Indian Army. It was sent to Europe, two infantry and two cavalry divisions were sent to Europe in 1914-15 most importantly because the Indian Army was the only source of trained troops within the British Empire beyond the British Army. The Canadian and Australian, the Dominion armies, were not immediately trained and available. Indian troops fought at all the main battles on the Western Front - First Ypres in 1914 and then Second Ypres, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Loos amongst others in 1915.

The letters come from an archive of military censorship which consists mainly of excerpts from Indian soldiers' letters which have been translated into English. The censorship archive had a purpose, it was to gather information about the morale of the troops. It was not primarily to suppress their correspondence. The British authorities were quite keen that Indian soldiers were able to communicate with their families, although the censors did sometimes suppress letters and I'll come to some of those later on.

Similar archives must once have existed for Indian forces in other theatres of war. We know there was one in Egypt, probably dealing with the letters of soldiers in what is now Iraq and Palestine. I think that archive has now been lost.

After a year's work in France the censor made a report on his work, the chief censor, he was one of a team of about half a dozen. And this report contained the following observation: 'Apart from all present value the record of extracts taken from the Indian correspondence constitutes a document of some historical value and no less psychological interest. If the publication of selection should ever be permitted a very entertaining book would result.'

I couldn't resist this sort of open invitation to produce an edition coming from, of all people, a censor. That quotation is towards the end of the introduction to the book and the full report is in one of the appendices.

Now in editing this collection there was a number of core questions that I had to address. How much of the collection should I publish? The entire collection is about 4,000 pages should I have published all of it?

One option was to digitise the whole thing. My next door neighbour in the department at Hull, John Palmer, was in the process of digitising the whole of Domesday Book. And he rushed through it in about 30 years [laughter]. I decided against that for two main reasons, partly because the censorship report was information gathering, so there was a lot of repetition. Secondly, unlike... John had 100 years of really serious scholarship on Domesday to build on, I didn't have anything like the same to go on. And thirdly, I wanted to use that quotation about an interesting book, which meant it had to be one volume.

I wrote an introduction to the selection. When I did that, I read all the selection I'd made - 650-odd letters - but I read them again in reverse chronological order to try and see the letters in a new light. And this slightly strange method does seem to have worked.

I also made sure that every one of the letters in the book is referred to by number in the introduction, so you can read the introduction and then read the whole book by referring forwards to the letters. There are also lots of cross references in the book so you can pick up the book at any point and just keep reading until you get to a cross reference.

I want now to move on to pick up some of the themes that are in the book and in the collection. First, most obviously, the one... the theme of censorship. Indian troops knew that their officers, British or Indian, would read their letters, which were sometimes read out before one or two officers. This censorship, however, became fairly cursory as officers with the necessary linguistic skills were killed. But the main censorship that I'm drawing on was based for most of the war at this Post Office in Boulogne, where all the letters passed through the Indian Post Office.

There was one Indian civil servant assisted by a small team of retired civil servants and Indian Army officers. They read and translated a small selection of the letters each week. There were far too many for them to read them all, but each week they prepared a report with attached translated extracts from about 50 or 100 of the letters.

The main aim of this censorship was to monitor the morale of the troops and to pre-empt any problems, particularly around food or religion. Almost all the original letters I think must now be lost, but I'll end with one of them that we've found.

How did soldiers and their families write their letters? The census of India show that 94 per cent of the Indian population was illiterate. A few soldiers might have been literate, such as officers or company clerks, but most soldiers and their families must have used letter writers and letter readers to read and write their letters. And this, of course, affected what the correspondents were prepared to say, since they knew the letters were... it was possible that they might be read aloud.

Letters could, however, be privatised by including instructions to the letter reader such as: 'To the person who reads this letter to my father, it is to be read out only to him and alone.'

The sheer quantity of the correspondence, despite the fact the troops were illiterate, suggests that the letters mattered. In 1915 there were about 20,000 letters a week coming from Indian troops in France, a huge number from four divisions. For most troops it was the only way they could communicate with their families.

One wounded man in hospital in Brighton wrote home, 'As long as there is life in me, I will worship and love and write. It is my one prayer that you should do likewise.'

One of the first and most striking features of the letters, unsurprisingly enough, is reaction to the war. 'There is a river of blood flowing here,' wrote one man home.

Soldiers started writing to prepare their families for their deaths. One man wrote home, 'This is a fight of heroes. Men will remember this war all their lives and say that so-and-so died in the German war.' By this he means that his family's status as a military family will be enhanced by his death, which he sees as imminent.

They also write very pragmatically home letters about what should happen to their pensions when they get killed. And some also write home urging their families not to enlist because the losses are so high. These letters were passed by the censor because he felt that they were simply trying to prevent harm happening to their families, rather than expressing disloyalty.

There was a great reproach when a soldier learnt that one of his family had joined up. 'It is a matter for regret that you,' he wrote, 'as a sensible man should put your foot into the blazing fire.'

In areas where blood feuds were practised, some soldiers used the military post as a vehicle for continuing feuds that were going on back home. When a Pathan, for example, learnt that his father had been killed in a feud, he wrote home, 'If you have any sense of honour, and if you are a real Pathan, then you should take your revenge by killing two enemies quickly,' - meaning they lose two people for the loss of one. This letter would be one that would be suppressed. Incitements to murder were normally suppressed, but since the censors are only reading a small proportion of the letters, incitements to murder must have got through.  

There is another side to this picture of courage and loyalty, however. Problems of morale did become fairly evident early on in 1914 and soldiers write fairly despairing letters, particularly towards the end of the First Battle of Ypres.

One man wrote home, 'The butcher does not let the goat escape,' - a typical animal image that soldiers often use. Others compared themselves to maggots, who are being killed in their thousands.

There was some evidence of self-inflicted wounds and these occasionally surface in the letters, normally in very coded forms, like: 'I've been wounded in the trigger finger. Do not worry about me.'

What particularly bothered the Indian soldiers in France was the practice of returning wounded men to the front once they had recovered. And there are lots of references to this in the correspondence.

One Sikh wrote home to his father, 'There is no hope that I shall see you again for we are as grain that is flung a second time into the oven and life does not come out of it,' - meaning once they've recovered they're sent back to the trenches, and again using this image, this rural image of grain.

The soldiers and their families felt that this practice was very unfair for two main reasons. Given the casualties, this meant that a wounded man was likely to be wounded a second time or even killed once he was sent back to the trenches. And secondly, it meant that... the policy meant that the only wounded men who could return to India were those who had been disabled by wounds and hence economically disadvantaged.

In the end, the soldiers in hospital in Britain sent a petition to the King, the King Emperor, on this subject in May 1915. The petition was written in Roman Urdu, that is Urdu written in Latin script rather than in Persian script, making it easier for the King to read. Actually it made it more difficult for the censor to translate.

And it read: 'Address: England, The Emperor, Let no one except the King open this,' - so showing an awareness that these letters are being opened. 'From the Indian sick in hospital,' - that's on the envelope.

And then inside the letter reads: 'Your Majesty's order was that a man who had been wounded once should be allowed to return to India, or if he had recovered he should not be made to serve again. The heart of India is broken. Any man who comes here wounded is returned thrice and four times to the trenches. Only that man goes to India who has lost an arm, a leg or an eye.'

Now, this act of petitioning was an appeal to, and of course a reinforcement of, royal authority. The petition is a classic form of pragmatic literacy, intending to influence the behaviour of others. I think the timing of this petition, May 1915, is also significant. It comes just after the Lahore Division, one of the two Indian infantry divisions, suffered very heavy losses at the Second Battle of Ypres in the last week of April 1915.

I'd like to quote now some of the letters written around the time of Second Ypres, that had been in my mind recently because I'd been finishing, putting the finishing touches to a chapter about the Indian Army at Second Ypres for a book on the Second Battle of Ypres that's coming out next month for the 100th anniversary, at least of the year, not of the month.

It was around this time that rumours began circulating among Indian troops that they were being sacrificed to save British lives. And this rumour crops up in the form of a simple code in a number of the letters.

One man writes home, 'Please do me the favour of letting me know what is the condition of the market for black pepper. That which I brought has all been finished and some more has been sent. You probably know that there is lots of red pepper, but they want black.'

In this case, as in others, red pepper stands for British troops and black pepper for Indian. And this idea that Indians were being sacrificed to spare British lives was a potentially politically explosive idea, because the rumour starts then circulating in India. I've seen evidence from the National Archives in India of British officials overhearing this rumour in railway carriages in the recruiting grounds.

In the chapter, among other things, I've looked quite closely at the deployment of British Gurkha and Indian battalions in the Lahore Division at Second Ypres, and in detail at the casualties. And I think there's no evidence at all that the Indians were in fact being deliberately sacrificed.

Soldiers were, of course, aware of the censorship and so this collection, and the use of codes within it, is an example of what some scholars called writing through repression, the use of simple codes. Rupees are used to stand for casualties and fruit is used to stand for sexual relations with white women. So there's lots of talk about ripe fruit and walking through orchards and so on.

Now these codes were mostly fairly easy for the sensors to understand - they take a while to cotton on to the one about fruit - but the codes could take more sophisticated forms.

What you find is Indian writers start working Punjabi proverbs and nursery rhymes into their letters. They include Urdu poetry and sometimes even Persian poetry. Even when the censors can translate these proverbs and these poems they can't understand what exactly the soldiers are driving at. Only people who've been brought up on these poems and proverbs, particularly in the nursery rhymes, could really understand what they mean. I sometimes speculate could the people receiving the letters actually understand what they meant either.

The censors actually admired the ability of the soldiers to do this. According to one report by the chief censor, he said, 'Orientals,' he observed, using the language of the time, 'excelled in the art of conveying information without saying anything definite, although the news conveyed was exceedingly vague and gave rise to wild rumours.'

The men then were not literate but they were literary, to borrow Santanu's phrase and hence the title of the talk. And I think writing under censorship actually stimulated the soldier's creativity. The letters have many of the qualities that we normally associate with literature, notably apposite and arresting images, like at the start 'thrusting fresh spears of grief into my heart', and I'll talk about some of these when I discuss the reception history of the book.

Soldiers might write a letter in two languages - Urdu and Pashto, for example - thinking that Urdu will be understood by the censors because it's the lingua franca of the Indian Army but Pashto would not. They used veiled or coded language, often flagged by a sign such as: 'Think this over and you will understand it,' or 'Think about this, you are an intelligent man.'

What I've also included in the Second Ypres chapter are some letters about the Germans and about Indian reactions to the German's use of gas, as it was the first time gas had been used on the Western Front in April 1915.

There is some admiration in the letters for the fighting power of the German armies. A wounded Sikh writes home, for example, 'The German King is very powerful. When there is a new invention, it is he who first puts it into place. The English copy it when they see it. The German King is very clever. He is the master, the English are his disciples.' Mostly, however, the soldiers are very negative about the Germans who are often described as rascals, villains and black-faced savages.

After Second Ypres and the first use of chlorine gas, this theme of barbarism emerges in connection with the breach of international conventions. One man wrote home, 'Look at this German show. They are now using poisonous shells and asphyxiating gas. What is to be done? When things are done with such malevolence, our British government must follow their example. The proverb "Against blaggards one must be a blaggard" is quite apt here.' And, of course, the British did retaliate as well, at Loos.

One of the things that really emerges from the letters is the centrality of religion to Indian soldiers' experience of the war in Europe. The letters are full of religious imagery, references to Karbala, for example, the battle in Iraq and important to Muslims. And there are many letters asking for religious advice. How does our religion survive in our sojourn in a foreign land? Or asking for artefacts, particularly korans and granths, Sikh scriptures.

And a friend of mine in Sweden has just won a research grant to study the charitable work which involved donating miniature scriptures to Indian soldiers, particularly by Indian royalty - a pretty difficult thing to research on I think, and she's got a research assistant.

The British authorities were very aware of the importance of religion. They didn't want another Indian mutiny on the pattern of 1857, which was widely perceived as having been caused by British officials and officers giving offence to Indian religion. And they take great care with the provision of religious artefacts, both in the hospitals and at the front.

For example, Sikh religious artefacts - metal combs, knifes, and so on - were especially made to an approved design by a firm of cutlers in Sheffield and then distributed to troops after the censors found letters complaining that these artefacts were not available in sufficient numbers at the front.

Another issue was the involvement of the YMCA in distributing notepaper to the troops. This notepaper had Young Man's Christian Association symbols on it and the censors took great trouble to erase any Christian symbols that appeared on letters as a way of making sure there was no rumours being spread back in India that the men were being converted to Christianity.

I said earlier that very few letters were actually suppressed and in the collection it's normally indicated whether a letter had been suppressed or not. And we can normally speculate why it might have been. The censors were particularly sensitive to derogatory remarks about white people or any indication that caste rules or religious observances were not being followed.

One of the major themes in the collection are the soldiers' reactions to Europe. The Indian cavalry staying in France for three years they write a lot about European customs and European learning and so on. I've written about that elsewhere, there's quite a bit about it in the book, but I just will for reasons of time, I'll just move on to letters about Europe that were suppressed.

One of the reasons that sending Indian troops to Europe was controversial was the possibility that they might have intimate contact with white women which was taboo... sexual contact between an Indian man and a white woman was normally taboo in India. And we do have some examples of letters of this nature that were suppressed.

I love this one. In November 1915 one soldier wrote home, 'If you want any French women, there are plenty here and they are very good looking. If you really want any, I can send one to you in a parcel.' And this obviously... becoming very aware of the effectiveness of the military postal service, and that one was obviously suppressed.

My all time favourite of these is, however, from a Pathan, Tura Baz Khan, who's in hospital in Brighton. And he wrote home, 'This is the woman we get. We have recourse to her. If you like her, let me know and I will send her.' And his letter was suppressed along with its enclosure, which was a cigarette card on which was reproduced a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds of Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon.

To travel is not only to leave home, but often to see home in a different light and to reflect on home and to reconsider home. And there's many letters about India from the soldiers reflecting on France and reflecting on what they've learnt about French life.

They give lots of advice to their families. They often compare India rather unfavourably to France. They're amazed by the wealth of France, by the success of French agriculture. And they often are astonished by the fact everybody in France can read and write and they often write home urging families to send children to school. Easier said than done, of course, in rural India.

I hadn't approached a publisher when I was editing the book for what seemed to me the obvious reason - not to them - that no publisher would be so mad as to turn it down. Well, I assumed that all I had to do was send the introduction and scholarly apparatus, together with a sample of about 50 letters, and it would be snapped up straightaway.

Initially I thought about publishing it with the University Press to give it some academic weight, but I got a series of polite refusals. At this point I was beginning to get rather concerned because I'd spent four years editing the book and if it wasn't going to appear then I'd have to answer some rather difficult questions from my head of department and the faculty who'd helped fund the project. So I sent it off to Macmillan, who'd published the monograph on the Indian Army which had come out a few years earlier and had received good reviews, and they were very enthusiastic about it and wanted to publish it. That was a very serious relief.

It's come out in a slightly different version, I was going to talk about the illustration. On the original Macmillan version the cover illustration, which I think you're going to do for the National Army Museum thing about this aren't you, shows cavalry with lances, Indian cavalry with lances in 1917. Simply I wanted to make the point on the cover that it's often argued that the cavalry had no function on the Western Front after 1914 and this picture shows... a staged picture perhaps, but it shows that perhaps they did.

The book came out a while ago now and I want to say a little bit about how it was received. The book reviews were mostly positive. The Sunday Times ran a review which they said they were going to illustrate, they didn't in the end, but the review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture section and I just want to focus on one aspect of this review. It was by Patrick French, quite a distinguished, popular historian, of India. He described the collection as 'important and endlessly fascinating, a sad feast of a book', which obviously we were happy about.

But more significantly he also quoted from one of the letters and it's one of my favourites in the review. It was written by a wounded soldier in hospital in Britain, reflecting on the fact that once he has recovered he will have to go back to the trenches. And this issue crops up again and again, as I suggested. But sadly, he's no longer got the courage to do this. So he writes home in a wonderful image, 'I am like a man who, once burnt, is afraid of a glow worm.' It's a wonderful image, drawing on the natural world, like so many of these letters.

The BBC picked up on the book and turned it into a Radio 4 programme with readings from the letters broadcast on Armistice Day, 1999. They interviewed me and Linda Colley, a much more famous historian than me, and they had actors reading extracts from the letters. I was really impressed by the editing of this, because I was interviewed in London and Linda was interviewed in London but on different occasions. And when it was all edited, it sounded like we were in the same room having a conversation, it was really quite clever.

The book has recently come back into public view in certain ways because, of course, of the 100th anniversary of the First World War and it's renewed interest in the history of the Indian Army. And I was invited to be part of the congregation at the service for the Commonwealth held at Glasgow Cathedral on 4 August 2014 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the day the Commonwealth joined the war. The guests included Commonwealth governors, general and high commissioners and the service included hymns, bible readings and poems, and readings from Scottish and Commonwealth soldiers' letters.

India was represented by the High Commissioner for India and he read out two extracts from the Indian soldiers' letters, both in the book. And these are the two that they chose to read out. I want to talk a little bit about these two extracts, both of which I think leap off the page. I'll read them out and offer some reflections on them. I stress I had no input into the choice of the letters that were read out.

The first was from a Punjabi Rajput, a warrior caste North Indian, writing in January 1915. He wrote home, 'Do not think this is war. This is not war, it is the ending of the world. This is just such a war as was related in the Mahabharata about our forefathers.'

I'd like to make three observations about that passage. I'd cited the phrase 'This is not war. It is the ending of the world' in my earlier monograph about the Indian Army, the phrase just leapt out at me. Sir John Keegan, sadly no longer with us, wrote a review of the monograph for the TLS [Times Literary Supplement], and then after reviewing the book he then went on to write his own history of the First World War and he quoted that letter in his own book about the First World War. Then the people who put together the service in Glasgow picked up on the phrase.

So the phrase 'The ending of the world' obviously resonates because it's done for the three of us in completely independent ways. And I think it's important in the service in Glasgow Cathedral that it resonates particularly in a Christian theological context, even though the author is a Hindu.

Secondly, we are, of course, accustomed to thinking of the First World War as ending a world. The war brought about the Russian revolution and the end of four empires: the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman. The world really was never going to be the same again. But when we normally think of this, we think of it in a European or Middle Eastern context. It's really interesting that a North Indian Rajput makes the same observation, and as early as January 1915. And for the soldiers of the Indian Army on the Western Front, the world really was ending and they suffered appalling casualties, as did the British Army as well, of course.

And thirdly, when this man tried to convey the enormity of what is happening in Europe back to those in India who have no direct experience of it, he uses an image drawn from classical Indian literature, the Mahabharata. And this was quite common practice amongst Hindu soldiers. And this man was, like most rural Punjabi Rajputs, probably illiterate but he had literary awareness.

The second reading was from a Sikh sowar, or cavalry man, this second reading in Glasgow. And he wrote home, 'The state of things here is indescribable. There is a conflagration all around and you must imagine it to be like a dry forest in a high wind in the hot weather with abundance of dry grass and straw. No one can extinguish it but God himself. Man can do nothing. What more can I write? Here thousands of lives have been sacrificed. Scratch the ground to a depth of one finger and nothing but corpses will be visible.'

I'd like to pick up on two things from this extract. The first is the imagery. He uses the image of the forest fire, the conflagration, the dry grass and straw. And again this is typical of the language that's found in many of the letters.

Secondly, he uses the language of sacrifice. It was a letter from a Sikh soldier, but very appropriate for a Christian memorial service. And it echoed the sort of language that was being used at the time in Christian Europe, language of sacrifice. But interestingly it is not typical of the language used by most Sikhs at the time. Sikhs were much more likely to evoke the warrior traditions of Sikhism, and I'll come onto that.

One of the things that struck me about the readings in general at the Glasgow service was that at a British religious service of major international importance, five of the readings - St Matthew, St Mark, Thucydides, and two from the Indian soldiers - were translations into English. And I'll come back to the issue of translations about which I've been thinking recently.

Interestingly, the letters read out were from a Hindu and a Sikh. There was no letter from a Muslim. There may have been Pakistani officials at the service, I don't know, but Pakistan was not officially represented in the order of service - a striking omission I thought, given that in 1914 the British Empire, as Winston Churchill was fond of saying, was the greatest Muslim power on earth, and that Punjabi Muslims were the single most numerous class of soldiers represented in the Indian Army in both World Wars.

So I'd like to rectify this omission and move on to some readings from Muslim soldiers to give an idea of the variety of Muslim responses to the war.

The first is from a Muslim officer writing in December 1914, we don't know his name. This is just after Ottoman Turkey had joined the war, putting the Indian Army's Muslims into a position where their loyalties were often potentially divided. And he wrote home, '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 got to do with us? Turkey is nothing at all to us.'

Clearly he's expressing very openly loyalist sentiments and at this early date, he probably wouldn't have known about the existence of Boulogne censorship office. But he would have known that his own officers, regimental officers, would have read his letter before it was posted. So there might have been an element of self-censorship there. But the language of qualified loyalism is a characteristic Muslim voice in the collection, with some significant exceptions.

I want to read a second letter now. It's from an elderly Hindustani Muslim to his son serving in France. He writes, 'Formerly I had experienced but one sorrow and that was the death of your mother. My childhood and manhood were spent very happily. Now in my old age I have had to endure the sorrow of long separation from you, and as a consequence my eyesight is failing rapidly. It is not fitting that I should die late on my infirmities and up to the present time your brave words of comfort and hope have sustained me. But many people like me have, through grief for the loss of their offspring, departed this life. I live in the belief that by the mercy of the pure God, that day will come when my sightless eyes will again look upon your face and will regain their lustre.' A very moving letter there from a father.

The letter was written in August 1916, fairly typical of the letters that were written by families in the middle period of the war, and even more so in 1917, from families urging their men folk at the front to come home.

It's a very moving and beautiful letter and we can empathise with the man's situation. But I think there's more to that letter that moves an English-speaking audience. And I would now like to turn my attention to the issues of the translations. How good were the translations?

I was asked this question a few weeks ago at Ilkley Literature Festival and I gave an impromptu response and I've reflected upon it since. I think the translations were very good, were probably very good, we don't know, we don't have the originals. It's difficult to say without the originals. But I think the translators were Indian civil servants, Indian Army officers with long experience of Indian languages.

But I was struck by the phrase 'It is not fitting that I should die late on my infirmities'. That is not the English of 1916. It is the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Specifically, it echoes St Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians. And my brother, an English teacher, suggested it echoes Richard III - 'descant on my deformity', I think is the echo.

Also the use of the word 'lustre' when he writes 'And looking will regain their lustre' I think echoes King Lear, echoes the scene when Gloucester is blinded - 'Out, vile jelly! Where is thy lustre now?' I think the translator here is self-consciously creating an English literary artefact out of an Urdu original, composed by someone who's almost certainly illiterate. That letter has gained in translation.

The chief censor, Evelyn Burkley Hale, was born 1877, an Indian civil servant who worked mainly in the Punjab before he went to France. He actually went on to publish a volume of translated Urdu poetry, I think in the 1960s when he must have been fairly elderly.

It's worth remembering that translations can be great literature in their own right. In English, think only of 'The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam' or the King James Bible, so much part of our intellectual furniture. As an undergraduate, for example, I had to study Richmond Lattimore's translation of 'The Odyssey', which was seen as a great work of English literature.

Now, I want to return to the subject, moving on from translations, return to the subject of Muslim soldiers - just to note that it's worth remembering that the first Indian soldier to win the Victoria Cross, after Indians became eligible for that award in 1911, was a Muslim, Khudadad Khan, a Baluchi. And I think there's a portrait of him in the National Army Museum. Am I right in thinking that? Well, we can find out.

We don't have letters from him, I believe, but we do have letters from the fourth Indian to win the Victoria Cross, Mir Dast. He won his award for bravery at the Second Battle of Ypres and he was presented with his VC by the King in August 1915.

And his reaction is remarkable, and this is in the book. He writes, 'By the great, great, great kindness of God, the King with his royal hand has given me the decoration of the Victoria Cross. God has been very gracious, very gracious, very gracious, very, very, very, very gracious to me. Now I do not care - the desire of my heart is accomplished.'

After he received Russian and French decorations, he became the most highly decorated Indian officer in the Indian Army. He'd also receive the Indian Order of Merit in 1908, then the highest award for bravery available to an Indian, so effectively his VC was almost a VC and Bar.

But even he was ambivalent. He wrote home in another letter, 'The Victoria Cross is a very fine thing, but this gas gives me no rest. It has done for me.'

His brother Mir Mast, also a jemadar, a junior Indian officer, had earlier deserted in March 1915. He'd gone over to the Germans with 24 troops and he'd ended up in Kabul with a party of German agents in August 1915 and their plot was to try to bring Afghanistan into the war against India. So a very complicated and I think an interesting example of the complexity and ambivalence of some Muslim reactions.

The Sikh community has picked up on the book in several ways. I was asked to give a paper in Sweden to an audience which included local Sikhs. And in that paper, and in the book chapter that resulted, I used this quotation which illustrates something about, I think, the warrior values of the Sikhs. And it describes the death of a Sikh officer.

Someone who writes home, a wounded soldier, 'The 47th Sikhs' - a crack Indian regiment - 'were charging. The Sahib' - the British officer - 'said, "Chur Singh, you are not a Sikh of Guru Gobind Singh, you who sit in fear inside the trench." Chur Singh was very angry. Chur Singh gave the order to his company to charge. He drew his sword and went forward. A bullet then came from the enemy and hit him in the mouth. So did our brother Chur Singh become a martyr.'

There are two points I'd make about this letter. Despite the reference to martyrdom, the main emphasis in the Sikh officer's motivation appears to have been warriordom, honour and identification with Gobind Singh, who was a military guru. Rather different from the language of sacrifice that was used in the letter from a Sikh soldier read out in Glasgow.

Secondly, it's a British officer who in the first instance uses this language. He obviously understands what will motivate his colleague to risk his life in battle, that being a Sikh of Guru Gobind Singh is more important than dying in battle.

I'd like to close with two observations. One, a few remarks about a recent exhibition in London, it was last year I think at the Sultan of Brunei's Gallery at SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies]. It was called Empire, Faith and War and it was curated by the British Sikh community. They collected artefacts from families to do with the Sikh experience of the First World War, and I was asked to give a talk then. And that's when Santanu came up with that expression: 'Illiterate but literary'.

But one of the items they found was one of the original letters. It had been written by a teenage girl, they think, to her father serving at the front. We don't know which front. It was written in Gurmukhi, Punjabi written in the script of the guru. And, interestingly, in the letter she was telling her father that she'd learnt to read and write. She had done this in order that she could read his letters out to her mother instead of having to rely on a village letter reader. So there was less risk of his letters home becoming subject to village gossip.

I was very touched both by the idea in the letter and by the fact that one of the originals has been rediscovered. Others may surface.

I'd like to end with the dedication of the book which is, of course, to the Indian soldiers. There was never any doubt as a Jersey man in my mind what this dedication would be. It was an extract of Norman French medieval poetry written by Maistre Wace who, like me, was born in Jersey. To medieval scholars it's a very famous passage, and many people in Jersey know it, too.

I put it as a dedication and I deliberately left it untranslated for several reasons. First, of course, poetry is difficult to translate, particularly if, like me, your main languages are French, German and Italian, not medieval Anglo-Norman French. Secondly, I wanted it to stand out as the only passage not in English in a book in which virtually all the letters are translations into English. And thirdly, I wanted to weave a passage of poetry into the book in a language that many readers would not immediately understand, just as the Indian soldiers had woven poetry into their letters to confuse the censors.

I'm not going to try to read it out in medieval Norman French, but I will approximate a translation into English, only my translation is probably not very good. It reads, 'Everything starts to decline, everything falls, everything dies, everything comes to an end. Unless a scholar puts it in a book, it cannot last nor live.'

Thanks a lot.

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