Digitized war records of Indian troops killed during WWI in Iraq highlight long-forgotten siege of Kut Al-Amara
LONDON: The beautifully handwritten note on the yellowing service record, compiled by the Punjab government in 1919 and now over a century old, is as brief as it is poignant.
In faded ink, the entry of Wasawa Singh, the son of Shera, a Jat from Gaike village in northeast Punjab, tells the story of a young life cut short in the service of an alien empire.
There are no dates, just a rank – havildar, equivalent to sergeant – and the name of a unit, the 30th Punjabis.
Infantry regiment first raised by the British Indian Army in 1857, the 30th participated in the Indian Mutiny (1857-58), the Bhutan War (1864-66), the Second Afghan War (1878-80) and, finally, in the First World War.
It was in this latter conflict, in which over a million Indian soldiers fought in almost every theater of war for the British Empire, that Singh died, along with over 70,000 of his compatriots.
The surviving documents documenting his service, and that of more than 300,000 other men in the Punjab, have been unearthed deep in the Lahore Museum in Pakistan. Discovered after languishing for more than 100 years, all 26,000 pages have been digitized and can now be searched online, by the name of the soldier, his father or their village.
Although an invaluable treasure for historians and the descendants of ancient warriors, the documents contain only limited information. They don’t reveal, for example, how old Singh was when he was killed, how he met his end, or even when and where he died.
A terse entry in the neat handwriting of a forgotten official, however, indicates that after her death Singh’s anonymous and arguably grieving mother received a small pension.
According to Commonwealth War Graves Commission records, 153 men called Singh died while serving in the 30th Punjabis. Wasawa, service number 3902, fell on January 15, 1917, while fighting the Germans in East Africa. Although doomed to perish 5,000 km from his home in the Punjab, he was at least spared the horrors of Gallipoli or the western front of France, where so many Indians fought and suffered in appalling conditions.
Death had to be his lot, however. He was killed in fierce fighting which saw the Germans ultimately defeated at Mahenge, near the Rufiji River in present-day Tanzania.
Wasawa Singh’s final resting place is unknown. His name, along with those of more than 1,200 British and Indian officers and men “to whom the fortunes of war have denied the known and honored burial given to their comrades in death”, is inscribed on the British Memorial Wall and Indian at Nairobi South Cemetery in Kenya.
For the hundreds of thousands of families in present-day India and Pakistan whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers took up arms for the British cause during the war of 1914-1918, the emergence of the papers of the Lahore Museum is one more step towards a long-awaited recognition of the sacrifices made by so many on the subcontinent.
In Britain, each year the nation observes another minute of silence on Armistice Day: at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, the time and date on which the guns fell silent on the front line. west of France in 1918.
But although efforts have been made in recent years to ensure that Armistice Day commemorations include all the nations of the British Empire whose young men have lost their lives, it was not until 2002 – 84 years after the end of the war – that a solemn memorial dedicated “To the memory of the 5 million volunteers from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and the Caribbean who fought with Great Britain during the two wars worlds ”was inaugurated on Constitution Hill in London.
It was almost as if, during all these years, the sacrifices made by the soldiers of the subcontinent in the name of the empire had been taken for granted.
This was certainly the only conclusion one could draw from a report by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which in 2019 set up a committee “to probe the beginnings of the Imperial War Graves Commission in order to identify inequalities. in the way the organization commemorated the dead of the British Empire.
Founded over a century ago as the Imperial War Graves Commission, initially to commemorate the empire’s dead during World War I, the organization was originally tasked with treating all dead with the same dignity. In a document prepared for the commission in 1918, Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Frederic Kenyon, director of the British Museum, wrote that “no less honor should be paid to the last resting places of Indians and other non-Christian members of the empire than that of our British soldiers.
In its report, released earlier this year, the committee concluded that, “although the organization kept its promise of equal treatment in Europe, this was not always the case for some ethnic groups elsewhere”.
He found that, “in conflict with the founding principles of the organization”, between 45,000 and 54,000 victims – mainly Indian, East African, West African, Egyptian and Somali – “were commemorated unevenly”.
Even more shocking, as many as 350,000 others “have not been commemorated by name or may not be commemorated at all.”
In all the conflicts in which Indian troops fought and died without any recognition, few are so little known, certainly in Britain, as the Mesopotamian Campaign, to which India made its greatest contribution during World War I. As British Colonel Patrick Cowley, a veteran of a subsequent conflict in Iraq, wrote in his 2009 book “Kut 1916: Courage and Failure”, the “Campaign in Mesopotamia is a” forgotten war “and the story de Kut has been eclipsed by events elsewhere. “
For four long years, British and Indian soldiers fought side by side to drive the Ottoman Empire out of what is today Iraq. It was a brutal, bloody affair, ultimately successful, but marred by the disaster of the siege of Kut Al-Amara, a town nestled in a bend of the Tigris, 160 km southeast of Baghdad.
The siege lasted four months. It ended on April 29, 1916, with the surrender of 12,000, mostly Indian, soldiers. Outnumbered, armed and misguided, after four desperate months they were starving, weakened by disease and cut off from any hope of relief.
The day before the surrender, a British officer wrote in his diary: “We are a sick army, an army of skeletons shaken by cholera and disease.
In total, around 4,000 men were killed during the siege. Surprisingly, 23,000 other soldiers – again, mostly Indians – were killed or wounded in attempts to relieve the besieged force.
Among the defenders were men from the 22nd, 24th, 66th, 67th and 76th Punjabis. Several other Indian units suffered alongside them, including the 117th Mahrattas, the 103rd Mahratta Light Infantry, the 120th Rajputana Infantry and a squadron of the 7th Hariana Lancers.
Other Punjabi regiments, including the 28th and 92nd, were part of the relief force which failed to make their way to Kut in time, suffering a high percentage of casualties, alongside other units. Indian, including the 51st and 53rd Sikhs and the 9th Bhopal Infantry.
Of the 12,000 men who entered captivity in Anatolia, Turkey, at least a third died. Some have succumbed to disease and starvation, while others have been shot or beaten to death for falling behind in the march, or simply left for dead where they fell after collapsing, exhausted, by the side of the road. At one point in the march, bodies were thrown into a ravine, where skulls were found later in the war.
Ottoman cruelty spread to the local Arabs who had helped the British. About 250 were gunned down after the surrender, while a number of performers were hanged in the town square of Kut.
Today, the siege remains virtually unknown, certainly in Great Britain. It is, however, recognized as one of the greatest disasters ever to befall a British army. To this day, Kut is studied by military strategists around the world as an example of the danger for an invading army from overstretching its supply lines.
Most of the Indians who fell in Kut or died in captivity have no known burials. Many are recorded on the Basra Memorial, which was built in 1929 and was originally located in Maqil on the west bank of the Shatt al Arab. In 1997, by order of Saddam Hussein, it was dismantled and rebuilt 32 km along the Nasiriyah road, in the middle of what was a major battlefield during the Gulf War.
Today, the memorial is in poor condition. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission has stated that “although the current climate of political instability persists, it is extremely difficult for it to manage or maintain its cemeteries and memorials located in Iraq”.
But when it finally feels able to renovate the Basra Memorial, the CWGC will have more than masonry and marble to repair.
As the report of the Special Committee to Examine Historical Inequalities in Commemoration noted, “Known problems with memorials include 38,696 Indian victims who were or are still commemorated (only) digitally on memorials.” , with their names missing.
Subsequently, names were added to the Port Tewfik Memorial in Egypt and the combined British and Indian memorials in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. But “a decision has not yet been taken on the Basra memorial, mainly due to the continuing instability in Iraq.”
The memorial panels feature the names of the 7,385 British personnel and Indian officers who lost their lives in Mesopotamia.
But for the 33,256 non-commissioned officers and other ranks of the British Indian Army who remain numbered but unnamed on the Basra memorial, the insult of anonymity has not yet been erased.