Media Messaging


Sir Walter Lawrence - Commissioner for the Welfare of Indian Troops, the man behind the message

What had initially been an unplanned and potentially politically dangerous undertaking in setting up the Indian hospitals in Brighton, soon turned into a political windfall through the media bonanza that the Royal Pavilion hospital was to become in marketing the ‘benevolent Raj’. Initially Sir Walter Lawrence, like the Commander of the Indian Corps, General Sir James Willcocks, believed that sending the Indian wounded for treatment in Britain had been an error of political judgement. Lawrence later changed his mind, and eventually concluded that ‘from a political point of view, the decision to bring the Indians to English hospitals had done more good than harm’ [1]

Although the Royal Pavilion had become a media spectacle both in Britain as well as India, the image and messaging were carefully controlled by the War Office and India Office to project the aura of British Imperial benevolence and the ideas of imperial unity in the Empire.

Because of the central role given to King George in marketing the image of the Royal Pavilion hospital, almost all of the media focus and attention was mainly focused on the Royal Pavilion Hospital (724 beds), with hardly any coverage of the other Indian hospitals in Brighton – the much larger Kitchener Hospital (1,700 beds) or the York Place Hospital (550 beds). The media was used to perpetuate the myth of King George deciding to turn over his palace into a hospital for his wounded Indian subjects and how the King took an active part in ensuring the hospital met their needs and visited them.

Much of the British media focus and excitement was around how the exotic ‘Martial Races’ of the Orient who had come to the aid of the Empire and were now being taken care of in the Brighton hospitals with the utmost care. The Sikhs, described as a ‘splendid race of fighting men’ and the Gurkhas noted for their ‘fearlessness in the fighting line’. [2]

Even though their movements were severely restricted, the media image being created was that the soldiers were more like tourists at a seaside resort while in Brighton – here were newspaper photographs of them on the beach playing with local Brighton children, photographs of the Indian soldiers strolling along the seaside boardwalk, photographs of the soldiers on tourist outings by motorcar, photographs of them enjoying a tea party in the town. All of these were carefully controlled media photo-opportunities for domestic and overseas media consumption in India. For the most part they staged photo-opportunities had little to do with the actual day-to-day activities and restrictive conditions placed on the Indian patients or the atmosphere of mistrust that prevailed the British hospital administration regarding their Indian patients.

Throughout their presence in Brighton a continuous stream of articles and propaganda appeared in the local media as the fascination with the Indians and the Imperial benevolence being extended to them by the Empire were central themes being repeated in each news item. Such news stories and the fascination of the public with the Indians were so well received by readers that an issue of the Brighton Herald that included pictures of the Royal Pavilion as a hospital elicited unprecedented sales, with demands for reprints continuing after the date of publication. [3]

The dividends from this media strategy from far away India can be seen in the case of the news reports about the cremation and burial protocols being followed with Indian casualties at the Brighton hospitals. These details received both national press and international coverage. The Times remarked, ‘The action of the civic authorities at Brighton in the matter is warmly appreciated in India, the Viceroy, Lord Chelmsford, has written to the mayor thanking him’. While the Maharaja of Bikanir in India wrote to The Times contrasting the solicitude shown by the British Imperial authorities with what might have been expected of the German authorities: ‘the military authorities have spared no pains or outlay to ensure adequate provision being made for the cremation or burial of soldiers in full accordance with the ritual and customs of their respective communities’. [4]

Grand Forks Sun (Canada) December 17, 1915
A strange consequence of the war is that funeral pyres for Indian soldiers are being lighted on the Sussex Downs in the south of England. Major S. P. James, M.D., the head of the Kitchener hospital at Brighton, which accommodates more than 2,000 Indian patients, stated at the Royal Sanitary Institute congress that the bodies of the Hindu soldiers who die in the hospital are cremated on a specially prepared site at Patcham, on the Downs. The burning is done on a funeral pyre of wood logs, in precisely the same manner and with the same ceremonies as those performed in India. The cremation is conducted by a member of the same caste as that to which the dead man belonged.

Any negative issues such as the harsh prison-like conditions that the patients experienced, especially at the Kitchener Hospital were completely and successfully suppressed by Sir Walter Lawrence and the hospital authorities to ensure that no news reports ever appeared in the local or overseas media in India. A case in point being the incidents of suicide at the Indian hospitals as well as the murder attempt on Colonel Seton, the commanding officer of the Kitchener Hospital by an Indian sub-assistant surgeon unhappy with the confinement of his comrades at the hospital. Both the incidents of suicides as well at the shooting of Colonel Seton were personally communicated by Sir Walter Lawrence to Lord Kitchener, but they were kept out of official reports to the War Office. Such incidents that reflected the low morale of the Indian patients were considered too dangerous and their exposure to the public detrimental to the carefully cultivated media image of the Brighton hospitals being propagated throughout the Empire. The comparatively light sentence of seven years ‘rigorous imprisonment’ given for the attempted murderer of Colonel Seton are indicative  of the authorities concern not to provoke any further unrest in the Brighton hospitals or India and to keep this very serious incident covered up and out of the media spotlight. [5]

Footnotes

1. David Omissi, “Europe Through Indian Eyes”, English Historical Review (Vol. 122, Numb 496, 2007) 378

2. Samuel Hyson & Alan Lester, "British India on trial: Brighton Military Hospitals and the politics of empire in World War I", Journal of Historical Geography 38 (2012) 27

3. Ibid. 27

4. Ibid. 23

5. Mark Harrison, Disease, Discipline and Dissent: The Indian Army in France and England, 1914-1915. in: Roger Cooter, Harrison Mark, Sturdy Steve, eds Medicine and Modern Warfare (Rodopi B.V., Amsterdam, 1999) 195-196