Casualties in France


Gravestone at St Nicholas' Church, Brockenhurst

THIS STONE WAS ERECTED BY PARISHIONERS OF
BROCKENHURST TO MARK THE SPOT WHERE IS LAID
THE EARTHLY BODY OF
SUKHA
A RESIDENT OF MOHULLA GUNGAPUR
CITY BARIELLY UNITED PROVINCES OF INDIA

HE LEFT COUNTRY, HOME AND FRIENDS TO SAVE OUR
KING & EMPIRE IN THE GREAT EUROPEAN WAR AS A
HUMBLE SERVANT IN THE LADY HARDINGE HOSPITAL
FOR WOUNDED INDIAN SOLDIERS IN THIS PARISH

HE DEPARTED THIS LIFE ON JANUARY 12TH 1916
AGED 30 YEARS

BY CREED HE WAS NOT CHRISTIAN BUT THIS
EARTHLY LIFE WAS SACRIFICED IN THE INTERESTS
OF OTHERS

There is one God and Father of all who is for all
and through all and in all

EPHESIANS IV G

At the start of World War I in the late autumn of 1914, one in every three soldiers under British command in France was from India. [1]  During the war 14,514 Indian soldiers and officers wounded in France would be brought to England for treatment. [2]

The British military was ill prepared to deal with the casualties as Sikh, Hindu and Muslim soldiers died and were wounded on the battlefields of France.

Isar Singh (Sikh, 59th Rifles) letter to a friend (50th Punjabis, India)
Indian General Hospital  [Gurmukhi], Brighton, 1st May 1915
The battle is being carried on very bitterly. In the Lahore Division only 300 men are left. Some are dead, some wounded. The division is finished. Think of it — in taking fifty yards of a German trench 50,000 men are killed. When we attack they direct a terrific fire on us — thousands of men die daily. It looks as if not a single man can remain alive on either side — then (when none is left) there will be peace. When the Germans attack they are killed in the same way. For us men it is a bad state of affairs here. Only those return from the battlefield who are slightly wounded. No one else is carried off. Even Sahibs are not lifted away. The battleground resounds with cries. [3]

 Santa Singh (Sikh) letter to his uncle (India)
A hospital [Gurmukhi], Brighton, 18th August 1915
As tired bullocks and bull buffaloes lie down in the month of Bhadon (Aug-Sept) so lies the weary world. Our hearts are breaking, for a year has passed while we have stood to arms without a rest ... Germany fights the world with ghastly might, harder to crush than well-soaked grain in the mill. For even wetted grain can be ground in time ... We have bound ourselves under the flag and we must give our bodies. [4]

Not only was the fighting in the battlefield fierce, but the troops had been rushed to Europe, ill equipped for the cold weather. The heavy rains of autumn 1914 were followed by severe frost and snow but most of the Indian troops did not have winter clothing or proper footwear. Respiratory illnesses frostbite and ‘trench foot’ would become additional challenges on the battlefield. In fact soldiers considered frostbite even more deadly than ‘bullet bite’, especially if gangrene set in. [5]

Wounded Sepoy in Brighton Hospital to a relative in Kumaon,
Letter no. 3, 16 January 1915, Censor of Indian Mails (CIM)
In this sinful country, it rains very much and also snows, and many men have been frost-bitten… All the men will be finished here. In the space of a few months how many have fallen and how many have been wounded. [6]

Initially the plan at the start of the war had been to evacuate the sick and wounded via Marseilles to Egypt and then to India, but this was soon found to be impractical given the high number of casualties. [7] By November 11, 1914 there were more than 1,000 wounded Indian soldiers at Brockenhurst in Hampshire [8] where the Balmer Lawn Hotel and the Forest Park Hotel [9] were renamed the Lady Hardinge Hospital and offered a total of 640 beds, it proved so overcrowded that wounded soldiers were accommodated on mattresses on the floor. [10] While waiting for these facilities some of the wounded Indians were sent to a section of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Netley, while three ships in Southampton harbor, the Sicilia, Glengorm Castle and Goorkha became stationary hospital ships. [11]

The Mount Dore Hotel in Bouremouth was taken over and renamed the Mont Dore 8A Indian Hospital and a convalescent home was set up at New Milton, Barton-on-Sea. [12]

Sepoy Ranga Singh, a patient at the Lady Hardinge Hospital, Brockenhurst, complained that: ‘There is no fireplace. We are not given milk…It is very cold. We have to call the nurses “mother” and the European soldiers “Orderly Sahib” - if we do not we are reported. The five Brighton hospitals are good. The others are not good. We are not given soup. We get nothing.’ [13]

These efforts provided some temporary relief, but overcrowded, unhygienic and woefully inadequate given the rate of casualties at the front; larger accommodations and proper hospital facilities for the wounded Indian soldiers had to be found quickly.

Footnotes

1. http://jostamon.blogspot.com/2009/11/indian-soldier-in-great-war.html

2. http://www.movinghere.org.uk/galleries/roots/asian/servicerecords/servicerecords.htm

3. David Omissi, Indian Voices of the Great War, Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-1918 (St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1999)

4. Ibid.

5. Joyce Collins, Dr Brightons Indian Patients December 1914 - January 1916 (Brighton Books, 1997) 14

6. L/MIL/5/825/vol.1,IOR, 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) 188

7. Ibid. 189

8. Hospital accommodation on mobilization (National Archives, WO 221/1, 1914-1918)

9. L/MIL/5/825/vol.1,IOR, 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) 190

10. Hospital accommodation on mobilization (National Archives, WO 221/1, 1914-1918)

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. 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) 192