When India fought for the British Raj
A hundred years ago, India sent 1.5 million men to fight for WWI, the largest volunteer army the world had seen that year. We get access to Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, a palace of tremendous historic significance, which was transformed into an Indian military hospital
It was referred to as the ‘Great War’ and was all too idealistically coined ‘The war to end all wars.’ Fought on European soil, the First World War had super powers battle it out. Four empires fell — Germans, Habsburgs, Russians and Ottomans; while the British Empire, backed by its colonies, emerged stronger.
An oil painting by Charles Henry Harrison Burleigh. Shows two rows of beds occupied by wounded Indian soldiers in the Music Room of the Royal Pavilion during its use as a Military Hospital, 1915. PIC COURTESY/ Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
India sent 1.5 million men to fight for the Raj, the largest volunteer army the world had seen in 1914; hundreds of Indian women served as nurses in Flanders, the Balkans, the Mediterranean and the Middle East; millions of rupees were spent in supplies and stores. But today, most in India can barely relate to war being far away from the epicentre. Remnants stand in Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial in France; the Gurkha Memorial, Horse Guards Avenue, London; the Brookwood Military Cemetery, Surrey.
One such reminder is Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, an opulent palace that was converted into a hospital for wounded Indian soldiers. To some, the space speaks of British benevolence to its subjects; to others it was a political move to placate Indian nationalism. Whatever one’s views, these walls whisper poignant human stories. Here’s a walkthrough of the space.
Mir Dast, a patient of the Royal Pavilion, receives the Victoria Cross: In the second battle of Ypres, Mir Dast showed extraordinary courage. Almost all the British officers who led the attack were wounded or killed; thousands retreated. But Mir Dast gathered as many wounded as he could, and kept fighting until the order to retreat was given. He received the highest military award for bravery in the British and Commonwealth forces — the Victoria Cross (VC). He had to be taken in a wheelchair to receive his VC from King George V on August 25, 1915, at the Royal Pavilion. But he insisted on standing up, when addressed by the King.
From India with gratitude: The Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, had heard from many Indian soldiers of ‘Dr Brighton’, a term referred to the care they received here. In 1921, he gifted a gate that still stands as the Pavilion’s south entrance. An inscription reads, ‘This gateway is the gift of India in commemoration of her sons who stricken in the Great War were tended in the Pavilion.’
The sea-side retreat of Prince Regent, George IV: Perhaps the most notorious of English kings, with a taste for the good life, George IV was drawn to Brighton as the town was believed to have sea water with healing powers. The overweight royal was seeking to cure a swelling in his glands. Soon, he fell in love with Brighton and commissioned architect John Nash, (who designed Buckingham Palace), to build his coastal escape. Despite Islamic influences like domes and minarets, Nash coined this genre as ‘Hindu Style’; he never visited India even! His blueprints are believed to have been influenced by sketches of the Daniell Brothers, who visited India and illustrated their travels. In 1823, the Royal Pavilion was complete.
Britain caters to India: It was a foreign war and the first time Indian fought on European soil. Yet we came in large numbers to back the Empire; large enough to make the enemy of the Empire, the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhem II want to turn India against the Raj. The Kaiser declared himself a friend of Islam and hoped to sway Indian Muslims. Britain paid heed, by setting up this lavish hospital. Britain also ensured that our cultural needs were met. Nine separate kitchens catered to different religions. Soldiers were served milk from urns carefully marked ‘Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, ‘Sikh’. Halal meat was made available for Muslims, while jhatka was served up to Sikhs.
A whole new world: Wounded soldiers, from trenches, woke up under twinkling chandeliers at the Pavilion. In letters home, they wrote of being ‘tended like flowers’ in ‘a fairyland’.
From palace to royal sanctuary: George IV’s successor, William IV, often used this fantasy palace. But his successor, Queen Victoria found it ‘strange’, with its mish-mash of ‘Hindu style’, and Chinoserie interiors. In 1850, she sold it to the town, making it the only former royal palace owned by a European local authority. In 1914, when Britain needed venues to set up hospitals, the Royal Pavilion became one of three hospitals in Brighton. But the Royal Pavilion was exclusively for Indian casualties.
Pics courtesy/Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove. Released for re-use under a BY-NC-SA 4.0 Creative Commons licence
Where is Brighton?
Getting there: Fly British Airways from Mumbai (twice daily), direct to London Heathrow. Brighton lies just 50 minutes by train from London’s Victoria Station.
Royal Pavilion entry fee: £GBR: 11 (adult)/£GBR:6 (child)
Did you know?
53 Sikh and Hindu soldiers who died in Brighton’s hospitals were cremated in a resting place on Sussex Downs. The Chattri Memorial was unveiled in 1921, on the same spot where their bodies are cremated. 19 Muslim soldiers were buried in a purpose-built burial ground near the Shah Jehan Mosque in Woking.
74,187 The number of Indian soldiers who died in WWI.