When war was declared in 1914 the major combatants would come to rely heavily on soldiers from their empires and colonies. Men from around the world would arrive in East Sussex to fight for Britain.
At the outbreak of the First World War the Indian Army numbered 240,000 men; by 1918 its ranks had swelled to nearly 550,000. Most recruits came from the north of India, especially the Punjab. The Indian army at the time was made up of numerous religions. Battalions of Punjabi Muslims served in Mesopotamia and, after the war, the 92nd Battalion were made ‘Prince of Wales Own’ in recognition of their bravery and gallantry. Sikhs made up 20% of the British Indian Army at the outbreak of the war. By its conclusion around 130,000 Sikh soldiers had served.
Indian Soldiers in battle
Indian soldiers served on many battlefields over the course of the war. Four divisions of Indian soldiers arrived in Marseille in 1914 and fought in the Battle of La Bassee. The troops were unfamiliar with their equipment, having only been assigned their rifles and kit upon arriving in France. Additionally, they had almost no artillery. Their lack of equipment in resisting the cold soon saw morale plummet and desertion was not uncommon. In October 1915 the infantry divisions were withdrawn to Egypt whilst the cavalry remained in France.
Nearly 700,000 Indian soldiers served in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) fighting against the Ottoman Empire. Indian soldiers also fought the Germans in East Africa and defended the Suez Canal. Three battalions of Gurkhas and one of Sikhs participated in the Gallipoli campaign. The Sikh Battalion was almost wiped out in the Battle of Krithia. Find out more about the experience of Sussex soldiers at Gallipoli in our article here.
Smaller units of Indian soldiers also served in Singapore and China, whilst many others remained in India to defend the North Western border against incursions from Afghanistan.
During the First Battle of Ypres Khudadad Khan, a Sepoy in the Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, and another team used their machine gun position to hold the allied line and prevent a final German breakthrough. When the position was finally overrun the defenders were all killed by the attackers, except for Khan who suffered many wounds and was left for dead. Despite his injuries he managed to crawl back to his own lines under cover of darkness. He and his men had held the line long enough for further reinforcements to arrive and prevent the Germans from seizing the vital ports of Boulogne and Nieuport. For his courage and bravery Khan was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Indian Soldiers in Brighton
Many Indian soldiers like Khudadad Khan were wounded during the war and a great number of them were taken to Brighton, then part of East Sussex, to be nursed back to health. The Royal Pavilion, Corn Exchange and Dome were all converted into military hospitals and provided 722 beds. The workhouse on Elm Grove was renamed the Kitchener Hospital and also took in patients. Between 1914 and 1916 12,000 soldiers were treated in Brighton with 4,306 placed in the Pavilion. Only 32 men died in the Royal Pavilion hospital.
As these soldiers were a mix of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs great care was taken to respect the religion and customs of each. Separate water supplies were provided for Hindus and Muslims in each ward, and nine kitchens catered for the different requirements of the patients. Separate areas were also provided for worship with a a marquee being erected in the grounds for Sikhs and an east-facing area of the lawn reserved for Muslim prayer. Wounded soldiers were cared for by orderlies of the same caste and religion.
However, at times the patients at the Royal Pavilion were also kept purposefully apart from the inhabitants around them. Barbed wire was place around the perimeter of the Pavilion in order to keep the patients in and the residents of Brighton out. Military authorities were particularly concerned about the possibility of the female inhabitants of Brighton contracting a bout of ‘Khaki Fever‘.
By the end of 1915 the Indian Army was redeployed away from the Western Front to Mesopotamia and no further Indian soldiers arrived in Brighton.
Following the conclusion of the war a permanent memorial was opened at Brighton Pavilion in honour of the Indian soldiers who had been cared for. The ‘India Gate‘ was opened in 1921 by the Maharaja of Patiala. In his speech he paid tribute to ‘Brighton’s abounding hospitality’.
To commemorate the Indian soldiers who had died in the various hospitals in Brighton a permanent memorial was unveiled in the South Downs. The Chattri was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1921. The Royal British Legion held an annual pilgrimage to the memorial every year until 1999. Since 2000 the ceremony has been conducted by the Chattri Memorial Group and takes place every June.
The information for this article was provided by the Brighton and Hove Black History project and we are extremely grateful for their assistance.
For more information on activities in Brighton relating to the First World War Centenary then visit the following links:
- Marking the centenary of the First World War – Brighton and Hove City Council
- First World War Centenary Site for Brighton & Hove – Visit Brighton
The featured image for this article was provided to us by the Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove.