'Indian sweets became talking point during World War I'

Craving for home-made sweets among the Indian soldiers fighting in the trenches of France and Belgium during World War I became a matter of discussion for the British empire, according to a new book.

PTI| Updated: Nov 06, 2015, 10:38 AM IST

London: Craving for home-made sweets among the Indian soldiers fighting in the trenches of France and Belgium during World War I became a matter of discussion for the British empire, according to a new book.

Fighting battles in foreign lands, the soldiers suffered such nostalgia that even later it was suggested that a man be flown in from India to make the sweets in France, according to 'For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914-18', which was released here last evening.

"The suggestion that a sweetmeat maker be imported from India and make fresh sweets for the troops in France was turned down...Later another attempt was made to see if 'sewai' or 'kheer' cooked with vermicelli and milk could be prepared for the soldiers.

"The Comfort Sub-Committee in London had meeting after meeting mulling over the issue," says Shrabani Basu, author of the book.

She has based her writing on the account of the estimated 1.5 million Indians who went to the frontline as part of the British Indian Army during the Great War.

She also spent two-and-a-half years on research spanning regimental diaries, officers' reports, official letters, newspaper articles, letters written by soldiers, interviews with descendants and other documents from the National Archives and the British Library.

"It was very important for me, that as the centenary of the First World War was observed, people needed to know that it wasn't just the Tommies (British soldiers) on the Western Front. There were Sikhs, Garhwalis, Gurkhas and Pathans in the same muddy trenches.

"The war was not of their making, yet they fought side by side with their English officers and died in the same fields, says Basu, who previously authored acclaimed titles including 'Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan' and 'Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queen's Closest Confidant'.

"I have always been interested in the stories of Indian soldiers who went thousands of miles from their homeland to fight in the two World Wars. I covered the Second World War in 'Spy Princess' and this time I wanted to write about the First World War and the ordinary soldiers peasants, farmers, illiterate labourers who crossed the 'kala pani' for the first time a hundred years ago.

The fact that there were Maharajas as well as cooks and cleaners was fascinating.

It was released by Lord David Richards, former UK chief of defence staff.

"To me they were like a Band of Brothers going for their first Western war," the author explains, in reference to her motivation behind her latest work.

"The fact that children as young as 10 were sent to the front, that English nurses were not allowed to nurse the Indian soldiers, and that the Indians entered the trenches in October in just their cotton khaki uniforms did come as a surprise."

Basu, who works as a city-based journalist for a Kolkatta-based leading newspaper group, said, "They faced one of the harshest winters in Europe without coats. By the time the coats arrived in December, many had died of cold and frostbite."

According to her account, an army of cooks, cleaners and water carriers accompanied the troops from pre-Independence India.

Eleven among them, spanning across modern day India, Pakistan and Nepal, were awarded the Victoria Cross in recognition of their bravery on the battlefield.

"Indian leaders had backed the war effort thinking that they would get dominion status from the British as a reward for their bravery and loyalty.

Instead, barely five months after the war, they were gunned down in Jallianwala Bagh. The feeling of betrayal was huge. The whole nation was outraged and the nationalist movement immediately moved up a gear," Basu said.

She has related a series of moving personal accounts from the battleground in the book, including one of Manta Singh, a Sikh soldier who saw his English officer, Captain George Henderson, lying injured and went to save him without a thought for his own safety.

While bringing him back, Manta Singh got hit by a German bullet. Captain Henderson survived but Manta Singh died in hospital.

When he returned to India, Captain Henderson made sure that Manta Singh's son got a job in the same regiment. The sons of Manta Singh and Captain Henderson became friends and fought together in World War II. The friendship between the two families now pans the third generation.

"The soldiers' letters were very moving. And there is the voice recording of a prisoner of war in a German camp, who just wails that he wants to go home. It is heart-breaking," the author says.