The memorial to Sukha, an Indian army sweeper, at Brockenhurst
Visit this monument
Church Lane, Brockenhurst SO42 7UB
Church Lane, Brockenhurst SO42 7UB
Our series on war memorials has been very Europe-centred. Troops from all parts of the Empire served in the First World War, but most are commemorated in the huge military cemeteries of Belgium and France or in their own countries. Indian troops mostly served in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, the ‘Forgotten War’. But there were Indian troops on the Western Front, from the Maharajas of Patiala, Bikaner and Cooch Behar to the cleaners and dhobis who performed essential services behind the lines. Shrabani Basu’s For King and Another Country (Bloomsbury, 2015), on which this Monument of the Month posting is based, tells the individual stories of several of them, set against the broad narrative of Indian participation on the Western Front. (‘Indian’ at that date, of course, includes Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal as well as what is now India.)
Many Indian soldiers were nursed in Brighton, where the Royal Pavilion was converted into a hospital. The India Gate in Brighton, opened by the Maharaja of Patiala in 1921, was funded by donations from India in gratitude for the nursing care that Indian soldiers had received there. There are graves of Muslim soldiers at Brookwood Cemetery, and the Chhatri Memorial on Patcham Downs marks the ghats where Hindu soldiers were cremated.
One of the most moving of these memorials is in the churchyard at Brockenhurst in the New Forest. Sukha (like many low-caste Indians, he had only one name) was a sweeper, an untouchable, from a village in Uttar Pradesh. He had served as a cleaner in the army camps in France and in the Lady Hardinge Hospital in Brockenhurst. There he became ill with pneumonia, and he died in January 1915.
Because he was of low caste, he could not be cremated at Patcham, and because he was a Hindu, he could not be buried in the Muslim burial ground at Woking: but the vicar of St Nicholas Brockenhurst said that Sukha had died for England and should be buried at Brockenhurst. The inscription on his tomb reads
THIS STONE / WAS ERECTED BY / PARISHIONERS OF BROCKENHURST / TO MARK THE SPOT WHERE IS LAID / THE EARTHLY BODY OF / SUKHA / A RESIDENT OF MOHILLA, GUNGAPUR, / CITY BAREILLY, UNITED PROVINCES, INDIA. / HE LEFT COUNTRY, HOME AND FRIENDS, TO SERVE OUR KING & EMPIRE, IN THE GREAT EUROPEAN WAR, / AS A HUMBLE SERVANT IN THE LADY HARDING / HOSPITAL FOR WOUNDED SOLDIERS / IN THIS PARISH. / HE DEPARTED THIS LIFE ON JANUARY 12TH 1915 / AGED 30 YEARS. / BY CREED HE WAS NOT A CHRISTIAN / BUT HIS EARTHLY LIFE WAS SACRIFICED IN THE / INTERESTS OF OTHERS. / “THERE IS ONE GOD AND FATHER OF ALL AND THROUGH ALL AND IN ALL.” / EPHESIANS IV. 6
The stone is to the rear of a group of Commonwealth war graves to New Zealanders, next to memorials to a couple of other Indian soldiers. The Kiwis were moved into the hospital after the Indians were moved out. They are in an annex to St Nicholas churchyard now run by the council – a pleasant rural spot to be buried.
Sukha’s story inspired a couple of fictional accounts of an Indian sweeper who became something of a swashbuckler. In Sir George Fletcher McMunn’s ‘Buldoo’ and ‘The War Story of an Outcast Sweeper’, Sukha becomes a heroic figure with a fine curled beard who has a series of adventures before dying on the battlefield in Mesopotamia. The original story is less dramatic but perhaps more moving.
(An update on 28.10.18. Today’s Observer at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/27/armistice-centenary-indian-troops-testimony-sacrifice-british-library reports on the transfer to the British Library of a substantial archive of oral testimony from Indians who served in WWI. The archive was the basis for The Indian Empire at War: From Jihad to Victory, the Untold Story of the Indian Army in the First World War by George Morton-Jack, published by Little, Brown, but there is clearly more material to be quarried. The Observer article notes that
More Indians fought with the British from 1914 to 1918 than the combined total of Australian, New Zealand, Canadian and South African troops. Some 34,000 Indian soldiers were killed on battlefields in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. But the part they played in the war has been largely whitewashed from history.. .
We will remember them. Also the 16,000+ from the West Indies, and the 180,000+ Africans who served in the Carrier Corps in east Africa. )