Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

06 August 2014

'The World’s War' on BBC2: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire

Tonight BBC2 broadcasts the first episode of a new series presented by David Olusoga, 'The World’s War', which explores the contribution of the millions of Indian, African and Asian troops who fought during the First World War.

The Indian contribution to the First World War is documented in the India Office Records, the vast archive of the British administration of India, which is kept at the British Library in London.

Tonight’s programme features an exceptional collection of reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France held at the Library, filled with extracts from letters of Indian soldiers writing home to their families during the War.  The chief purpose of the Censor’s Office was not to suppress letters, but to gather information about the morale of the soldiers. The British Government feared that uncensored letters detailing Indian soldiers suffering in France could distress their families at home, and so lead to political instability in India, and also might provide military information to the enemy.

You can see a sneak preview of Santanu Das examining the letters in the British Library in the first episode of 'The World’s War', which airs tonight:


The hundreds of letters testify movingly to the trauma the soldiers experienced fighting in France.

One soldier named Bachetar Singh, recovering from an injury to his foot in the Indian Hospital in Brighton in March 1915, wrote to a friend in India: “How can I describe this war?  It is like a furnace in which everything becomes ashes on both sides. When will Ishwar (God) have mercy so that this furnace will be stopped?”.  Murli Dhat Chandola wrote in April 1915: “I have simply come here to die because of my sins, but this is now the last time that I am writing you”.

In the same month, Giyan Singh, stationed at the Indian Artillery Depot in England, described the terrifying weaponry which the Indian soldiers faced on the battlefields of France: “The German is very strong. His ships sail the clouds and drop shells from the sky; his mines dig up the earth, and his hidden craft strike below the sea. Bombs and blinding acid are thrown from his trenches which are only 100 or 50 yards from ours. He has countless machine guns which kill the whole firing line when in attack. When he attacks we kill his men. The dead lie in heaps”.

The Indian soldiers also wrote about the many strange sights they saw. Zabu Shah, a Lance Daffadar with the 6th Cavalry, wrote excitedly in June 1917 to tell his mother about having been in an aeroplane: “I have been up in an aeroplane and was above the clouds for a long time. I am the first native of India to go up in an aeroplane in France but after me I think two or three more have gone up. It is a first class way of travelling particularly in hot weather. Very soon there will be so many aeroplanes that in India people will travel by them instead of by train”.

Description by Zabu Shah, a Lance Daffadar with the 6th Cavalry, of a flight in an aeroplane
IOR/L/MIL/5/827/3, f.416  Noc

'The World’s War' starts tonight on BBC2 at 9.00pm. See more details here.

The entire collection of the Censored Indian Mails is digitised and available to view for free online.


John O’Brien
India Office Records  Cc-by

Read the letter of an Indian Muslim soldier writing from Marseilles


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