World War One: the eastern wind

Published Oct 05, 2014 05:32pm

World War One: the eastern wind

Most histories and images of World War One make it seem as if it was a purely European war, waged by Europeans alone. However, forgotten by all but the most dedicated historians were the colonial troops that fought and died in foreign fields. Many of those included soldiers from what is now Pakistan. Matthew Ward takes us back to the killing fields of the Western Front and tells their tales.

One small spark, a century ago, started a fire that engulfed the whole world. The first shot of World War One cut down Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on July 28, 1914. Within just three months, the war had escaped from Europe to inflame Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas. The shockwave of the German advance had shattered Belgium, and France was splintering asunder. Britain only had a small army and it was shrinking rapidly in the intense heat of battle as war raged across Northern France in September 1914. Britain, France and Belgium needed help and they needed it fast so they turned to their Colonies across the world.

The Indian Army was much larger than the British Army and it was a professional and disciplined force. This discipline was to be sorely tested when Indian Army soldiers were flung 6,000 kilometres across the world to fight a brutal war in a cold and miserable land.

Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, a German Officer, famously stated, ‘No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength’. This was undoubtedly the case in September 1914. The British high command had planned to send Indian Army units to serve in the African and Middle Eastern theatres of war, for which they were well equipped and well suited. Two expeditionary forces of the Indian Army had already sailed from India for the Middle East when the British Army faced a crisis in September 1914. The closest reserves were the soldiers of the Indian Expeditionary Force A in Egypt. They had been tasked to fight German colonial forces in Africa but now they were to fight Germans in Europe. The first Indian Army soldiers landed in Marseilles, France, on September 26, 1914 and the majority were from what is now Pakistan. The 3rd (Lahore) Division of the Indian Army was composed of three Brigades, made up from Regiments of Muslim, Sikh, Gorkha and British soldiers. The first two Brigades to land were the Ferozepore Brigade and Jullundur Brigade.

The Ferozepore Brigade consisted of four Regiments: 129th Baluchis 1st Battalion Connaught Rangers 9th Bhopal Infantry 57th Wilde’s Rifles (Frontier Force)

The Jullunder Brigade consisted of the following Regiments: 59th Scinde Rifles (Frontier Force) 15th Ludhiana Sikhs 47th Sikhs 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment

3rd (Lahore) Division soldiers sparring.
3rd (Lahore) Division soldiers sparring.

These eight regiments served shoulder to shoulder with great distinction in the most terrible battles on the Western Front. Their successor Regiments still form the core of the armies of Pakistan, India and Britain, maintaining a respectful friendship despite the subsequent century of conflict.

The wisdom of the man from Punjab ran too deep for the shallow intelligence of the British censor to understand. He was giving a clear warning that the natural order had been overturned and there was chaos in war.

History is a mirror in which we can see ourselves and our footsteps in the long journey of humanity through time. Letters written by soldiers of the Indian Army in France and Britain not only cast light on their thoughts and feelings but also illuminate with wry humour how peculiar life appeared to be in Europe.

  Adapting to trench warfare.
Adapting to trench warfare.

“The battle is being carried on very bitterly. In the Lahore Division only 300 men are left. Some are dead, some wounded. The division is finished. Think of it — in taking 50 yards of German trench, 50,000 men are killed. When we attack they direct a terrific fire on us — thousands of men die daily. It looks as if not a single man can remain alive on either side — then (when none is left) there will be peace.

When the Germans attack they are killed in the same way. For us men it is a bad state of affairs here. Only those return from the battlefield that is slightly wounded. No one else is carried off. Even Sahib is not lifted away. The battleground resounds with cries… Here thing are in a very bad way. In France the news is that dog churn milk in machines and look after the cattle. A man who keeps a dog has to pay five rupees a month to the King.”

  129th Baluchis on the frontline. — Copyright IWM
129th Baluchis on the frontline. — Copyright IWM

This letter was written by one of the men who had landed in France in September 1914. He wrote it whilst being treated for his injuries in hospital in Brighton, England. It illustrates how many casualties had been suffered by the 3rd (Lahore) Division in only six months of intense fighting, from Autumn 1914 to Spring 1915. Letters had to be written with great wit and ingenuity to get messages past the busy blue pencils of the censors. The last line about cattle and dogs is more than just a factual statement; it is actually a warning about how crazy Europeans are.

“Here is very cold at present. It snows much. The little discomfort that we experience is due to cold and rain. Otherwise the country is like heaven. It rains frequently. You are, no doubt, astonished at what I say and wonder how this country can be heaven. Listen to one little thing. Here no one drinks water. When they desire to drink, either at meals or any other time, they drink the juice of apples. So many apples are produced that the people press the juice and store it in barrels, (from) which they drink throughout the year. They let us have a bottle full for two pica (paisa). All the men drink it. There is no prohibition — you may bring as much as you like inside the house. Barrels upon barrels are full of it. Moreover there are barns full of apples. If I return alive I will tell you all about this country. You shall be staggered at all I shall tell you. It is real heaven. There is plenty of milk, but only cow’s milk. The people, however, drink very little milk. They milk the cows and then they extract the butter at the rate of a mound (40 kilo) of milk in 10 minutes. The skimmed milk they give to cows, calves and pigs. The people are very honest. There is no sign of theft. Goods to the value of lakhs (hundred thousands) of rupees lie in glass houses. No one pays any regard to them. Grain, potatoes and such like things lie in the fields unguarded. In short, the cat plays with pigeons and chicken and the dog plays with the cat and tends the sheep, churns the butter and draws a cart and guards it too. When a cow calves, they immediately take away the calf and do not let the cow see it. They rear it on skimmed milk. They milk the cow daily — two or three times daily — without the calf being present. The cows in fact do not know whether they gave birth to a calf or not. It is the golden age.”

Prayers at the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, England.
Prayers at the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, England.

This letter, written by a soldier in France and sent back home to his family in Punjab, seemed to the censor to be nothing more than idle chatter about agriculture. The real message was about the immorality witnessed by the soldier in France. The apple juice he referred to was actually cider! He was warning his family that the Europeans were a bunch of violent drunkards who were trying to kill each other despite there been plenty of resources to share. The censor thought the description of dogs and cats living in harmony was like the lion lying down with the lamb, as he had read in his Bible. The wisdom of the man from Punjab ran too deep for the shallow intelligence of the British censor to understand. He was giving a clear warning that the natural order had been overturned and there was chaos in war.

Courage, discipline and above all, unity in strife were the great strengths of the Indian Army on the Western Front. They arrived in France equipped for war in Africa, wearing thin cotton uniforms and trained as marksmen to fight in the open fields. Immediately re-equipped with British rifles, they had to quickly adapt to the cold, wet siege warfare in the stinking trenches of the Western Front. Hiding in holes was an anathema to their courageous spirit, and their bravery was recognised by friend and foe alike.

  Singapore 1915.
Singapore 1915.

“The Baluchis, in particular, have covered themselves with glory in many a fight.” Captain Robert Dolbey “... the 129th Baluchis ... were without a doubt very good” General von Lettow-Vorbeck

The 129th Baluchis were a Regiment of Balochis, Pakhtuns, Sindhis, Brahuis and Punjabi Muslims. They brought The Holy Quran and their prayers with them to Europe and maintained their religious devotion and brotherhood. Some were able to worship at the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, England, when they were on leave or if they had been treated in the Indian Army Hospital in Brighton. Many remained in Woking too. Those that succumbed to their injuries were buried in a new purpose-built Muslim cemetery not far from the Mosque. Sadly, by the 1960s, their service and sacrifice had been forgotten and the cemetery suffered neglect and vandalism. The remains of the fallen were transferred to Brookwood Military Cemetery and the Woking burial ground was abandoned by the authorities. Fortunately, the courage of the Muslim soldiers had not been forgotten by the people of Woking and a preservation trust set about restoring the old cemetery as a memorial to their lives and service. Today, there is still a corner of a foreign field that shall forever be Pakistan.

World War One was immensely costly to pre-Independence India in lives, resources and lost opportunities. More than a million men from pre-independence India served overseas in the First World War. At least 75,000 of them were killed in battles in Europe, Africa and Asia. The financial cost of the Indian Army was undertaken by India, not Britain. The equivalent of hundreds of billions of rupees today was poured into the voracious maw of war. Resources that could have been invested in people’s health and education were instead wasted on destroying human lives. When France, Britain and The Commonwealth invaded Turkey in 1915, Muslim soldiers of the Indian Army were faced with a terrible situation. They either had to fight fellow Muslims or defy the high command and face the consequences. Pathans and Ranghars of the 5th Light Infantry believed they should not fight fellow Muslims on behalf of a colonial power. They called for Indian independence and an end to being forced to participate in a senseless war. Their defiance of the high command was treated harshly and 47 men were executed in public as a warning to all.

  Woking Muslim burial ground. Image CWGC & Muslim soldier of the 58th Rifles guarding Qubbat As-Sakhrah. — Copyright IWM
Woking Muslim burial ground. Image CWGC & Muslim soldier of the 58th Rifles guarding Qubbat As-Sakhrah. — Copyright IWM

From Britain to China, Africa and Mesopotamia, men from what is Pakistan today were in the thick of the fray. It is widely acknowledged that without their immense courage, Britain and France would have lost World War One and been subjugated, just as they had previously subjugated India and Africa. The British authorities had made vague promises of reform to their rule in India but these promises were reneged on after the Armistice. Rifles that had been pointed at Germans were then turned upon the people of India. It took a long struggle and another terrible war for Pakistan and India to free themselves from unjust colonial domination.

I have shared the stories of the brave men from Pakistan and India who served in the First World War with a global audience via radio, TV and social media. Some people seek to criticise those that served for being either fools to serve the colonists or being complicit in their rule. Rather than criticise men who have all passed away, let us remember them with honour and respect and seek to promote the unity that they displayed in a time of strife.

In August 1914, the world was shaken to the core when the German Army destroyed the great library of Leuven University in Belgium. Libraries are pillars of civilisation and many people thought the world would descend into a new age of barbarity and darkness. The peril was recognised by Brij Narayan Chakbast, the great poet and philosopher, who was an inspiration for Pakistan. Chakbast wrote this poem in response to the library’s destruction as an armour of wisdom to protect the soldiers as they departed from India to fight in World War One. Written one hundred years ago, his words chime with truth. A truth and wisdom that the leaders of today should heed before sending their citizens to fight in any more wars.

Kuchh ajab rang-i-chaman badla huwa hai aajkal, Ghuncha-o-gul surat-i-shabnam hawa hone ko hain,
Gar yahi hai gardish-i-dauraa’n ka rang –e-inqilaab,
Hosh ur jayenge woh fitne bapaa hone ko hain, Jurrat-i-ikhlaaq tere imtihaa’n ka waqt hai, Khud azizaa’n-i-watan humse khafa hone ko hain,
Madar-i-nashaad roti hai koi sunta nahin, Dil jigar se bhai se bhai judaa hone ko hain,
Haan dileraa’n–e-watan dhaak bitha kar aanaa,
Tantana jarman-i-khudbiin ka mitaa kar aanaa,
Qaisari takht ki buniyaad hilaa kar aanaa,
Nadiya’n khoon ki Berlin mein bahaa kar aanaa,
Yahi Ganga hai sipaahi ke nahaane ke liye,
Naao talwar ki hai par lagane ke liye, Go ki duniya se mite shaukat-i-Qaiser ka suraagh,
Shola-i-tegh se murjhaye naa tahzeeb ka baagh, Gul na ho dil ke shivalay mein hamiyat ke chiraagh,
Begunaho’n ke lahu ka naa ho talwar pe daagh, Raasta hai yehi qaumo’n ki tabaahi ke liye, Khoon masoom ka dosakh hai sipaahi ke liye.

I would like to thank my friend Rana Safvi for introducing me to the beauty of Urdu poetry, especially the deep well of wisdom bequeathed to humanity by Brij Narayan Chakbast. Please visit her website to learn, with me, more about Urdu poetry and our shared history and heritage.

If you would like to research your own family’s involvement in the First World War, you can access the archive of the pre-independence Indian Army which is held by the National Army Museum in England.

Records are also held by the British Library, Commonwealth War Graves Commission, UK National Archives and the rather anachronistically named Imperial War Museum.

We are currently curating an exhibition about The Commonwealth in the First World War. If you have a family story you’d like to share with a wider audience, please contact us via our website and we shall ensure your family name is honoured.

May there ever be unity in place of strife.

Matthew Ward is a Broadcaster and Historian who is researching and sharing the story of The Commonwealth in World War One.

He is frequently heard on BBC radio and also advises the BBC on World War One documentaries. Connect with him on Twitter @HistoryNeedsYou

Two World Wars and a wedding

By Fouzia Nasir Ahmad

From left to right: Col (retd) Sultan Ahmed Jan Khattak, Lt Hans Seul serving in the Grand Duke’s field artillery regiment No 14 (1916), Lt Seul serving in the Wehrmacht Artillery in Stalingrad (1942-43), Khalid Khattak and his wife Ruth at a Christmas party in a hotel in Germany.
From left to right: Col (retd) Sultan Ahmed Jan Khattak, Lt Hans Seul serving in the Grand Duke’s field artillery regiment No 14 (1916), Lt Seul serving in the Wehrmacht Artillery in Stalingrad (1942-43), Khalid Khattak and his wife Ruth at a Christmas party in a hotel in Germany.

When Khalid Masud Khattak, a retired Pakistani civil servant married a German lady named Ruth Seul in 1982, little did he know how much their families had in common, despite belonging to completely different continents and hailing from very distinct cultures.

In fact, the roots of their connection stem from World Wars One and Two, wars that began in Europe but were fought by soldiers from almost every part of the globe.

Khalid’s father, Col (retd) Sultan Ahmed Jan Khattak, fought on the British side in World War Two while Ruth’s father Lieutenant Hans Seul (Sr) fought for The Kaiser in World War. His son, Ruth’s brother and Khalid Khattak’s brother-in-law fought in the Second World War as part of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Ironically, all three of these officers served in the Artillery.

This is the story of a unique family feud. The characters: two Pakistani men, two German men and a German woman — all linked in a curious connection of duty, glory, love and valour

Sultan Ahmed Jan Khattak served as captain in the Maratha-Mahar Regiment in World War II. In 1947, he was absorbed by the Baloch Regiment and in 1950, he voluntarily joined the Pakistan Artillery from where he retired as a colonel.

Ruth’s family also boasted a splendid military pedigree, with her father, Lieutenant Hans Seul (Sr) a lieutenant in the Artillery on one of the bloodiest battlefields of the Western Front of World War One; the French killing ground that was Verdun. After the armistice, he left the army and got a degree in mechanical engineering from Freiburg and later worked for an Italian company, a career move that would eventually lead to his daughter marrying a Pakistani. Towards the end of World War II, when Germany was desperately short of manpower, he was recalled to serve in the Volksstrum and was eventually captured by the victorious Allied forces. The Volkssturm or ‘people’s militia’ was set up on the orders of Adolf Hitler in 1944, in the last months of World War II. Post-war Germany was economically devastated so Seul answered an ad for cement engineers in Pakistan in a German newspaper. In 1957, he came to Pakistan and joined the Dalmia Cement Factory as chief engineer.

Ruth followed him to Pakistan and met Khalid through a common friend. Since she belonged to an aristocratic family, they shared many common interests like history and the military, and shared a common passion for dogs and horses. After about a month’s courtship, they got married. She passed away in 2007 on the same day, perhaps even the same time as Benazir Bhutto.

Khalid’s father, Col (retd) Sultan Ahmed Jan Khattak, fought on the British side in World War Two while Ruth’s father Lieutenant Hans Seul (Sr) fought for The Kaiser in World War. His son, Ruth’s brother and Khalid Khattak’s brother-in-law fought in the Second World War as part of Hitler’s Wehrmacht. Ironically, all three of these officers served in the Artillery.

Ruth’s brother, the late Lieutenant Hans Seul (Jr) himself fought in one of the hardest-fought battles of the Second World War, the Battle of Stalingrad, and received the Iron cross Class 1 for valour beyond the call of duty. Encircled by the Soviets and cut off from supplies and reinforcements, the German 6th army fighting in Stalingrad was soon forced to surrender after suffering some 146,000 casualties. Of the 90,00 or so prisoners captured by the Soviets, only 6,000 ever made it back home. Lieutenant Hans Seul (Jr) was one of the lucky few who returned. He later became a forest director in Germany and died after retirement in 2005.

The elder Khattak, now in his nineties, still resides in Pakistan as does his son.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 5th, 2014