As you read this column on yet another relaxing Sunday, it might not occur to you that exactly 100 years ago to the day on the 11th of November, 1918, at 4.00 pm Pakistan time, the First World War ended, and an Armistice was signed that led to the Treaty of Versailles.

But what does it mean to Lahore, to Punjab and to the entire sub-continent? As a new awareness is sweeping the new generation of historians - and journalists - the world over, it is now acknowledged that without the sub-continent, especially the Punjabi soldiers, both the First and the Second World Wars just could not have been won. So what was the contribution of the men from the land that is today Pakistan.

It might surprise our readers to know that the total number of soldiers from British India that went to fight WW1 stood at over 1.3 million, of them over half were support soldiers like sappers and trench diggers. Of the remaining fighting men a colossal 74,187 soldiers were killed fighting in the Somme, in Ypres and in the other killing fields of France, Belgium, Gallipoli and other theatres of war the world over. This means that one in every 12 fighting men who left their villages, towns and cities never returned. Mind you over half of them were Punjabis, especially Muslim Punjabis. So for them the casualty rate was even higher as they were actual fighting persons.

For every nation with men on the front, the Punjabi Muslims had the highest casualty rate, many times higher than any other nation. It is no wonder that our colonial rulers coined the term “cannon fodder”, which was derived from the battlefield reality that as the men were ordered to “go over the trenches” to face terrible German machine gun fire in open, empty and drenched fields strewn with barbed wire, our soldiers fell like fodder facing a sharp fodder cutter. The magnificent cover-up by the colonial rulers came in the shape of a description that Punjabis were a fearless ‘martial race.’

Once the war was over the British encouraged, with money and titles, Punjabis to praise the colonial power through a number of mediums. It was an attempt to hide their exploitation and incompetence. One interesting avenue were poetry sessions as Punjabi bards were paid to wander the countryside praising the Punjabi soldier and their wise British officers. Ironically one such ‘mushaira’ was attended, and led, by Allama Iqbal, who two years after the war was knighted. But let me tread carefully to say that he was honoured for being one of British India’s finest poets.

My first encounter with the First World War was during a hitch-hiking trip from Lahore to London in the early 1970s in the company of my friend Asad Rahman. For six months we braved all the challenges such a trip throws at you. When we reached Ypres in Belgium we visited the ‘Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing’ monument. At the Ypres Salient a number of battles took place starting from 1914 till the Punjabi-dominated force overran the Germans in October 1918. Within a month the war was over. A German general was to, on surrender, praise the Punjabis with the immortal sentence: “Lions led by Donkeys.”

We both stood there amazed at the endless list of Punjabi, especially Punjabi Muslim names, as also of Sikh and Punjabi Hindu names. The entire inner portion of this massive gate has the names of those who never came back. The effect on me was stunning, as it remains to this day when we recall the visit to the Indian Trench Museum where we saw ‘censored’ post cards to dear ones that were never delivered. One was addressed by a Lahore soldier to his mother inside the walled city. It read: “Ma, today the black chillies are very hot.” This meant that the fighting had reached a new ferocity. Probably he lies buried in Ypres, just one of thousands forgotten as they never returned home.

When we stood reading the virtually endless list we came across, names like Havildar Ghulam Muhammad (129 DCO) Lahore, Jemadar Khan Muhammad (FF) Lahore, Sepoy Muhammad Asfar (FF) Lahore, Sepoy Muhammad Shah (55C) Lahore, Sepoy Nur Muhammad Khan (18-II), Lahore. The list is endless. There was a Lance Corporal Butt (KRF) Lahore, and there was also a Sepoy Iftikhar (KGR) Lahore. These are just a few of the ones from Lahore that stand out. Mind you the number of men from Lahore’s walled city who lost their lives in WW1 stands at 1,024 according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission documents.

When I started writing this weekly column many years ago, as I would walk through the old walled city in search of stories, I would often ask aged men if they remember any person who went to WW1 and never returned. They would invariably mention the Second World War, but a few did point to people in their neighbourhood who were lost in the ‘Vaddi Jang’ of 1914-18. Let me recall me visiting two such houses so that we can say that they are not forgotten.

As you enter Lohari Gate and walk towards Lohari Mandi Bazaar, a lane cuts to the right which is called Kocha Kharasian. In a narrow lane was the house of Din Muhammad, a sepoy who never returned. His grand-daughter Sughra Bibi narrated his story in the details as she had heard from her grandmother. Here is a portion of what she said: “They say Dino Baba was a jovial person who joined the recruitment to kill Germans. He was ‘middle pass’ and very strong. His mother received a small pension till she died. When news of his martyrdom came the whole ‘mohallah’ came to condole. Even the ‘goora’ police officer told my grandmother to contact him if she had any problem.”

One can well imagine the sort of things that are important to simple people used by the colonial rulers as ‘cannon fodder.’ That no one remembers them in Lahore is not unexpected. But his name is there on Menin Gate in Belgium and his unmarked grave must be there nearby, even if it was lost in the blood and mud mixture of the landscape.

The next person I managed to locate was in a street off Jore Mori near Wachowali. This was the house of Khan Muhammad. The people living there had heard of their great-grandfather who never returned from the ‘Vaddi Jang’. One elder mentioned that: “Gooras came and saluted the door of our house. Our grandfather used to tell stories of that even. How Khan Sahib died and where we have no idea.”

That was the brief encounter with only two stories of the 1,024 young men of the old walled city that were lost in the fields of Flanders, Somme, Ypres or at Gallipoli, Egypt or even in China. It would be an interesting exercise if an effort to find the names and date of martyrdom of all soldiers of the land of Pakistan, and to build several monuments of ‘Forgotten Soldiers’ all over this ancient land.

Let us try to move away from the narrow view of the dead being ‘them’ or ‘ours’. No matter how we view our history we must never forget that they belong to our soil. The time has come to write a ‘Peoples History.’ In death even the enemy is respected. Surely our past is not another country. Surely those who never returned need our respect. In the streets and lanes and ‘kuchas’ and ‘mohallahs’ of our cities and villages, they should always live. That is the best way we can respect ourselves.

Published in Dawn, November 11th, 2018

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