IWM's Parveen Sodhi investigates the reports of the Indian Soldiers' Fund to find a new point of access for the history of Indian troops during the First World War. 

‘Very many thanks for the many comforts you have sent for this Company… the men were very pleased at being remembered by anyone connected with India…’ From an Indian Labour Company, France, 18th January 1918.

Lord Roberts initiated the supply of home comforts and gifts in kind by the Indian Soldiers' Fund as early as 1914. Roberts – who served in India for over forty years and who was the last Commander in Chief of the Forces – took the greatest personal interest for the provision of the Indian soldiers ‘whom he loved so well’, who had been hospitalised in France during the course of the First World War.

Along with 1,500 probable donors at the time, the Indian Soldiers' Fund Committee was to establish suitable depots for the reception of gifts from the public, as well as to specify the kind of clothing and comforts ‘most suitable for the Indian troops’.

To establish a system of despatch, the committee realised it was essential to also ascertain the needs of the troops at the front and the hospitals. Early arrangements were made with the British Army staff officers, who not only distributed but also reported back to the committee and donors requests from the Indian troops.

The reports, held by IWM, enable us to track the Indian troops’ movements, from where the care packages were distributed in diverse locations around the fronts in Egypt, Gallipoli, Salonika and Mesopotamia.

Another aspect of the reports reveal the concern by the Committee to arrange for the care packages to reach all Indian troops, bringing to attention the lesser known contributions on the fronts such as the Mule Cart Train of the Indian Supply and Transport Corps and the Indian Field Ambulance stationed in the Dardanelles, Salonika and Mesopotamia, vital for the operations of the ANZAC forces. The Committee was determined that their needs should also be met.

Most items were procured from the UK. However the St John Ambulance Association in India, the Red Cross Society in Burma and the War Gifts Depot at Waterloo Mansions in Bombay, supplied those comforts that could only be found or made in India.

The nature of the products procured, and their quantities, can be seen in the arrangements made for the diet of the Indian troops – 953 lbs. of spices in 1914, such as turmeric, and 970 lbs. in 1915, and 762 lbs. of chutney and curry in 1914, increasing to 808 lbs. in 1915.

Indian sweets were shipped from Bombay in large quantities from 1914 – Gur, an Indian sweet made in rural Punjab from sugarcanes, and even Pinnis, a traditional Punjabi sweet made from ground daal sautéed with flours and cooked in sugar syrup.

It was not solely foodstuffs, which were provided to troops but also traditional Indian utilities, including the Lotas (brass dinking pots) of which 1,520 were sent in 1915.  Thousands of tins of coconut oil, largely used by Sikhs and other Indian soldiers with long hair were sent in 1914, increasing ten fold to 62,000 tins in 1915.  Other goods included log line, strong cord to tie up Bistara (bedding) and 12 dozen black bottles of dye to replace Mehndi (Henna paste, used for skin designs in religious events or traditional ceremonies).

The second report of the Indian Soldier Fund for April to November 1915 reflected that, ‘His religion is very close [to] the heart of the Oriental’ and an abundance of the holy books reached the troops. The Quran, Bhagavad Gita and the Guru Granth Sahib were all imported from donations by patrons in India.  Their impact was demonstrated in a letter from Colonel G. Jenny, in August 1915, Officer Commanding Secunderabund Indian General Hospital, Hardelot, Boulogne, ‘The effort to meet their religious needs has, I really believe, come more home to the men than anything else’.

The needs of the Indian troops to fulfil religious requirements were supported from the onset of the war. For the Sikhs, their Kirpan was reproduced as a miniature and supplied to the Sikh soldiers on the Western Front as early as October 1914.  At first 2,000 sets were reproduced from Sheffield and towards the end of 1915 3,000 sets were made under the personal supervision of Sirdar Basheshar Singh, the son of the Prime Minister of Patiala.  By 1916, 4,000 sets of Sikh symbols, which included the Kara and Kangha (comb) and Kachera (shorts), were being sent to the Sikhs on all fronts.

On display in the Empire Faith and War exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, a turban of the 36th Sikhs and the miniature Kirpans, both items loans from IWM. Photograph courtesy of author.
On display in the Empire Faith and War exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, a turban of the 36th Sikhs and the miniature Kirpans, both items loans from IWM. Photograph courtesy of author.

Also displayed is the Sikh turban, the Pugri material, long plain unstitched cloth, which had its own waterproof pugri covers.  Between March 1914 and 1915, a total of 21,264 yards of pugri material was shipped to France; 2,600 yards of this to the fighting fronts.

The effort which went into the procurement and distribution of goods, not just to fulfill the wants of the Indian soldiers, but to improve their morale and provide for the comforts and welfare of individuals journeying from their homes and countries for the very first time is palpable to any reader of these reports. The Indian Soldier Funds show, that a great care was taken in comforting the Indian soldiers and giving them a reminder of home:

On behalf of our men may I tender you our thanks for the gifts, especially for the kindliness of spirit which has prompted them, and which cheers our men to feel that there are, close by, kindly hearts feeling and thinking for them in this distant land.’ From an Indian Labour Company, France, 14th January 1918.

Parveen's work for the exhibition, Empire, Faith and War: The Sikhs and World War Oneat the Brunei Gallery can be seen until the 28 September 2014.