Battles long ago
ON November 11, 1918, the First World War ended. It had lasted four years and been one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. As Ezra Pound bitterly commented, once it was over, ``There died a million/ and of the best, among them, / for an old bitch gone in the teeth, / for a botched civilisation.'' To commemorate the dead, Britain declared that every future November 11 would be known as Remembrance Day. On all the Remembrance Days of my youth in London, old ladies were out on the streets with trays of paper poppies. One bought a poppy and wore it all day. I suppose it meant one remembered.
Poppies grew profusely in Flanders fields, where many soldiers were buried. Some of them were Indians. In Mulk Raj Anand's finest novel, Across the Black Waters, he describes the situation of the Jat soldiers who went to France to fight in a war not theirs. They were boys who had never before left their Punjab villages, who hardly knew a word of English, let alone French, and were therefore utterly isolated in a strange continent.
I have seen the graves of the Indian soldiers in the military cemeteries of France. In the Second World War, which came 20 years after the first, the British once more used Indian troops. By now the political climate was different. In Southeast Asia, Subhas Chandra Bose was able to form the Indian National Army out of Indian soldiers who had either deserted or been captured by the Japanese. But mostly the Indian troops stayed on the British side. Some were highly decorated, as in the first war. As had also happened then, many died. Soon after the war ended, Indian Independence came.
But those Indians who fought for the British, and in some cases their descendants, still receive pensions; and on Remembrance Day this year, in Mumbai, the Ex-Services Association of Western India celebrated with the few who remain. Colonel Tullet Graham and Major Frank Courtney explained the Association to the press. It is an organisation started by British officers after the war and financed by private individuals and British firms. It tries to help ex-British servicemen and their families hands-on, in matters their pensions may not cover. ``We felt we owed it to them.'' The Association makes grants of money, helps with medical expenses and house repairs. ``Our youngest recipient is 79 and the oldest 97,'' Courtney said. ``There are 48 of them left in Western India.'' He is 87.
So long after the world wars, who you fought for or died for hardly matters. But the idea of a Remembrance Day for those who suffered as soldiers is a rather beautiful one. It provides a kind of continuity to human history. The soldiers did not cause the wars, and most of them were not professionals.
Had there ever been any such tradition of remembrance in India? I made some enquiries from people I thought might know, but the answers were vague. The days you should mark in your memory had to do with your gods or your family. No such tradition had ever existed about soldiers, whether alive or dead.
The tradition only started in the West when the First World War ended. But those who had fought in it needed no reminders to remember. The poet Edmund Blunden told me that he had nightmares about the trenches at least once a week, 40 years later. He went back to France every year to put flowers on the graves of the men he had commanded. ``They were all Sussex lads, and I'd known some of them since they were at school.''
Henry Williamson was a huge, untidy novelist with a walrus moustache, physically quite unlike Blunden, but like him a countryman. His book, Tarka the Otter, made his name. I had met him somewhere and we had talked. He was a very gentle, pleasant old man, and lived in the country. One evening I went into a pub near Victoria Station, and was surprised to see Williamson sitting alone in a corner. Only after I had gone over did I see that he was weeping. He muttered through his tears that he had been going to catch a train home to the country.
``Then I blacked out. It happens to me quite often now. Do you think I am going mad? You see, I think I am back in the trenches, and my friends are all round me. I know they are dead but they speak to me.'' I took him to his train.
Finding out bits and pieces about past wars from those who fought in them is a way of knowing history. On another Remembrance Day an editor who knew of my interest in World War-I asked me to accompany a group of old soldiers back to France. They were going to revisit the battlefields and pay homage to their dead comrades. We travelled around in a bus. They were cheerful old workmen from Lancashire. Most of them hadn't met for years. They swapped reminiscences and sang old songs. Towards dusk we stopped in a small village they had once defended against heavy German attack. In a cafe on the main square I sat beside a man from Oldham. He pointed to a house opposite.
``Ah spent t'longest hours of m'life there, lad,'' he laughed.
``In that house?''
``Nay, lad. Oonder it. A shell landed on it and it fell on top of me. Twelve hours Ah was oonder it. Then t'other lads doog me out, but Ah left m'leg behind.'' I hadn't noticed that he had a false leg, but he tapped it and it sounded metallic. All this while he continued to chuckle, not regretfully or resentfully but as though appreciative of heaven's humour.
``And now they've rebuilt t'house,'' he said. ``So Ah rackon me old leg's part of t'new foundations, forever.'' And he chuckled on, a happy and contented sound.
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