The European Quarter, Calcutta, Bain News Service, 1922. Library of Congress.
The European Quarter, Calcutta, Bain News Service, 1922. Library of Congress.

Compared with the Second World War, the First World War has always been relatively absent from the histories that my family tells itself. In the second war, there was the tragic death of my maternal great-grandfather, Kenneth, who died at the conclusion of the battle of El Alamein in 1942. Not, as it happens, killed by enemy action but by the accidental bombing of allied ships by the United States Airforce. My grandfather was just three years old when his father died. On my paternal side, the stories are not of military service but of service in the merchant marine, those often overlooked men who ensured Britain’s food supplies. From Glasgow to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Argentina, to Australia and New Zealand, my great-grandfather wandered the oceans and came home bitterly shaken by the disregard for life that he had seen. But there was always a gap in knowledge, what about those who fought in the first war? The most I could ever learn was that my father’s father’s father had been in the Khyber Pass during that conflict, a snippet of information that has always fascinated me, even when I was little and the First World War meant the slaughter of the Somme. And so a few months ago I set out to discover more about his journey, where he went, and what exactly his war was like. Today’s blog is what I found out.

My great-grandfather, Harold, was born in Wellington in Somerset in the spring of 1898. His father worked for the Great Western Railway but had grown up in the rural parishes on the Devon side of the Devon-Somerset border, where the family had lived since at least the mid-eighteenth century. The railway was to be my family’s escape from the land and its introduction into the world of modern Britain. They would take up the call of the Labour Party, helping to form the branch in Wellington, and in every succeeding generation my family has had some affiliation with that party. Harold left school in 1912, aged fourteen, and joined his father on the railway, working in the refreshments hall in Taunton Station. In September 1914, a month after the war broke out, bored and yearning for a bit of adventure, but still under age, he joined the army with his best friend Herbert “Bert” Exelby. By great fortune, the two boys were assigned to the newly formed 2/5 Somerset Light Infantry, which formed in Taunton on 25 September 1914. After initial muster on Salisbury Plain and training at Taunton Barracks, the 2/5 SLI departed on 12 December 1914 bound for India. They arrived in Mumbai on 8 January 1915.

‘The day broke awfully hot’, wrote one soldier of the 2/5 SLI, ‘the sun pouring down its rays unmercifully before it reached a very high altitude. Our view of Bombay, the “Gateway to India” was not very enticing’. After disembarking, the soldiers were put on trains bound for Calcutta along the Bengal-Nagpur Railway, a journey that was ‘unremarkable except for the lack of water’. They arrived in Calcutta three days later and camped on the Maidan outside Fort William. At this stage it’s no surprise to read in letters and diaries and memoirs of soldiers finding the Indian heat unbearably hot, and I imagine my great-grandfather used to the moderate climes of Taunton would have felt much the same. After a week or so in Calcutta, the battalion were moved on to Yangon (Rangoon) aboard the SS Thongwa, a steamer owned by the British India SN Company and constructed in Glasgow in 1903. The ship had previously ferried troops from India to the European theatre. From Yangon, the soldiers of 2/5 SLI proceeded along the Ayeyarwady River (or Irrawaddy) to their stations at Meiktila (for B & C companies) and Shwebo (for A & D companies). Having arrived in early February 1915, and on duty for only a few weeks, A and C companies left their respective stations and converged once more at Yangon.

One of the frustrations of the relative absence of records for 2/5 SLI is that I’ve not been able to determine which company Harold was actually in, so therefore can’t follow exactly his path through Burma. I do know that B company was largely composed of men from Bridgewater and the towns and villages of West Somerset such as Minehead and Watchet, so it is unlikely he formed part of that, but it still leaves the other three as possibilities. It would be nice to know precisely, but I don’t suppose it matters a great deal when telling the story since the four companies went to the same places, just in a different order. What I do know from the record of service for 2/5 SLI is that the companies stayed at their respective stations – Meiktila, Shwebo, and Yangon, until early January 1916, when they were subject to further movements around Burma. The only major disruption in the intervening period of time was in August 1915 when a small number of volunteers joined the Indian Expeditionary Force and sailed with them to the Middle East, where they were caught in the Siege of Kut. Most of the 40 who volunteered died. Harold was not among them, or the later groups of volunteers for service in the Middle East. He remained in Burma.

The redeployments in January 1916 saw D company move from Shwebo to Meiktila, in turn relieving B company who moved on to Bhamo in the north-east of the country. D company were subsequently moved to guard the POW camp at Thayetmyo, one of the largest internment camps in British India during the war, where prisoners from the Middle East were housed. By April 1917, as a Red Cross report on conditions recorded, the camp at Thayetmyo held some 3600 prisoners, mostly Turkish. There were internment camps at Shwebo (in practice a convalescence camp), Meiktila, and Yangon (a quarantine camp). The Red Cross report gives the impression that the camps were relatively humane environments run by enlightened commandants. This seems, at best, a stretch. One reason for locating the internment camps in Burma, rather than more straightforwardly in northwestern India, was to avoid any potential escalation of religious violence. With a relatively small Muslim population, Burma was seen as much less prone to such a conflict. Equally the developing infrastructure in Burma still required heavy labour, and POWs were put to use building railways, bridges, and even an artificial lake. There is a certain historical irony involved in the telling of this aspect of the First World War given the brutality that occurred in Burma during the Japanese occupation in the 1940s.

In the later part of 1916, 2/5 SLI moved out of Burma, through present-day Bangladesh, and back into India, with the four companies stationed variously in Lebong, Barrackpore and Dum Dum in West Bengal and in Dinapore in the neighbouring state of Bihar. They relieved 2/4 SLI who redeployed to the Punjab. At the beginning of 1918, part of the 2/5 SLI moved on to Madhapur, a suburb of Hyderabad, although for the most part, the battalion remained in West Bengal. With the armistice in November 1918, the battalion began to slowly dissipate, and those elements that remained in India were redeployed to Fort William in Calcutta. To read many of the accounts of the 2/5 SLI’s service in India and Burma during the First World War, it’s hard to envisage anything other than a degree of boredom interspersed with (in their words, not mine) occasional “native trouble” and a lot of sport. Indeed, soldiers found it easier to complain about bad cigarettes, even worse food, and the stifling heat, than to describe the environment in which they found themselves in a more positive way. There is, obviously, a reason for this – namely that being in the army but stuck far from the main points of action, there was a degree of frustration that they were unable to do their bit fully. In later years as the war has come to be framed by service on the Western Front or in the Middle East that sense of alienation grew even stronger. Whatever happened to ‘our war’, the memoirs seem to be saying, under the surface at least.

The surviving accounts in the SLI archives in Taunton end in 1919, but I know that Harold remained in the army until January 1920, and there is still the matter of the family story about the Khyber Pass. That’s a long way from Burma and West Bengal, where the battalion was stationed throughout 1914-1918. The answer to that conundrum lies, I’m almost certain, in the outbreak of the Third Afghan War in May 1919, which saw troops – including those of the 2/5 SLI that remained in India – moved into the North-West Frontier to rebuff the Afghan invasion of India. That is as far as the story really goes, since Harold never really talked about his war service and there are few alive now who knew him. He left India in January 1920 and left the army upon his return to Britain. He had left Somerset at the age of sixteen and returned, aged twenty-one, a completely different person – he had seen the Himalayas, the ancient cities and temples of India and Burma, heard dozens of languages, and been placed in an environment that no-one in his family could ever truly understand. Throughout the rest of his life, so I am told, he drank heavily – so much so that my grandfather largely eschewed alcohol – and bore the scars of what we would now call post-traumatic distress.

In April 1920, Harold moved from Taunton to Newport in South Wales where he was employed (still by the GWR) as a loco cleaner at the Ebbw Junction depot. Whilst living in Newport he met his soon-to-be wife Gwladys. Little more than a year later, in August 1921, he joined the Glamorgan Constabulary, which was desperate to fill its ranks after wartime depletion. Given the turbulence of the next few years, not least the General Strike, I’ve often wondered how Harold’s own politics (he was a life-long Labour supporter) clashed with the job that he was doing. His first posting, whilst on probation, was to Briton Ferry before moving on to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company refinery at Llandarcy. He remained there until March 1925 when he was transferred to division headquarters at Bridgend. Never particularly happy at Bridgend, he left for Cowbridge that October, where he was stationed through the General Strike and most of the miners’ lockout that followed. He moved to Pontycymer in the Garw valley in September 1926 (although they lived in nearby Blaengarw). It was during this posting that my grandfather was born.

The family left the Garw valley in 1928 and, after a series of short-term postings, including a second stint at Bridgend, eventually ended up in Nantyffyllon in the Llynfi valley in 1932. Harold’s final posting was to Llanharan to which he moved in 1938. The second stint at Bridgend, however, was something of a disaster and forever marked his career. Frustrated that despite having passed examinations for sergeant and inspector he was never advanced beyond the rank of constable, Harold quarrelled with senior officers at divisional headquarters and was ordered to move to another station. Hence the sudden remove to Nantyffyllon. Reading Harold’s service record, I can’t help but wonder whether the effects of war service and an ultimately frustrated career in one of Britain’s most reactionary police forces amplified the mental health problems that he lived with his entire adult life. They undoubtedly contributed to the alcoholism.

Researching Harold’s war service, I’m struck, and with this point I shall close, just how little is really known about those British soldiers sent to India in 1914 and what their war was like. Even now, as the role of Indian soldiers is coming to the fore, the history is about their role on the Western Front and the Middle East. It is a gap in our knowledge and understanding of the First World War’s global reach. I remember talking to a student at Huddersfield who was researching his Sikh ancestors who came and fought in Europe during the war and telling him that my great-grandfather had been in India. We both thought it quirky coincidence and that there is, despite the hundreds (if not hundreds of thousands) of miles of published work already out there, far more to be written about the First World War. All of those “native troubles” that the soldiers wrote about in their memoirs testify to the underlying religious tensions in India, but they almost certainly disguise (through lack of knowledge and understanding) the vigorous campaign for Indian independence that was being conducted then too. And what, I wonder, was the Burmese reaction to a lot of young men with West Country accents arriving in their midst?

It will be apparent that 2/5 SLI were not the only battalion stationed in India during the First World War and there are surely to be other family stories akin to Harold’s. The trigger for my family talking about it all was when Harold saw Carry On: Up the Khyber for the first time at the end of the 1960s and reflected that ‘India was not quite like that when I was there’. It resurfaces each time that film is played – at least it will so long as those who knew Harold remain alive.  As we approach the centenary of the war’s end, and having missed the opportunity so far to discuss the truly ‘forgotten’ aspects of the conflict, now is perhaps the best time to ask those questions and to look for those sources. The story of these young men deserves to be talked about too, as it was not fifty years ago when they were still alive. We fail to truly remember the First World War if we continue to neglect them.