British and Indian machine gunners with a Vickers machine gun, Lewis gun and range-finder, 1917. Photo Credit: National Army Museum
The motto: "It's better to die than to be a coward" and the kukri (a long-curved knife) earned Gurkhas a fearsome reputation. Legend has it that once a Gurkha draws the kukri, he must draw blood…
Journey’s End sheds light on the plight of British officers during the First World War and, in so doing, brilliantly illuminates some broader war themes, notably the reckless waste of human life. However, this was a world war and there are many nations whose vital contribution and massive sacrifice is rarely credited by comparison.
Among these is the vital story of Indian and Nepalese soldiers. In MESH’s future work I am dedicated to ensuring their bravery is recognised and losses remembered through theatre - not least because I was born in Pakistan which was then part of India. It must be remembered Pakistan was not created until 1947 and that about 40% of soldiers in the Indian Army were Muslims from what is now Pakistan. So in speaking of India in this historic context, I include Pakistan.
India provided the largest voluntary force ever assembled in history, with around 1.5 million individuals. I was struck by a report by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which shows that 138,000 Indian soldiers were sent to fight in Europe. Most of these soldiers were deployed in the Ypres Salient and at nearby Neuve Chapelle in France during the period 1914-15. A very large number lost their lives in the campaign to halt the German advance.
VC awarded to Rfn Kulbir Thapa of 2/3 Gurkha Rifles during WW1, Accessed: 29-10- 2017 from http://www.gurkhabde.com/the-role- of-gurkha- soldiers-in- first-world- war/
During the First World War nine men from modern-day India and Pakistan won the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military decoration for valour. While the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing contains the names of 412 Indian soldiers, there are many more Hindu soldiers whose bodies were never found. Many were cremated, and only a fraction of those who died can be found in the Salient today. This is a tragedy, but headstones and memorials are not the only way to signify such sacrifice. Drama can too.
I strongly believe that active remembrance of non-white soldiers is a necessary step to honouring our history and contextualising contemporary Britain. Not least because the outcome of the Great War may well have been different without the support of international allies. Recognising our shared history is relevant today, as it can encourage broader engagement and understanding of WW1 across cultural communities in today’s multi-national Britain.
As the director of this seminal play, I maintain that drama is the ultimate medium to shed light on hidden historical narratives. I was deeply impressed by Ishy Din’s play, ‘Wipers’, inspired by the story of Khudadad Khan, the first non-British soldier to win a VC. This dramatic performance is a very real and human exploration of non-British soldiers during WW1. Through the immersive experience of drama it says the unsaid and shares the untold.
And the tale of our Indian and Nepalese allies during both world wars is one MESH will visit in future.