The Fight in Fairyland
With the help of letters, diaries and personal accounts, Santanu Das reports from Flanders and Delhi on the experiences of Indian soldiers on the Western Front.
On 22 October 1914, a Flemish priest from a village near Ypres recorded in his diary that Indian troops had been arriving throughout the hours of darkness in London double decker buses. The First Battle of Ypres had just begun and the Indian soldiers were being moved up to the front line.
Santanu Das tells the story of the Indian Army on the Western Front, from disembarkation in Marseilles where the troops were greeted by excited crowds, to the grim reality of the trenches. Ill-equipped and inadequately trained for industrial combat, they nonetheless resolutely held one third of the British frontline between October and December 1914.
Santanu speaks to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of officers and men. Some of these descendants have re-discovered diaries and detailed accounts of the war which chronicle their ancestors' encounters with local people and describe the mutual curiosity between the Indian soldiers and the French and Flemish villagers.
Back in India, the families waited for news from the front which was sometimes very slow to come back. The grandson of one Indian sowar (cavalryman) didn't discover how his grandfather had died until 40 years after the end of the First World War, when he heard from an old comrade how he had died from his wounds after saving the life of a British officer at the Battle of Cambrai.
The journey ends at the memorial at Neuve Chapelle in France, where Indian soldiers and non-combatants who have no known grave are commemorated. The war service of the Indians who served on the Western Front has disappeared from the public gaze to some extent, but as Santanu discovers, their experiences are still talked about and remembered by their families, despite the passing of a hundred years.
Produced by Philippa Goodrich
A Juniper TV production for BBC Radio 4.
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