The 10th of July is the anniversary of the unveiling of the Indian memorial at Barton on Sea. We should remember the contribution the (pre 1947 partition) Indian Army made in WW1 and the time that Barton helped sick and injured Indian soldiers to recuperate.
When war was declared in August 1914 the Indian army expeditionary force deployed to Europe. By September 1914 two infantry and two cavalry divisions had arrived in France. They played a vital role in helping to stem the tide of the German advance into Belgium and France. However, their bravery both in defence and attack caused them many casualties in terms of killed, wounded and missing. In addition the Indian soldiers struggled to cope with the autumn and winter conditions in the front line.
The sick and wounded were brought back to England to a number of hospitals set up along the coast including Brighton Pavilion, the Mont Dore Hotel in Bournemouth (now the town hall) and at Brockenhurst. In Milford and at Barton, hotels were commandeered and used as convalescent homes for the Indians to help their recovery after their discharge from the main hospitals.
The Indian convalescent depot at Barton consisted of the Barton Court Hotel and the Grand Marine Hotel which was nearly opposite the Beach Comber cafe. This was a fairly new hotel having opened for business in 1910. Newspapers of the time report that over 250 guests were turned out of the hotels when the army commandeered them.
It quickly became apparent that the convalescent depot in Barton would need to rapidly expand to take in the ever increasing numbers of recuperating servicemen. A hutted camp was built on the land that is now occupied by the Cliff Crescent building on the junction of Marine Drive and Barton Court Avenue. A 1917 dated postcard from a British soldier convalescing at Barton gives his address as hut 38 which give us some idea of the size of the camp in addition to the hotel accommodation.
The depot was run by the Indian Medical Service under the command of two Indian Army doctors. Lt. Col. J. Chaytor-White was the Commandant of and Lt. Col. W. Mawson his deputy, both of whom had been recalled to service.
There were facilities provided to occupy the troops, such as an entertainments hut and it is known that concerts were held there for the amusement of all. Later as the war progressed a monthly magazine entitled ‘Barton Breezes’ was produced within the camp. An article in the Daily Graphic dated 22nd of January 1915 gives a photographic account of a concert put on for the benefit of the Indian troops. The article is entitled: “The West Entertains the East. Indian Troops at a New Forest Concert.” Clearly this was quite an event for the Indian soldiers and the photographs show the troops filling the theatre and peering in through the windows trying to catch the act.
The people of Milton Parish took a great liking to the Indian soldiers. They were photographed frequently and appear to have been treated as celebrities. One Indian writing home to his family commented that the British people here were quite unlike the British people in India. These were much friendlier.
The Indian soldiers wrote letters home to their friends and families. The letters were censored and copied. The copies were held in the Indian Office in London until 1947. When that department closed, the letters and other papers were sent to the British Library where they can be read. In one letter an Indian soldier writing from New Milton says: “Very many people come to see us, and one cannot tell the lord from the beggar. They grind wheat and do everything by machinery, and thresh the straw – all by machinery. And they plough with horses. As for the shopkeepers, they are very honest and make no difference in their prices. Whether it be a child or a grown man they ask the same price of everyone”.
In 1911 King George V had decreed that members of the Indian Army were now entitled to receive the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy. The first award of the Victoria Cross to an Indian Army soldier was given to Sepoy Khudadad Khan for his action in Belgium on 31st of October 1914. He was part of a machine gun team that held their position until overwhelmed. He was left for dead by the German attackers but managed to crawl back to British lines. He came to Barton to convalesce and recover from his wounds. He was still resident at the Barton depot when the award was announced.
Indian soldiers who were assessed as being well enough to return to their units were marched from the convalescent camp to the railway station in New Milton where they took trains back to the front line. This must have been a repeated spectacle judging by the number of postcards that were printed showing Miltonians at the station watching the soldiers depart.
By the spring of 1916 the Indian army had, mostly left Europe to fight in warmer climes in Palestine and Mesopotamia, now Iraq. In 1917 the Barton depot staff raised funds to place a memorial in Barton to commemorate the Indian Convalescent depot. It was unveiled by Lt. Col. Chaytor-White on 10th July 1917.
On the 10th of July 2018 New Milton Town Council hosted a commemorative event with guests from the Indian and Pakistani High Commissions and the Lord Lieutenant of Hampshire. During this occasion the Mayor of New Milton accepted on behalf of the town a ceremonial Kirpan sword which was presented to the town by the Sikh Council of Hampshire as a token of thanks for warm welcome given to Indian soldiers in Barton on Sea and New Milton in 1914 to 1916. The Kirpan is now on display in the Town Hall.
A similar event was held in 2019. On this occasion former councillor Goff Beck was presented with a ceremonial Kirpan as a personal thanks from the Sikh Council of Hampshire for organising the commemorative events at the Barton Indian memorial.
Sadly in 2020 because of the health risks it was not possible to repeat the ceremony although a wreath will be laid at 3.00pm on 10th of July by New Milton Branch of the Royal British Legion.
A shorter version of this article was first published in July 2020 in the Milton mail and Barton Bugle magazines.
The author is Nick Saunders, Chairman of the Milton Heritage Society. He is working with local historians Chris Hobby from Milford and Tony Johnson from Brockenhurst to write a history of the Indian Army in the New Forest from 1914 to 1916. If you have any information or photographs of this period of our local history please contact them via firstname.lastname@example.org