The role of the Indian Army in the opening months of the First World War has to some extent been overlooked which is a great disservice to the Indian servicemen who fought on the Western Front from 1914 and later in Gallipoli, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Historians now recognise the crucial role played by the Indian troops in France and Flanders.
When Britain declared war on Germany on 4th of August 1914 this automatically included all countries of the British Empire. India was as enthusiastic to support the allied war effort as any other Imperial nation. India pledged large numbers of troops and supplies and gave an early gift of £100,000,000 to the British war effort. By 1918 India had provided 1.3 million servicemen.
In August 1914 the British Expeditionary Force went to France and Belgium with an approximate strength of 150,000 men. They were regular soldiers and reservists. Casualties soon depleted the ranks. Lord Kitchener recognised that there was an urgent need for reinforcements. One source of well trained, professional soldiers was the Indian army.
Two Indian divisions of infantry and one of cavalry arrived in Marseille in late September and by the 22nd of October were in the front line.
The arrival of Indian troops in Ashurst was reported in local and national newspapers. The Times published a report on 28th of October 1914 which vividly describes the Indian camp. The article records that the roads around the camp were packed with charabancs and coaches bringing sightseers who had come to watch the Indian soldiers at work. The report goes on to describe the scene by saying “The white tents and the lithe brown figures in front of them, with just here and there a touch of outlandish colour, the grey, curling smoke from many fires, the smell of woodsmoke and the pots cooking over it, the stamping and neighing of tethered mules – all make at first glance a strangely gipsy-like spectacle”. It should be noted that pre-war Territorial Army camps and training exercises in the New Forest were equally well reported in the papers and watched by spectators.
The Indian Artillery unit were ordered to France in early December 1914 and left via Southampton Docks. They were soon deployed in support of the rest of the Indian Expeditionary Force.
As the war in 1914 progressed there were an increasing number of Indian casualties as a result of wounds suffered in action and also through illness.
Initially Indian soldiers and British casualties were brought to the large military hospital at Netley. It soon became apparent that this would not be adequate and that separate hospitals for Indian troops would be required.
By early November 1914 the Forest Park and Balmer Lawn Hotels in Brockenhurst had been taken over and the buildings turned into the Meerut hospital complex. The patients received a morale boosting visit by King George V and Queen Mary on 17th of November.
Mrs Morant of Brockenhurst Park gave some of her land at Tile Barn to the war office to enable them to create a brand-new purpose-built hospital. The Indian Soldiers Comforts Fund, administered by prominent British people who had lived or worked in India, provided £50,000 towards the building and equipping of the hospital. This is the equivalent of £5,800,000 today.
Building work started in November 1914. The hospital consisted of wooden huts with tin roofs connected by corridors. There were also two operating rooms, an X-Ray room and a laboratory. The site was locally known as ‘Tin Town’ but was officially named the Lady Hardinge hospital. Lady Winifred Hardinge had been the wife of Lord Hardinge the Viceroy of India. Both had done much to promote public health reform in India including the creation of a medical college.
Lord Kitchener appointed Sir Walter Lawrence to oversee the welfare of sick and wounded Indian soldiers. Lawrence had served in the Indian government for over thirty years. He was an able administrator and had a great understanding of Indian culture. He realised that good hospitals and familiar, nutritious food would do much to help the Indian soldiers recover from their illnesses and wounds and help maintain their morale.
Lawrence set about turning the Brighton Pavilion into a hospital for Indian soldiers. He also began inspecting other Indian hospital facilities to ensure that they were fit for purpose.
The British army was very sensitive to the cultural and religious needs of the Indian soldiers. Food that was suitable for both Hindus and Muslims was initially shipped to the army in the field from India. Sheep and goats were locally sourced and prepared for consumption just behind the lines in abattoirs. The meat was processed separately by means of Halal or Hindu ritual slaughter. At Brockenhurst and other local Indian hospitals there were separate kitchens for Muslims and Hindus. Muslims were issued with aluminium utensils and drinking cups. Their plates had a distinctive blue surround. Hindus were issued with brass utensils and drinking cups and their plates had a blue border. Patients had coloured discs on their beds to enable the cooks to see who should be served what type of food.
When Indian soldiers died at Brockenhurst if they were Muslim their bodies were taken for burial at the Woking Mosque. If they were Hindu they were cremated in the woods near Tile Barn. Three Indians are buried in St Nicholas Churchyard. Two were Christians. One man, known simply as Sukha was a low caste untouchable who had died of pneumonia. He was unable to be buried at Woking or cremated. The vicar of Brockenhurst offered Sukha a final resting place in the churchyard where he and his two comrades remain to this day.
The Mont Dore hotel in central Bournemouth was also taken over early in the war and converted into a hospital. As with Brockenhurst and New Milton the railway made the transfer of casualties from hospital ships in Southampton docks relatively easy. It remained a hospital until 1918. Post war it became the town hall.
Barton on Sea
To allow the Brockenhurst Hospitals and the Mont Dore Hospital in Bournemouth to accept fresh casualties there were convalescent depots set up at Barton on Sea and at Milford. Wounded and sick patients were sent to the hospitals in the first instance. When their condition improved, they were posted to a convalescent depot thus freeing up a hospital bed.
The Indian convalescent depot at Barton consisted of the Barton Court Hotel and the 1910 built Grand Marine Hotel located on Marine Drive, opposite the Beachcomber cafe. Newspapers of October 1914 report that over 250 guests were turned out of the hotels when the army commandeered them.
The Barton convalescent depot, run by the Indian Medical Service rapidly expanded 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.
The people of Milton Parish took a great liking to the Indian soldiers. They were frequently photographed with locals. 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.
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 frequent spectacle judging by the number of postcards that were printed.
Milford on Sea
By December 1914 the sheer number of casualties caused the government to order the creation of a second convalescent depot. Milford was instructed to provide accommodation for 1500 men. During the war the largest number of Indians in the village at any one time was 787. Milford used the Hotel Victoria on the cliff tops.
Indian soldiers were often seen in the village and they spent hours browsing in the shops by the village green. One Indian writing home in January 1915 wrote “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”.
Very few of the men could speak English although some interpreters were available. The soldiers took great delight in playfully teasing small children. Villagers recall one or two spectacular tumbles as Indian soldiers on ‘borrowed’ bicycles came to grief on the hillier village streets.
Convalescents at Milford arrived and departed via the railway station at New Milton. Milford said goodbye to the last Indian patients on 28th of February 1916.
When the convalescent depots were set up there was much effort made to entertain the Indian soldiers. The Times reported on 24th of December 1914 that the first of a number of planned sightseeing trips from Barton to London had been a success. They would be followed by other excursions to London in 1915.
Early in 1915 an Indian soldiers club was built and opened at Barton on Sea. The club, with sea views had a recreation room and a shop selling items that the soldiers needed including Indian papers bringing news from home. The club was paid for by the Indian Soldiers Comforts Fund. When it was formally opened by William Coldstream of the Indian Civil Service, he told the soldiers that they should think of England as their “second home”.
The Daily Graphic of 22nd February 1915 reported that a concert to entertain Indian troops at the club at Barton was a huge success with acts such as a magician, dancers and musicians. On 2nd August 1915 there was a sports competition between the depots at Barton and Milford which was a well-attended event.
By the spring of 1916 the Indian soldiers and convalescents were leaving Europe. The men who were fit to fight were posted to Palestine and Mesopotamia where the climate was more suitable. Those hospital patients who had not made a full recovery were sent home to India.
Traces of the Indian visitors to the Forest can be found in Brockenhurst with the graves in St Nicholas Churchyard and the naming of a street in the village, Meerut Road. In Barton on Sea there is a granite obelisk memorial commemorating the Indian Convalescent Depot. This was unveiled on 10th of July 1917.
For the last two years on that date there has been an official memorial ceremony organised by New Milton Town Council. Sadly, this year the virus restrictions have prohibited a repeat. A wreath in memory of the Indian soldiers will be laid at the obelisk at 3.00pm on July 10th 2020 by New Milton British Legion.
A shorter version of this article was first published in the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times on Friday 26th June 2020.
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 email@example.com