Tucked away in the secluded hills of the South Downs, East Sussex, is a lesser known history of the Indian soldiers who fought for the British Empire during World War One. More than 1.5 million Indian soldiers fought for the Allied powers during the four years of the Great War. Among these, over 130,000 served in France. Their major military contribution on the Western Front took place in the very first year of the War. At the end of 1915, a majority of these infantry brigades were withdrawn and sent to the Middle East [https://www.bl.uk/reshelp/findhelpsubject/history/history/asiansinbritain/indiansoldiersinworldwars/indiansoldiers.html]. Approximately 4,500 Indian soldiers served on the Western Front in the first 4-5 months of the War and, in December 1914, hundreds of Indian causalities from there were bought to Brighton to be treated. The Royal Pavilion, Corn Exchange and the Dome therein were all converted into military hospitals and provided over 700 beds. The workhouse on Elm Grove was renamed the Kitchener Hospital (named after the former Commander-in-Chief of the British Indian Army) and also took in patients. Subsequently, by 1916, almost 12,000 Indian soldiers were to be treated in Brighton with 4,306 placed in the famed Pavilion (http://www.eastsussexww1.org.uk/indian-soldiers-east-sussex/). The uniquely recognisable Royal Pavilion in Brighton has since, therefore, become associated with the recovery of the Indian soldiers. Interestingly, King George V had thought that this would be an apt location for the Indian soldiers to be treated and convalesce, given that the Royal Pavilion was built/inspired by the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. The injured soldiers included a mixture of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs and great care was taken to respect their religious customs, regional diversity and dietary requirements. Many of the soldiers prior to their admission to hospital would never have been to the UK. And, when 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers among them died, they were cremated on the South Downs, with their ashes scattered in the nearby English Channel. The first of these cremations took place in December 1914, the last coming a year later. Their similarly ill-fated 19 Muslim counterparts were buried in a purpose built burial ground near the Shahjahan Mosque in Woking. Built in 1889, this mosque is the oldest of its kind in north-west Europe.
However, at times the patients at the Royal Pavilion were also kept purposefully apart from the inhabitants around them. Barbed wire was place around the perimeter of the Pavilion in order to keep the patients in and the residents of Brighton out. Military authorities were particularly concerned about the possibility of the female inhabitants of Brighton contracting a bout of ‘Khaki Fever’ [http://www.eastsussexww1.org.uk/indian-soldiers-east-sussex/]. According to Angela Woollacott, in late 1914 there was an epidemic of ‘Khaki Fever’ across Britain as young women were seemingly so attracted to the men in military uniform that they started to behave immodestly and perhaps even somewhat dangerously! [https://www.jstor.org/stable/260893?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents]
It was in August 1915 that the idea of a memorial for the dead soldiers was proposed. Sir John Otter, who had been a lieutenant in Indian Medical Service, the then-Mayor of Brighton, proposed this idea to the India Office. Supportive of this idea, the India Office agreed to share the cost of building and erecting the memorial with Brighton Corporation. Construction on the memorial started in August 1920, with a young Indian architect E. C. Henriques being responsible for designing The Chattri (The Umbrella). The memorial was finally unveiled on 1 February 1921 by Edward, Prince of Wales. Unfortunately, it gradually fell into disrepair in the inter-war period and was restored only after the Second World War. The War Office had agreed to pay for the repairs to restore The Chattri and then, from 1951, the Royal British Legion contributed to its upkeep. Since 2000, a Sikh teacher, Davinder Dhillon, has been working hard to host an annual commemoration event, in June.
The Chattri bears the following inscription in Hindi and English: “To the memory of all the Indian soldiers who gave their lives for their King-Emperor in the Great War, this monument, erected on the site of the funeral pyre where the Hindus and Sikhs who died in hospital at Brighton, passed through the fire, is in grateful admiration and brotherly affection dedicated”.
Breakdown of Deaths of Indians in Brighton Hospitals
36 deaths: 25 Hindus/Sikhs cremated at Patcham, 11 Mohammedans buried at Woking.
18 deaths: 10 cremated at Patcham, eight buried at Woking.
York Place Hospital
20 deaths: 18 cremated at Patcham, two buried at Woking.
Total cremated on the Downs at Patcham: 53
Total buried at Woking: 21
Total deaths: 74
Ashley, Susan LT. “Acts of heritage, acts of value: memorialising at the Chattri Indian Memorial, UK.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 22, no. 7 (2016): 554-567.
Das, Santanu. “Writing Empire, Fighting War: India, Great Britain and the First World War.” In India in Britain, pp. 28-45. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2013.
Hyson, Samuel, and Alan Lester. “‘British India on trial’: Brighton Military Hospitals and the politics of empire in World War I.” Journal of Historical Geography 38, no. 1 (2012): 18-34.
Omissi, David, ed. Indian voices of the Great War: soldiers’ letters, 1914–18. Springer, 2016.
Woollacott, Angela. “‘Khaki Fever’ and Its Control: Gender, Class, Age and Sexual Morality on the British Homefront in the First World War.” Journal of Contemporary History 29, no. 2 (1994): 325-347.
The Chattri Memorial Group: http://www.chattri.org/about.aspx
How Brighton Pavilion became a temporary hospital for Indian soldiers in WW1 by Hardeep Singh:
India’s contribution to the First World War [IOR: L/MIL/17/5/2383]
Report on the Kitchener Indian Hospital, Brighton, 1916 [IOR: L/MIL/17/5/2016]
Visit The Chattri: https://www.brighton-hove.gov.uk/content/leisure-and-libraries/parks-and-green-spaces/chattri-memorial
Indian Soldiers in East Sussex: http://www.eastsussexww1.org.uk/indian-soldiers-east-sussex/
Why the Indian soldiers of WW1 were forgotten: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33317368