Updated: Nov 28, 2020
This talk was presented in August 2018 as part of the fourth annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of Culture, Calcutta.
I must start with a confession: I am not a historian. I have been a history teacher only because I have a fascination for stories—be it stories of the present or stories of the past. And I developed this curiosity, I think, only after I stopped studying history in school. Unfortunately, I did not feel so excited and curious when I was in school; but after that, when I travelled and lived in different places and I saw the world around me, I realized that there are stories just waiting to be discovered and taking those into the classroom is what really excited me. So about a year ago, I moved to Bangalore and I got associated with an organization called Rereeti. Rereeti is a young organization, about three years old, working with museum spaces, heritage spaces, trying to make them more interactive, more exciting for the local communities. So, whether it is children in schools, citizens, the public, adults, families, anybody who is interested and lives around that space—it works on how to make that space more interactive for them.
World War I ended in 1918. Rereeti began to wonder about what really happened at that time and what was India’s role in it—particularly Bangalore and Mysore’s role. We embarked on this particular adventure in February this year , it being the centenary of the war. So it is just a six-month-old project. All I am going to do today is share with you this adventure so far. To begin with, I will share some clues we found in the city of Bangalore and then invite you to arrive at your own deductions about what these clues could mean, maybe even piece together a story from them.
This is one of the first pictures: a column we found at R T Nagar or Munireddy Palya. You can see the plaque mentioning that the column is sacred to the memory of those officers and non-commissioned officers and men of the Mysore Imperial Service Troops who gave their lives during the 1914–1918 world war.
The left side of the column says: ‘The Mysore Transport Corps’ and it lists places where we assume the Corps had gone and fought—Tigris Kut-al-Amara, Baghdad, Mesopotamia—and the years are mentioned as 1916 to 1917. The right side says: ‘Mysore Lancers’ and it mentions the Suez Canal, Egypt, Megiddo, Gaza, Damascus, Palestine—again, the years are mentioned as 1917–1918. The middle one lists names—it is a roll of honour for people who lost their lives during these years at these places.
This is a message from His Highness the Maharaja of Mysore. It was printed and copies were sent to soldiers and officers at the front. It is a really long message but I would like to draw your attention to a few lines: ‘At this hour of supreme struggle of the British Empire and its allies, you enjoy the great honour of forming a part, however small, of the magnificent army which is fighting for the cause of liberty and righteousness [. . .] We have no doubt, whatever the duty assigned to you, you will do it in such a way, as well as, will add fresh lustre to the country and uphold the high traditions of Mysore for loyalty and devotion to the Crown of England’. This is the message that the Maharaja of Mysore sent to his troops at the front.
This is an image of a stamp that has been released early this year in Israel which marks Haifa and what happened in Haifa. You can see the image of the Indian cavalry and the mention of World War I.
This is an extract from an army dispatch sent by General Sir Edmund Allenby dated October 31, 1918. Here too I would like to draw your attention to a few lines at the end:
‘While the Mysore Lancers were clearing the rocky slopes of Mount Carmel, the Jodhpur Lancers charged through the defile and, riding over the enemy machine guns, galloped into the town where a number of Turks were speared on the streets. Over 1,350 prisoners and 17 guns were taken in this operation.’
So, this is just a sample of some of the clues. Has anybody pieced together some kind of a story from this? Maybe we have time for one or two responses? Do you have questions after seeing these clues? Any ideas about whose war it was? Who was fighting?
When we started and we came upon these clues, we did not find them in this order. This is just how I have placed them for you. We had many questions, for we felt we held only one strand in a very complicated story. Yes, Mysore and Bangalore played a role. We had the voice of the Maharaja telling us it was our duty, that we really needed to be there at the front. But where was the voice of the soldier? Did he feel the same sense of duty? Or did he not? What were the others doing in Mysore at that time? The families of the soldiers—did they feel the same sense of loyalty? What was happening in Bangalore—because Bangalore Cantonment is one the oldest cantonments in the country. There was an entire community of British officers and families as well as Indian units living there. What was happening there? Were they also being sent to war? What did they think about it? And then the larger picture— what was happening in the rest of India? So, we set about trying to find more clues to see if we could put some kind of a story together.
This is Bangalore Cantonment. Lots of old schools, churches, hospitals, institutions, memories, stories. We wanted some of those stories.We got records from some of these institutions—not all. Some we were able to access; some were in tatters. Church records and burial registers told us which units of the British regiments were present at that time. School records that St. Joseph’s Boys’ High School shared with us, magazines of 1914–1915 which mentioned old boys who’d gone to war, even first-person accounts of what they did there—that was a huge resource and treasure.
We found a statue of an unknown soldier with a roll of honour. Another statue at St. Joseph’s Boys’ High School with a roll of honour.
We did a comparison of these names and we realized that many of the names were the same, but there were no units, no regiments mentioned. So, how do we find out who these people were?
This is a very interesting space. It was a tea room constructed during the war years in the St. John’s High School compound. Today, it is the school canteen. So, a hundred-year-old building serving the same purpose—earlier for soldiers, today for students. And there is a cenotaph in the same complex bearing the names of soldiers who died in the war. All these names in the Cantonment monuments are British soldiers’ names. So, again, where were the Indian regiments? Where were the Indian soldiers? Was it just the Mysore troops that went? Were there other native regiments that were part of the British army? At every step, we just kept having more questions and ended up looking for more answers.
This is a monument located right in the middle of one of the most popular roads in Bangalore—Brigade Road. And it is called the Pioneer Corps Memorial. It is a memorial to the First Madras Pioneers, one of the units which started in the 1700s under the Madras Presidency and then moved to Bangalore Cantonment some time in the 1800s and set up base near Ulsoor Lake. They are still based there. Today, they are called the Madras Engineering Group or the MEG. We realized that they also must have played a role in the war. So we went to the MEG cantonment and visited the museum.
There is a memorial inside the MEG grounds which earlier existed outside, near the lake. It is called the Sapper Memorial and all the plaques around it mention names of people who were part of Queen Victoria’s Own Sappers and Miners—that is what the unit was called. All of these people took part in different theatres of war, they had very specialized roles. The Sapper or Miner is someone who does engineering tasks in the military, in the army—the people who dug the trenches, demolished bridges, constructed new bridges and invented something that was used even in World War II—we found out all of this when we visited their museum. We found photographs, strategy maps, award certificates. What you see on the left are photographs of the trials of the Bangalore Torpedo being invented. This was a weapon invented in Bangalore by the Sappers and Miners during World War I. Trials of it were carried out and it was used towards the end of World War I in Mesopotamia, East Africa—nearly two decades later, used more in World War II. So, it is one of the technological inventions of World War I, invented right there in Bangalore.
We were looking for stories of people. The soldiers were still missing from all this. We found names but not too many stories—we did not find letters, we did not find too many photographs. What we did find to start off with was a very endearing story of the grey mule. Since mechanized transport was not very popular during World War I, there were very few vehicles and ambulances. Most of what was transported was on the backs of animals—mules and horses. So, the grey mule was enlisted in the Sappers and Miners in about 1903 and it saw active service in World War I. When the war ended, most of these animals were left in the countries where they had been taken, because it was just too expensive to bring them back. The commanding officer of the Sappers and Miners made a special request and the grey mule was brought back. When it retired, it continued to stay on in the MEG premises. In 1920, when a commemoration and the pensioners’ parade took place, it led the parade with its old companion. After it died, it was buried in the MEG grounds and its grave continues to be there. Its four hooves were made into ink stands—two of which were sent to the UK regimental centre and two continued to be in the MEG regimental centre in Bangalore.
We were really amazed by this story and we knew that there were many more. We wanted more ‘people’ stories: What did the soldiers have to say? What kind of lives did they have or lead? Did they want to go to war at all? What did their families have to say? So, that was the purpose behind starting this project. We wanted to see whether there were any memories, any stories that we could try and bring together, to piece together a wholesome narrative for the children of Bangalore to know what happened in their city a hundred years ago. That is why we started this project. We called it ‘White Pepper Black Pepper’. We named it so because when the soldiers wrote letters, they often used code names to refer to different armies and different people. There are references to the Indian soldiers calling them- selves ‘black pepper’, there is also a reference to them calling the British soldiers ‘white pepper’ and ‘red pepper’—there are two or three of these references. And so we went with the ‘White Pepper Black Pepper’.
Like I said, our purpose was to find stories—what had happened a hundred years ago? Are there still memories, stories that we can collect, document and then present, in a way, to the people of the city today? We also wanted to see if there was a local connection to this global event that we study about in school very briefly. World War I is described only through events in Europe, and what happened after seems to be more important—the impact of the war or the consequences of the war. We also wanted to make sure that we were able to take this to schoolchildren not as an academic exercise but as a process in which they could participate, a process that would allow them to make this history their own in some way.
Our project had a couple of phases. We started with background research, and that is work in progress because we’re coming up with new clues every day, and we still have more questions than answers. Nevertheless, whatever we were able to put together, we designed into a three-week school engagement. We were lucky to find three partner schools and I am happy to say that two of them are represented here today—Vidyashilp Academy and St. Joseph’s Boys’ High School. The third is Army Public School PRTC. We want