I Recent commemorations of the dead of the First World War have made a point of recalling the contribution of Commonwealth troops.
Their High Commissioners in London lay wreaths at the Cenotaph every year.
Over one million Indian troops served overseas during World War One, of whom 62,000 died and another 67,000 were wounded.
They are now remembered, but who recalls the sacrifice of the Indians who served in South Africa?
The contribution of thousands of Indians to the South African or Anglo-Boer war is often forgotten.
Yet overlooking Johannesburg is a memorial to the nearly 18,000 Indians who served.
The War Memorial, standing on Observatory Ridge takes the form of an obelisk of sandstone cut from the hill on which it stands. It stands above the valley in which their ‘remount camp’ was situated.
The tablet on the monument’s east side bears the inscription:
“To the memory of British Officers, Natives NCOs and Men, Veterinary Assistants, Nalbands [farriers], and Followers of the Indian Army, who died in South Africa, 1899-1902”.
The Indian contribution
A paper by Eric Itzkin, Deputy Director, Culture and Heritage at the Department of Community Development in the City of Johannesburg, provides useful details of their service.
“Faced by highly mobile Boer commandos on ponies, the later British campaigns under Lord Roberts were forced to rely increasingly on cavalry and especially on mounted infantry. Syces (grooms for horses), nalbands (farriers) and other Indian support staff at the Remount Depots helped keep the cavalry going, much as repair and servicing facilities might do for mechanised divisions today.
The garrisons in India contributed 17 950 British NCOS and men together with 584 officers (or a total of 18 534), not counting the large numbers of Native auxiliaries who were deployed to assist them in South Africa. Despite reluctance to use Natives of India at the beginning of the campaign, by the end of the War large numbers of these troops had been deployed in all theatres of the conflict, in Natal, the Orange Free State, and above all the Transvaal.
Indian auxiliaries were employed as hospital staff, horse trainers, transport drivers, cooks, water carriers and laundrymen, and in other non-combatant roles. Though reluctant to bring in Native troops as combatants, the War Office made repeated requests for veterinary, health and equestrian establishments, leading to several Native contingents being dispatched to South Africa. The breaking in and training of horses was among the main functions of the Indian auxiliaries, second only to stretcher-bearing.
After the close of the South African War/Anglo-Boer War, at least a few of the IndianArmy soldiers remained in South Africa, becoming absorbed into the Indian community and, more broadly, into the continuing stream of South African history.”
Gandhi’s Ambulance Corps
They were not the only Indians who served in the war. Gandhi also recruited members of the South African Indian community to serve in an ambulance corps, dealing with the British wounded.
Gandhi with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, South-Africa.
Standing: H. Kitchen, L. Panday, R. Panday, J. Royeppen, R.K. Khan, L. Gabriel, M.K. Kotharee, E. Peters, D. Vinden, V. Madanjit.
Middle Row: W. Jonathan, V. Lawrence, M.H. Nazar, Dr. L.P. Booth, M.K. Gandhi, P.K. Naidoo, M. Royeppen.
Front Row: S. Shadrach, “Professor” Dhundee, S.D. Moddley, A. David, A.A. Gandhi.
As Eric Itzkin explains: “Gandhi’s Ambulance Corps was, however, disbanded early in the War – at the end of February 1900 – when the British were able to take the offensive with large reinforcements and relieve the siege of Ladysmith. The Natal Indian Ambulance Corps numbering 1 100 men served for only two months, whereas the Indian Army auxiliaries were far greater in number and many served throughout the War.”
Some remained in South Africa after the war, becoming integrated into the Indian community.
Rudyard Kipling wrote a good deal about the Boer war. In early 1898, the Kiplings travelled to South Africa for their winter holiday, thus beginning an annual tradition which (excepting the following year) was to last until 1908. They stayed in “The Woolsack”, a house on Cecil Rhodes‘ estate at Groote Schuur (and now a student residence for the University of Cape Town); it was within walking distance of Rhodes’ mansion – today the Cape Town home of the South African President. Kipling was not a distant observer of the fighting: he travelled up to the front to see conditions for himself.
First published in the Windsor Magazine, December 1901 and Collier’s Weekly 7 December the same year. Collected in Traffics and Discoveries in 1904.
This is another story of the Second Boer War seen through the eyes of a Sikh soldier, in which Kipling uses the device of the ‘imperfectly-informed narrator’ who reports what he sees and hears without always fully understanding it, although the reader does.
Umr Singh is an elderly Sikh, probably a very senior non-commisioned officer, who had served in many campaigns in India with distinction, and had come to South Africa with his much loved Captain, ‘Kurban Sahib’, Captain Corbyn. Corbyn had come, on ‘sick leave’ from his cavalry regiment, for the chance of seeing some fighting against the Boers. He had joined up with a troop of volunteer Australians, fine horsemen and skilful soldiers, fighting on the veldt. Behind the lines there were many Boer farms, whose people had secured a certificate of neutrality from the naive British authorities, but who were often in close touch with the Boer commandoes.
They are near a farm, which has been signalling to the Boer riflemen, and are treacherously fired on. Corbyn is mortally wounded, and Umr Singh and a fellow soldier, a Pathan, swear revenge. They enter the farm, where some wounded Boer soldiers have taken refuge, and prepare to hang those responsible for the shooting; but they are held back by their memory of Corbyn’s insistence that this is a ‘Sahibs’ War’, for white men. They hand over their prisoners to the Australians, who raze the place to the ground. Umr Simgh is on his way back to the Punjab, in sadness.