Archive for November, 2012

Letters from the West

Sunday, November 11th, 2012

The British Library has recently released the first tranche of some material it digitised as part of the Europeana 1914-1918 program. Most of this first installment involves papers from the India Office Records, which (for various reasons) ended up being transferred from the FCO to the British Library rather than the National Archives. As the Indian Government was responsible for India’s participation in the war, they include all sorts of unexpected primary sources rather than the more usual printed histories – official reports, intelligence briefings, policy papers, etc.

But the most interesting, by far, are the “Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France”. The system of censorship in force at the time had two goals – the first was the most obvious, to prevent the transmission of negative rumours or sensitive information, either by obscuring the comments or by returning the letters unsent. The second was more subtle; the censors who were reading the letters used them to prepare reports on morale, the reaction of front-line soldiers to news, and the like. Inbound mail was also censored, with much the same effect.

The Indian reports contained a brief summary of themes and comments in the censored mail for the period, along with a selection of translated extracts giving the name of the sender and recipient, and a note of the language they had written in. The originals weren’t kept, and the chances are that very few survive anywhere.

Many letters deal with the fighting, with reports of the war. Others are simply slices of life, reports of the strange world far from home:

I had an opportunity of seeing London. It is an enormous city. It took about an hour and a half for the train to go through the city without stopping. The buildings are high, the streets are very clean. There are many big factories. Many kinds of gardens, fields without any walls, short cows with long hair and short horns are some of the objects that came to my notice. (“a Mahratta Brahmin”, 21/1/15)

No one has any clue as to the language of this place. Even the British soldiers do not understand it. They call milk “doolee” and water “deolo” [du lait, de l’eau]. There is much comeliness in this country. The people dress themselves like the English. Of black men they think a great deal. No one keeps “parda” as we do. The country is a very open one. The ladies shake hands freely. They are not bashful about this. They do as the English do. (“X.Y., a wounded Sikh”, 27/1/15)

We enjoyed the Saloono festival as best as it could be enjoyed by a foreigner in a distant country far from home. Here we managed to get camphor, sandal wood and other necessities of “Hawan” which was done with Vedic mantras in France, which the French people might never have expected. We also get “saimis” here, they are manufactured in Paris as well as in Italy and are sold in small packets. (Ram Seran Das, August 1915)

The French language:
Kya, tum mere sath aoge? = Walé wo wené éwac má?
Tumhara ghar kidhar hai = U é watr mézon?
Main tum ko pyar karta hun = Y ém wu boku. (Jemadar Sohbat Khan, 29/8/15)

When this letter was written we four, viz, Gul Din, Gul Shah, Rakib Shah, and I were sitting under a tree, eating apples and pears and had made a pipe out of an empty shell-case and were smoking, with the pipe standing in front of us. (Jemadar Zar Gir, 57th Rifles, 30/8/15)

In this country rain falls every day. The country is cold and abounds in fruit. (Sowar Sharif Khan, 13/9/15)

As to your request to send you a copy of the Qu’ran, I have already written and told you that I cannot get one here. What is the use of repeating it? If I could get one here, I would send it. You say the Qu’ran can be got in London, but London is 52 miles from here [Brighton] and we do not go there. (Khadim Ali Khan, 17/10/15)

These are the result of skimming two or three volumes; there’s a wealth of social history buried in these papers, and it would really reward some intensive reading.

They’re all listed through the Digitised Manuscripts interface, which is a little tricky to use; for reference, here’s a full index of the digitised papers by date covered: