Letters from the West

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:

Moments of peace

We think of the Armistice as being a moment of flags, of applause, of music in the silent air. But, for many, it was just a quiet morning; millions of men, sitting in the dust and the frost, looking around them and wondering what to do next. An eyewitness:

November 11th.—There had been so much talk of an armistice that a Brigade message in the morning telling us of its having been signed at 8 o’clock, and that hostilities were to cease at 11, fell somewhat flat. The event was anticlimax relieved by some spasmodic cheering when the news got about, by a general atmosphere of ‘slacking off for the day’, and by the notes of a lively band in the late afternoon. The men betook themselves to their own devices. There was a voluntary Service of Thanksgiving in the cinema which the Germans had built; the spacious building was quite full. […] ‘To me the most remarkable feature of that day and night was the uncanny silence that prevailed. No rumbling of guns, no staccato of machine-guns, nor did the roar of exploding dumps break into the night as it had so often done. The War was over.

November 12th.—Baths were a first concern.

— The War The Infantry Knew, 1914-1919, ed. Capt. J.C. Dunn.

The Secret Battle

I was delighted recently to discover that A. P. Herbert’s The Secret Battle, a somewhat neglected First World War novel, had been digitised by archive.org and was made available as public domain. The 1919 British edition is here; Open Library links to a few more.

I talk about this book a lot. It’s mostly unknown now; it received some mild critical acclaim before falling prey to the fact that in the early 1920s, no-one really wanted to talk about the war. It wasn’t until five or ten years after it was published that the boom in war writing really began, by which time it was mostly old news and its author had become firmly established as a light humorist – dredging up a novel he wrote as an impassioned and scarred twenty-six year old was not high on the publishing agenda. It was the first novel to focus on Gallipoli as well as the Western Front, one of the first to openly challenge the practice of execution for desertion, and an early example of the trope of the veteran as a damaged victim of the war, rather than a hero emerging from it.

I am going to write down some of the history of Harry Penrose, because I do not think full justice has been done to him…

The protagonist, Harry Penrose, leaves Oxford in the summer of 1914 and enlists in the ranks, later taking a commission; he serves at Gallipoli as a junior subaltern, and on the Western Front. There, for years, his spirit is worn down; he wants to be a good soldier, and tries hard, but he is relentlessly put upon by circumstances. One day, he breaks a little more than usual and turns back in the face of shellfire. And the System then breaks him, completely and without feeling.

A court-martial is ordered, and it finds the bare facts of the case; he was leading his men to the front line, they were fired upon, and he turned back. Desertion in the face of the enemy, a clear and unarguable conviction. As an honest man, he cannot challenge the facts, and as a sensitive one, he cannot quite convince himself he is not, after all, actually a coward. Justice, such as it is, is served; a week later, a decision is taken by some high authority to “make an example”, and one fine spring morning he is taken to be shot, for the good of the nation’s moral fibre.

It is crushingly sad, all the more so when you realise that Penrose is – in surprising detail – drawn from the author. He knew of a case where an officer in his division had been shot like this, in similarly dubious circumstances, and asked himself – had I stayed on the front lines longer, had I not been sent home, wounded, to a safe job, would I have cracked like this? What would have become of me? But, of course, he feared he already knew the answer.

Churchill wrote that “like the poems of Siegfried Sassoon it should be read in each generation, so that men and women may rest under no illusions about what war means”, and as so often he seems to have put his finger on it. Penrose’s war is not glorious, not romantic, not successful, not admirable – but it is real, and stark, and honest, and final.

…[and] that is all I have tried to do. This book is not an attack on any person, on the death penalty, or on anything else, though if it makes people think about these things, so much the better. I think I believe in the death penalty — I do not know. But I did not believe in Harry being shot.
That is the gist of it; that my friend Harry was shot for cowardice — and he was one of the bravest men I ever knew.

Photos: three approaches to memorialising

I have been without any working internet connection for a couple of weeks now, so no photographs of the last trip yet. Have some old ones, instead, for the 11th; these are from a trip to Normandy earlier in the year. Three national war graves; three approaches to commemoration.



The entrance to a British cemetery – one of many scattered around the countryside – in Bayeux.


Monumental architecture.



The lists of names, for those never found, and the ubiquitous poppy.


The lines of white headstones – all differently carved, but identically shaped – are offset by the plants.


Those who died together were buried together, known or unknown.


Bayeux Cathedral – which, by strange fate, came through the fighting untouched – looming over the cemetery.


A second cemetery – smaller, and more pastoral, hidden down a dusty lane in a small village near the Orne.


Note the variety of insignia, carved individually.


An Australian airman, far from home.


…and closer to home, a Frenchman. Buried here as a British soldier – “Commando Anglo-Francais No. 4” – but with a distinct headstone, presumably in the French style.




German war cemeteries are… flat, and dark, and bleak. A fraught question; how should the conscript soldiers of a hated – and defeated – army be remembered in an occupied land? The answer, apparently, is “unobtrusively”, and as far from triumphalist as possible.



Heinz Molesch was eighteen and three months. Konrad Kasprsyk – a Polish name? – was eighteen and four months. One of these headstones – men were almost always buried in pairs, under a flat stone – had the name of a soldier and another, given as “mädchen” – young woman. There is a story there, lost to the decades along with her name.

United States


The American cemetery – this is on the bluffs above Omaha Beach – is simply a sea of crosses, in white marble with inscribed names, rolling across the landscape.


…or the absence of names. The headstone just behind is of one of the handful of women buried here.



The graves make a strict geometric line; it’s almost mesmerising. Note the small scattering of Stars of David – five in these two pictures, I think – and the lines sweeping down to the coast in the background. The cemetery is built on the bluffs overlooking Omaha Beach; it’s concealed behind the rise of the cliff, perhaps a quarter of a mile away at most.