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From the war front

An account of the Punjabi soldiers who became the cannon fodder of the colonising power in World War I, and the mournful songs and literature this episode in history generated in its wake

From the war front
Indian soldiers in Brighton being Xrayed-c1915. — Photo from Amarjit Chandan’s collection.

World War One (WWI) began on July 28, 1914. Now that a hundred years have passed, it’s time to introspect both Punjab’s role to ‘save the civilisation’ and the socio-political impact of the war recruitment on Punjabis.

At the beginning of the war, strength of the Punjabis in the British army was around 100,000 and then it rose exponentially. Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) UK gives a count of 1.2 million Indian soldiers while as per David Omissi and Rajit Mazumder, during the war years, till December 1919, India recruited 1,440,437 men, including 877,068 combatants and 563,369 non-combatants. By the end of the war, Punjab had provided some 360,000 combat recruits (almost half of all Indian combat force), including 136000 Muslims, 88,925 Sikhs and 23,000 Dogras (Hindus). The main recruitment ground was the Dhan-Photohar area of the then Rawalpindi district and in the war employment drive 120,000 Punjabis were recruited from this area alone and majority of them were Muslims. Out of nine Victoria Crosses (VCs) awarded to Indian army for valour and bravery, eight of them are Punjabis but at the hefty cost of 61,041 Punjabi soldiers dead and 67,771 wounded.

An army train is crossing bridges in leaps, taking our poor sons locked away — this is one of the countless departing images narrated in Punjabi folk songs by women for their soldier sons and beloveds. There is this unbearable pain, rage and lament about induction of Punjabi youth as colonial subjects where women cry and their men stand speechless. Chandler once wrote “to say goodbye is to die a little” but for Punjabi mothers and lovers these goodbyes were outright deaths, foretold bereavement gestures of lonely travellers.

The following verse of the wife of a departing soldier negates its own lyricism; the traumatised woman has even distanced herself from his man, she doesn’t even address him as her darling: Putt mere Sao’hray Da, Laggi Laam Lava Liya NaavãN, tay Jãndey HoyaaN Das Nah Gya, MaiN ChityaaN Kidher Nu PãwaN (Son of my father-in-law has registered for the war [l’arme], he has left without talking to me, I don’t even know where to post my letters).

Looking at the socio-economic indicators of war recruiting areas, it is obvious that the primary reason of this huge enrolment was poverty and hunger. Only Mulk Raj Anand could have captured this trauma and he did in his remarkable novel ‘Across the Black Waters (1939)’ where Lalu, the main protagonist and a Punjabi peasant gets himself recruited in the army for the sole purpose of reclaiming the piece of land his family lost, as a reward for serving. But when he returns home, he finds his family destroyed and his parents dead.

This was every returning soldier’s tale.

 Most of the letters were detained and censored by the war office as they carried strong messages to their fellow Punjabis to stop joining British army for war.

They were all poor farmers who were compelled by their circumstances to become cannon fodders of those who had enslaved them. Mothers and wives kept pleading and praying: “Rizq tay Roti Allah Dainda Ee SaiN Vay, Tik Pao IthaeeN Vay Dholan Yaar, Nah Vanjh, Nah Vanjh Vay Dholan Yaar” and this prayer for their safe home coming: ‘Mothers’ sons have gone to the laam in the foreign lands, May Allah end the laam, my children, May the Five Souls of the Prophet’s family guard you, May Allah bring you back home safe’. (Trans: Amarjit Chandan and Amin Mughal).

There were propaganda songs as well to encourage war registration which were sung and delivered at the behest of local lords who were assigned recruitment targets and who never shied away from using intimidation and coercion: Bharti Ho Jaa Vay Bahr Khadday Rangroot / Ithay KhawaiN Sukki Roti, Uthay KhawiN Fruit, Ithay PawiN Phatay LeeRay, Uthay PawiN Suit/ Ithay PawiN Tutti Jutti, Uthay PawiN Boot (The recruits are at your door step, Here you eat dried roti, There you’ll eat fruit. Here you are in tatters. There you’ll wear a suit. Here you wear worn out shoes. There you’ll wear boots).

But the promised life was a hell, a horrific experience culminating in nameless graves of these peasant boys all over Europe, Africa and Persian Gulf still waiting their visitors since a century. This becomes more saddening while reading their letters from the war front. One soldier wrote “No man can return to the Punjab whole. Only the broken limbed can go back.” Another one grieves “In one hour 10,000 men are killed. What more can I write?” or this one: “As a man climbs a plum tree and shakes down the plums [so that] they fall and lie in heaps, so are men here fallen”. This is an absolute heart-breaking war lament: “I am like a soap bubble, and have no hope of life! How many days is it since I was separated from you, star of my eyes”.


Most of these letters were detained and censored by the war office as they carried strong messages to their fellow Punjabis to stop joining British army for war. Soldiers may have known about that censorship so they started using coded language “Think this over till you understand it” or lines like these “It is to be hoped that Uncle Censor will forward this letter on safely”.

And, after all these losses, when the war ends and wounded soldiers start arriving back home, they are rewarded with Jallianwala Bagh massacre by the same army within a year. This brutality in Amritsar depicts how the colonial establishment valued all these sacrifices of the Punjabi soldiers and their families. This also proves that these young boys of Punjab were nothing more than a disposable mass for the English army. This mournful mother of a dead soldier perhaps knew that from the very beginning: Khanbh Khuss Ga’ay KaawaN Day, Bass Kar Germana, Bachay Kuss G’ay MãvaaN Day (Crows have lost their feathers. Germans: Stop butchering now, our sons are already dead).

Amarjit Chandan is perhaps the only Punjabi writer to have explored this theme in detail. Recently, while talking to Times of India, he said: “War songs are propaganda, patriotic, jingoistic. A folk song by its nature is a collective pursuit of masses initiated by an individual. It is an epigram. The folksongs on the wars lie printed on paper but nobody sings them, nobody even talks about them. In personal and collective consciousness intensity of tragedies rarely goes beyond three generations. It is disturbing to note that the loss of thousands of soldiers in WWI is absent from the memory. One main factor was that the British colonial state took much care of soldiers’ families by giving them inãms, jagirs, sanads, pensions etc.  After the war, the rewards bestowed were numerous.”

Chandan is absolutely right but these rewards didn’t erase the scars of war from the Punjabi psyche as almost every second family particularly in the salt range area lost a son or a relative. My own great grandfather served in WWI and was awarded sword of honour and couple of other war awards but he used to express his guilt of fighting for the Crown as a subject in an army where locals were even barred to be commissioned officers because of their nativity and the Victorian values of racism.

It is a fact that British coloniser threw these untrained peasant boys knowingly straight into the jaws of death by exposing them directly to the vastly superior Germans and their lethal weaponry. No wonder mothers plead repeatedly in folk songs for mercy: “SaRkaaN Tay JandyaaN Ni, Bas Kar German BhaiRya, Ghar Ghar RandyaaN Ni” (Trees by the roadside, Wicked Germany, stop the war. There are widows in every household).

Sadly I couldn’t find a single Punjabi folk line which shows how the returning soldiers with war awards and honours were greeted or remembered. A rich oral tradition of ours famous for honouring her heroes is completely silent. But they are being remembered and cashed in by Punjabi organisations lead by our Sikh friends in the UK who are busy selling them and their dead comrades as willing and eager soldiers who were dying to proves themselves as Rãj loyalists. They are ignoring the displacement and alienation this war caused all over the Punjab that resulted into a grass root level national movement for independence. They are also white-washing the coercion and conscription involved in the WW1 recruitment by the likes of Umar Hayat Tiwana in Shahpur district and other ‘land awardees’ at the behest of the English which is widely known.

Folk songs are the genuine history of any land and not a single word in any song praises the British Empire or shows gratitude for this terminal war employment rather the opposite; WaikhaaN Chaar Chofairay, Jaani Nazzar Nah Away, Sãda Sabbar Farang’eay Nu Maar’ay (I look all around but can’t see my darling, my patience full of suffering shall destroy the Empire). Remembering the Mesopotamian campaign of WWI where most of the Punjabis were killed, a hopeless helpless mother so silently weeps in this folk song that the land of five rivers starts howling: SaRkaaN Vich To’ay Ni, BachRay GareebaaN Day, Basray Vich Mo’ay Ni (Roads are broken and the sons of the poor have lost their lives (far away from home) in Basra).

Mahmood Awan

Mahmood Awan
The author is a Dublin based Punjabi poet. He may be reached at [email protected]


  • Let me say Mahmood Awan has fabulously analyzed the enforced labor, which British got Punjabis to render having capitalized from their pathetic financial state from the Potohar region of Punjab (besides central and specifically southern regions as well, where pro-colonial pseudo-clergy/theocracy, Baloch settlers’ heads/sardars in Punjab jump all the guns in order to show loyalty to Britisher.

    One of the examples was the martyrdom of the gallant son, Ahmed Khan Kharal, of the sacred land of five/05 rivers, against whom Makhdoom, Gallanis of Multan along with some 5th columnist Kharals as well aided Britisher from the front) having little farming as compared to rest of plain Punjab; yet it is extremely a matter of pride that Punjabi writers, sages, intellectuals never praised such compelled laborer rather condemned it in the best possible terms in WWI.

    I personally do remember as my father in law’s father (above 100 years age) is alive and a rich source of sharing classics of Punjabi he inherited from his elders…as he often castigate upon landlords (middle men, who campaigned in favor of such recruitment and were showered with multiple rewards including arbitrary allotments of massive chunks of natives’ land) in his previous & present region by ‘metaphorically’ saying that “ay ooh ny jinha makay ty goleya chalayeya….” (they are the ones, who fought against the then Caliphate, based at Turkey and who was with Germany against the War Alliance…!

  • I am trying to trace the quote, “I am like a soap bubble, and have no hope of life!” I originally saw it quoted in The Guardian on 22 February 2014, but have been unable to trace it at the British Library website. Can you help?

  • Dear Editor

    Article ” From the war front” by Mr Mahmood Awan carried major factual and analytical errors.

    First he fallaciously claims that eight out of nine VC holders were Punjabis.This is absolutely false and incorrect .Correct figures are as below :–

    Subadar Mir DAST 55th Coke’s Rifles ( Frontier Force )-PATHAN
    Sepoy Khudadad KHAN 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis-PUNJABI
    Darwin Sing NEGI 1st Bn, 39th Garhwal Rifles-GARHWAL-THEN UP
    Rifleman Gobar Sing NEGI 2nd Bn, 39th Garhwal Rifles-GARHWAL-UP
    Lance Dafadar Gobind SINGH 28th Light Cavalry-NAGAUR -RAJHASTAN
    Rifleman Kulbir THAPA 2nd Bn, 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles-GURKHA
    Sepoy Chatta SINGH 9th Bhopal Infantry-CAWNPORE-UP
    Naik Shahamad KHAN 89th Punjab Regiment-PUNJAB- PINDI
    Rifleman Karanbahadur RANA 2nd Bn, 3rd Queen Alexandra’s Own Gurkha Rifles-GURKHA

    Secondly he more shockingly claims that 61,000 something killed in WW One were Punjabis.

    These actually were more than nine nationalities from which Indian Army was recruited.

    What he does not highlight is that :—

    Punjabis were most loyal to British , for various reasons, outside this article.This is more true for Muslims and less for Sikhs whose quota , highest in fighting arms was reduced as result of first world war political dissent , particularly mutiny in my regiment 11 Cavalry (23 Cavalry then).All rebels were Sikhs barring one Punjabi Muslim who was from Gujranwala.
    Such was the Punjabi loyalty that when two Pathan squadrons of 15 Lancers created trouble the two Punjabi squadrons stayed loyal.
    Maximum Punjabis were recruited as recruitment was not voluntary but by quotas and Punjabi quota in Indian Army was highest ( only after 1885).
    On the whole a good article but his assertions about VCs and Punjabis being 61,000 Killed is firstly incorrect and secondly disgraceful to at least half or 40 % of 61,000 Indians killed in WW One who were not Punjabis at all.

    It appears that NEWS does not have competent editorial staff to check accuracy of articles.

    A.H Amin

    • Mahmood bhai is absolutely right in the regard that Punjabis (of all backgrounds) sacrificed the most in British Indian army during both world war 1 and world war 2.

      now regarding your claims of who can be considered a Punjabi? well Haryana and Himachal were part and parcel of a united Punjab. Haryana, Himachal, Indian Punjab are all inter connected. Even Jammu, Azad Kashmir, half of KPK are Punjabi speaking areas with regional dialects of Pothohari, Hindko, Saraiki, Pahari zubans as well as various others.

      All those who won Victoria crosses from former united Punjab were classified as Punjabis. doesn’t matter if it was a jat from Haryana, rajput/jat from Pothohar or a Sikh from Doab. Only now in modern terms due to political/linguistic divisions of former Punjab are they classified in separate categories, today.

      All together in both world war 1 and world war 2, out of the Punjabi communities, Punjabi Musalmans won 5 VCS , 4 were Sikhs Punjabis, and 4 were of Hindu Punjabis (it could go up to 5 since Prakash Singh chib came from Punjabi speaking Chib tribe but he was from Jammu which was under Dogra rule)

      And when I speak of “Punjabi Muslims” I mean Punjabi Muslims of non Pashtun ethnic background.

      Furthermore 9 out of 11 Nishan-e-Haiders (Pak’s highest award for bravery) have been won by Punjabi Muslims of pure tribes like bhatti, Awan, jatt, Gujjar, janjua and other rajputs.

      JUST 1 is a pathan and the other is from Hunza Baltistan. Also only 2 Victoria crosses have been awarded to Pashtuns each in WW1 and WW2.

      Now regarding Punjabi or Punjabi Muslims total Loyalty to the British. Here again your chauvinist agenda against Pak Punjabis has been exposed.
      Punjabi or Punjabi Muslim loyalty to the british was not guaranteed nor unlimited. Just as you pointed out Sikh reduction in recruitment by British was deliberate therefore Sikhs should not claim wholeheartedly that they supported the british throughout. i.e. 60% of INA was made up of Sikhs.

      Similarly your history of 1857 and Punjabis is totally wrong. Areas of Punjab played a major part in the revolt of 1857. E.g. the Abbasis of Muree and Rawalpindi rose up in rebellion. The gujjars of Jehlum-Gujrat wrecked havoc in the area. There were also disturbances in Sialkot/jammu sectors and in Lahore/Amritsar Indian sipahis both Muslim/Hindu were forcefully disarmed at gunpoint under the barrels of cannons.

      There was heavy fighting in Jalandhar and Ludhiana where muslims and Hindus jatts/rajputs uprising was crushed with the help of the maharajah of Patiala. And lastly the gujjars of Harayna and Rajasthan also joined the rebel cause with many of them perishing in delhi and its surroundings.

      Now coming back to WW1 and your claims of Punjabi Muslims happily fighting the turks while the Pashtuns deserted or joined the other side. This is a ludicrous and untruthful claim, the fact is Punjabi Muslims too had huge reservations about fighting fellow muslims just as well as the rest of indian muslims. Punjabi muslims were actually the 1st show to dissent and concern on this issue.E.G. the Singapore mutiny of 1915 where rumour was rife that stationed indian muslim soldiers would be sent to face the turks was carried out by east Punjabi muslim companies while the pathan companies stayed loyal and actually helped put down the uprising. Rightly or wrongly whatever qualms the mutinous soldiers had about their next assignment; it showed that there was no crystal clear passage as to Pashtun-Punjabi black & white view towards the Turkish sultan.

      Infact many Punjabis and other indian musliim soldiers refused to follow orders to advance towards Turkish lines on religious grounds, some deserted or switched sides.They were also punished by the british others court martialled but many more were relegated to other duties in the faces of occurring sensitivities. The british by 1916 realised the problem and majority were transferred to other frontlines while the rest were put in the rear often guarding Holy sites and camps/supplies.This is in contrast to Sikhs/gurkhas who had no such problems in fighting the turks in Mesopotamia and Arabia compared to ww2. Also in ww2 while not numerous as Sikhs or Hindus some Punjabi Muslims also joined the INA and other such outfits but most stayed loyal in both wars.

      British loyalty by Punjabis or Punjabi Muslims in actuality was shaken thrice in 1857, WW1 and WW2.So you cannot claim that Punjabis gave their unreserved commitment to protect British interests wherever they were simply because its not true. The British tread carefully when dealing with Punjabi soldiers because of the cultural, linguistic and religious sensitivities in its ranks. Also the British Indian army was a volunteer army and discipline had to be kept so if you didn’t want to fight and obey orders then there was no point in joining.

      Now the other myth that you spew on the so called “Pashtun liberation of Kashmir” is completely prejudiced against other ethnicities of Pakistan. At least 30,000 fighters went to Kashmir 5,000 of whom were tribals/pathans .The rest were Punjabis, jammuites ,people from Hazara, Pothohar and Pakistani princely states such as Chitral, amb, Kalabagh. The Gilgitis and Baltistanis too were involved in the fight to liberate Kashmir.

      (interviews with people who were there at the time) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XVuDS7cliV0

      Lastly your venom against Punjabi soldiers during the 65 and 71 wars is un called for. While Pashtuns like Yahya khan, Gul Hassan khan, Roedad khan enjoyed giving orders and replacing commanders Tiger Niazi (whom you try to defend so well in columns) was busy preparing surrender arrangements even while actual Punjabis were fighting on. When Ahmadi Punjabi generals were fighting bravely on and on another Niazi Pashtun Abdul sattar khan had to jump in to declare them non muslims along with maududi type urdities ,Up/bihari muhajirs and non punjabi Bhutto.

      The point is that the Punjabi soldier is the most disciplined and solid recruit both in the past and present. The british never made an attempt to recruit from the unruly Pashtun tribes of FATA or Baluchistan and neither did the Pakistan government bothered. What Pashtun recruits that did come were mainly from Punjab, NWFP, Balochistan but they were no match for the gallant Punjabis.

      Its’ astonishing that there are many Niazis,Khattaks, Durranis, Chachis and not to mention kakars, Marwats, Lodhi, Yusufzaipathans in the so called “Punjabi” establishment.

  • Dead and Wounded is an all India figure and not Punjabi only, its an unintentional writing flow mistake, I will give the correction note in my next print so do for VC’s. Thanks to major AH Amin sb for pointing out.

    Those interested can read below sources to get all the figures of province wise, class wise, Year wise and war theater wise..
    Sources: India ’ s Contribution to the Great War, (Calcutta: Government of India, 1923); Indian Voices of
    the Great War: Soldier ’ s Letters, 1914 – 1918 ; selected and introduced by David Omissi, (Basingstoke:
    MacMillan, 1999). The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars by Gajendra Singh, Bloomsbury. 2014

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