On finding a memorial to Indian soldiers who fought in World War Iin the heart of coastal Britain
There is no moment in the life of a traveller more heartbreaking than when he searches for a destination on an online mapping website, and finds it in the middle of nowhere. You can sense the life being sucked out of your travel plans as you notice that the inverted teardrop that marks your final stop on Google Maps is miles away from the nearest car park, bus stop and railway station. How in the name of Global P. Systems are you supposed to get there?
The Chattri Memorial at Brighton is one such destination.
I had stumbled upon this extraordinary monument while working on a podcast on the history of the Indian Constitution earlier this year. I was slowly working my way from the First War of Independence in 1857 to B.R. Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and company a century later. At some point in February, I began reading about the plight of Indian soldiers during World War I.
Of the two world wars, India’s role and involvement in the more recent one is well known. Recency no doubt explains some of this bias, as does the fact that so many titans of contemporary Indian history were participants in this war. Subhas Chandra Bose, Laxmi Sehgal and Sam Maneckshaw all fought in it. Mahatma Gandhi had plenty to say about it. The war culminated in India gaining her independence—not that this familiarity with World War II has led to any great, nuanced public understanding of India’s peculiar participation in it; the Japanese occupation of the Andamans, for instance, has been all but airbrushed from our history textbooks and popular historiography.
Most Indians, though, would be hard-pressed to name a single sepoy who saw action in any of World War I’s gruesome theatres of operation. Over a million Indian soldiers fought in what has been called the Great War. They fought in France, Turkey and Mesopotamia. Thousands lost their lives and dozens won medals for great valour.
Injured Indian soldiers of the British army at the pavilion, converted into a military hospital in 1915. Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Just two months later, the first Indian soldiers began to disembark from ships at the French port of Marseille, to fight for a cause that was never really theirs, on a battlefield that couldn’t be more alien, defending an empire that had never treated them as equals.
It wasn’t just the Indian soldiers who found the situation strange. War historian Gordon Corrigan writes that hundreds of French people arrived at the ports and railway boarding points to look at these turbaned curiosities from the East. As the sepoys rushed to the front in trains, Corrigon says, French villagers hurried to the train bogey windows, shoving baguettes through the bars towards the Indian soldiers. In return, they asked the astonished Indian soldiers to give them some of their exotic rotis and chapatis.
Meanwhile, in Brighton, on the southern coast of England, the British government began to prepare medical facilities for the inevitable Indian casualties. Several temporary hospitals were established in Brighton, including three at the Royal Pavilion, an outlandish Indo-Saracen building that was a palace before it was sold to the local city government in 1850—recently, the pavilion became something of a viral sensation after right-wing British nuts on Facebook posted outraged messages that “Muslims had been allowed to build such a huge mosque in Brighton".
The western facade of the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. Photo: Flamenc/Wikimedia Commons
The pavilion is open to the public these days, and is one of the highlights of a trip to Brighton, although it is the kind of building you appreciate more for flair than taste.
The Chattri Memorial sits on top of a hill outside Patcham, a suburb of Brighton. To reach it, you need to first catch a bus, or hail a taxi, from Brighton to Patcham. Then you need to walk. A lot. The first third or so of the walk takes you through the suburb. The next third winds through a woodland path that ends abruptly at a pedestrian bridge over a motorway. Cross over and you should just be able to spot the memorial in the distance. It can seem intimidatingly distant. But don’t get disheartened. The going is easier than you think. Unless you were one of the original soldiers commemorated at the Chattri.
Those poor chaps, injured in France fighting some of the most brutal warfare ever conducted by mankind, were shipped to Brighton to be treated at one of the hospitals. By the end of the war, almost 15,000 Indian soldiers had passed through the medical camps in Brighton. Almost all of them made out of Brighton alive. Seventy-four of them did not. Twenty-one Muslims were buried at the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, 60 miles (around 96.5km) away.
Fifty-two more died in the next 12 months. By late 1915, the meat grinder that was the French front had churned through most of the officers trained to work with Indian troops. While the Indians were fighting with more or less great valour, there simply weren’t enough officers to lead them. The Indian regiments were all shifted to other, less critical fronts. Brighton’s hospitals soon emptied out.
Each of the 53 who died were cremated at the funeral ghat. Immediately afterwards, work started on building a memorial to the soldiers on the site of the funeral pyres.
“I’ve actually never been up there, you know," my taxi driver told me as we drove up to Patcham. “I know some visitors go there and that it has something to do with Indians. But not a lot of locals know why."
The memorial underwent many transformations before it reached the state it is in today. It was completed in 1921, but then spent most of the inter-war years neglected and overgrown. During World War II, the surrounding countryside was used by the army for training. In 1945, one retired Indian army officer visited the memorial and reported back that soldiers had been using the marble dome for shooting practice. It was pockmarked with holes.
The Chattri Memorial in Brighton. Photo: Stratmastoris/Wikimedia Commons