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Home >Opinion >Online-views >The further adventures of Dunkirk’s Pakistani Indian soldiers

It’s been a year since the British public voted to pull their country out of the Europe Union, their pot of patriotism stirred no doubt by nostalgia over how Winston Churchill won the war for the rest of the world, delivering us all from evil.

Now, with near-miraculous timing, the Brexit era has its first movie, Hollywood director Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a rousing account of the greatest wartime evacuation known to humankind. After all of the British troops are rescued, the British naval commander stays back on the French beach, for he has to now evacuate the French.

Already hailed as a “masterpiece" by some critics, Dunkirk, in the style of modern war films, aims to drown the viewer in the vicarious fear and glory of war itself. It’s the mother of realistic films, but it’s a miserable failure in the way it airbrushes Indian soldiers out of Dunkirk.

I say ‘Indian’ because this was before Partition, but really these soldiers were—perhaps to a man—Pakistani muleteers from the province of Punjab. They were among 2.5 million soldiers from undivided India who took part in World War II. Dunkirk was the very first theatre of operation for Indian soldiers.

Why Indians? Why mules? Why Punjab? In September 1939, after Hitler had overrun Poland, the Allied forces realized that fighting on the Western Front, particularly in northern France, could be made difficult by muddy conditions. They had experience of it from World War I, and needed mules to transport supplies, including artillery guns and ammunition, through unmotorable places. In World War I, by 1917, the British Army had more than 530,000 horses and 230,000 mules. The problem was that the advent of mechanization meant there were no mule companies left in the British Army after World War I. They had all been disbanded.

In World War I, as many as 65,398 ponies and mules were among nearly 173,000 animals supplied by India, including mules obtained from other countries and trained in India.

As Major Haber Maitland Alexander, who commanded the 9th Pack Mule Corps, wrote in his 1917 book, On Two Fronts: Being the Adventures of an Indian Mule Corps in France and Gallipolli’ the mules pressed into service from India in World War I were recruited from Argentina, China and Punjab. Some, however, were bred in Indian remount depots from country-bred ponies and imported English donkeys. “A mule can go over any ground where a man can go," the major says.

In 1939, India still had a technologically backward army, which “had remained virtually unchanged since the end of the Great War" in respect of its armament, equipment and means of mobility, according to a Modernisation Committee report of October 1938. “The transport of Engineer, Signal and Infantry units is still based on the pack mule, the camel and the army transport mule cart," it said.

Just as well because the Allied powers needed pack mules and, in their hour of equine need, turned to India. One obvious place to look at was Punjab, in particular the cantonment in Rawalpindi. Established in 1883, it was home to a horse battery. There had been an annual horse fair in Rawalpindi since 1876 with up to 1,400 mules for sale. And around 160km from Rawalpindi, in Mandi Bahauddin, stood the Army Remount Depot of Mona, where horses, mules and donkeys were bred. They still are—established in 1902, Mona today is the world’s largest remount installation.

The contingent that was assembled by the Royal Indian Army Service Corps was called Force K6, and it comprised four AT, or animal transport, companies with a total of 1,800 personnel and 2,000 mules, fully trained as pack carriers and two-wheeled cart pullers. (The ‘royal’ has been removed from the name of the corps, which is now based in Bengaluru. The Indian Army retains 6,000 mules).

So in 1939, they set sail from Bombay in four ships and arrived in the French Mediterranean port of Marseille in December, headlong into the harshest winter seen in Europe in 125 years. From the southern port, the Indians and their mules were moved to the northern coast in May 1940, in the midst of a ferocious Nazi attack on Belgium, the Netherlands and France. As British and French forces were trapped in Dunkirk, one of the Indian companies was taken prisoner by the Germans.

You wouldn’t know any of that from watching Dunkirk, the movie. Not one brown, moustached face in the sea of white, let alone a mule. To be fair though, details in the public are scant and it is quite possible that the Indians and their mules were spread thinly among the estimated 400,000 Allied troops awaiting evacuation by sea. The Indian soldiers may not all have gathered at Dunkirk alone but also at other points further South along the coast such as Brest and St. Nazaire.

Wherever they were, these muleteers did manage to make it to safety in England. Distressingly, they had to leave their mules behind. The poor heroic animals, they couldn’t even bray out for help or to bid farewell to their handlers—they had been surgically ‘de-voiced’ to ensure operational stealth.

There were some last-minute jitters: former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown revealed in 2000, the 60th anniversary of Dunkirk, how his father John, who was in the Royal Indian Army Services Corps, was ordered to ditch the mules and the Indian muleteers. John Ashdown disobeyed the order – he left the mules behind but managed to get the Indian soldiers on the last ship out, before the jetty was bombed. Back in England, he was court martialled for disobeying what his son described as a “racist" order. The court martial was later thrown out.

The Dunkirk evacuation began on 26 May and ended on 4 June—some 338,000 troops were evacuated, aided immensely by a mysterious German decision to halt the advance on Dunkirk for 48 hours from 11.42am on 24 May. Why did Hitler pass up this chance of annihilating the stranded British and French forces at one go? Who knows—among war historians, this enigma, known as Hitler’s ‘Halt Order’, continues to feed debate.

In England, further adventures awaited our Indian/Pakistani heroes. The British, instead of sending them back to India, decided to keep them back for further training. In fact, three more animal transport companies arrived from India and the mules lost in the hellish chaos of Dunkirk were duly replaced with supplies from America. All of the Indians were now settled in camps in Cornwall in southern England. After a few months there, they were moved to the Snowdonia region of Wales and the Scottish Highlands for training in mountain warfare.

There are some truly wonderful and heartwarming accounts of these soldiers in Britain between 1940 and 1943 (when they finally left for India)—particularly in the spectacular Brecon Beacons mountains of Wales by a local resident named Giovanna Bloor, whose article for the BBC triggered others’ childhood memories.

The sight would have been dramatic. “The round, white tents of the camp would be in rows and the animals were tethered in rows on ‘standings’. A bugle would be blown when it was time for feeding and watering the animals at the river," writes Bloor. “One local I spoke to could remember the Indians kneeling, praying in rows and the murmuring sound of their praying."

Neither the locals nor their exotic visitors spoke much English but the soldiers “got on particularly well" with children, she writes. I wondered about the point of giving them mountain warfare training, and then came across this post by Martin Briscoe from Fort William in the Highlands: “I was told that they had been brought to the Scottish Highlands to train with the British for a possible invasion of Norway."

A full account of this strange encounter over three long years in Britain is waiting to be written by a historian. Meanwhile, maybe death holds a clue to their movements? Thirty-five of them died and this is the distribution of their gravestones: In England there are nine graves in five cemeteries—Ashbourne, Charlestown, Colchester, Hereford and Plymouth. In Wales, 13 graves in five cemeteries—Brecon, Cardiff, Abergavenny, Crickhowell and Pontypool. In Scotland, 13 graves in four cemeteries—Aberdeen, Keith, Dornoch and Kingussie.

Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1 

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