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The Rhetorical Inequalities of Great War Commemoration and the Call of Sepoy Poetry

Zach DeWitt

Illustration by Sefi George

On the 22nd of April, 2021, a representative from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) spoke to the British House of Commons about recent revelations relating to Great War commemoration. The CWGC published the “Report of the Special Committee to Review Historical Inequalities in Commemoration” earlier this year, which explained how “116,000 casualties (predominantly, but not exclusively, East African and Egyptian personnel) – but potentially as many as 350,000 – were not commemorated by name or possibly not commemorated at all” (Hay and Burke 2021, 6). Often, official burials did not take place; instead, memorials representing thousands of soldiers were erected at the locations of the conflict (Hay and Burke 2021, 15). The report claims that the then named Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) had neglected to consistently uphold the rules and principles of burial for all Great War soldiers: “contemporary attitudes towards non-European faiths and differing funerary rites, and an individual’s or group’s perceived ‘state of civilisation’, influenced their commemorative treatment in death” (Hay and Burke 2021, 6). To simplify, racist prejudices against colonial soldiers — those soldiers from Britain’s colonial “holdings” in Africa and India — lead to unequal, or non-existent, burials for troops which fought and died for the British Empire. As he spoke about this issue to the House of Commons, the representative from CWGC promised that they would learn from past mistakes and work to equally commemorate Great War soldiers of all ethnic and religious persuasions.

The history of racism in commemoration efforts gives us cause to reflect on how we remember war dead, especially the colonial soldiers who served in violent industrial wars orchestrated by their colonial rulers. Most generally, I hope to expand our understanding of commemoration, by discussing the lack of literary representation of the colonial soldiers’ experience, and the additional inequalities this produces. To do this, I will explain some of the current problems with commemoration, before introducing some of the literary research on Indian writing and oral recording during WWI. I hope that this essay will show how commemoration standards might insufficiently respect the experience of the non-white combatants of the Great War. Because of this, I will propose the reading with literary and poetic sources as a potential avenue for a more complete — perhaps even decolonial — engagement with the colonial history of conflict in the 20th century.

To begin, we must assess the rhetoric of commemoration, as practiced in Europe. Most simply, the British CWGC builds grave sites based on standards of uniformity, permeance, and equality. The documents that describe these commemoration principles reference the importance of memorial permanence, uniformity and the “equality of treatment for war dead, irrespective of rank or religion” (Smith and Commonwealth War Graves 2020, 6). The effect of these standards is quite striking: rows of white crosses, or uniform headstones, surrounded by roses and pristine green grass, dominate the cultural memory of the Great War. These sites are quite beautiful and peaceful; as resting places, they manage to respect both the memory of the fallen, and their families. In doing so, the uniform equality of the graveyards commemorates the collective tragedy of the Great War.

Yet, the beauty, uniformity, and order of these grave sites conceals the horrifying experience of war. War, obviously, is not a peaceful affair: the Great War certainly scarred the psyches of all who experienced it. Men bore the brunt of the trauma, yet women, who worked as nurses behind the frontlines and corresponded with their male friends and family members, and children, who experienced the immediate weight of growing up during wartime, also experienced the stress of the time. The war recontextualized death, as people not only died under horrifying conditions and unprecedented rates, but also just disappeared, either obliterated by high explosives, or sunk into the mud of no-man's-land. Shellshock — as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other stress disorders were then named — fundamentally altered the lives of those soldiers who survived, and their families; disability became a visible, and stigmatized, part of modern life. Paul Fussel certainly says it best when he claims that “the cemeteries are both pretty and bizarre, fertile with roses, projecting an almost unendurably ironic peacefulness” (Fussell 2000, 76). The cemeteries seem blissfully unaware of the memories they contain, a sort of conscious ignorance, which might best be described as disconcerting.

There is thus a sort of human irony in the order of commemoration. The soldier trains in rows, uniformed in the same cloth, referred to by the same ranks, given the same food, and is expected to die for the same country. Yet, this structure melted under the horror of shellfire. Soldiers quickly found themselves pressed against the ground, or sitting in trenches, in groups of two or three, listening as shells and bullet fire fell around them, waiting to die. Experience was random and chaotic. Soldiers who died on the battlefield would often be left for days, partially buried, with only a makeshift cross to hold their position. It was only after the War ended that their status as soldiers could be re-ordered in the graveyard. While the soldier’s life quite possibly epitomized chaos, the IWGC, and its subsequent efforts toward commemoration, serve to reinstate the order associated with military discipline.

As sites intended to recall the horror of war, these commemorative graveyards seem wholly blind to chaos. As sites intended to immortalize the soldiers’ sacrifice, they seem to homogenize and order an incomprehensible experience. Thus, we can understand why surviving soldiers had mixed feelings about the presentation of their memorials: “[a]s the physical landscape of war recovered, as travel to the former war zones […] became easier, and as the cemeteries came to dominate the visit to the western front, many ex-servicemen felt that they were losing their war. The war was being corrupted not only by time, but also by sentimentality, vulgarity, and ignorance” (Eksteins 2014, 322). Many soldiers did not experience the war as a sentimental sacrifice “for king and country”, as was portrayed by the peaceful beauty of the graveyards, and the government rhetoric supporting their creation. Commemoration, then, as practiced first by the IWGC, and now by the CWGC, might not be considered an act of remembering a horrifying history, but rather the construction of a homogenizing narrative.

This is problematic precisely because Great War experience — and, obviously, human experience itself — is anything but homogenous. Millions of individuals participated in the Great War — as soldiers, as laborers, as prisoners. Most importantly, the conflict was one informed by colonial powers, who brought four million non-white men to fight and work. People came from China, from the colonized Indian subcontinent, from the colonies in Algeria and Tunisia, and from (the then called) French Indochina (Das 2018, 26). The gravesites, as homogeneous spaces, do not always contain a commemoration of the multitude of colonial soldiers that sacrificed their lives and minds for the very imperialist powers which oppressed them. Yet, even if the CWGC accommodates this diversity, I think equal burial will only do so much to engage with the diverse history of the Great War.

While war remembrance is partially dominated by the image of the white headstones, Western Great War memory has perhaps been more informed by the tragedy depicted in the memoir, literature, and poetry of the era. Many literary and cultural theorists point to the Great War as the dawn of modern Western culture and thought; the horror of the war catalyzed abstract art movements and radical philosophies. Paul Fussel shows a shift towards literary irony in the work of soldiers, a literary style which would quickly find a place in the modern Western works of Kafka, Joyce and Woolf (Fussel 2000, 24); and, according to Annette Baker, "if the Great War was not the creator of the surrealist movement, it was certainly its catalyst" (Baker 2000, 71). The experiences depicted in novels, memoirs and poems of the war and interwar era informed these changes, revealing the horror of imperial state power, the meaninglessness of mechanized warfare, and the dehumanization embedded in colonial practices. Perhaps, with respect to remembrance, these literary works — written by authors like Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and others — did more to commemorate what we might call the true experience of the Great War soldier. While their work was not at odds with the project of the IWGC, their rhetorical methods — their focus on stark realism, absolute hopelessness, and the brutal irony of industrial war — certainly feels distinct, and perhaps more honest.

So, most generally, while graves commemorate individuals, and serve as a permanent reminder of sacrifice, contemporary war artwork and literature certainly does more to commemorate lived experience. Instead of leaving the history and memory of war in distant governmental structures (memorials with historically propagandistic intentions (Fussel 2000, 76; Das 2018, 34)), the close reading of memoirs, narratives and poems connects us directly to the soldiers' lives; the work becomes a living memory, rather than one constrained to the still homogeneity of the cemetery.

The colonial soldier, however, is more unequally remembered with respect to literary commemoration. Their lived experience of war, their literary response to their trauma, has been entirely ignored by western academics and public readers. The Great War — as a cultural and literary memory — is predominantly white and western, despite the overwhelming number of colonial troops who fought in the global conflict. If we are to remember and commemorate all soldiers, equally and uniformly, it is just as important to commemorate the literary, poetic, and experiential writings of colonial soldiers, as it is to promote equal burial rights.

Fortunately, recent research has revealed and engaged with a wide variety of visual, written, and auditory accounts of colonial soldier experience in the Great War. I will focus on some of the archival work done relating to the British colonies in India and the sepoy soldiers that fought in Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean, and in France on the Western front. In his work India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs, historian Santanu Das extensively explores the cultural and literary experience of sepoys,the name given to Indian troops to distinguish them from their European counterparts and commanders. While nearly 900,000 combatants represented colonial India in the Great War, various groups were not represented equally: "men were recruited from a narrow geographical and ethnic pool, spread across Northern and Central India, the North West Frontier province and the kingdom of Nepal in accordance with the theory of 'martial races'" (Das 2018, 14). British assumptions about caste, loyalty, aptness for combat (predicated on racist pseudo-scientific research), and assumptions about relative masculinity, all informed British selection process (Das 2018, 15). "Pathans, Dogras, Jats, Garhwalis, Gurkhas and Sikhs [...] were ultimately deemed fit to fight" (Das 2018, 14). Das' work saves the memories and experiences of all these soldiers, as they have been “doomed to wander in the no-man’s land between Eurocentric narratives of the ‘Great War and modern memory’ and nationalist histories of India” (Das 2018, 16). Archives of sepoy experience — particularly their cultural and literary experience — exist for us to learn from: Das draws from “rumour, gossip, memoirs, photographs, sketches, sound-recordings, songs, poems and imaginative literature” in particular (Das 2018, 23). I argue that these sources reflect a sort of cultural commemoration, as they both recall the individual experience of war and reflect their experience as both colonial subjects and soldiers.

Das, and others who engage critically with the archival legacy of colonial soldiers, take seriously the literary quality of poetry in Indian letters that Western academics have historically rejected from the Great War artistic canon. In the same way that oral cultures have been othered and studied anthropologically, rather than literarily, the letters of semi or non-literate colonial soldiers were treated as lesser than works produced by their European counterparts. However, modern scholars have taken notice of the unique cultural and literary nature of these works. Because of the use of simile and metaphor, and reference to myth and Sanskrit epic poetry, these works clearly demand a literary reading, yet they also demand a focused reading, one bent on escaping the privileged Eurocentric understandings of literature. In reading these works, Das shows the specific literary experience of the non-literate sepoy, as defined by their own experience of culture and place (Das 2018, 213). These experiences have historically been neglected by Eurocentric historical canons which dismiss the writing, produced by transcription, of the non-literate and, more importantly, the art of colonized and oppressed others.

The following poem, included in a letter sent from a hospital, perhaps best reveals the literary experience of the Indian sepoy:

When the Lord of Raghu’s race heard he said, ‘Who can blot out the

writing of fate?’

When Hanuman places his foot on a mountain

It falls to pieces

The army of the Rakshashas melts away

Before the arrow of the Lord Rama just as the darkness of night disappears

On the rising of the sun …

How shall I tell you about the things that happened here? No tongue can

describe them.

When the aeroplane mounts into the sky

The bullets fall around like rain in July.

When the shells burst, the heroes cry, ‘Glory to the Lord Ragunath’

By one shell many fell and are wounded,

And many are missing

Everyone cheers the German heroes and calls out, ‘Bravo!’

They show an extraordinary spectacle. […] (Unknown, qtd. in Das 2018, 214)

The work here, crafted by a person anonymized by history, builds a paradoxical vision of a “grandiose mythic” world and one of “stark realism” (Das 2018, 215). Many colonial authors, as shown here, employed the world of Sanskrit epics — the Rāmāyana and Mahābhārata — in their artistic response to the war. Works of this sort speak to the literary memory of the colonial troops; engaging with them acts as, I think, a commemoration of their unique experience.

However, it is not a stretch to call for such a poem, contained within a letter from a sepoy, to be treated as a work of literature. Perhaps Das’ more urgent claim is the importance of treating the everyday artifact — the most innocuous traces of humanity — as cultural and literary. Particularly, he focuses on oral tradition and its cultural effect on Indian soldiers. The above poem, he argues, would not have been possible without the proliferation of oral cultures in India around the end of the 19th century. Das finds the traces of orality in early German sound recordings of Indian prisoners of war: in his audio recording, Mall Singh structures his own life story in the third-person, falling back on the oral traditions of the Punjab region (Das 2018, 6). The audio recording swells with memory, not the memory of a Great War soldier as defined through the white historical and literary canon associated with the War, but a colonial soldier and subject. Song and voice contain the literary experience of the colonial Great War soldier, as much as a written archive of experience. Das references a prisoner’s story about “a parrot who died shivering in the cold”, told in a camp with a mortality rate of 16.8% among Indian captives (Das 2018, 230). Historically, the Germans recorded Indian stories and language to research the “primitive” others, using it as an anthropological opportunity. The persistence of these archives, however, offers us — the modern listener — an opportunity to engage with the colonial subject’s cultural world. When the oral archives are heard as an extension of folk and oral literature, one finds a literary approach to suffering like the poetic work of Western Great War writers, but culturally and artistically unique to the sepoys.

Additionally, such poetic work certainly shows Das’ claim that the Great War “be reconceptualised as a turning point in the history of cultural encounter and entanglement” (Das 2018, 31). The poetic juxtaposition of aeroplane and bullets with the epic poetic tone, the sound recordings containing stories laden with both personal experience and cultural awareness - these works show how the sepoys understood the horrors of war and, additionally, the world of their oppressors. These works also reveal the beginnings of colonial consciousness; the sepoys’ participation gave them insight into “the racism and double standards at the heart of the empire” (Das 2018, 312). One need only read a series of letters to find the sepoys’ experience of “heaven” in France, and comment on the adverse situation of colonized India (Omissi 1999, 156). Many stories produced during the war era — both in the trenches and in India — promoted decolonial stories and concepts about the inequalities of colonial rule and the variety of experiences faced by the heterogeneous group of soldiers (Das 2018, 311–12). It is perhaps this history which is most vital to engage with when talking about the project of commemoration — as remembering the experience of the colonial soldiers means remembering the imperial systems that structured their service. Even more, actively engaging with the voices of colonial troops will help us better understand the colonial history of the Great War, and its lasting effect on the on-going project of decolonization.

This paper began with a call for commemoration, particularly a call to commemorate colonial soldiers, who were historically marginalized even in death. As I near the end of this essay, I want to propose that equal commemoration extends beyond equal burial rights. While we should certainly hope that all soldiers are buried by name, with their religious affiliation respected, the literary commemoration of colonial soldiers’ experiences seems entirely absent from this process. As a result, we ignore the differences between soldiers of differing lands, and neglect the distinct and various cultures which they brought to the trenches and drew upon to understand the violence of war. And, perhaps most importantly, we miss the profound impact war had in developing a colonial consciousness.

In more ways than one, commemoration is a rhetorical act, be it the rhetoric of a government attempting to craft a positive narrative for a war deemed senseless by many combatants, be it the rhetoric of a memoir, attempting to conjure individual lived experience, be it a story of a captive colonial soldier, tragically describing a shivering parrot. If we are to remember the war equally, some amount of rhetorical equality must also be sought. If we are to remember colonial soldiers, we must also attend to their literary experience, just as we have with Western soldier’s art and works. By uplifting the unique letters, poetry, and sound recordings of Indian sepoys, we might manage to commemorate the history of the Great War without succumbing to the homogenizing rhetoric which clearly neglects aspects of the history it aims to recall.

Most simply, our memory of the war demands expansion. Partly, the problem lies in unequal burial: nearly 40,000 Indian sepoys were unequally commemorated with a group memorial at the location of their sacrifice in Iraq (Hay and Burke 2021, 15). While European soldiers were individually commemorated, Indian and other colonial troops lumped together, with graves left unmarked. Yet, just like European soldiers found the graveyards dismissive of their experience, and thus found other ways of commemorating their suffering, colonial soldiers deserve an accurate reflection of their own memory, and a place in the collective memory of the Great War. As shown above, memory is not just a product of memorialization in graveyards.

Into the phonographic device, Bhawan Singh said,

When a person dies,

He constantly roams about

And thus becomes a ghost.

It is the soul that roams about.

The roaming is like the air.

So a ghost is like air

He can go everywhere. (Singh, qtd. in Das 2018, 231)

Perhaps, the poems and literary descriptions above show that the colonial memories of the War — recorded in German archives or preserved in letters — are still here, not just contained in the memorials. Numerous ghosts of the Great War still float in the air, like a breath, or a song. These spirits might represent both the people unequally buried, and the stories and poems unequally told. Any decolonial commemoration project must address and engage with both. So, as the CWGC prepares to educate the public about sacrifices of colonial troops during the Great War (Hay and Burke 2021, 51), we might call for greater engagement with the literary works of the time, which also necessitates the expansion of works that are deemed literary. We ought to take Bhawan Singh’s poem seriously: the dead are everywhere, their stories, their souls, floating in the air, calling for us to hear, and read their unique, poetic, and tragic words. It is only with these memories that we can begin to commemorate equally.

Works Cited

Becker, Annette. “The Avant-Garde, Madness and the Great War.” Journal of

Contemporary History, vol. 35, no. 1, 2000, pp. 71–84.Das, Santanu. 2018. India, Empire and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs. Cambridge, UK ; New York, USA ; Port Melbourn, Australia ; New Delhi, India: Cambridge University Press.

Eksteins, Modris. 2014. “Memory and the Great War.” In The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War: New Edition, edited by Hew Strachan, 2nd edition, 317–29. OUP Oxford.

Fussell, Paul. 2000. The Great War and Modern Memory. 1st edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hay, George, and John Burke. 2021. “Report of the Special Committee to Review Historical Inequalities in Commemoration.” Maidenhead, Great Britain: Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Omissi, David, ed. 1999. Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914-18. London, Great Britain: MacMillan Press, LTD.

Smith, Kylie, and Commonwealth War Graves. 2020. “Commemoration Policy: How We Commemorate War Dead.” Commonwealth War Graves.

After spending several academically diverse years at Quest University, Zach DeWitt found a passion for reading and learning from historical literature. He looks forward to the fall, when he will attend a Masters of Arts in English program at UBCO. There, he plans on researching the relationship between history, place and reading, especially as it relates to learning about, and moving beyond, the colonization of the lands of Canada and the United States.


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