Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. The battle was fought between 10 and 13 March in the Artois region of France. Over the course of three days, over 30,000 British and Indian troops succeeded in recapturing the small village of Neuve Chapelle, and forced the German lines back by 2km.
The battle was the first British led offensive of the First World War. Although the British had been fighting in France and Flanders for over six months, previous engagements on the Western Front had been largely defensive or small counter-offensives in response to German attacks. After a winter of static trench warfare, Neuve Chapelle marked the first planned attempt by the British to break through the German lines.
The battle is also a reminder of the important role played by the Indian Army on the Western Front at this time. Over half of the attacking force at Neuve Chapelle was made up of Indian troops, and the Indian Army suffered over 4000 casualties during the course of the battle.
The Indian contribution is remembered by a beautiful memorial at Neuve Chapelle. Unveilved in 1927, the memorial commemorates over 4,700 Indian men who were killed on the Western Front but have no known grave. Designed by Sir Herbert Baker, the memorial borrows from many Indian architectural styles and is reminiscent of the Chattri in Brighton.
Many of the Indians wounded at Neuve Chapelle were hospitalised in Brighton. By this time all three of Brighton’s Indian hospitals were in operation; although the Royal Pavilion and York Place hospitals had been running for several months, the former workhouse had opened as the Kitchener Indian Hospital just a few weeks before.
The Neuve Chapelle wounded arrived at a time when the relationship between Brighton’s Indian patients and local people was beginning to change. In a recent article published in History Today, Suzanne Bardgett describes how the Indians enjoyed relative freedom in the town during the first few weeks after the opening of the Royal Pavilion hospital, but this became much more restricted with the opening of the Kitchener in late February 1915. Dr Bardgett highlights the military authorities’ concerns about relationships developing between Indian men and white British women, but the British had other worries too.
Strenuous efforts had been made to accommodate the religious and cultural needs of Brighton’s Muslim, Sikh and Hindu patients, yet there were organised attempts by local Christians to convert the men. In early 1915 Sir Walter Lawrence, the Commissioner for Sick and Wounded Indians who had set up the Brighton hospitals, complained to Lord Kitchener about local missionaries.
‘I have seen vernacular translations of the gospels at the Pavilion, and I have orders that these should be strictly excluded… Questions arise every day with clergymen and missionaries who wish to be admitted to the hospitals… if it is abroad that any attempt has been made to proselytise men who are sick or wounded, there would be great trouble.’
Lawrence was a former India Office civil servant who, like all administrators of the British Raj, had learned the need for religious tolerance from the Indian uprisings of 1857. At a time when the German Kaiser was promoting himself as a friend of Islam, and Indian Muslims were fighting against the Muslim Ottoman Empire, Britain needed to demonstrate its respect for Indian religions and culture. The activities of zealous Christians were probably more troubling for the military authorities than relationships between Indian men and British women.
The change in culture was also driven by the introduction of the Kitchener Hospital, which had a different function to the other Indian hospitals in Brighton. The York Place Schools hospital took the most severely wounded men, while the Royal Pavilion was extensively photographed and became a show piece for British benevolence; the Kitchener, by contrast, took the lighter casualties, and was set up to return men to the front as soon as possible.
This reflected the methods of its commanding officer. While the Royal Pavilion and York Place hospitals shared a command structure, the Kitchener hospital was run by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Bruce Seton. The treatment regime implemented by Seton required Indian patients to act as orderlies in the hospital once they were fit enough to walk, with the expectation that they would return to combat duties with the umost haste. This resulted in a rapid turnover of patients: over the course of some eight or nine months, the 2000 bed hospital treated over 8000 patients.
Seton was particularly proud of his success with veterans of Neuve Chapelle. In a May 1915 letter to Sir Walter Lawrence he boasted that over 60% of the wounded men he had received from that battle had been returned to the front within six weeks.
By contrast, the Royal Pavilion Indian hospital seems to have been far less strict and more of its patients were returned to India. The Pavilion hospital’s most celebrated patient, Mir Dast, was invalided back to India after receiving the Victoria Cross in the garden in August 1915. When he was personally awarded his medal by King George V, he asked the king to change British policy, and allow wounded Indian soldiers to return home after their recovery.
Mir Dast is also a reminder that fighting continued in Neuve Chapelle for many months after the battle. He had been sent to Brighton after suffering from a gas attack in trenches near Neuve Chapelle in May 1915. He never recovered from his wounds and, like many Indian soldiers, would long remember the name of a small French village.
As part of our programme of events marking the centenary of WW1, the Royal Pavilion features new displays showing how some of its rooms appeared as Indian hospital wards. We have also launched a new audio tour for 2015, focusing on the Pavilion’s role as WW1 hospital.
Kevin Bacon, Digital Development Officer