Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Reflections on Armistice Day

As an Indian, the 11th of November never really had much significance for me. World War I is largely absent from the Indian consciousness. Sure, many English-speaking Indians are aware that it happened - we studied it in our history books and perhaps even read British and American books about it. Even so, it is largely a war that happened to other people. We wear no poppies on the 11th of November, and nor do we hold solemn marches on the 25th of April. The poem In Flanders Fields hold no significance for us, nor does the vast majority of the literature written by men who fought in that futile and pointlessly wasteful war.

Yet Indian soldiers served, fought and died in this war. A million men - forming the largest all-volunteer force to serve in the war - were sent overseas to fight for a country they would never see and a King-Emperor whose name they could not pronounce. They fought in the meat-grinder of the Western Front, where Khudadad Khan became the first non-white man to win the Victoria Cross. They fought in the East Africa Campaign where they died in the thousands of disease and privation while their incompetent commanders let a tiny German force run rings around them for four years. Some were even sent to Gallipoli to fight in the ill-considered and badly thought out Dardenelles Campaign. The greatest number by far fought in the original War for Oil - the Mesopotamia Campaign.

Perhaps the defining event of the Indian experience in World War I was the Siege of Kut, a part An Indian survivor of the Siege of Kut and subsequent imprisonmentof that same Mesopotamia campaign. The Siege began in the December of 1915, when the Sixth (Poona) Division of the Indian Army established a position in the town of Kut after retreating from another battle. Their dithering commander, Charles Townshend, failed to break out of the town despite multiple opportunities to do so, and his equally incompetent counterparts in the relief force failed to dislodge the numerically inferior Turkish besiegers. Finally after four months, his soldiers starving and reduced to eating their pack animals, Townshend surrendered unconditionally to the Turks. While he lived out the rest of the War in comfort, Townshend's troops were treated brutally by the Turks. Of the 30,000 odd troops he started out with, about 13,000 lived to surrender along with Townshend. Barely four thousand survived the two and a half years of ill-treatment and privation at the hands of the Ottoman Army. After failing to do much to protect his men from their captors, Townshend returned home to a hero's acclaim and was elected to Parliament.

While the Siege of Kut is a particularly egregious example of the suffering of Indian troops in the War, other theaters and battles were quite bad as well. Three thousand Indians died in East Africa of disease alone. The Indian contingent in Gallipoli suffered close to 60 per cent losses, along with most of the other Allied forces. Why did so many sign up to fight this faraway foreign war in such terrible conditions? Undoubtedly many joined up for the money, for the steady pay and the wartime bonuses. Some joined to continue the martial traditions of their families and communities. A large part of the Indian contingent in World War I were actually soldiers in the armies of the Indian Princes, sent to fight for the Emperor of India, who also conveniently happened to be King of England. Given the paucity of written accounts by these soldiers though, in most cases we will never know why they joined up.

My great-grandfather was one of those men. We do not know why he joined, but he served as a Regimental Medical Officer in the 1/1 Gurkha Rifles for duration of the War. He spoke of serving in Iraq and Palestine, so perhaps he took part in the Mesopotamia Campaign (where, among other actions, his unit participated in one of the failed attempts to relieve the Siege of Kut) and Allenby's march to Jerusalem. He left the Army at the War's end, settled down in Bombay and began a successful practice. He was a pillar of the community who raised five children, including my grandmother. He was lucky. Lucky not to have been with his unit in the year it spent on the Western front (where they were gassed by the Germans in the second battle of Ypres, the first use of chemical warfare in modern warfare). Lucky not to have been in the Siege of Kut, where only one out of six who joined survived to the end of the war. Lucky not to have otherwise fallen to enemy bullets, disease or hunger, as fully one in every ten Indian soldier in that war did.

Many were not as lucky. Between 90,000 and 100,000 Indian soldiers died in World War I. A similar number were wounded, and perhaps some of them died of their wounds in peacetime. Many surely returned physically whole, but mentally and emotionally scarred by shell shock and post-traumatic stress to communities that did not understand their conditions and could not treat them. Their courage, sacrifice and honourable service in this futile foreign war won them few favours from the British, who continued to think them inferior. And we, their descendants, have largely forgotten them, made their names mere footnotes in the histories of our newly independent nations, and ignored their memorials.

They were, as the saying goes, the unknowing, led by the unworthy, doing the impossible for the ungrateful. So this Armistice Day, I say, let us just think of these men. Let us remember them, and the courage they displayed in the face of great hardship for little reward. That is the least they deserve.

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Friday, November 06, 2009

The Gustavus Adolphus theory of Viking Conquest

Today is, as we all know Gustavus Adolphus Day. It is a day of solemn celebration of this great Gustavus Adolphus won the Thirty Years War and secured religious freedom for all Europe through the sheer magnificence of his nameman, of marzipan medallions eaten on no other day (thanks for the factoid Betsy!) and of general Gustavus Adolphusness all around. But it is also an occasion to consider Gustavus Adolphus's greatest achievement: his awesome name. As a keen student of Renaissance European history I feel I can say with no fear of exaggeration than Gustavus Adolphus' is the awesomest royal name of the entire era.

But a closer look at the history of the Swedish monarchy will reveal that Gustavus Adolphus is by no means the awesomest of Swedish regnal names. Amongst Gustavus's royal forbears of the Houses of Munsö and Stenkil you will find such awesome names as Eric the Victorious, Emund the Evil, Magnus the Strong and my favorite, Blood Sweyn (this last king was so awesome, his less awesome nickname was Sweyn the Sacrificer). All these are good, manly names. They are names to strike terror into the hearts of recalcitrant subjects and people who are tardy with their taxes. These are, then, names that inspire hardened warriors to get into boats, sail to distant lands, rape, pillage and carve blood eagles into their enemies.

That last point is an important one. For many years, historians have puzzled over the ferocity, bloodlust and sheer military prowess of the Vikings that terrorised the known world (and parts of the unknown) from the 8th century to the 11th. These bloodthirsty beserkers made their presence felt from Newfoundland in the west to Azerbaijan in the east, from Iceland in the north to Morocco in the south. They toppled long established kingdoms, harried others, and founded nations that bear their mark to this day. This is all historical fact. What is not so well understood is how they did it. The Vikings were not superior in any outward way to their adversaries. They shared a common descent and language family with their victims in England, France and Italy (all ruled at the time by Germanic kingdoms that had not long ago conquered the Latin civilisations there). They were at a similar level of technology and culture. Their strategy and tactics were not vastly different from the way the Saxons, Franks and Lombards they faced would have used at the time. Why then did were the Vikings able to carve a swath of war and destruction across all lands within their reach?

To answer that question, I now ask you to consider the names of their Kings. The Kings of the Swedes we have already seen. The names of their counterparts across the Oresund are no less dripping in cojonidad*. The Danish Kings rejoiced in such names as Sweyn Forkbeard, Halfdan the Cruel and Ragnar the Hairy. Across the Scandinavian mountains, the hardy Norwegians knelt to Kings such as Eric Bloodaxe, Harald Hard-Reign and Haakon the Broad-Shouldered.

Clearly these are names to inspire awe and strike fear into the heart of the disobedient. When Eric Bloodaxe tells you to get into a boat, cross the Atlantic and scalp some Skreylings, well, by Odin, you do it. Hafdan the Cruel probably never had his subject question his orders. Blood Sweyn's nobles surely quaked in their boots, tormented in their dreams by fear of the consequences of not obeying his foolhardiest command.

This theory seems doubly strong when you consider the names of these Vikings' adversaries. The King of England at the time of Sweyn Forkbeard was widely known as Aethelred the Unready. His forbears included such kings as Edgar the Peaceable and his successors included Edward the Confessor. The French were ruled by kings such as Louis the Pious (and as if that were not bad enough, his alternative name was Louis the Debonair) who was succeeded by such men as Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Fat, Charles the Simple and Louis the Lazy. The Lombard Kingdom of Italy from about that time was ruled by such men as Rodoald the Lecherous and Hildeprand the Useless. Clearly, no sensible man would fight for kings such as these. When in the army of one of these kings, facing an army led by say Harald Hard-Reign or Emund the Evil, abandoning one's colours and fleeing for one's life certainly seem like good, prudent choices.

Thus, we have a working hypothesis for the success of the Viking bands against the armies of the Germanic Kings of Western Europe. The question remains, then, of what we can gain from out newfound knowledge of this piece of history. The answer to that, I think is simple. Too often we have found our leaders, the leaders, indeed of the entire free world lacking in the authority to deal with their adversaries and contemporaries in the rest of the world. The simple solution to this issue is to give them manly, bloodthirsty regnal names along with their Presidential and Prime Ministerial dignities. Would Mahmoud Ahmadinejad feel free to defy Barack the Disemboweller with as much impunity as he does now? Would plucky MEPs dare to question Gordon the Blood-Drinker on the floor for the European Parliament? Would upstart Pakistani generals dare to upstage Manmohan Iron-Fist? The answer, I hope you will agree, is no. They would not. And the world would be a better place for it.

The way then is clear. Let us do what we can to bring this about. Write your representative, sign petitions and make phone calls to bring about the necessary constitutional amendments and laws in your country to do this. Let us make this so, and together we shall create a better world.

(* I just made this word up)

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