Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The unlikeliest of Pals? An Indian soldier alone among Yorkshiremen

A shattered pair of spectacles in an Indian museum has helped shed light on the fascinating story of a lone non-white soldier among Yorkshire volunteers fighting on the Western Front.

Jogendra Sen, a highly-educated Bengali who completed an electrical engineering degree at the University of Leeds in 1913, was among the first to sign up to the 1st Leeds "Pals" Battalion when it was raised in September 1914.

He remained the only known non-white soldier to serve with the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment during the First World War. Despite his education, he was thwarted in his attempt to join up as an officer and unable to progress beyond the rank of private. Killed in action near the Somme in May 1916, aged 28, the bachelor is thought to have been the first Bengali to have died in the war. Private Sen's name is on the University's war memorial.

His story caught the attention of Dr Santanu Das, Reader in English at King's College London and an expert on India's involvement in the First World War. On a visit in 2005 to Sen's home town of Chandernagore -- a former French colony -- Dr Das came across Sen's bloodstained glasses in a display case in the town's museum, the Institut de Chandernagore.

He said: "I was absolutely stunned when I saw the pair of glasses. It's one of the most poignant artefacts I've seen -- a mute witness to the final moments of Sen's life. It was astonishing that something so fragile has survived when almost everything else has perished." A contemporary photograph shows Private Sen relaxing with his fellow Pals -- who knew him as Jon -- wearing what is thought to be the same spectacles Dr Das found almost a century later.

While giving a talk in Leeds as part of the University's Legacies of War centenary project, Dr Das mentioned his discovery in India. Keen-eyed members of the audience pointed out that Sen's name was among those on the University war memorial nearby.

Further information began to pour forth from community researchers Dave Stowe and Andrea Hetherington, who have worked with academics on Legacies of War. Mr Stowe had already been researching Jogendra Sen as part of work to find out more about those on the University roll of honour.

Professor Alison Fell, who leads the project at the University of Leeds, said: "I found the piecing together of Sen's story from the historical traces of his life and death that had survived in India and in Yorkshire very moving.

"His story also illustrates the extent to which the First World War was a global war that involved colonial soldiers and workers as well as those who volunteered or who were conscripted in their home nations."

Dr Das added: "The glasses led me to find other remarkable objects, some from my own extended family, and onto a tantalising trail of other educated middle class Bengalis, who often served as doctors -- and partly inspired my book 1914-1918: Indians on the Western Front, which tells their story through photographs and objects.

"More than a million Indian soldiers and non-combatants served in different theatres of the First World War, but what is so unusual about Jogendra Sen is that he was not part of the Indian army but of the Leeds Pals Battalion.

"I sometimes wonder what his experiences would have been as the only non-white person in the battalion at that time -- and of his family when the glasses arrived, all the way from France to Chandernagore."

Bengalis, deemed by the British to be a "non-martial" race as part of their divide-and-rule colonial policies in India, were initially excluded from the Indian Army and were rarely found in British regiments.

Less than 100 Bengalis are thought to have fought in the conflict, although they supported the war effort in other ways, such as through fundraising or medical work. Instead, the British recruited Punjabis and Ghurkhas to fight in the West.

In total, India contributed some 1.5 million men as soldiers and non-combatants (including labourers and porters) to the war effort.

Science Daily. 2015. “The unlikeliest of Pals? An Indian soldier alone among Yorkshiremen”. Science Daily. Posted: March 5, 2015. Available online:

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