During the First World War, Brighton Pavilion was turned into a makeshift, if palatial, hospital for Indian servicemen wounded while fighting for British forces.
By Hardeep Singh.Injured Indian soldiers in a makeshift ward in the King’s Music Room at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. Photo: Courtesy of Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove
This summer a remote spot in the picturesque Sussex Downs attracted 500 visitors, who gathered at the Chattri Memorial in remembrance of the Indian soldiers who served on the Western Front during the Great War. Among the dignitaries, serviceman and civilians two men were being interviewed by a camera crew. ‘I know you’ve told this story many times before, but what exactly happened to your grandfather?’ Beturbanned Jaimal Singh Johal is standing next to Ian Henderson, their extraordinary friendship forged by events that happened almost a century ago at the battle of Neuve Chapelle, when Johal’s grandfather, Manta Singh of the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, saw an English comrade, Capt George Henderson (Ian’s grandfather), lying injured on the battlefield. As he was pushing Henderson out of harm’s way in a wheelbarrow, he was shot. Manta Singh was sent to Brighton to recuperate, but died of his injuries.
Brighton’s Royal Pavilion is an instantly recognisable architectural delight, its Indian-style minarets and oriental domes reminiscent of a maharaja’s palace. It was begun in 1787 as a seaside playground for the Prince of Wales (later George IV); less well known is that it was transformed into a military hospital for soldiers from the Imperial Indian Army. The Indian subcontinent contributed 1.5 million men to the war effort – more than any other allied or German colony – and 4,300 Indians who had served on the Western Front were treated in Brighton. Brighton’s role as a restorative place for injured sepoys will be commemorated with a series of events for this year’s centenary.
In December 1914 hundreds of Indian casualties from the Western Front arrived on Britain’s shores. They made the journey from the Port of Southampton to Brighton, to be received by local dignitaries, entrusted by King George V to make provision for their rehabilitation. The Pavilion, the Kitchener Indian Hospital (now Brighton General), the York Place and Pelham Street Schools housed the men arriving from the battlefield.
At the opening ceremony of the pavilion’s Indian Gate in 1921 (a gift from India to the town) the Maharaja of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, described ‘Brighton’s abounding hospitality’, coining the term ‘Dr Brighton’. The seaside air and sumptuous royal residence provided an environment tantamount to a healing balm. The maharaja, an honorary major-general, paid homage not to the sacrifice of the Indian soldiers, but to Brighton’s reputation as a place of healing, which was celebrated across India.
The pavilion became a 722-bed hospital. The King’s Music Room, dripping with elaborate lotus-shaped chandeliers and gilt-edged dragons, was transformed into a ward (as were the Ballroom and South Drawing Room). Magnificent carpets and curtains were removed and the floors lined with linoleum. The Dome became a makeshift operating theatre, dealing with gunshot and shrapnel wounds, and also ‘trench back’ – spinal injuries sustained in collapsed trenches. As a boost for morale, soldiers were allowed to believe that the moustached King-Emperor George V had vacated the royal palace specially for them. In fact Queen Victoria had sold it to Brighton Council in 1850 for the substantial sum of £53,000, but the myth helped to inculcate a sense of loyalty to King and country.
The Prince of Wales at the Chattri Memorial, 1921 PHOTO: Courtesy of Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove.
Great sensitivity was shown in allocating accommodation for the different castes and religions. The British had learnt that the viability of the Raj depended on the loyalty of the native army, and religious insensitivity had led to rebellion during the first Indian uprising of 1857. There were separate kitchens – Muslim soldiers had meat prepared in accordance with Islamic rites, whereas Hindus and Sikhs had a separate supply; beef, pork and bacon, while popular with the British, were prohibited from entering the grounds; extra plumbing was installed with separate taps labelled for Muslims and Hindus. Moreover, men of the same caste or religion cared for their kin, while ‘untouchables’, employed as support staff, were segregated, to placate India’s Hindu majority. Gas-fired ovens were provided for Indian cooks, who made dal and chapattis with ingredients bought both locally and from overseas.
‘They take great care of us here such as no one else would take, except a man’s mother, not even his wife,’ Bir Singh, a Sikh (55th Rifles), wrote. When George V visited in 1915 he paid his respects to Brighton’s first and last gurdwara, a makeshift tent in the pavilion grounds housing the Sikh scriptures.
Isar Singh (Sikh, 59th Rifles), a patient in the Royal Pavilion, wrote to a friend in a letter dated May 1 1915, ‘Do not be anxious about me. We are very well looked after. White soldiers are always beside our beds day and night. We get very good food four times a day. We also get milk. Our hospital is in the place where the King used to have his throne. Every man is washed once in hot water. The King has given a strict order that no trouble be given to any black man [Indian] in hospital. Men in hospital are tended like flowers, and the King and Queen sometimes come to visit them.’
Jemadar Mir Dast, a Pashtun (57th Wilde’s Rifles), who had been gassed in Ypres, appears in a short black-and-white film in the Pavilion Museum receiving a Victoria Cross from the King for rescuing comrades under fire. In a letter Dast candidly wrote, ‘The Victoria Cross is a very fine thing, but this gas gives me no rest. It has done for me.’
The wartime propaganda value of Dr Brighton was harnessed through poignant photography. Images of convalescent soldiers were printed and nearly 120,000 sold as postcards. They were placed in a commemorative booklet, Royal Pavilion Brighton: A Description of it as a Military Hospital for Indian Soldiers, written in Gurmukhi, Urdu and English and distributed widely in India. Prior to their admission to the pavilion military hospital, many of the soldiers had never set foot in Britain. They valued the currency of izzat, or honour in the battlefield, and some, like the Sikhs, had a long-standing military camaraderie with the British.
The Chattri Memorial was built in 1921 in memory of the Indian soldiers who died in Brighton. The Chattri, which translates as ‘umbrella’ in Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu, was designed by EC Henriques in Bombay, and erected near Patcham, at the exact location where 53 Sikh and Hindu soldiers were cremated, before their ashes were scattered in the sea. Unveiled on February 21 1921 by the Prince of Wales, for many the Chattri is spiritual space, a heritage site, even a place of pilgrimage.
(from left) Lord Kitchener, Jemadar Mir Dast and Sir Walter Lawrence, the commissioner of Indian Military Hospitals, at the Royal Pavilion, 1915 PHOTO: Courtesy of Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove
Davinder Dhillon, a retired Sikh teacher, has coordinated the annual Chattri Memorial service since 2000, when he took over from the Royal British Legion as a volunteer, having responded to an article in a newspaper. He describes the memorial as ‘a living thing and a reminder of the Indian contribution and sacrifices’. Representatives from the Undivided Indian Ex-Servicemen Association, the mayor, members of the armed services, city councillors and local people come together each June to remember the fallen. Turnout under his patronage has increased from 50 to 500.
Jody East, the creative programme curator at the pavilion, recently went to India as part of a British Council programme. She is collaborating with organisations there in an attempt to discover more about the Indian soldiers in Brighton. ‘At the time newspapers really believed the military hospital in the Royal Pavilion would always be remembered,’ she says. ‘Scarcely 10 years later, by 1930, it was already fading into distant memory. The Royal Pavilion has been fully restored over the past few decades, and until recently the First World War did not feature in any of the visitor guides. But in 2010 we opened the permanent gallery, and people are fascinated by the idea of a Regency palace being turned into a military hospital for Indian soldiers.’
Bert Williams of the Brighton and Hove Black History Project, a member of the Chattri Memorial Group, told me how an elderly, wheelchair-bound woman from Leicester contacted him. ‘It was her desire to visit the memorial before she died,’ he said. It was of profound spiritual significance for her.
But the last word should go to a Hindu soldier, Subedar-Major Sardar Bahadur Gugan (6th Jats), who in 1915 wrote in a letter to a friend in India, ‘Everything is such as one would not see even in a dream. One should regard it as fairyland. The heart cannot be satiated with seeing the sights, for there is no other place like this in the world. It is as if one were in the next world… I have never been so happy in my life as I am here.’
The Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove First World War resourses can be viewed online at: http://www.brighton-hove-rpml.org.uk/HistoryAndCollections/Pages/FirstWorldWarResources.aspx
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