Red poppies in the sun are a wonderful sight. Starting in July this year, the empty moat around the Tower of London has been slowly filling with them. Made of ceramic, the flowers have been planted by volunteers every day and the Last Post sounded every evening. The very last poppy—number 8,88,246 to mark the exact number of British and Commonwealth soldiers lost—will be planted symbolically on Armistice Day, November 11,  when one of the bloodiest conflicts ever came to an end in 1918 after having raged four long years over many fronts.

 Among the dead were 100,000 dogs and eight million horses. It was the Great War and the first of the “world wars”. A catastrophe, historians now agree, that could have been avoided.

Reading about all the commemorations, exhibitions and grandiloquence to mark the centenary, I couldn’t help looking back to reflect. The world wars loomed large and military history came cheap to us schoolboys in the early 1970s. It cost 25 paise to borrow a pocket-size comic book from a private lending library on Church Street in Belgaum cantonment on the way to school, and was a much more interesting way to learn about wars fought long ago. Our textbooks were government-issued and poorly written with no pictures. The comics were published in the UK and came in series titled Battle, War Picture Library, and Commando, and were pictorial and full of action!

Printed on cheap paper with deftly drawn illustrations in black and white contained in three or four boxes on a page, the narration was fast-paced and dialogue spoken in “bubbles”, with commands and matey humour broken by the sound of machine guns and artillery shells. There was almost nothing about WWI which was perhaps thought too remote for young minds to relate to (and the publishing of these popular comics began only in 1958, long after it ended). So it was only WWII that was dished out piecemeal for our pleasure.

It took no more than half an hour to get to the end of even the longest battle, and the good guys, the Allies, always won. The next day we could return it to the library and borrow another—or sometimes trouser one away.

My favourites were the Air Force stories, filled with planes called Spitfires, Mosquitoes, Hurricanes, Tempests, Stukas and Zeros, in which daring young men in leather jackets took the action into the clouds and swooped in and out of my imagination as I thumbed through the pages. The stories celebrated dulce et decorum . The fighting men retained their inherent decency, however hard the going. They were, after all, British.

We  would spill out of the theatre, thrilled and happy, our morals and belief in heroes reinforced, sometimes repeating dialogue or whistling a theme song such asue or whistling a theme song such as Colonel Bogey’s March.

My cantonment—where “Tommies” had been billeted until not very long ago—bore lots of vestiges of the colonial past. There were army barracks, ammunition depots, tall hedgerows, weather-beaten bungalows, King George’s School, and a Queen’s Park, all set amidst gentle hills that gathered in the mist on cold mornings. (When I visited the Cotswolds one summer many years ago, I felt a pang of homesickness.)   

Then there were the films with sterling titles: The Battle of the Bulge, The Longest Day, 633 Squadron, The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare, The Guns of Navarone, and so on, that drew us all into a neighbourhood cinema, where comic-book action gave way to on-screen drama in full colour with more complex plots and emotion, enacted only slightly better than in the comics, with a large cast to show what had once happened, and how the good always prevailed over the Germans (Huns) and Japanese.

We believed it all and would spill out of the theatre, thrilled and happy, our morals and belief in heroes reinforced, sometimes repeating lines of dialogue or jauntily whistling a theme song such as the popular Colonel Bogey’s March from The Bridge on the River Kwai, which had been a worldwide hit and informed us of the drama that had unfolded somewhere in the eastern theatre of WWII. The annoying March has become a staple of military and even wedding bands the world over, thanks to the film.

Years later, I went to see the real bridge which stands over the river near Kanchanaburi in Thailand. Having spent time with tourists in a train over the reconstructed bridge, I loitered in the Allied war cemetery, between neat rows of white gravestones bearing the names of POWs who had perished under the Japanese between 1943 and 1944 while enslaved. The number of soldiers who had died was enormous. But that was not all.

Close by, in the Jeath (Death) Museum, was the following grim notice, put up by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission: “The notorious Burma-Siam railway, built by Commonwealth, Dutch and American prisoners of war, was a Japanese project driven by the need for improved communications to support the large Japanese army in Burma. During its construction, approximately 13,000 prisoners of war died and were buried along the railway. An estimated 80,000 to 100,000 civilians also died in the course of the project, chiefly forced labour brought from Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, or conscripted in Siam [Thailand] and Burma.”

The “forced labour” were mostly Tamil coolies, rounded up from rubber plantations where they had been brought to work in the late 1800s, and also Malay and Burmese conscripts. Inquiries as to where they were buried got me nowhere. There are no monuments or cemeteries of those nameless souls; they were simply buried in mass graves when they fell from overwork and disease.

I began researching and kept coming up with references here and there to the “coolies”. In Bangkok, where I worked, I befriended an elderly Dutchman, Cornelis B. Evers, who also lived there and had actually worked on the construction, having being taken prisoner in Indonesia. He later wrote a dry but accurate account of the experience in which he puts the number of civilian labourers at about 70,000. Asked what he thought of the film, he would say “rubbish”!

Rubbish it is—a multiple fiction that went on to win seven Oscars and was taken to heart by viewers around the world. The “true story” was based on a novel of the same name by Pierre Boulle, who had been witness to its construction. The movie was filmed in distant Sri Lanka and is only partly faithful to the book which itself was a fictionalised account.

To end it on a grand note, the director David Lean had one of the characters blow up the bridge—actually made of steel and not wood as shown in the film—while in fact, it was bombed by Allied planes in 1944. (Years later, in one of his last films, Lean decided to blast some ancient granite rock formations between Bangalore and Mysore to make a cave for the banal epic he was making of A Passage to India. He would also try and coerce actor Victor Bannerjee in an attempt to increase “the Peter Sellers input”.) Boulle who had nothing to do with the Kwai script, was credited as the writer, because the real scriptwriters, Carl Foreman and Colin Wilson, were blacklisted as “communists” at the time and not credited in the film.

So it goes.

An oral history researcher in Singapore provided a few abbreviated samples of interviews available in the Singapore national archives; the first of which I reproduce below: 

“Accession Number: 001339

Total Reel/Disc(s): 20

Conditions Governing Access and Reproduction: Open Access

Interviewee: SIVAPATHASUNDARAM Sangarapillai

Date of Birth: 16/06/1924

Total Running Time: 09:58:00

Occupation at Time of Interview: Retired Clerical Officer

First Recording Date: 09/12/1991                              Last Recording Date: 20/12/1991

Recording Language/Dialect: Tamil

Synopsis, Reel/Disc Number: 13

Detail (English): Police stations and hospitals during Japanese Occupation. Types of treatment and method of torture for violation of rules and regulations. Exhibition of decapitated heads at prominent places. Japanese atrocities. Slapping commonly practised by Japanese sentries. Casualties at Burma-Siam Railway (Death Railway).Treatment of prisoners of war (POWs).”

The Japanese were trying to lay down a railway that would take them all the way to the Indian border on the west of Burma and then penetrate into Assam and beyond with the aim of overthrowing the Raj. In this desperate gamble, they enlisted the support of the Indian National Army and, along with many of its cadre, attacked Kohima and Imphal by land in March of 1944. The British and Indians—outnumbered almost 10 to one—put up superb resistance and after months of close fighting, repulsed the Japanese in June.

There’s hardly anything about native soldiers, let alone civilians and coolies in the war films. They play a marginal role, with a bit of dialogue now and then, but are otherwise relegated to the background.

The twin battle was voted last year as the winner of a contest by Britain’s National Army Museum, beating Waterloo and D-Day as Britain’s greatest, though it was overshadowed at the time by the Normandy landings.

Now there is something truly worthy of a feature film. Lord Mountbatten later described the Allied victory as “probably one of the greatest battles in history ... in effect the Battle of Burma ... [It was] the British-Indian Thermopylae”. Shockingly, the episode remains largely unknown in India except by people in Manipur and Nagaland.

There’s hardly anything about native soldiers, let alone civilians and coolies in the war films. They play a marginal role, blessed with a bit of dialogue now and then, but are otherwise relegated to the background, while the drama unfolds briskly among the leading actors, all western, who predictably lead others on to victory. In reality of course, they would have been far less victorious without the strong support of Indian and other Commonwealth soldiers drawn from far-flung colonies.

The Indian army at the end of WWII numbered a stupendous 2.5 million men and was the largest volunteer force in the world. In WWI there were 1.2 million Indian troops of whom almost 65,000 perished according to official figures; 24,338 died in WWII; and thousands went on to win awards for gallantry, including the Victoria Cross, the highest possible, of which there were 42 recipients in both wars combined.

It would seem natural that Britain would use her subjects to defend the realm. After all, the East India Company had raised the Madras Regiment in 1758 and laid the foundations of the modern Indian army. But the decision to draw from her colonies caused much soul-searching.

The Times History of the World revealed contemporary thinking on the issue when in 1914, it wrote, “The instinct which made us such sticklers for propriety in all our dealings made us more reluctant than other nations would feel to employ coloured troops against a white enemy.”

The British had regularly used colonial troops for imperial defence, but not in Europe or against other white races. Indian troops were not allowed to fight in the Boer War in South Africa (1899- 1902). If a “coloured” man were trained to raise arms against another European, what guarantee was there, so the racial thinking went, that he would not one day attack his own white master? However, after heavy casualties were suffered by the British Expeditionary Force in August 1914, two Indian divisions were diverted to France. Among the colonial non-white troops of the British Empire, only Indians were allowed to fight in Europe. Being poorly trained and unaccustomed to the severe cold, they were withdrawn the following year and sent to Mesopotamia and other warm zones, where they proved themselves in myriad battles.

It is fascinating to note that the Linnaeus-worthy class hierarchy was endemic among British ranks as well: from Guards at the top to the Territorials at the bottom. In an attack, the antiquity of a regiment determined its position of honour: on the right, just as in the dramaturgy of a formal dinner party.

They went to ridiculous lengths to maintain status. A retired Indian army colonel named Kane told me with a chuckle in the 1980s, how Indian troopers were always allotted only lower berths while travelling in trains with their British counterparts. But assuming his name to be British, the clerks would often mistakenly give him a top berth, much to the displeasure of his white comrades-in-arms.

After the First World War, problems of caste greatly complicated the work of the Imperial War Graves Commission, which discovered that many officers’ families assumed that their dear departed would be decently segregated from “other ranks” in the cemeteries. Meanwhile, Hindu Indian sepoys in Europe agonised in case they might be buried alongside their Muslim brethren!


The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea—something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to…  

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness



have copied the above from Culture and Imperialism by Edward Said, a prolix and vastly analytical work examining the roots and psychological residue of colonial rule. Like all other European powers who set sail before and after them, the British desire was at first purely mercantile, which then assumed grandiose proportions and ideals as they conquered—by force, bullying and a series of legerdemains—great swaths of territory and made it their own. It was not long before they believed it was “Heaven’s command” to rule and civilise alien peoples, and without self-consciousness add “Great” to Britain.

It was theatre on an epic scale with a false morality, bandied about as good and necessary. The power stemmed from the notion of it. Grand architecture rose; meaningless titles were instituted; and the Union Jack flew everywhere so people in different parts of the world could look up in awe and feel secure within the Empire. At its height, around the turn of the last century, more than a quarter of the world’s population was ruled by Britain, a small damp island, whose monarch stood less than five feet tall, and liked to shag her manservant, John Brown. (A habit which, in my estimation, makes her adorably more interesting than the present queen, who has neither lover nor empire, and looks like she is made of wax.)

Conrad was spot on. It does not help to get too close to those you rule, or think too much about their feelings. And to rule successfully, you need lots of discipline, self-esteem and pride. The British saw Indians as exotic and strange. In the hundreds of old prints I have seen, reproduced in popular periodicals of the time such as The Strand Magazine and The Illustrated London News, there are almost no depictions of ordinary people.

Ancient monuments and picturesque vistas take precedence, followed by Maharajahs; Hindoo fakirs; holy cows; nautch girls; snake charmers; tigers and the like. We were to them a collective entity, dark and inscrutable, with many-headed Gods and half-naked goddesses. Many decades later, the stereotypes are still evident in the mindset of millions of tourists who vacation here, noses buried in guidebooks, eager for only the exotic.

The magic lantern slides and picture postcards that followed prints carry further the visual thread that is later projected onto moving images. The extravagant Durbars of 1902-03 and 1911 held in Delhi provided ample scope for the new medium of cinema to capture their splendor in motion and dazzle audiences around the world.

King George V wrote in his diary after the 1911 Durbar that he had worn a crown worth £60,000! Never mind that around 1900, more than 30 per cent of London’s population lived below the poverty line; and 1911 saw widespread social ferment and the first industrial strikes in Britain, as also the rise of trade unions and the fledgling Labour Party. It is important to remember that the spoils of Empire were not distributed equally back home.

Stephen Bottomore has done exhaustive research on the second and third Durbars and their filming (there was no cinematography during the first in 1877).  He considers the organisation of the grand affairs to have been part of a political and military strategy for keeping India in submission. Imperial rule was established but had to be reinforced. There was also the need to impress the outside world and Britons at home with the might and influence of the Empire.  The coverage of the spectacles was extensive with multiple cameras, and the resulting films were shown as far away as the Fiji Islands, and continued to be screened more than a year later.

The story of the largest and longest-serving non-European labour contingent in the war has largely been forgotten. Many of the Chinese died from disease and bombardment. The rest returned home  without the recognition that came to the troops they served.

Newsreels were the news medium shown in cinemas worldwide from the early 1900s to the 1970s (and beyond in some countries). They don’t always receive the attention they deserve from historians—they were popular and had a huge influence on people’s perceptions of the world. Among the most influential were those of the French Gaumont and Pathé companies (who united in 2006 to form one massive archive); British Pathé; British Movietone News; and other European banners. Most of the shorts have now been digitised, totalling thousands of hours and are available online to the curious and patient. They can help fill in the blanks, and although jerky and silent (prior to 1930), throw light upon historic events and odd facets of past.

Watching First World War footage recently, I was struck by the presence of Chinese in civvies among some newsreels. What had our neighbour got to do with that war? A few minutes later, I was beguiled by another Kwai-like saga, as the untold story coalesced itself. The Chinese Labour Corps was the creation of wily Chinese statesman Liang Shiyi. It was an attempt to get on what he saw as the winning side of the war and ultimately better China’s place. Germany, like the other western powers, held considerable concessions in China, and siding with the Allies, even if only quietly at first, would position China to reclaim those colonies at war’s end. So in 1916 the French and British lured thousands of men at various Chinese ports, cut off their pigtails, numbered and shipped them off, via Canada, to the western front, a long voyage of almost two months.

Garrisoned in Flanders, dangerously close to the conflagration, the Chinese coolies dug trenches and cut barbed wire. They repaired tanks in Normandy; assembled shells for artillery; and transported munitions in Dannes. They unloaded supplies and war material in the port of Dunkirk and were dragooned much more. But living conditions were harsh and food scarce. So some mutinied—only to be promptly shot by British soldiers. They ventured farther afield, too. Graves in southern Iraq contain the remains of hundreds of Chinese who died carrying water for British troops in an offensive against the Ottoman Empire.

The story of the largest and longest-serving non-European labour contingent in the war has largely been forgotten but is slowly being rediscovered now. Many of the Chinese—2,000 to 20,000—died from disease and bombardment. The rest returned home in 1920 with savings, but without the recognition that came to the troops they served. Altogether, about 1,40,000 worked for the Allied effort and a further half a million laboured on the eastern front for Tsarist Russia, before the empire crumbled in the 1917 Communist revolution.

Thus is history made. It is not always the statesmen and soldiers who tip the balance. We must patiently sift and search to find what happened – and then, what really happened and how. Or else cleave to the half-truths, web of lies and propaganda that is spread in text books, films and comics, and live our lives misinformed, ignorant and prejudiced.