Fallen leaves amongst the fallen: Field of Remembrance

I HAVE LIVED in London for well over 60 years, but it was only this November (2021) that I first became aware of, and experienced, something that has been happening annually on the north side of Westminster Abbey since November 1928 (www.poppyfactory.org/about-us/history-timeline/#). For eight days following the Thursday preceding Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday closest to Armistice Day, the 11th of November, the day on which WW1 ended, the field bounded by Westminster Abbey and its neighbour, the church of St Margaret’s Westminster, is covered with a myriad of mostly tiny wooden memorials hammered into the grass. The memorials are mostly cross-shaped, but some are in the form of crescents, six-pointed stars, and other shapes including some that bear the Sanskrit symbol representing ‘aum’ (or ‘om’). Each of these tiny wooden items commemorates a fallen service person or other victim of war. The shapes of the wooden pieces denote the religion of the person or persons being remembered, be they Christian, Hindu, Sikh, Moslem, Jewish, or of no religion. Many of the wooden memorials have red poppies attached. Oddly, few if any of the Islamic crescents had poppies on them. The small wooden memorials are arranged in groups, according to which service or regiment or organisation the remembered people were members of, or associated with. The whole ‘event’ is organised by The British Legion Poppy Factory. This annual garden of memorials is called The Field of Remembrance.

The Poppy Factory, a charity, was founded in 1922 by Major George Howson (1886-1936) to provide employment for veterans injured during WW1. He bought a site in Richmond (south-west London), where he established a factory to manufacture Remembrance poppies and other related items to be sold to raise money for The British Legion’s Red Poppy Appeal, a charity that supports the Armed Forces community.

Apart from the small wooden memorials, there are many badges and emblems of the groups in which those remembered were members. Looking at these and the small wooden memorials is both fascinating and extremely moving. The fascination lies in the huge variety of regiments and organisations, too many to list, which lost people during military conflicts (and terrorist incidents) since the onset of WW1.

One group of memorials interested me because of their emblem that incorporates a heraldic creature, which has fascinated me for several decades. The creature is the double-headed eagle (‘DHE’), currently used as an emblem by countries including Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, the Indian state of Karnataka, and Russia. The DHE appears on the crests of some of the various regiments of The Royal Dragoon Guards. The Dragoon Guard regiments were first established in the 18th century, in 1746, and consist of mounted infantry. While the Austro-Hungarian Empire existed, it also used the DHE. In 1896, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria (1830-1916) of Austria-Hungary was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards, some of whose members are remembered in the Field of Remembrance. The emperor allowed the regiment to wear his empire’s emblem (https://web.archive.org/web/20130303033912/http://www.qdg.org.uk/pages/Uniform-1843-Onwards-81.php), the DHE. In addition, the regiment adopted “The Radetzky March” as one of its official march tunes; it is still used today. It was sad that in 1914, Franz Joseph, became the ruler of one of the powers against whom Britain and its allies were fighting. Some of those who fought in the British Royal Dragoon Guard regiments with the DHE on their headwear were killed by allies of the emperor in WW1, who had earlier been appointed their C-in-C. They are commemorated the Field of Remembrance. Judging by the small wooden memorials planted in the Royal Dragoon Guard’s section of the Field of Remembrance, members of at least four religions fell while serving in these regiments. I wondered why the DHE was retained even after Austria-Hungary became one of Britain’s opponents in war.

Returning to the Field of Remembrance as a whole, it is a poignant sight to behold. Although war is both horrific and ugly, this annual memorial is both moving and beautiful. The Field is laid out beneath trees lining its northern edge. Seeing the dead leaves from these trees lying fallen amongst the thousands of tiny memorials to victims of war seemed most apt to me.

Umbrella of memory

BUILT BETWEEN 1787 AND 1820, BRIGHTON PAVILION looks less like a hospital than most other buildings. Yet, during the First World War (‘WW1’), this decorative seaside retreat for British royalty was converted into a hospital to treat Indian troops. They had been wounded whilst fighting for the for the British Empire in the battlefields of Flanders. On the 14th of December 1914, the Pavilion was opened as a hospital with 724 beds. According to George Morton-Jack in his book “The Indian Army on the Western Front”, 14,185 wounded Indian troops were brought to Brighton on six “state-of-the-art” hospital ships. They were treated in the Pavilion and other hospitals specially established for the Indian wounded in Brighton and elsewhere. Over 2,300 Indians were treated in the converted Pavilion.

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The Chattri

A few of the Indians did not survive their injuries. Of those treated at the Pavilion, 18 died, 10 of whom were cremated. Those who died, were given last rites according to their religious beliefs. Moslem corpses were buried in a purpose-built cemetery near the Shah Jehan Mosque at Woking (in Surrey). This mosque was completed in 1889 to the design of Gottlieb William Leitner (1840-1899), an orientalist of Hungarian Jewish heritage. The Hindus and Sikhs who succumbed to their injuries in the hospitals in Brighton were cremated on traditional funeral pyres. Between the 31st of December 1914 and the 30th of December 1915, 53 Sikh and Hindu soldiers were cremated at a specially demarcated spot on Holt Hill (near Patcham) in the South Downs, 500 feet above sea-level and then their ashes were scattered in the sea according to their rites.

Years ago, we used to meet the late General Misra (of the Indian Army) once a year for dinner when he came from India to the UK on his annual visits. He was a jovial gentleman, who seemed to enjoy life. All that we knew about his visits was that during them, he used to make a trip to Sussex to pay his respects to those Indian soldiers who had died during WW1. Apart from knowing him as a pleasant dining companion, we knew nothing else about him apart from the fact that he was related to some close friends of ours. We were not sure exactly why he used to go to Sussex in particular. Also, we were then unaware that our affable old friend had had a formidable military career.

During WW2, the General was attached to the 6th Rajputana Rifle regiment. A report (https://opus.lib.uts.edu.au/bitstream/10453/28086/4/MANIS002.txt) written during the British Indian campaign against the Japanese in Burma noted:

“Expediting the Jap withdrawl from the TENGNOOPAL Ridge and converting his retreat into a rout, the capture of a prominent hill to the east of Sibong, know(n) as Battle Hill, by a battalion of the 6th. Rajputana Rifles enabled us to have a grand-stand view of the retreating Japa on their LOC. The Rajputs singing and shouting made merry here as they sent MAG bursts on the jap LOC. In this battle and from the attack on Lone Tree Hill near Shenam, the Rajrifs [sic] have been commanded by Lt. Col. Dinesh Chandra Misra of Agra and a graduate of the Indian Military Academy.”

On the 5th of October 1944, the London Gazette announced that the then Captain (temporary Major) Misra had been awarded the prestigious Military Cross for his services in Burma. His distinguished military career (with the British before Indian independence) is summarised on the Imperial War Museum website (https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80017253):

“Indian cadet at Indian Military College, Dehra Dum, India, 1933-1935; officer attached to North Staffordshire Regiment in India, 1935-1936; served with 5th Bn Rajputan Rifles in India and Hong Kong, 1937-1941; served with British Army Aid Group Indian Section, China, 1942-1943, served with Rajputan Rifles in India and Burma 1943-1944; student attended Staff College at Camberley, GB, 1944-1945.”

From what my wife and I remember of this affable general, he never mentioned his brave exploits or even hinted at them.

Recently, a friend posted a photograph of a monument that he runs past whilst taking exercise on the South Downs near Hove. This small structure, which looks Indian in design, is what General Misra used to visit on his annual trips to the UK. A few days ago, we visited our friends in Hove and after eating a delicious lunch with them, we drove up on to the Downs near Patcham and walked through a field of well-fed grazing cows to reach a small enclosure containing the Chattri and a monument listing the names of the Hindu and Sikh soldiers who were cremated at this place during WW1.

‘Chattri’ is the Hindustani and Punjabi word for ‘umbrella’. The monument on Holt Hill consists of a small white marble dome supported on eight pillars made of the same material. This stone Chattri stands on a podium with stairs leading up to it from a lower platform on which there are three low granite slabs. The three granite slabs cover the spots where originally there had been three concrete slabs on which the funeral pyres were built and then ignited according to religious tradition. The ‘umbrella’ or ‘chattri’ symbolises, according to a plaque nearby, “the protection offered to the memory of the dead”.

Funded partly by the India Office and Brighton Borough Council, the monument was unveiled by the Prince of Wales in 1921. It was built to the designs of EC Henriques (died 1940, aged 51) a young Indian architect from Bombay. His work was supervised by Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob (1841-1917), an expert in the Indo-Saracenic style of architecture. I have eaten dinner at one of Jacob’s other buildings: Bikaner House, a palace he designed in Mount Abu (Rajasthan), constructed in 1893. Built as a summer palace for a maharajah of Bikaner, it is now a hotel. In January 2020, we ate a poor-quality meal there. We and the other diners sat dressed in padded jackets because the dining room was unheated, and the outside temperature was close to freezing point.

The bases of the eight columns of the Chattri interested me because they bear the same decorative motif seen on the bases of pillars in Hindu temples constructed well before the era of Moslem invasions of India began. The early mosques built in the 15th century in Gujarat (e.g. in Ahmedabad and Champaner), which borrow many structural features of Hindu temples, also contain pillars whose bases are decorated with the same motif seen on the Chattri. The same is true of the capitals of the pillars that support the dome of the Chattri. Also, the domes in those ancient Hindu temples and mediaeval mosques are always supported on eight pillars arranged in an octagon, as is the case at the Chattri.  In brief, the small but elegant Chattri, which looks a little incongruous in West Sussex, would look very much at home in many parts of India.

The Chattri stands high on the South Downs in a pleasingly landscaped garden. It overlooks the surrounding hills and the ribbon of coastal towns including Brighton and Hove, and beyond them the sea. Part of the monument complex is a more recently (2010) erected concrete wall on which are carved the names of the 53 Hindu and Sikh men who were cremated at this spot, as well as their ranks and regiments.

To reach the Chattri, we walked along a path through a field in which cattle were grazing. As I looked at the cows, I thought that most of the Indian men whose lives ended in Brighton and were cremated on the Downs must have often walked amongst cattle in India before they left it to fight in Flanders  for the Empire, which did their fellow countrymen few favours.

During our brief visit to the Chattri, there were a couple of families relaxing around it. Their children were playing cheerfully around the pillars and on its steps, blissfully unaware of what it represented. This did not bother us. We felt that their joy would have been appreciated by the men who sacrificed their lives for the future of families such as these and many others. The wide horizons, the lovely landscape, and the fresh air enveloping the monument, gave the place and its surroundings a special, maybe spiritual, atmosphere, a feeling of the continuum of life and beyond. Who knows, but any of us at the Chattri might possibly be reincarnations of some of the soldiers cremated there.

POSTSCRIPT: INDIAN SOLDIERS ON THE WESTERN FRONT

Many Indian soldiers fought for the British because they believed, or hoped, that by supporting the Empire in its struggle for survival, India would gain at least some autonomy, if not a generous dose of self-rule. In the last years of WW1, even the pacifist Mahatma Gandhi roamed around India encouraging Indians to enrol to fight for the British. Joseph Lelyveld wrote of Gandhi in his book “Great Soul. Mahatma Gandhi and his Struggle with India”:

“He implores wives to send their husbands to sacrifice themselves on behalf of the empire, blithely promising, ‘They will be yours in the next incarnation.’ Fighting for the empire, he now argues, is ‘the straightest way to swaraj’”

The Indian soldiers fought for the empire. Some were killed, others injured, but India did not reach swaraj (i.e. self-government) at the end of WW1. Remember, less than a year after the Great War ended, soldiers commanded by a British general killed at least 379 and wounded over 1000 unarmed Indian civilians in Amritsar in the Punjab, the district of India that supplied many troops to the Western Front and other battlefields. Even Winston Churchill, no lover of India, was genuinely outraged by the horrific nature of this murderous event.

India would have to endure many upheavals and another world war before independence was won.