Harking Back: Reflecting on killing fields where Lahore’s best lie

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn July 3, 2016

If you walk eastwards along Tehsil Bazaar from the Bazaar Hakeeman side, on the left are a number of tailor shops. One of them is of Abdul Rasheed, whose grandfather Abdul Karim died in the First World War in the Battle of the Somme.

This story I must narrate on the first centenary of that most vicious of battles – the Battle of the Somme - in which within 100 days were killed one million soldiers of Germany, France, Britain and the then British India. Never before had humans massacred other fellow humans in such numbers. But humans never learn and the Second World War followed with the Russians alone sacrificing ten million soldiers against the invading fascist Germans. But then come 1947 and we in the sub-continent went communal, which sadly we still remain, and the greatest human exodus in history took place. Just as we, for some odd reason, deliberately ignore the Partition of 1947, even though it concerns us directly, in the same way we ignore the two world wars, even though it concerns us directly.

A few years ago in these very columns I had traced three families whose elders had been killed in The Somme. One even produced a letter in which a bitter soldier complained of the snow and cold and the vicious chance of death once they were ordered to “go over the trenches to run to their death”. In those days strict military censorship meant that the soldier of the 3rd Lahore Division had to write in coded lines: “The pepper is very strong these days, and just pray it does not take my life,” he wrote. His life it did take.

In the First World War over 1,125,000 soldiers from the entire sub-continent took part in different war theatres. Of these 74,187 were killed, another 67,900 were seriously wounded. The highest casualties were those of the 3rd Lahore Division. The fatalities of the 3rd Lahore Division were higher than the entire casualties the Pakistan and Indian armies collectively have suffered since 1947. It makes me wonder why we, collectively, do not ponder over the evil of war on these occasions. There is no occasion when all of us get together to remember those lost to the evil of war. It was reassuring to see on television a Pakistan military official sitting just behind the British royal family in France observing the beginning of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle on the 30th of June, 2016.

On the morning of the First of July of that year the whistles blew and the ‘boys’ from all over the world went over the trenches at Neuve Chapelle. Less than half of them returned half an hour later, among them soldiers from the sub-continent, and from Lahore. By the end of the first day as the sun set, over 100,000 soldiers from all sides had been killed. From the 3rd Lahore Division were lost forever 9,700 soldiers, mowed down on foreign soil by German machine guns.

This was to be the case in the next 100 days and Lahore had lost in this time period 27,678 young men, our finest, our very brightest flowers. But then so it was with other young men from all over the world. In death it matter little where you come from, or even the reason why they were fighting. Death asks no questions. The shrill whistle would just blow and the boys would just ‘rush over the top’ towards the machine gun chattering death. One soldier wrote back: “When the machine guns cease all we hear is the sound of young boys calling out for their mothers.” Another soldier was to write: “It is amazing how in death everyone, no matter where they come from, all cry out ‘Ma’.”

It is a surreal experience to visit these places. My first visit among many was in 1972 when as a young student with my childhood friend Asad Rahman we hitch-hiked from Lahore to London and back. It took us six months. On the way we visited the killing fields of Flanders, the Somme and, most importantly, the memorial of Menin Gate in Belgium. We both walked through the gate, stopping to read the names of our forefathers who had lost themselves in the killing grounds. I returned there again to read the names of Karam Din, Karam Singh and Karam Lal, and then there was Sukhdev Singh, Bhagat Singh, Muhammad Sarfaraz … and I still recall a Muhammad Singh.

It was a moment that shook us both students from Lahore, a place where our boys would give their lives to return to. But return they never did and we in our communal hatred have completely forgotten them. Old soldiers never die, goes the saying and on the grave of the ‘forgotten soldier’ is written: ‘Thy names are etched in memory forever’. At the ceremony on the First of July 2016 they lay 60,000 toy dolls wrapped in white shrouds. It was surreal.

For a minute it occurred to me that these men, a lot from my own hometown, are still lovingly cared for. In a way it was for the better. In the elite crowd sat alone a Pakistan military officer, his cap reflecting in the setting sun, the star and crescent clearly standing out. He was deep in thought. Maybe he was thinking of the madness that engulfed his own countrymen. Maybe he was also asking himself the question everyone had on their mind. “Why?”

The Lahore Division was first set up in 1852 and led by Brigadier Sir James Tennant, the man who led British troop to capture the Lahore Fort in the events of 1857. Earlier by 1852 the Mian Mir Cantonment had been set up and the old Artillery Road, now called the Sarfaraz Rafiqui Road, ran from R.A. Bazaar (Royal Artillery) to the Saddar Bazaar where in the Officers’ Colony were killed the first British officers in the events of 1857.

After the ‘mutiny’ had been overcome at Mian Mir, by 1888 the GOC of Lahore was Maj Gen Sir Hugh Henry Gough, VC, with the 3rd and 4th brigades of the Royal Artillery posted at RA Bazaar. Nearby were positioned the Northumberland Fusiliers and at Saddar were the 24th, 32nd and 34th Punjab Regiments. At the Lahore Fort were the 1st Brigade of the Royal Scottish Artillery and the 2nd Battalion of the Fusiliers.

By the time the First World War broke out, at Mian Mir, the commander was Maj Gen Walter Kitchener. The 3rd Lahore Division set off for France in 1914 and the first two brigades reached Marseilles in September. In the winter of 1915 they had participated in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, had managed exceptionally well at the Battles of Aubers Ridge, of Festubert and Loos. The cold winters also took their toll and the 3rd Lahore Division by 1917 was moved out to Palestine and captured Baghdad. The discovery of oil seems to have been one major reason this terrible war broke out. In the end they took on the Ottoman Turkish soldiers. One report tells of them firing in Mecca. But then such is the chequered course of history, a lot of which we now deny.

A visit to the magnificent Menin Gate in Belgium is a sobering experience. On the walls are names that make a deep impression on all minds, more so of those from the sub-continent. The evils of colonialism aside, at least it provides a chance to reflect on who we really are, where have we reached, and where we as a people, all of us, are headed.


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