Pausing to think of those lost in battles far and near

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Dec 27, 2015

The first time I visited Ypres in Belgium was with my childhood friend and confidant after we had finished our BA examinations at Government College, Lahore, in the 70s. After purchasing rucksacks from Landa Bazaar and with just Rs2,800 in my pocket, we set off. Six months later I returned home alone.

My friend Asad Rahman is a unique Lahori character, whose adventures in life deserve several columns, which I will dwell on one day. My arrival back home after six months on the road early in the morning was no fanfare. My mother opened the door and said: “Ah, just in time for a cup of tea”. When Asad and I arrived at Ypres in Belgium we stood in awe before the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing. On the walls of this massive monument were thousands of names and to one side the top caption said: ‘Lahore Division’. Phew, I never knew that 21,291 men of this division never came home. I had in a column a few years ago written about Sepoy Muhammad Hussain of Mochi Gate, who had sent home a now decaying brown post card, which said in Urdu: “Kali mirchee bohat garam hai aj kal. Khuda khair karay” (Black pepper is very hot these days, may Allah have mercy on us). It was a subtle reference to the intense fighting in the bitter cold, a post card that had slipped through military censors. Sepoy Muhammad Hussain never returned.

We then went through a Lahore Division Museum and a set of trenches, though the entire landscape is full of them. The sheer scale of the butchery is staggering. In the Battle of the Ypres Salient alone, troops from the British Empire accounted for 54,390 dead. Out of the 250,000 soldiers of every nation that took part in the battles around this little town (now called by its Flemish name Ieper), more than 150,000 lost their lives. Never in history had butchery on such a scale taken place. It made me sad that the sons of my city and the villages and towns near and far from it had made such a sacrifices. A motto on the other side of the huge gateway says in Latin: ‘Pro Patria’ and ‘Pro Rege’, meaning ‘For Country, for King’. Today it sounds like such a hollow reason for getting killed.

Even then as students both of us left this place in absolute silence, utterly shattered by the experience. It remains an unbelievable event in human history, as much as part of the history of our country. The poet Siegfried Sasson put it aptly when he saw the gateway: “The dead of the Ypres Salient would deride this sepulchre of crime”. But then we left and I was to return to it again in 2015, this time alone and better armed with facts and the history of the outcome. In the whole war the Indian Army contributed over one million soldiers, of which 74,187 were killed, another 67,000 were wounded seriously.

In the Battle of the Ypres Salient, Hav. Khudadad Khan from Jhelum was the very first soldier from the sub-continent to be awarded the Victoria Cross. An interview in an Urdu newspaper had him saying: “I was honoured because I survived. Today people, even those in the Army, have no idea of the horrors of this war”. The Lahore Division was virtually decimated. But then there were men, though very few, who remained grateful for the sacrifice. It was Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, C-in-C of the Indian Army from 1942 onwards, who wrote: “The British could never have come through both the World Wars if they hadn’t had the Indian Army”. Field Marshal ‘Monty’ Montgomery of Al-Alamen went a step further when he said: “Give me three divisions of Punjabi soldiers and I will get this bloody war over quickly”.

But to Ypres Salient it was again. The trenches, the war museums, the memorials. Our boys have been virtually all over the world fighting for their ‘masters’. In Lahore if you are standing at the Tufail Road crossing while going to the airport, you will see a small monument which states the scores of lands in which Punjabis have been to fight. It is a long sad story.

Before the British came the Punjabi Army led by the Sikhs fought in Afghanistan and as far away as Ladakh. In 1914 onwards soldiers from Punjab fought against the Turks in Palestine and fought to defend the Suez Canal. In 1917 the Lahore Division occupied Jerusalem, then went on to capture Damascus and Aleppo. They even butchered fellow Muslim Turks in the two holy cities. Not bad. So much for serving our ‘masters’.

In the Second World War the Punjab regiments took part in campaigns in France, East Africa, North Africa, Malaya, Greece, Sicily, Italy, and ‘distinguished’ themselves in El Alamain, and pushed the Germans out of Italy. In Burma they fought fierce hand-to-hand battles against the Japanese. Out of an Indian Army of 2.5 million, over 750,000 Punjabis took part. In various battles 179,935 were killed, 64,354 seriously wounded, 11,762 went missing and have since never been accounted for, while 79,481 became PoWs.

Amazingly, there was also a pro-Japanese Indian National Army, in which a lot of soldiers from Lahore and the Punjab fought against their fellow countrymen. My neighbour in Cavalry Grounds, the late Col. Akhtar, fought against his real brother who was in the INA. Happily both returned safe and sound. But fighting in foreign lands should now be a ‘crime’ of the past. Our country has no bone to pick with any other country or people, what with the war within Pakistan consuming over 35,000 lives. This is no small number, and in human terms a colossal tragedy. There is an old saying in the Old Walled City: “When your own wife is always on fire, stop teaching others how to treat their wives”. Makes sense.

As I left Menin Gate this time after a long gap, the shock of the tragedy was very much there. Only now one tended to think of every human being involved. I discussed this war with several colleagues at the University of Cambridge, and to my surprise each and every one had a number of close family members lost to this war. My only regret remains that we do not respect our fallen men and women, no matter when and where and why, to the hundreds of wars and invasions we as a people have faced. We would probably be a better people if we just try to have a Remembrance Day, and it need not be a public holiday.


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