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Royal Treatment (Brighton Pavilion, Sikh Soldiers In World War I

Tejwant Singh

Jun 30, 2004
Henderson, NV.
Royal treatment

Royal treatment | Culture | The Guardian

At the start of the first world war, Brighton's Royal Pavilion was made a hospital for Indian troops, an all-but-forgotten chapter in the surreal building's history

In the last week of November 1914, a gang of surveyors, builders and boy scouts descended on the Royal Pavilion in Brighton – that monument to royal seaside frivolity with its domes, spires and writhing Chinese dragons. Just six days later, the strangest hospital in the history of the first world war was ready for business.

Carpets had been taken up and sumptuous curtains and pelmets taken down, linoleum laid over acres of ballroom and stone-flagged kitchens, protective covers erected over the painted pea{censored}s, and the dreamy lifesize Chinese figures strolling in silken robes across the walls. From somewhere, 700 beds were found and installed.

Water from the well in the gardens was plumbed into separate neatly labelled Hindu and Muslim taps in every room. Similarly labelled milk churns and jugs were lined up in nine newly built field kitchens (the cooks, orderlies from the Indian army, had to be trained how to cook standing up at a bizarre western stove, instead of squatting comfortably on the ground), ready to take milk from the pedigree herd in the grounds. The great high-ceilinged Georgian kitchen, supplier of food by the tonne for 30-course banquets, had been transformed into an operating theatre. A large tent became a Sikh temple and, in the town, a canny butcher had set up a halal slaughterhouse, with the first wagon-load of goats on its way. New bathrooms – also segregated – were in place, with squat lavatories instead of western-style ones.

At the start of December, the first of more than 2,000 patients who would be treated in the pavillion over the next year arrived. As an excited Sussex Daily News put it: "Valiant soldiers of our great Indian dependency, after fighting so nobly for their King-Emperor, are now to be cared for in a Royal Palace in the greatest of British watering places. It is like a chapter out of a wonderful romance . . . It will appeal to the world as a thing almost incredible . . . it will give the Brighton Pavilion a name it has never had before . . . Generations of Brightonians yet unborn will marvel in reading of these days."

In fact, generations of Brightonians yet unborn completely forgot the story. But some will learn of it now, thanks to a new, permanent exhibitionwhich has just opened at the Pavilion – that surreal conversion of a modest Sussex farmhouse into a fantasy palace, designed in the early 19th century by John Nash for Prinny, the pleasure-loving Prince Regent who became George IV.

The pavilion's curator, David Beevers, says the priceless wartime propaganda value of the newly opened "royal" hospital, and the meticulous provision for Hindu, Sikh and Muslim patients, was recognised from the start. The scrupulous preparations had, of course, been made in shuddering memory of the colonial insensitivity which triggered the Indian mutiny of 1857 (also known there as the first war of Indian independence). Now, the western allies were facing the prospect of Turkey entering the first world war on the German side, and the delicate question of whether Indian Muslim troops would be prepared to fire on fellow Muslims fighting in the Ottoman ranks.

In an effort to paint the allies in the most sympathetic possible light, official photographers were brought into the pavilion within weeks to record immaculately dressed patients sitting up happily in spotless beds, under the gilded ceilings and dragon chandeliers. Sets of postcards of the images were then sold in the town, in the hope they would be posted home to India bearing news of this impressive treatment.

The paternal care of King George VI for his wounded Indian subjects was, of course, a crucial part of the image. "[The government] didn't quite lie, but they certainly came very, very close to the line in implying the closest involvement of the royal family in the creation of the hospital, and that the family had virtually been turned out of their own home to make way for it." Beevers says. "The myth has proved so enduring that you will still read, in many apparently authoritative sources, that the original idea for converting the palace into a hospital came from the king."

As an example of the potent myth-making, Beevers points to the beautifully produced souvenir book, a copy of which is included in the exhibition. On page after lavishly illustrated page, with text printed in English, Gurumukhi and Urdu, the book given to former patients on their return to India set up the idyllic image of the hospital and the care they had received: "In many an Indian village in the years to come, these soldiers, their fighting days long over, will talk to their children's children of the great war. Their faces will then glow with pride as they tell of the day when they were lying wounded in a Royal Palace, and the King and Queen came to their bedside."

The villagers would be forgiven for imagining George and Mary stealing back into their old home, drifting like 20th-century Florence Nightingales between the rows of beds, cooling the brows of the feverish and consoling the anxious. Which must have been slightly galling to Brighton council, given that the pavilion had not, in fact, been a royal residence since 1850. Queen Victoria was not amused by this towering symbol of the rackety Georgian ancestors whose image she was trying to obliterate. When she first visited, she wrote: "The pavilion is a strange, odd, Chinese-looking place, both outside and inside. Most of the rooms are low, and I can only see a morsel of the sea from one of my sitting-room windows."

In 1850 she sold it to Brighton council, for the then stupendous sum of £53,000. And it was only when the royal removal men arrived, to strip the building of everything down to finger plates from the doors, that the council realised it wasn't getting the contents in the deal – original fittings and furnishings remain in Buckingham Palace and at Osborne on the Isle of Wight, while Brighton has spent many millions over the last 150 years restoring those sumptuous interiors.

Nevertheless, the myth that a royal home became the hospital proved ineradicable. Many more buildings in Brighton were pressed into service, including a workhouse whose occupants were summarily decanted, and where such harsh discipline was maintained in its hospital days that a young Indian student working as an orderly attempted to murder the commanding officer. Yet none of the other hospitals featured in the official propaganda.

The hospitals were, though, desperately needed: at one point on the western front, it is estimated that one in 10 of the soldiers was Indian. Some of the Daily News's "valiant soldiers of the great dependency" came from the "martial races" of the Punjab and the North West Frontier – tribes that the empire had been recruiting to the Indian army for generations.

Many more were peasant farmers who had never left their villages, never mind India, before. All were initially sent into the icy midwinter hell of trench warfare in tropical kit, to be mown down in such numbers that existing hospitals behind the lines and on the south coast of England could not cope.

It is estimated that during the first world war, 827,000 Indians enlisted, and there were more than 64,000 casualties. The Brighton hospitals closed when the Indian divisions were withdrawn from France and sent to Mesopotamia in December 1915, partly because so many officers were dead that there were language problems communicating orders.

The wartime role of the pavilion was almost forgotten in Britain, both in Brighton and among the Sikh, Muslim and Hindu communities. But the increasing interest in family history over the last decade, coupled with a decision to abandon the previous policy of displaying the pavilion as if its history stopped in 1850, has brought the story out of the shadows.

"We couldn't sustain that policy any longer," Beevers says. "A lot of interesting things happened here, of which the Indian hospital is one of the most striking and poignant. It is a story that deserves to be told."

Davinder Dhillon is a local historian and secondary school teacher in Brighton, but most of his spare time goes into organising an annual ceremony at the Chattri, a monument built on the South Downs above the town in 1921. It marks another startling aspect of the story: the site of the ghat where the bodies of 53 Sikh and Hindu soldiers who died in all the Indian hospitals were burned, their ashes later taken down to the beach and scattered. As word of the ceremony each June spreads, families now come from as far as Bradford – some with direct links to the story, some with none.

"Undoubtedly, the first world war would have been lost on the western front without the contribution of the Indian soldiers, and we might not be speaking in freedom now without their sacrifice," Dhillon says. "They fought for a cause and gave their lives, and they should be celebrated, not forgotten."

It turns out that the king and queen did visit the Indian hospital – on a strictly formal occasion that was, surprise, surprise, exploited for every ounce of propaganda value, to present the Victoria Cross to Mir Dast, along with awards to other soldiers. A record of the event survives in 11 minutes of crackly black-and-white film – originally intended, Dhillon points out, to be shown in Britain to shame the natives into joining up.

Mir Dast had been gassed at Ypres, where he heroically rescued wounded Indian and British officers under fire. He eventually got home to India, where he wrote a touching autobiography that recounted in wonder how King George had shaken his hand and praised him. However, Mir Dast also wrote more frankly in a letter: "The gas has done for me . . . I had rather not have been gassed than get the Victoria Cross."

And then another twist in this extraordinary tale emerges. His family's entanglement in the great war so far away was not, it seems, a simple tale of unswerving loyalty to king and empire. For his brother, Mir Dost, deserted from the army at the front. And there is a story – which Beevers has been unable to confirm because so many of the original records have been destroyed, that the brother too was honoured with a medal before returning home: an Iron Cross from the Germans.

The Royal Pavilion as an Indian hospital, a new permanent exhibition including archive photographs, paintings and newsreel footage, opens at the pavilion this month. Entry is included in the general admission price.


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