A few posts back I wrote of the First World War death of one of my great-great uncles in France in 1914. Another death on the other side of my family is recounted in the press release opposite, from July 1915. Two Muslim sowars – cavalry troopers – went on a murderous rampage in Jhansi in central India and killed four of their British officers, including my grandfather’s first cousin Marmaduke Gale. Their regiment, the 8th Cavalry, had been kept in India for internal security duties rather than being sent overseas. It was a similar incident in some respects to those experienced in recent years by coalition forces in Afghanistan with rogue Afghan soldiers. The British dead were buried in Jhansi Cantonment Cemetery, among 78 military deaths from the two World Wars commemorated there by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
The motivations behind this incident can never be known for certain, especially as the two perpetrators were themselves killed. One report suggests that they were disaffected after having been detailed to join a draft for overseas service; the following year two entire squadrons of the 8th Cavalry refused to go to Mesopotamia to fight the Turks, on the grounds that they were fellow-Muslims. But for the press release to state that the Jhansi murder was a ‘completely isolated incident’ was being disingenuous. Across India there had been numerous ‘terrorist outrages,’ as the press called them, since the outbreak of war with Germany and Turkey in 1914, though this was the worst.
Some of these acts of violence were directly instigated by the Ghadr, the Sikh nationalist movement founded in California in 1911 that had strong support among Indians in the United States and Canada. Others, perhaps including the Jhansi incident, originated with Muslim groups. The spread of discontent by agents of these movements in the ranks of the Indian army greatly concerned the British, who feared a repeat of the revolt that had taken place in the East India Company army in 1857, the ‘Indian Mutiny.’ The terrible bloodshed inflicted by both sides in that conflict was a constant backdrop to events in India leading up to the final British withdrawal in 1947. During the First World War the British administration still felt it could contain the unrest punitively, and disaffection in the army was dealt with harshly according to military justice; after one incident in November 1914 when elements of the 23rd Indian Cavalry mutinied and attacked a local treasury, twelve of the men were sentenced to death after court-martial and executed.
The Indian nationalist movement was undoubtedly the main driving force behind most events such as the Jhansi incident. But the sudden upsurge in violence across India after August 1914 can also be seen as part of the wider war, and not just because the nationalists were taking advantage of British distraction. In Washington, the German Embassy provided funds and intelligence to the Ghadr movement, supplying them with thousands of rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition to mount a seaborne invasion of India. In Constantinople, the Ottoman regime in 1914 issued fatwahs ordering Muslims in India to rise in jihad against the British, another factor in the attacks. For these reasons, the authorities after the war saw the British military casualties of this violence as part of the wider conflict, and put their commemoration under the remit of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Marmaduke Gale’s background was emblematic of the British presence in India. He was the fifth generation of his family to have been there, the first having been an officer on an East Indiaman in the late 18th century and the next a Lieutenant-Colonel in the East India Company’s army. Marmaduke’s grandfather, my ancestor John Gale, owned the largest indigo plantation in India, the ‘factory’ at Pundaul mentioned in the biography below, where my great-grandmother and her father were born. The conditions of work on the indigo estates led Mahatma Gandhi famously to visit them in 1919, when one of the planters he confronted was Marmaduke’s cousin Maurice Gale – though in circumstances of non-violent protest that were to prove a more effective agent for change than the terrorist incidents of a few years before.
For a long time after the British left India the Jhansi Cantonment Cemetery was neglected, becoming overrun with vegetation and snakes. In a happy footnote to this story a local Anglo-Indian, Mrs Peggy Cantem, undertook to clear out and tend the cemetery, working single-handedly into her eighties until joined latterly by representatives of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. You can read about her work here. The cemetery contains burials dating throughout the period of British rule in India, including the Indian Mutiny. The whereabouts of the graves of the two Indian brothers who died in this incident are unknown.