Once London’s Directorate of Labour had requested the Indian Labour Corps for France, the tentacles of the Indian Army’s reformed territorial recruitment system under its Commander-in-Chief Charles Monro spread in early 1917 to suck in the villagers required. India’s local civil authorities carried the offer of Labour Corps employment to some rural regions that had provided pre-war Indian soldiers, above all in the North-West Frontier Province, Punjab, and the Himalayan foothills of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. Yet they focused more on remoter communities without traditions of military service. These were predominantly isolated tribes of the forests and jungles of north-east India in the provinces of Bihar and Orissa, Assam and Burma, including those future tennis-court builders the aboriginal Santhals, who had been converted to Catholicism by Belgian Jesuit missionaries. Then there were some other recruits from further south–Bengali Christians, and Jews, Parsis and Hindus of the Bombay area.
Some of the Indian Labour Corps volunteers from the Himalayan foothills of the United Provinces stepped warily down to its small town recruitment stations, making it clear to the recruiters where they wanted to go. They asked for ‘Phranch’ not ‘Bachchra’ (France not Basra) having heard the balance of opinion on the rural grapevine about which of the two the soldiers preferred. They and the other Indian Labour Corps recruits entered into contracts to work on the western front, mostly for a fixed term of one year, and governed by Indian Army law, making them a part of the army. Each of them joined a particular labour company named after their home region or town near it, such as the 31st Bihar, the 42nd Ranchi or the 51st Santhal companies. Like the Indian soldiers, the labourers’ driving motivation was economic: a regular wage with three months’ advanced pay was a windfall for their generally impoverished agriculturalist families. Some from the Lushai Hills of Assam in north-east India were enticed in particular by the prospect of saving enough money in France to return home more eligible for marriage. Still more attractive for the Lushais and others from Assam and the Himalayas was a lifetime local tax exemption, guaranteed by certificates handed out by the local civil authorities.
The Indian Labour Corps’ companies were given a military veneer with khaki uniforms and company officers. Although several of the officers were Belgian Jesuit missionaries familiar with their men, some were British strangers who did not speak their languages. A few others were the wounded Indian soldiers who chose to return to the western front. They were pensioned Garhwalis, Gurkhas and Punjabis who had fought there in 1914–15, presumably had a fondness for France, and elected to go back to make money without the dangers of regular infantry work.
On the sea lanes from British India across the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean to Italy from April 1917, the Indian Labour Corps sweltered in hot, cramped quarters below deck. These conditions killed a few who had embarked with cholera, and their bodies were dropped into the sea. More died of cholera in southern Italy at Taranto, where they were buried, while others were held in quarantine for a month. As the Indian labourers travelled the length of Italy by railway passing medieval stone towns on hill-tops and much else they had not seen before, the unrestricted German submarine warfare they had just escaped at sea shaped the work that lay ahead for them in France. Significantly increased sinking of Allied shipping meant war materials were scarcer, and therefore the Indian Labour Corps would have more salvage work to do than otherwise, looking for metal, wood and other debris–a dangerous task that would take them to the trenches. When the Indian labourers started work on the western front in June, they cleared up parts of the Somme battlefield which the Germans had abandoned in their retreat to the Siegfried Position. They stripped bare disused trenches or dug-outs, and lugged rusty barbed wire and other front line debris onto motor trucks for disposal or recycling. Father Frans Ory, one of the Indian Labour Corps’ Belgian Jesuit missionary officers, wandered about the derelict trenches with his company of tribal labourers from British India’s north-eastern province of Bihar and Orissa, many of them former pupils at his missionary school at Ranchi. He saw how shocked his men were by what they found. ‘Every five yards we come across bones still wrapped up in their puttees, arms and legs blown off by shell-fire,’ he wrote at Thiepval on 26 September. ‘One of our old Ranchi boys had his heart full and stood by weeping.’
The Indian Labour Corps did many other jobs around northeastern France in support of the Allied forces. Its companies worked looms to make mattresses, cut stone in quarries, chopped down trees in forests, and made charcoal, an ingredient for gas masks. They also made trench duckboards, built an aerodrome, burned limestone in industrial kilns, and laid roads and railway tracks. They worked around nine hours a day, day after day. Indeed, they rested so little that exhaustion set in among several companies, and British supervisors administered opium to keep the men going.
The labourers had an uneasy relationship with their Indian officers who had chosen to return to the western front having fought there in 1914–15. These veterans kept aloof and liked to assert their superior status as old combatants. As the winter of 1917–18 drew in, they preferred to go cold rather than wear the warm coats made available to the labourers. Some in fact looked on the labourers with contempt as their social inferiors. ‘The men are utterly filthy and take no care of their health,’ said one of the old soldiers, a Punjabi Muslim, who disapproved of his men’s lack of the hygiene and discipline he had known in his regiment.
Each evening the Indian labourers trudged back to their camps, which were isolated and scattered about the countryside up to five miles from the nearest village. They were confined to their camps when not at work, which afforded them very little interaction with the local people. Their camps were initially so dreary and devoid of almost anything but tents that a company of Lushai tribesmen from India’s north-eastern hills of Assam decided to improve theirs. ‘We looked around and collected corrugated iron sheets and other things, and we built a big recreation hall,’ explained Sainghinga Sailo, the Lushais’ company clerk. ‘The other room was made into a canteen. We pooled our money to buy and sell all kinds of things. The canteen began to make a profit. We bought a bioscope. Since many of us had not seen “moving pictures” it brought us much joy.’