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That British, French and German soldiers fought and died in their millions on the Western Front in WW I is well known.  That Punjabi, Pashtun, Baluchi and Gurkha Indians, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh, added their tens of thousands of bodies, hardly at all. But they were there, some two army divisions (about 24,000 men) arriving in Marseilles late September, 1914, with many thousands to follow, 140,000 to France by war’s end.  So it’s a treat to find an eye-opening and compelling novel of such men written by one who knew a great deal of what he wrote.

Books Across the Black WatersAcross the Black Waters (1939/1980) by Mulk Raj Anand, follows the experiential arc of many soldier-written novels of that war: arrival — excitement, bewilderment; first combat –fear, courage; a rest behind the lines and daily life –washing, lice picking, talking about women, talking about military stupidity; return to battle, grotesque deaths and injuries; departure.  As others of this particular war novel genre, the deeper backgrounds of familial relationships, love interests, place and history, of Stendhal or Tolstoy are not present.  Nor are the minute  accounts of battle and human psychology we read  in later novels, from Norman Mailer and James Jones to say, Karl Marlantes (Matterhorn,) or Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried.) The deeper questions of God’s goodness or malevolence, death, duty and conscience appear but not weighed and measured man by man.

Which isn’t to say these novels have little to share with us. In fact, much.  And Across Deep Waters, more than many.


The troops here are sepoys — men of the Indian sub-continent, then under British colonial rule, and so, in the British Indian Army.  Soldiers and NCOs are Indian, even some junior officers.  The Captains and higher are British Sahibs.  Many of them, having served in India, have rudiments of Hindi and other dialects and often stern-father relationships with their troops.   The soldiers are volunteers, not conscripts, though today we might call them economic conscripts — the Army being the last place to turn for room and board. Their service in the British-India Army had been until 1914 a domestic affair, raised primarily for internal and frontier defense, and not against equally armed opponents. They were lightly armed, hot-weather soldiers brought to the cold, wet trenches of northern Europe.  If the European soldiers had some territorial-strategic connection to the stakes of the war, however tenuous, the Indians had none.

Lalu sat coiled up on the slimy damp straw in the clay cave, scraping the mud off his boots and clothes.  If he had been told even a fortnight ago that in Vilayat [France,] the land of his dreams, where he had been so happy and eager to come as on an adventure, the Sahibs, whom he admired so much, were willfully destroying each other, ruining their villages and their cities, he would not have believed it.

The cultural distance between the British and the French was short and often traversed; between the French and rural Indian boys it was as wide as the waters. One of the first nights ashore in Marseilles Lalu sees a couple kissing (this is 1914.)

“They kiss on the mouth then here?” asked Lalu blushing with a modesty that had received a shock and a thrill at the same time.

He writes his mother that women go out in public, “not in purdah and they look at men straight in the eye.”

The disembarking soldiers are amazed to see “big carcasses of cows and goats hanging down from hooks in butcher’s shops were kept behind windows.  — not only cows, but windows!”  On the march towards the trenches they see cows in clean milking barns, not knee deep in muck as back home!

This is not only a story of young men going into war, but of poor, rural, colonized men, subservient over generations to the white Sahib, finding themselves in the presence of, and companionship with, other Sahibs, the French, who are somewhat the same and somewhat different…

Looking towards a cafe with French patrons  “he felt ashamed and inferior and afraid less the intrusion of his stare be interpreted as rudeness  by the Sahibs there.”

Near Calais they see black troops:

“They are sepoys like us of the Francisi Army,”said Lachman Singh

“But they have got curly hair and are jet black and not brown as we are,” young Kharku protested, his belief in the superior brown skin of his inheritance shocked by the comparison which Lachman had put them to.

Yet, the French seem easy with black men sitting in cafes, even talking to French women, something unheard of in British-India.  Taken in tow by a fellow countryman who has long lived in France, they visit a bordello — where he helps the women take advantage of them.   Social ideas give way…

Before the maiming begins there is a feeling of adventure;

“Now that he was in France, he felt a curious dread of the Unknown, of the things that happened in a war, even as he felt the thrill of being there.”

The thrill and anticipation meet their first doubts on a train platform in Rouen:

  “… they knew from the smell of medicine that spread from the trains on the adjoining platform that they were full of wounded soldiers…. they stared at each others as if fascinated by a chimera that had been conjured up in their heads by the smell of blood and drugs.”

On the first day of combat ” [he was ] torn between excitement of shooting at a real enemy in a real war and the fear of killing the person he aimed at. This last feeling arose not out of any humanitarian considerations so much as from the feeling that if he did not shoot the enemy, the enemy would not be a gentleman and not make him a target.”

As in all novels of the war in France, there is the rain, interminable rain:

…the snow had begun to thaw; the fields behind the line, pitted with shell holes and pillboxes, had almost become impossible with mud and slush, and all traces of paths were lost in the cesspool.  The trenches were slowly turning into water channels; the soil of the dugouts was water logged; and a foul, nauseous smell began to ooze from each corner as if the thousands of sepoys and the Tommies who lived and moved and had their being in these ditches had suddenly got dysentery.

and, as in many [Lawrence, Dos Passos, cummings,] the stupefaction over the machines, and the machine age…

Lalu was “ruminating on the curse that the machines now seemed to him who had thought of them as wonders of the new age.”

As the men get closer to the front, the initial excitement gives way.

“The element of sanity in Lalu persisted in the face of guns and in the face of the insanity which had blown off the towers of the churches, and he could not believe that ordinary men and women of good sense, and the Governments of France, England and Germany, which are saner and wiser than the ordinary people over whom they ruled, could be engaged in a war in which men were being killed and wounded and houses shattered.”


In the balance of adventure-terror, Across the Dark Waters doesn’t weigh as heavily towards the latter as its peers from France, England and Germany  [see Under Fire,  Wooden Crosses, Generals Die in Bed, All Quiet on the Western Front, ] There are scenes of an Indian junior officer shooting a sepoy for cowardice, and of one leading a recon patrol while drunk, jeopardizing his men. Scenes of battle and fear:

With instantaneous resolution, the boy stooped low like a lion on the prowl and charged him with his bayonet, fixing him with such force that the butt of his rifle resounded back on his chest.  The man gnashed his teeth and groaned as he fell. Lalu groped for his victim, to finish him, murmuring, ‘Jahanam! hell…  [and goes on to steal the dead man’s watch.]

Or this particularly Indian perception of the war:

“the murky, greenish grey sky was the exact colour of the roof of hell which the sages of Indian spoke about, where the souls of the sinners were subjected to ordeals, first of trailing through the mud of marshes, full of slimy, ravenous rats and blood-sucking leeches, then through a forest of tangled bushed and thickets of thorns, then to wait in misery, naked and cold and hungry, for the coming of the rain which was to wash them clean of their sins, for the ordeal of fire which was to purge them.

But the complete senselessness of the war expressed by many European writers is not found in Anand’s telling.  He does not emphasize through repetition of battle scenes as do his peers, nor use such gruesomeness as, say, the digging a man’s foot out of his boot in order to try it on, as appears in two French novels.  A recognition of war’s cruelty doesn’t trump the feeling that these months were, for many, an adventure, a necessary thing, a thing which men do  –perhaps informed for Anand by the war which he knew close up: the Spanish Civil War.

Delightfully, writing in his own Indian-English, not “corrected” by a translation, Anand gives us soldier talk of another kind than British, French or German. We get “heart-squanderer” and “son of a lion,” along with aphorisms such as “In his own street every dog thinks he’s a lion, ” and “Oh my lion!  You have blessed the womb that bore you and gave you birth!”

Men around the world show friendship in abuse; the Indians are no exception: Son of a pimp! Thief! Dog!  Illegally begotten!  You jackanapes!  You’re a white monkey.

Curiously, both by its seeming rawness, yet similarity to Anglo-Saxon abuse, “rape-daughter” is often used, in different formulations. “She’s a rape-daughter.”  “He’s a daughter-raper. “It was the fog, that rape of its mother.”  “Why doesn’t this rape-daughter train stop?” “Why didn’t he tell the rape-mother sentries we were out there?”

Also, like men around the world, the culture of force and “manliness” is highly regarded.

[Sergeant-Major Hudson Sahib] “sometimes slapped by face.  Of course, I did not get angry like our recruits because I knew it was for my good, I have always respected a strong-headed man who will make a man of you and teach you how to fight.”

On the other hand, as in many old cultures, “uncle,” “sister,” “sister-in-law,” are used as terms of friendship, even in the offering of it.

Though most of the “Indianisms” are welcome and self-explanatory, the volume would have benefited from a short glossary.  Karnel for Colonel we understand, Jemadar, Holdara, the Sarkar, not so much.  We get that they refer to rank or status, but the pleasure in such words is in their particularity, and that is missing for us.

Besides images of obvious Indian origin there is just plain inventive, good writing:

There was a chilly wind blowing … and a thin blue haze gathered over the hedges like the whispered grief of naked fields supplicating to a hard grey sky.


Lalu ran with his head bent forward, as if by doing so he expected to avert any bullets that came his way.
He tried to maintain the erect attention, eyes front and breath held back.  Only the fumes in the jungle of his heart seemed to be choking him.


Though Anand was too young to fight in WWI,  his descriptions and intuitions of men in battle in Across the Black Waters, had a basis in experience.  He was a volunteer in one of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, 1937, and contributed also as a journalist, writing in English.  As a journalist, pamphleteer and fiction writer in England of the 1930s and 40s he met, among others, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell and Michael Foot.  His first novel, Untouchable (Forward by E.M. Forster, 1935) examined the day in a life of a man of India’s lowest caste.  While in England, he was a supporter of the Independence movement in India, where he returned in 1945. well known and considered by many as one of the fathers of English-Indian writing.

I first encountered Anand, and Black Waters in a very well put together anthology of WW I writing, by Pete Ayrton,  N0 Man’s Land.  This is a very fine compilation of short pieces — fiction and memoir– about the war.  Ayrton looked widely for representatives from all those who fought — from India and Russia, Austria, Romania and Italy.  Authors widely known, but not for their war fiction add to the pleasure: Faulkner, Lawrence, Musil, Cather, Celine….  Though another volume of stories from the Turks, Syrians, Palestinians and other tribal Arabs, not to mention East Africans, would be welcome, No Man’s Land is a book for all, litterateur and students of man in war.


Books No Man's Land

For more on the Indian sepoy in WW I, see here.

Though Across the Black Waters is about the Indian troops in France, many fought in East Africa as well. The vast majority fought in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle-East.  Over one million troops by one count.  Some 74,187 Indian soldiers died

And, by the way, Britain used Indian child soldiers, some as young as 10 years old, in the war. [Wiki]