100 years on, a tribute to the Northeast India labour corps who fought the White War

Many of the soldiers fell victim to air raids and shelling. Still others lost their lives to the gruelling journey to France.

 |  11-minute read |   04-04-2017
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Otherwise called "coolies" by the Whites - rather patronising, yet consistent with the language of the day - the lives of the labour corps have been as fascinating as they are enchanting, but history has never considered their contribution important; especially the stories of the labour corps recruited from northeast India.

A paradigm discourse on the history of the northeastern labour corps came with the study of the Mizo Labour Corps (Mizoram) by Radhika Singha in her "The recruiter's eye on 'the primitive': to France in the Indian Labor Corps, and back, 1917-1918".

Her assessment is concentrated on the ethnic and racial profiling of the northeastern labour corps, where they are considered as inferior natives unfit for military work like many of the mainland Indian labour corps.

Scholars and historians studying the Chinese labour corps in parallel trend with Singha also discussed that the indigenous people were given only labour work and could not partake in the actual war action, since they were streamlined into the work only from ethnic-based categorisation.

Keeping aside such narrow assessment, there remain unanswered questions that intrigue many a scholar, historian, and layperson across the world, such as: Who are these men who went to participate in the White War? Who convinced them to join as labour corps? What enticed them towards this cause? And what adventures did they encounter throughout their journey and their work activities?

The Manipur-Naga labour corps were part of the larger labour corps recruited by the imperialist British authority to carry out the arduous jobs in France, since demand at the war trenches or war front made manpower dwindle rapidly across Europe.

Power of pursuasion

The request for labour corps came to Manipur in 1917, when the then Raja of Manipur, Chura Chand Singh and the then political agent, Lieutenant Colonel Cole came to an official understanding to contribute labour corps towards the cause of British imperialism.

Through the President of Manipur State Durbar (PMSD) JC Higgins, official requisitions were sent to all surrounding hill villages to acquire able-bodied men to serve the cause. Many of the tribal village headmen were left aghast by such demands, and many families were unwilling to send their men out of fear that they may never return from the faraway foreign land.

More importantly, none of them could comprehend the meaning of labour corps, nor were they willing to lay down their lives for the "War" they were not a part of.

Such reasoning remains sensational and intriguing for the tribals of Manipur, since they were practising "head-hunting culture" only four to five decades ago before the onset of Christianity.

Yet, the truth remains that their action is based on causality, and not on any irrational disconnected phenomenon.

Initially, all tribal villages across Manipur reached a consensus that they would not participate, even if the government "decree" forces them to do so.

Under such a state, the government used Western Missionaries like William Pettigrew to intervene, to convince the Manipur tribals to participate in the war.

The convincing power of the likes of Pettigrew made the tribals finally give consensus to joining the larger labour corps of the war, thereby giving up their free will and choice in the matter of taking "the decision".

A White War

For this, 2,000 men were recruited as "Labour Corps" within the "22nd Manipur Labour Corps", and among them were 750 Kukis, 750 Tangkhuls, and 500 mixture of tribes from Mao-Senapati areas, and they were led by Interpreters and Assistant Interpreters like Kanrei Shaiza, Porom Singh, Ruichumhao Rungsung, Teba Kurong, and Thomsong Ngulhoa.

The war in Europe was certainly not the concern of the poor, rural people of India, nor was the "White War" their war.

Their participation was also met only with a paltry compensation. Assessing Apuk-Apaga Rairei Khare France Khava (1917-1918) Khala Republic Day 1974 Delhi Kaka, the travelogue of Kanrei Shaiza (Assistant Interpreter of the 22nd Manipur Labour Corps), shows that there were many reasons why the labour corps finally decided to participate in the war.

First, Pettigrew's conviction made the newly-converted Manipur Christians accept the responsibility willingly, after the nature of their non-combatant role was explained to them. Participation as labour corps was also projected by the officials as a prized opportunity, since it provided a platform for the labour corps to travel to the Western countries.

The labour corps gave assent to their participation after they it was confirmed that the government would be paying the tab of their journey, and that they would be paid a monthly salary for their labour.

To participants, it meant the participation would further their economic status.

While endangerment was imminent, some were merely happy because could wear the uniform for the first time - it would provide them dignity and prestige.

kaner_040317053510.jpg Kanrei Shaiza, after he returned from the war (1918).

Their participation was announced at the Manipur Darbar, and enrolment made effective from April 16, 1917 onwards.

Forming the 22nd Manipur Labour Corps, the tribal labour corps were divided into four units, with 500 people in each unit set to provide their labour in France. The four units were constituted thus:

The 40th Labour Corp Company - 250 Tangkhuls and 250 Kukis

The 64th Labour Corp Company - 500 Kukis

The 65th Labour Corp Company - 500 Tribals from Mao-Senapati Areas

The 66th Labour Corp Company - 500 Tangkhuls

Their monthly salaries were meted out according to their ranks and responsibilities:

The Labor Corps = Rupees 22

Leader of a Unit (Mate) = Rupees 30

Interpreter = Rupees 100

Assistant Interpreter = Rupees 75

Headmen = Rupees 100

Assistant Headmen = Rupees 50

Head Clerk and Head Accountant = Rupees 100

Assistant Clerk = Rupees 50

Death Insurance = Their monthly salary plus Rupees 300

Before their departure to France, they were issued drill instructions on the lines of military system. Such drills included the manner to walk, stand, rest, and even following traffic rules in the city.

All those who had enrolled were given two months' salary in advance and time to settle their domestic business.

The last unit to leave Imphal for France was the 66th Labour Corp Company; their journey started on May 19, 1917.

To Suez

From Imphal, they reached Dimapur station by foot on May 31, 1917. Here, kits and baggage were distributed to every person. They contained unit numbers and labour corps' numbers, as well as uniforms and utensils.

The men boarded the train to Guwahati; and yet another from Guwahati to Bombay via Jabalpur and reached Bombay Sea Port on June 6, 1917, where they took a day's break.

All of them were astounded to see the "Sea" (Arabian Sea) for the first time.

When they finally boarded the ship Mary Land for France, they were confined to different quarters according to their ranks.

It took nine days to cross the Arabian Sea and reach Aden Sea Port.

From June 17, 1917, they boarded the ship Egera to cross Red Sea (six days) and reach Said Port of the Suez Canal. From Said Port, they boarded another ship, Victoria to cross Mediterranean Sea (seven days), and finally reached the Gulf of Taranto (Italy), where they spent a month to overcome sea-sickness.

An Italian doctor screened their health after a month, and gave them such treatment as colonoscopy. After the arduous journey, they set off for Marseilles by train. While passing the Alps, many of them were amazed by the advanced underground tunnel.

This is understandable since only Tonga was available to those living in the hilly areas of Manipur during the time.

While Marseilles was the 40th Labour Corp Company's destination, the 64th, 65th and 66th labour corps went further and worked at several other places in France.

tangha_040317053734.jpg Young Tangkhuls labour corps after they returned from the War (1918).

On the job

Their work mainly entailed collecting damaged or exhausted guns, non-functional or working ammunition, rocket shells (lid), bullets, bombshells, soldier boots and rubber boots. The collected items were frequently lifted by cargo vehicles.

It is surprising and interesting to note that the labour corps were able to spend many hours working under the enemy fire, and working long hours without holidays throughout 1917.

Their work later took them to Bulgaria, but the 65th Labour Corp Company was not a part of this Bulgarian labour team.

Wherever they went, they lived in bunkers like the armies, and stayed together with people of various ethnicities, including the mainland Indians, Africans, Chinese, and the native groups.

Time and again, the labourers were able to witness the action that would take place between the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance.

The witnessed air raids and air strikes for the first time in this war.

By early 1918, when the Triple Entente finally began to push back the Triple Alliance forces, when victory was looming large, the British announced that all the men within the age of 40-50 years must enlist for the war.

Back in the day, some of the literate labour corps (interpreters) engaged in the war were happy to read the announcement in the newspaper because it gave them and their cohorts "the hope" that they would soon return to their homeland.

Witnessing victory early in France meant less work for the labourers. They were finally able to enjoy their Sundays. During holidays, they would travel to nearby places or play football for entertainment.

Since the weather was cold leading to heavy snow fall, they had to use coal to keep themselves warm.According to Shaiza's account, they enjoyed a healthy diet - the meat mainly came in the form of beef and mutton after the corps complained that people from Manipur did not eat horse meat (chevaline in French).

In the spring of 1918, when the war was drawing to a close, some of the Manipur Labour Corps got the opportunity to have an audience with King George V. Among them were Ngulhao Shingshon, Shangkatit Muirang, and Teba Kilong.

The final journey

During this time, they were also issued the order to return to Manipur and repatriated to their homeland, at the end of the battle.

Although it is difficult to draw a conclusion, the predicament of the labour corps in the face of the Triple Entente losing the war could certainly have resulted in their becoming the Prisoners of War (POW) at the hands of the enemy forces.

Guided by some English officials, the Manipur Labour Corps, set off on their journey home on May 5, 1918, and reached Marseilles on May 7, 1918. After loading the cargo, they boarded the Egera, yet again, on May 10. The 65th Labor Corp Company was ahead of the rest of the unit.

Since the war was underway, six warships guided the ship till they reached Aden Sea Port.

While they were journeying through the Mediterranean Sea, they witnessed heavy military fire exchange between the British and the German war ships. The day was May 11, 1918. The six warships, along with Egera, accompanied the labour corps till the Karachi Sea Port.

Here they boarded a train and passed Jodhpur, Jaipur, Agra, Allahabad in the north to travel to Gaya, and finally reached Howrah station, the far east of India.

In the last leg of their journey, the corps boarded a local train to reach the Brahmaputra; finally boarding a local ship to Guwahati via Dibrugarh. Their final train journey on this route was to take them to Dimapur from Guwahati. Here their goods were carried by a Tonga, while they journeyed on foot all the way till Imphal.

Upon their arrival at Imphal, the corps were greeted by Maharaja Chura Chand Singh at the Polo Ground.

All the labour corps were awarded with the war medal. Their participation was however not without consequences in Europe, as well as in Manipur. Casualties and death were common during their travails.

Death on alien shores

Many of these labourers fell victim to air raids and shelling. Diseases such as influenza and typhoid also claimed many of the soldiers' lives.

Still others lost their lives to the gruelling journey to France. Their cemeteries and memorials are spread across the Ayette Indian Cemetery of France, La Chapelette British and Indian Cemetery, Mala Cemetery in Yemen, Mazargues War Cemetery Marseilles, and Neuve Chapelle, France.

While the labour corps were enlisted and away from their homeland, many of the other natives living in Manipur were unhappy with the participation. The Kukis expressed their dissent by revolting against the British imperialist regime with the Kuki Rebellion of 1917-1919. Quelled by the British regime, it became the largest tribal uprising against the British Indian Empire in northeast India.

At the cost of the hilly, tribal labour corps, Maharaja Chura Chand was later knighted as a "Knight Commander" of the Order of the Star of India in 1934 by Empire.

Also read: BJP's 'no beef ban in Northeast' exposes its hypocrisy

Writer

Pamkhuila Shaiza Pamkhuila Shaiza @shaizapamkhui

Post Graduate in History from Jawaharlal Nehru University; Former Assistant Professor at Nirmalagiri College, Kannur University, India; Registered Research Scholar at Durham University.

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