When I was in India a few years ago I had a bizarre idea that if I went along to the Royal Bombay Yacht Club I might find some reference to my Great Uncle, Alan Lendrum having passed through. Turned down by the Royal Navy, he served in the Royal Indian Marine between 1907 and 1910 and I thought be might pop up in a group photo in the dining room or something. No such luck but its a nice slice of faded colonial grandeur if you are ever in Mumbai. While I was in Delhi, I was amazed to see the massive India Gate Memorial and find out that 82,000 Indian soldiers had been killed in the First World War, serving alongside my Great Uncle. I had seen a few photos of cavalry men wearing turbans and knew vaguely that many Indians had come to Europe but surely not this many.
The extent of the involvement of soldiers from overseas really does take the breath away. Bear in mind though that in 1914 the British Empire was in control of a quarter of the world’s population, 412 million people. Its astonishing to consider that 1,500,000 men from ‘undivided India’ (comprising present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka) including soldiers and non-combatants, were recruited into the British Indian Army during the First World War. It is estimated that 400,000 of these, about a third of the British Indian Army were Muslim. One in every six soldiers of the British Empire was from the Indian subcontinent. Compare this to 134,000 from Ireland, 332,000 from Australia and 400,000 from Canada. True, proportionally these are much less populous countries, but in terms of our impression of the war, its stories and experiences of the latter seem to dominate. The contribution of the Indian soldiers has perhaps been viewed in the mainstream as a quirky oddity, to be noticed, but quickly forgotten. Thankfully a number of organisations in this centenary commemoration period are doing great work to ensure their participation is more widely recognised.
Indian Amy soldiers were in action on the Western Front within a month of the start of the war, some 24,000 men of the Lahore and Meerut divisions landing in Marseilles and placed under the command of General Sir James Willcocks. They are credited with plugging a gap which could have seen the Germans breaking through in that early stage. Over this long winter, Indian soldiers manned a third of the British line in France and there were records of exceptional bravery, with Khudadad Khan receiving the first Victoria Cross to be received by a South Asian soldier in the First Battle of Ypres. They were though ill-prepared for the harsh conditions in the trenches and suffered from a lack of warm clothing and food.
After a year of front-line duty, sickness and high casualties combined with loss of so many highly trained British officers who understood the cultures and religions of their men, the Indian Corps was reduced to the point where it had to be withdrawn. Indian cavalry continued to serve on the Western Front until 1916. Many of these were redeployed in other theatres such as Gallipoli. Almost half a million became embroiled in Mesopotamia, where up to 12,000 were captured after the Siege of Kut which involved Thomas Carrigan of the Summerstown182. The Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 saw the Indian Corps fight its first major action as a single unit, forming half of the attacking force. More than 4,000 of them perished here and is the highly symbolic location of The Indian Memorial.
At a crossroads not far from the Belgian border, The Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle commemorates over 4,700 Indian soldiers and labourers who lost their lives on the Western Front during the First World War and have no known graves. It takes the form of a sanctuary enclosed within a circular wall in the style of the enclosing railings of early Indian shrines. A high column of white stone between two weeping willows is flanked by two tigers, guarding the temple of the dead. The column is surmounted by a Lotus flower, the Star of India and the Imperial Crown. Its base is carved with the words: INDIA 1914-1918. On the lower part of the column the words ‘God is One, He is the Victory’ are inscribed in English, with similar texts in Arabic, Hindi, and Gurmukhi. The Neuve Chapelle Memorial is the only place of remembrance on the Western Front to commemorate the sacrifice made by Indian soldiers during the Great War.
After an initial success, within a few hours, the advance at Neuve Chapelle ground to a halt through poor communications and a lack of munitions. In just over half an hour the bombardment consumed more shells than the British Army had used in the whole of the Boer War fifteen years earlier. Fighting ceased on 13th March with British gains limited to an area two kilometres deep and three kilometres wide for a loss of over 11,000 British and Indian soldiers, either killed or wounded. Some fifteen miles to the north of this, a soldier called William Tate was in the 1st Wiltshire Battalion. Alongside the 3rd Worcesters, their role in this offensive was to attack and take Spanbroek Mill at Wytschaete (‘Whitesheet’), just inside the Belgian border, as a preliminary to a further advance. The 12th March was a misty morning and the war diary mentions that the rumble of the firing at Neuve Chapelle to the south could be distinctly heard. The mist had turned to dense white fog and the British guns were unable to observe their own fire and the attack was delayed until 4pm. William Tate and his mates emerged from their waterlogged ditches into knee-deep mud and were met with a hail of bullets. By the time they returned to billets at Locre, the Wiltshires lost 29 killed, 45 wounded and 12 missing. The Worcesters were hit even harder with 47 killed, 99 wounded and 32 missing. William Tate very likely survived this as his record states he was ‘killed in action’ on 18th March. Over the following days the battalion recuperated and rested at Kemmel. On the 17th the war diary records that ‘all Box Respirators of the Battalion were inspected by the Brigade Gas Officers. In the afternoon all officers reconnoitred the scene of the Brigade, attack practice which was to take place the following day.’ Obviously a gas attack was expected but whatever happened the following day, the diary makes grim reading for the family of William Tate. ‘A quiet day nothing unusual occurred. 2 men killed 3 wounded’ One of these was surely the man from Limehouse whose name is on our Summerstown memorial.
A cemetery in Spanbroekmolen (the site of the windmill) contains almost exclusively the graves of Irishmen killed at Messines two years later but William was buried a little further west in a cemetery near the town of Kemmel. It is called ‘La Laiterie’ and was the site of a dairy farm on the road to Ypres from Kemmel, the Kemmelstraat. The cemetery slopes gently down to a field adjoining what looks like a very busy and prosperous working farm. It wouldn’t have surprised me to see a lorry trundling out heavily laden with crates of finest Belgian pasteurised.
William Tate was born in an area of east London which has become one of the most ethnically diverse in the United Kingdom. The soldiers who he would have seen in the trenches and billets around Ypres and Neuve Chapelle were quite possibly related to the Bengali and Bangladeshi families who settled in Tower Hamlets in the sixties and seventies. Even back in the late nineteenth century the Limehouse area was home to a great many chinese people, possibly over half of those living in London at the time. A maritime area with a shifting cosmopolitan population of people from every corner of the globe, it would not have been uncommon for young William, growing up in this area, to have seen people whose skin was a different colour from his own.
William Tate was born on 29th May 1880, his father also William was an engine fitter from Alnwick in Northumberland and his wife Amy came from Limehouse. A school admission register shows that he entered Oban Street School on 24th August 1885, when the family were living at 29 Moness Road, literally with the school at the end of the road. Right on the eastern edge of the Charles Booth’s map, sandwiched between Commercial Gas Works and East India Docks, the street is coloured solidly blue. One of the police notebooks from 1897 indicates that ‘a poorer class come to Moness Road because the rents are lower than in the other two streets – because the street is at a lower level and houses used to be flooded. Things are better now and the sewers have been improved so there is no longer any backflow’. William was baptised on 3rd November 1886 at nearby All Hallows Church, Poplar, the same day as his younger brothers Harry aged four and infant John. The 1891 census indicates that they moved to 445 Robin Hood Lane in the shadow of the warehouses of the massive East India Docks. William was the oldest of four siblings. Harry was nine, John was four and Catherine two. This road and the adjoining ‘Robin Hood Gardens’ still exist at the north entrance of the Blackwall Tunnel. The opening of the longest underwater tunnel in the world on 22nd May 1897 by the Prince of Wales, must have been a very exciting day for the young Tate family. Though having the tunnel emerging so close to their home must have increased the sense of chaos and frenzy in an already overcrowded neighbourhood. By 1901 they were at 54 Addington Road on the other side of Bow Creek. It was a little bit further away from the docks and hopefully somewhat calmer. William was working as a painter and his two younger brothers were clerks. Another sister May was born in 1898. Reg Varney of ‘On the Buses’ fame was born in this road in 1916. I’m sure they would all have enjoyed the tranquility of the Bow Creek Ecology Park, which I designed some signage for about ten years ago.
By 1911 things had changed radically for the family. William’s father had died in 1903 aged 57 and Amy now appeared to be the main breadwinner, aged 56 and working as a general dealer. They now lived at 38 Ordnance Road, just the other side of Star Lane from their old address, three adults and teenager May in three rooms. This road still exists in the shadow of the mighty Newham Way but has been completely rebuilt. The census records that William and Amy had seven children in total but two had died. John now 24 had taken up the same trade as his father and worked as an engineer fitter. Catherine was a waitress. May was thirteen and still at school. Harry Tate had married in 1906 and was living at 15 Lonsdale Avenue, East Ham with his wife Lilian and son Allan. He was working as a ‘constructional draughtsman’ and the family were still in East Ham in 1939. Allan died in Eastbourne in 1991. William had moved on and we have no trace of him until he joined the army in Marylebone.
His records do though tell us that he was married. A soldiers effects document indicates that his sole legatee was his wife, Elizabeth M Tate – and her name and residence at 43 Burlington Road, Fulham is indicated on his Commonwealth War Grave Commission records. We can find only one possible indication of this marriage, a William Tate marrying an Elizabeth Ansell in the spring of 1914 in the parish of St Olaves. This may not be our man. Burlington Road isn’t too far from here, cross Putney Bridge, then turn left a short way up New King’s Road. The 270 bus would pretty much take you all the way. But there are plenty of churches between there and St Mary’s, so its hard to see how he came to be on the war memorial in Summerstown. Did the couple live here for some time? Was Elizabeth’s family from this area? We really don’t know. Sometimes the headstone inscription provides a clue, but there is none on William Tate’s grave in La Laterie. Perhaps his mother Amy might have wanted to place a few words but very sadly she herself died in the spring quarter of 1915, just a few months after her son.
Interestingly the Imperial War Museum’s database shows that a war memorial was unveiled in Oban Street School, Poplar on 11th November 1925. There were a total of 511 names on the memorial, 452 returned, 59 did not. Its very likely William Tate is one of the names on this memorial.
Thanks to the Unknown & Untold project, the information on whose website has been very helpful in putting this post together. Very soon we intend to host an event where a speaker will come and talk to us about the contribution of Muslim soldiers in the First World War. Look out for more details about that coming very soon.