Monday, November 28, 2011

India in Flanders Field II: Gandhi and The Great War

I have been considering a number of topics for my second post on the Indian homefront during the Great War. Not knowing a lot about this aspect of First World War history, I thought it would be good to continue with broad areas of inquiry. I've been wondering what Indian sentiment about the war was like. How much conflict did the idea of serving in the British Army create? Coming at a pivotal time during the Indian independence movement, how did the war affect Indian civilians and those who served? 

Within the topic of the Great War in India, one of the first names that appears amid the researcher's retrievals is, unsurprisingly, that of Mohandas K. Gandhi. 

Gandhi, 1918.

With his early career prior to the war currently the subject of an acclaimed production at the Metropolitan Opera, Gandhi remains a figure of fascination and admiration around the world. He is remembered for being an advocate of peaceful resistance during his leadership of the Indian Independence Movement. 

By 1914, Gandhi, who trained as a lawyer in London, had galvanized the Indian civil rights movement in South Africa. It was during this time that he developed and promoted the idea of satyagraha, or peaceful civil resistance. The concept of satyagraha has many inflections: Gandhi wrote extensively about it, describing its meaning as a composite of the values of steadfastness, truth, love, and nonviolence.

Around the start of the First World War, Gandhi traveled to England. Having organized Indian volunteers as ambulance drivers during the Boer War, Gandhi again urged Indians to serve in these noncombatant positions. He returned to India in 1915 and his role as a leader of the independence movement began to coalesce around this time. The war years were extremely active ones for Gandhi: in Champaran and Kheda, he led resistance movements among peasants and farmers who struggled with hunger, unsafe and unhealthy living and work conditions, oppressive and unfair treatment by employers, and poverty further exacerbated by excessive taxation. Gandhi's Satyagraha revolutions, as these movements were called, achieved resolution between the British government and citizens, ending the crippling taxation and allowing for recovery from the famine created by the dire straits into which the farmers had been thrown, having had to grow crops for trade rather than the food they needed. The success of the Champaran and Kheda Satyagraha brought Gandhi to national and worldwide prominence.

It would be in April of 1918, when Gandhi attended a War Conference organized by the Indian Viceroy, that he made a striking departure from his earlier advocacy for noncombatant service. Vowing that he would work towards Indian combatant recruitment, Gandhi issued an appeal for service in the British Army. Though it would create controversy because of its contradiction of the nonviolence for which he had become renowned, the push for Indian recruitment was connected deeply with the Home Rule movement. It was hoped, perhaps paradoxically, that, by helping the British Army, India could delineate its own identity as a powerful and independent nation--more like an ally for England rather than some subordinate entity. There was also hope that Britain would extend independence to India in gratitude for this military service.

Gandhi's 1918 call for recruitment would remain one of his most controversial choices. It is perhaps easy, in hindsight, to question his decision to support Indian  combatant service in the British Army.  This moment of conflict within a conflict reflects what was an enormously volatile moment for Britain and India--one nation's appropriation of the other's people, resources, and government began to fade as the other progressed towards full independence. The course to independence was not smooth, and Gandhi's vacillations on combatant service reflect various approaches to the question of how India could re-identify itself as a nation of its own. The war seemed, for a while, to be a catalyst for that reinvention--for an unprecedented assertion of the very independence India sought through chosen service.

© Fiona Robinson

Sources and Further Reading:

Metropolitan Opera information on 2011 production of Philip Glass's Satyagraha:

Wikipedia: "Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi"

image of Gandhi in 1918:

Wikipedia: "Champaran and Kheda Satyagraha" "Mohandas Gandhi--Biography"

Gandhi Book Centre: 

***more to follow***

Friday, November 18, 2011

Queen Mary's Needlework Guild Badge

As those of my readers who are fellow graduate students might know, we are subject to the vicissitudes of dissertation research--the "dissertissitudes," if you will, of writing, research, and editing--and whole weeks are known to pass whilst emails go unanswered and blogs go un-updated, among other things, when the tide turns suddenly and the dissertation takes control of one's life. This past week I have been refining a chapter about the New Biographers, adding details about our friend Geoffrey Malins and his amazing memoir (truly, one of the most fascinating ones I've read) and making other changes. It is a slow battle but I feel confident that the victory flag will be raised (hopefully later today!) and the chapter will be done! Until it must be revised again, that is.

I wanted to post briefly today to add a little to my earlier post about knitting in the Great War. I have recently acquired a darling badge that once belonged to an official in the Queen Mary's Needlework Guild. It looks like this one at the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum:

Queen Mary's Needlework Guild Badge, 1914. Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museum.

As an avid needlewoman, currently engaged in one of the biggest knitting projects I've ever done, it makes me happy to own a little piece of history that signified another woman's pride and sense of purpose in her needlework and service. I don't have, currently, any details about the original owner of my badge, but I will try to do a bit of research and will share what I gather.

I do know that the badge is one that would have been purchased and worn by an official in the Guild. Regular members could purchase and wear a simpler but still elegant badge. So the woman who first wore the badge I now own would have been a leader of some sort in her community. She would have likely organized other members and solicited contributions from knitters and sewers in the area. No doubt, the beautiful little badge was pinned proudly on her coat or dress, and transformed her outfit into a sort of civilian's uniform. 

The badges were still in use through the 1950s, as far as I've been able to find out. The design changed slightly (the "M.R." initials were altered into an intertwining arrangement) sometime after the Great War, but the Guild's mission remained the same. Today, it is known as the Queen Mother's Clothing Guild.

Well, that is all for this morning. Happy knitting or sewing to my fellow needlepeople and happy writing to my fellow graduate students. Join us again at "Ghosts of 1914," where I shall be posting soon about the Indian homefront in the Great War.

©Fiona Robinson


Sources and Further Reading:

Monday, November 7, 2011

Poppies on November 11th

In honor of the upcoming Remembrance Day (or Veterans Day, as it is known here in the U.S.), the poppies of Maurice Kirth:

Maurice Kirth. Wear a Flanders Poppy. Poster, ca. 1918-1938.

In Flanders Fields, the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row...
--Lines from John McRae's "In Flanders Fields"

It was John McRae's eerie poem, "In Flanders Fields," first published in Punch in 1915, that inspired American YMCA worker Moina Michael, herself a poet, to begin the tradition of wearing a red poppy to honor the dead of the First World War. Michael initiated the poppy's symbolic appearance on lapels in 1918.

I will be attending Yale's Veterans Day service this week. I hope that you will also honor the fallen in some way and, importantly, the living who have served in the military or who serve today. May we all, even though we may have different feelings about war, be thankful for the contributions of veterans and welcome them to a place of health, happiness, belonging, and opportunity in our society.

© Fiona Robinson

Sources and further reading:

Wikipedia: "Moina Michael":

Wikipedia: "Remembrance Poppy":

Wikipedia: "John McRae":

"In Flanders Fields" reprinted in Poems from Punch, 1909-1920. Macmillan, 1922.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Great War Yarnworks: Knit Your Bit

"Our Boys Need Sox." American Red Cross Poster, 1914-1918. Library of Congress.

I like to knit. As winter draws near, I find it comforting to gather up my yarn and needles and work on something that will create warmth. Naturally, I can't help but wonder about knitting in the Great War.

For we can knit socks for our soldier boys and keep the fires burning at home...
--Lines from "Here's to the Boys of the 1-6-0," Canadian war song
Knitting was an important--nay, essential--craft during the Great War. No mere hobby, the need for knitted items on the front sounded a call to duty for those at home. Take a look, for instance, at the American poster above. While it hails from across the pond, it makes clear the necessity for crafting on the home front, regardless of location. Knitting was also a frequent motif in propaganda, songs, and other aspects of popular culture. Socks, in particular, for soldiers were a noble project for crafters to undertake--they could help keep a soldier's feet warmer and drier in the trenches, where the dreaded "Trench Foot," a condition caused by prolonged exposure to the mud, water, and cold of the trenches was striking many and even leading to amputations in dire cases. 

W.T. Benda. "You can help." Color Lithograph, 1918, Library of Congress.

A knitted garment of one kind or another takes on and transfers a certain energy from its maker to its wearer, I believe, and there's something incredibly moving about the sort of touch that a homemade sweater or pair of socks permitted. From the hands of a wife, mother, grandmother, sweetheart, sister, or benevolent stranger to the body of a soldier, knitwear crossed the divide between home and battlefield.

Of course, one can usually count on Siegfried Sassoon for a grimmer meditation:
O German mother dreaming by the fire
When you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud
Lines from Sassoon's "The Glory of Women," 1918.
In a way, the devastation of Sassoon's image of a mother knitting for a son she doesn't realize is dead, takes its force in part from knitting's own powerful tactility--the way it seemed to facilitate the comfort of touch and warmth akin to that of actual physical contact. That this German mother will not share the warmth of home with her son, and that her crafting thus has, as Sassoon paints it, no purpose, is tragic and upsetting.
"How Women Can Help," Daily Mail, August 1914
I appeal to the Presidents of all the needlework guilds throughout the British Isles to organize a large collection of articles for those who suffer on account of the war...
 ---"Her Majesty's Appeal," published in The Times, 10 August, 1914.
Knitting and purpose were strongly bound together for women at home during the Great War. The craft was taken very seriously from the earliest days of battle. In 1914 just after the outbreak of fighting, the London Needlework Guild was christened "Queen Mary's Needlework Guild" when it gained the patronage of the Queen. Through the efforts of the guild, thousands of garments were sewn and knitted and sent to soldiers, refugees, hospital patients, prisoners, and others in need. Lord Kitchener even "knit [his] bit" during the war, devising a smooth seaming technique for the toes of soldier's socks that, to this day, still bears his name

The Red Cross in Britain and America were, of course, major forces in knitting on the homefront. Below, a page from an instruction manual from the British Red Cross, meant to guide volunteers in making the most essential items for soldiers.

A page from a British Red Cross Needlework and Knitting Instructions Book for Volunteers, ca 1914-1918.

I will "cast off," to use knitter's parlance, for now, but it is certainly fascinating to spin the history of knitting in the Great War. Even from this initial look, knitting's material and symbolic impact during the war are clear. In the Great War, crafting took on a patriotic cast, and offered one way for those at home to feel that they were closer, one stitch at a time, to those on the front.

 © Fiona Robinson

Sources and further reading:

U.S. Library of Congress Posters Record for "Our Boys Need Sox":

Library of Congress record for "You Can Help":

Sheet Music at Bruce County Military Museum:

McMaster University "War Songs" Exhibition, with war song lyrics:

Wikipedia: "Trench Foot":

Wikipedia: "Siegfried Sassoon":

Wikipedia: "Lord Kitchener":

Kitchener Stitch Tutorial:

Sassoon's "The Glory of Women" from Counter-Attack, 1918:

Queen Mary's Needlework Guild history:

Red Cross Museum, Britain:

American Red Cross Museum:

British Red Cross Needlework and Knitting Instructions for Volunteers:

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Getting Ready for War: Training in the British Army

"This Space Reserved for a Fit Man." British War Poster, color lithograph, 1915. Library of Congress.
As an avid runner and swimmer, I have been wondering lately what the typical physical training experience was for the British soldier. How fit was the average recruit? What was "boot camp" like for newly fledged members of the British Army? I write with some initial findings from the fascinating world of physical training during the Great War.

When the British Army authorities, needing every available man, examined the young men of England, they found that four out of five of them had something wrong...that was worthy of note.
--Good Housekeeping, 1920 article: "The League for Longer Life."
The above remark from a 1920 Good Housekeeping article on physical health in the post-war period refers to the Report Upon the Physical Examination of Men of Military Age that was conducted by the British Ministry of National Service in 1917-18 and published in 1920. Apparently, the examination revealed that British men were not quite in ideal shape during the war. It is perhaps unsurprising that the millions of recruits who had never been in the military prior to the war were not physically prepared for battle, however. Britain's Army was relatively small prior to the outbreak of the Great War, so the physical preparedness and experience that would have accompanied service were not necessarily typical. 

If your men are raw, you will have to go slow just at first till they all know what is expected of them.

Training--physical and mental--sought to remedy the greenness of recruits. According to Chris Baker's excellent website, The Long, Long, Trail:
Training for ordinary tommies began with basic training for physical fitness, drill, march discipline, essential field craft, and so on. Later, as the soldier specialised (in the infantry, for example, as a rifleman, machine gunner, rifle grenadier, signaller or bomber) he would receive courses of instruction relevant to his role. Especially as he was approaching being warned for the active fronts, he would receive basic training in first aid, gas defence, wiring and other aspects. This training continued when he was on active service.

It is unclear what combat scenario, as reflected in the following image of "telegraphists leap-frog[ging] over each other in a training exercise," is being anticipated! I jest, of course--as the telegraphists are going through mandatory physical exercises that would have been de rigueur for everyone joining the Army.  

New realities of combat, like trench warfare, were the impetus for development of new training methods. Edward Kirkpatrick's 1914 book, The Training of an Infantry Company mentions rifle and bayonet skills, and various drill orders as the components of soldiers' initial education. Learning to operate as a united body was essential for recruits, both for safety and for discipline on the battlefield. Addressing the officers who would conduct exercises, Kirkpatrick remarks
[K]eep up the same smartness, and quick obedience to orders, which are exacted in close order drills, in order that the men may become truly disciplined, and not merely so in appearance...(10)
Andrew Carrick Gow. Volunteers Drilling in the Courtyard at Burlington House, 1915.
Imperial War Museum. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 5217)

Importantly, Kirkpatrick notes the problem of adequate training space, which, due to the huge numbers of recruits (and later, conscripts) to the Army, was difficult to find. Contemporary photographs taken at recruitment offices show vast crowds of willing and eager young men who rushed to "join up" in the war's early days.

To deal with the overwhelming number of men and the problem of where they were to live and train, Baker writes, "[a]t first, large public buildings such as church and local halls, schools and warehouses were taken over - in many cases offered up by the local authority, church wardens etc - for both purposes. Thousands of men were also billeted in private home[s]." Training exercises were thus carried out all over the homefront, and there are some fascinating images of soldiers marching alongside curious civilians in locations like London's Regent's Park.

Over the course of the war, however, training camps were constructed both at home in England and on the front.

The grimmer aspects of the report on the physical condition of British soldiers did not reflect the willingness and courage of recruits. Furthermore, I cannot recall how many memoirs and other personal accounts of the war have made me marvel at their details of hardship and sacrifice. How anyone survived even a day on the front and lived to tell the tale is beyond me. One post on a vast topic like military training hardly suffices, so it will be drill time at "Ghosts of 1914" again soon.

© Fiona Robinson

Sources and further reading:

Wikipedia: "Regent's Park":