The Royal Pavilion Palace: a war hospital for Indian soldiers during WWI

Indian Soldiers in rows of beds in the Banqueting Room of the Royal Pavilion during its use as a Military Hospital, 1915. Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.

Indian Soldiers in rows of beds in the Banqueting Room of the Royal Pavilion during its use as a Military Hospital, 1915. Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove. ©

6 days is what it took to convert the Royal Pavilion Palace, the Dome and the Corn Exchange buildings into war hospitals where thousands of Indian soldiers were treated during the First World War. It was called “the greatest Indian hospital outside of India”, explains Louise Peskett, who has been a guide at the Royal Pavilion for over 10 years and who has brought together a tour to explain the bond between the Royal Pavilion and WWI. It is one of the thousand events organised in Brighton and across the country to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the Great War.

The hand-painted Chinese wallpaper that decorates the rooms was protected with grey opaque screens, the 34-guest dinner table in the Banqueting Room (photo above) and the luxury golden fine bird statues were replaced with lines of beds and stretchers, and the Great Kitchen became the operating theatre where over 300 operations were performed. One of the few things that remained was the sumptuous chandeliers hanging from the ceilings which were the first thing many Indian soldiers saw when they woke up; one of the reactions being, “if there be a paradise on earth, it is this.”

Converting a Royal Palace into a hospital was not a coincidence. The building was a symbol of luxury and the British wanted the Indian soldiers to feel they were in the best hands. “The Palace had great PR potential as India was a great recruiter for the First World War. There was a hope this would reinforce a sense of loyalty to the United Kingdom”, affirms Peskett.

One soldier compared the British people he met here with the ones he came across in India. “Here, they talk pleasantly, treat us kindly and are pleased to see us. We do not hear the words ‘damn’ and ‘bloody’ as frequently as in India… The people here are charming. It is impossible to say why they become so bad on reaching India.”

At the beginning of the war, the allied British and French forces were outnumbered by the advancing Germans, so reinforcement was brought in from British colonies. 1.3 million soldiers, from what is today India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal joined forces, making up 20% of the total soldiers on the frontline.

For many of the recruits, it was their first time out of their towns. Most of them came from rural areas. “They sailed off from Mumbai thinking they were going to Egypt to be kept as reserves but the plan changed and the destination was Marseille, where they would join the allies on the Western Front where the battle had got worse”, explains Peskett.

Twelve Sikh soldiers posing outside the Royal Pavilion, 1915. Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.

Twelve Sikh soldiers posing outside the Royal Pavilion, 1915. Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove. ©

Over 4000 Indian soldiers were nursed in The Royal Pavilion buildings, being the first casualties to arrive in October 1914.

There was scrupulous attention to detail; in particular, to accommodate religious and caste demands. Separate water supplies were provided for Hindus and Muslims, at least 9 different kitchens were built and notices throughout the hospital were printed in Urdu, Hindi and Gurmuki.

Keeping up morale was also important. Trips to the Pier and the Aquarium were organised, silent movies were shown using the Dome’s magic lantern projector, and organ concerts were held every Sunday.

However, the Indian soldiers complained about the lack of freedom, as they were not allowed out on their own. Peskett takes the visit group to the Pavilion garden to show them where a big fence around the garden was built.

“Soldiers were unable to come and go as they pleased and the authorities were criticised by the soldiers and townspeople alike for keeping the injured chaperoned and separated from the everyday life of the town”, states Peskett.

One of the injured soldiers at the Royal Pavilion was Jemadar Mir Dast, who received the Victoria Cross for his action on 26th April 1915 at the second Battle of Ypres in Belgium. The London Gazette reported that “he displayed great courage that day when he risked his life to carry eight wounded British and Indian officers to safety while exposed to very heavy fire.”

Peskett further adds, “the Germans had released 5,700 canisters containing 168 tons of chlorine gas towards 10,000 French and British troops.  Half of them died within 10 minutes.  Those who lived were temporarily blinded and stumbled to confusion; 2,000 being captured as POWs.  Indian troops were called upon to support the British and French and, disorientated, were exposed to an inferno of machine-gun fire and artillery attacks.”

Mir Dast received the medal but stated, “the Victoria Cross is a very fine thing, but this gas gives me no rest. It has done for me.’

Mir Dast’s stories is one of the many you can find out about during the tour that Peskett has organised, with incredible detail to bring us closer to how the Indian soldiers lived and suffered during the First World War.

Some argue these events are an opportunity to reassure us that the lessons learnt from the Great War will not be forgotten and will not happen again. Others state that history repeats itself, being an example of the current conflicts unfolding in the world.

At the end of the tour, Peskett reads out some extracts of personal letters such as Isar Singh’s written in the hospital to a friend in India in May 1915, “think of it – in taking 50 yards of a German trench, 50,000 men are killed. When we attack they direct a terrific fire on us – thousands of men die daily. It looks as if not a single man can remain alive on either side – then (when none is left) there will be peace.”

Singh’s letter is one of the 2 billion sent from and to the UK during the 1560 days of war that ended with 17 billion soldiers and civilians dead.

Lorena MJZ