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Comradeship belies today’s slant on India’s independence

PUBLISHED: 14:20 29 August 2017 | UPDATED: 14:51 29 August 2017

A early wartime line-up of Frontier Force Rifles officers - David Wenham is fourth from right, back row, next to the imposing subedar. Picture: Wenham family

A early wartime line-up of Frontier Force Rifles officers - David Wenham is fourth from right, back row, next to the imposing subedar. Picture: Wenham family

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British imperialism is taking a bashing as the events at Indian independence 70 years ago are recalled. But are we getting the full story?

Tony Wenham with his father. Photo: Wenham Family. Tony Wenham with his father. Photo: Wenham Family.

One million Hindus, Moslems and Sikhs died in a frenzied bloodbath 70 years ago – and it was all the fault of the British.

For me – brought up in a house with walls bedecked by charcoal sketches of subedars and havildars, the handsome, axe blade-cheeked Moslem junior and warrant officers who served with my father in hard-fought battles on the other side of the world – I have a more blurred interpretation of the ghastly events that took place during the partition of India.

I remember dad telling me how, in August 1947, he had led his battalion of predominantly Moslem troops through northern India and up into the new territory that is now Pakistan. In the murderous political climate, it must have been a dangerous journey for the war-weary troops not long out of Burma.

Gandhi (right) and Nehru, who were at odds over the future of an independent India. Picture: AP Gandhi (right) and Nehru, who were at odds over the future of an independent India. Picture: AP

But this was the Indian Army (ironically, led then only by white British senior officers) and, after six years together in the toughest situations, there was a kind of brotherhood based – certainly on my father’s side – on respect for fellow fighters.

Fast-forward 70 years and it was a privilege yesterday for my brother Mark, a former Royal Anglian Regiment officer now living near Halesworth, to attend a ceremony at the Pakistan High Commission in London to celebrate the anniversary of independence and old links between British and Pakistan army units.

The Royal Anglians are affiliated to Pakistan’s Frontier Force Regiment, coincidentally our late father’s old regiment – and, to me, it reinforces the mutual respect that exists and existed between the British and the people of the sub-Continent.

Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten – harried by Nehru and Jinnah, bullied by the Labour government back home and held in contempt by most British expatriates. Picture: PA Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten – harried by Nehru and Jinnah, bullied by the Labour government back home and held in contempt by most British expatriates. Picture: PA

A spokesman for the Frontier Force Regiment told me this week: “The High Commission is hosting the event for 40-45 people connected to the regiment – some served at the time of Partition like your late father, some are currently serving and others are affiliated like your brother. We felt it was time to revive these associations in this special anniversary year.” It was considered sufficiently important for the Frontier Force Colonel Commandant, Lt Gen Rizwan, 
to attend.

Perhaps not quite the message that many of us are receiving as the broadcast media bring us horrifying living history accounts of the terror and hardships of Partition, but little of the positive relationships forged between the British and Indians; or, yes, put another way, rulers and ruled.

Of course, India wanted independence; whether the means justified the end is another matter. Hindu leader Nehru and Moslem leader Jinnah demanded separate states – against the advice of Gandhi who dreamt of a “Mother India” in which all sects could live in harmony. The British, past masters at “divide and rule”, backed partition on religious grounds.

Major, later Lt Col, Mark Wenham, who attended a special celebration of regimental links in London yesterday. Picture: Mark Wenham Major, later Lt Col, Mark Wenham, who attended a special celebration of regimental links in London yesterday. Picture: Mark Wenham

The new Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten – harried by Nehru and Jinnah, bullied by the Labour government back home and held in contempt by many British expatriates (my parents included) – was pushed into leading a separation in record time. The result was a murder spree as neighbour slaughtered neighbour in a series of bloody attacks up and down the land.

My late mother, born in India and by 1947 herself a mother-of-two, would very occasionally recount the sickening scenes she witnessed as the family came to the unwelcome decision to leave their beloved India. “It was all done too quickly,” she would say.

I recall reading an article by the great war correspondent Robert Fisk after a series of atrocities in 1980s Beirut: “There are no good guys here,” he wrote with feeling.

David and Noreen Wenham in India in the 1940s. Picture: Supplied David and Noreen Wenham in India in the 1940s. Picture: Supplied

Clearly, there were a lot of bad guys in India in the 1940s, but it seems to me there were a lot of good guys too: people like the brave Indian soldiers in my dad’s company holed up in Burma’s Arakan province, under constant fire from a Japanese army intent on invading their country, or the survivors of that battle who went on to beat back the enemy across the Irrawaddy river as finally they began to retreat following a costly but ultimately successful campaign down the length of the country.

It is the comradeship born of these life-changing events, now revived in yesterday’s small celebration in London, that defines some of my understanding of Partition, and explains the portraits of those remarkable 
men that my dad never wanted 
to forget.

David and Noreen Wenham in India in the 1940s. Picture: Supplied David and Noreen Wenham in India in the 1940s. Picture: Supplied

Warrior links

The links between the Royal Anglian and Frontier Force Regiments date back to the First World War when two founder units, the Leicesters and the 53rd Sikhs, fought together in Mesopotamia (southern Iraq) and at the ill-fated siege of Kut, south of Baghdad.

How India was divided up after Partition. Picture: EDP Library How India was divided up after Partition. Picture: EDP Library

The family link begins at the barracks on Norwich’s Mousehold Heath in the 1930s when a young David Wenham was commissioned into one of the Norfolk Regiment territorial battalions; not much later he was on a troop ship to India, set to join the Frontier Force Rifles in the northern Punjab.

A core task was to police the barren and mountainous territories of the region, a constant target of insurgent Afghan tribesman – a far cry from training camps on the north Norfolk coast.

As the Second World War took hold, he would go on to serve in Iraq, North Africa and Burma before ending his career in India in command of the 5/13 Frontier Force Rifles battalion, leading his Moslem troops safely up into Pakistan in August 1947.

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