Of the forgotten soldiers of Corbett's 70 Kumaon Company

Jim Corbett was 38 and was a railway contractor at Mokameh Ghat when the war broke out in 1914.

rajshekhar

Rajshekhar Pant | October 14, 2014




“Our boys were not Tommies- they were Tariques and Tajinders too.” Referring to this repeatedly quoted comment of junior British foreign office minister Sayeeda Warsi, Raju Suyal, the great grandson of Manorath Suyal, who fought in Flanders under the command of Captain James Edward Corbett (Jim Corbett) of 70 Kumaon Company says, “Not only Tariques and Tejender Singhs, Teekumsinghs and Tularams from kumaon hills also fought in foreign lands for their British masters. History may have forgotten them but it is unfortunate that while the whole of Europe commemorated the centenary of the beginning of the first great war Uttarakhand, despite its unique role in the war, preferred to give a miss to it like the rest of the country.”  Manorath Suyal lived in the remote village of Bhankar near Nainital in Kumaon hills.

Jim Corbett was 38 and was a railway contractor at Mokameh Ghat when the war broke out in 1914. His initial attempts to get the war time commission got turned down due to his age. But by 1917, when in European battlefields it became more of a war of attrition than a military action, Jim was ordered to raise a labour corps as Captain JE Corbett and command it at western fronts in France. Counting on the esteem, he was held in Kumaon, he recruited a personal unit of 500 Kumaonies “promising to the head of family of each that he would bring every single individual back home,” says Martin Booth the novelist, film maker and biographer of Jim.

Jim seldom spoke of what he used to call ‘The Kaiser’s War’, not even in his personal letters back home to Nainital. This correspondent however, remembers  Manorath Suyal and Madhavanand Bhagat of Bhimtal, recalling nostalgically that how ‘carpet sahib’ tried hard to ensure not only the physical well being of his men but also made it sure that they did not fall a victim to the European vices. Martin Booth writes, “His Kumaoni men looked up to him not as an officer but as a sadhu , a guru who would guard as much as lead them.” He did not take a leave in Europe because his men could not. His unit was variously posted to a number of scenes of action along the western front and faced many vicissitude- from bullets and bombs, the disease and biting cold and rats and trench foot. A report of Lord Ampthill, the overall in-charge of foreign labour corps troops fighting in France speaks laudably of his sincerity and concern for his 70 Kumaon Company. Of the 1.27 million Indians who left the Indian shores for fighting for British 47,756 could never come back. However, of Jim’s 500 only one did not live to return. He died not in action or of disease but of seasickness. These he resettled in their Kumaon villages. With his usual generosity he gave his war bonus to build a soldiers' canteen.

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