Bringing the forgotten history of Indian Army soldiers to light

Anusha Singh Wednesday 13th September 2023 07:02 EDT

A new exhibition at Hampton Court Palace, set to open from September15, will shed light on the forgotten history of Indian Army soldiers who camped on the palace grounds in the early 20th century.

This exhibit will delve into the soldiers' experiences during their encampments, public and press reactions, and their visits to commemorate Coronations. It will also acknowledge the Indian Army's contribution to wartime efforts and showcase personal items contributed by the public and local community groups connected to the Indian Army.

The display results from an appeal made by Historic Royal Palaces earlier in the year to gather objects related to the South Asian role in these historical events. The exhibition will recount the stories of Indian soldiers who resided at Hampton Court for the Coronations of King Edward VII in 1902, King George V in 1911, George VI in 1937, and the First World War Victory Parade in London.

The Indian Army at the Palace exhibition will feature a diverse array of previously unseen items, encompassing photographs, maps, postcards, and even a well-preserved military uniform.

Speaking to Asian Voice, Zakira Begum from Historic Royal Palaces explains what the exhibition is all about.

Can you provide an overview of the exhibition and its main objectives? What kind of research and historical sources did you rely on?

The Indian Army at the Palace uncovers the history of the encampments of Indian soldiers that took place in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace in the early twentieth century. It explores the story of these encampments in detail for the first time, including the soldiers’ experiences in camp, as well as press and public reactions to their stay. It will cover their visits to various Coronations and the First World War peace parades in 1919. 

We have been researching this area of the Palace’s history for a number of years now, and we’re really pleased to be displaying some newly acquired items from our collection for the first time in this exhibition.

The exhibition likely touches on themes of colonialism, identity, and multiculturalism. How are these themes explored and presented?

To give context to the encampment at Hampton Court Palace and the role the Indian Army, we touch on various themes including empire and colonialism, as the Indian soldiers at the encampment fought because India was part of the British empire during WW1 and WW2.

We’ve worked closely with local South Asian community groups throughout the exhibition process, supporting them to share their stories and objects as part of the display. Representatives from these groups have helped us to expand the Palace’s history to include these stories and we have learned a lot from working closely together.  Community groups also helped us to select some of the objects on display, contributed to the object labels and shared their reflections on the items and history being explored.  

Our aim throughout has been to mark and remember the contribution these soldiers made, and to present part of Hampton Court’s history that’s less well known to visitors today. Along with the objects and accompanying labels, we also have a short film in the exhibition, where direct descendants of the Indian soldiers reflect on their stories.

We have taken great care to design a display that allows visitors to explore this important piece of history in a safe and supportive space, including highlighting what themes and content will be included, and signposting to additional resources should these be required.  

In terms of artifacts and exhibits, can you highlight some of the most compelling elements visitors can expect to see in the exhibition?

We’re really excited to bring together a range of never-before-seen objects including many from Historic Royal Palaces’ own collection - which go on display for the first time – such as an official plan from one of the camps, press cuttings depicting the soldiers’ arrival at Hampton Court station, and various photographs of the army in and around the Palace grounds. In addition to this, objects submitted by the South Asian community as part of a public call-out will feature, including a 32nd Sikh Pioneers Indian Army Officer's tunic, medals and photos belonging to soldiers from the 1902 and 1911 contingents, original photographs of the Gurkha regiment in the 1919 parade and print news articles depicting the visits. 

What efforts were made to ensure that the voices and perspectives of the Indian Army soldiers and their families are accurately represented in the exhibition?

This has been an important part of the project and has underpinned our work as we developed the display. Historic Royal Palaces (the charity that cares for Hampton Court Palace) has worked closely with local South Asian community groups throughout the exhibition process, supporting them to share their stories and objects as part of the display. As I have mentioned above, these groups have helped to select some of the objects on display, as well as contributing to the object labels and sharing their reflections on the items and history being explored.  We have selected photographs and personal items relating to the soldiers’ and their experiences within the camp to be part of the display, in order to ensure their stories are fully represented. Finally, as I mentioned, we also have a short film in the exhibition, where direct descendants of the Indian soldiers reflect on their stories.

Were there any personal stories or accounts that particularly resonated with you? Could you share one that left a lasting impact?

All the stories submitted were really powerful and interesting but the one that did stand out for me was Dr Tej Pal Singh Ralmill’s story of his GG grandfather, who was part of the Indian Army and camped at Hampton Court. He explained to us that the soldiers were so unprepared for cold weather while serving in WW1 that the ink in their pens froze up while writing letters home and had to resort to using pencils only. It was also really sobering to hear of the racial discrimination soldiers faced while serving in the British Indian Army.  

How do you hope the exhibition will contribute to the broader discourse on history, diversity, and cultural heritage?

The sites that we at Historic Royal Palaces look after – such as Hampton Court Palace – are well-known for the monarchs that have lived there throughout the centuries, so it’s been really exciting to share a part of the Palace’s history that is much less-known by our visitors.  It’s been fascinating to add another layer to the Palace’s history, working closely with our community partners and including their personal reflections in the display. We hope that our small exhibition allows visitors to reflect on the stories which feature and encourages them to find out more about the contribution made by the Indian army to WW1 and WW2.

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