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WW1 racism: in sickness and in death

April 25, 2021

The revelations about the appalling lack of respect accorded to Indian and African troops who died serving the British Empire in the First World War comes as little surprise, although that does not lessen the shock and shame.

Anyone who has seriously studied that war and the role played by Empire soldiers will know that racial prejudice and discrimination was rife. Just as it was inhumanely manifest in how they were treated in death, so it was in how they were treated when they were wounded or ill.

It was a constant background to the story of Thomas Kelly, the Irish Catholic doctor from Galway, whose story I told in Fighting for the Empire.

He was a doctor in the Indian Medical Service which, as the name suggests, was responsible for providing medical services to Indian regiments. He had already been doing this for nearly 20 years when the First World War broke out and he had run into many examples of racism during his career. The doctors in the Royal Army Medical Corps – only responsible for treating white soldiers ­­– looked down on the IMS doctors. Kelly had been dismissed as a “Sikh fellow” by one RAMC doctor when serving in Tibet, the implication being that by looking after the Indian troops he had somehow gone native in the eyes of RAMC medics.

Wasteful discrimination
In 1914 Kelly was put in command of an IMS medical unit and sent to Egypt where he quickly found himself arguing with the British commanders of Indian military units about their treatment of the men under their command. A constant irritation to him was what he saw as the wasteful separation of medical services, the IMS for Indian troops and the RAMC for British soldiers. Too often, Indian soldiers were turned away from RAMC facilities, something Kelly refused to reciprocate, treating anyone who needed help.

This separation started to break down in 1915 when he was sent to Aden where the Turks were forcing the British back. There he found the medical services overwhelmed and was given a free hand to sort the mess out, including being put in command of an RAMC unit alongside his own IMS unit in the nick of time as a major counter-offensive was being launched. His work in creating a hospital overnight out of dockside warehouses won him one of his many Mentions in Dispatches.

From Aden he was sent to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq) where the medical situation was even worse following the capture of Kut by the Turks after a long siege, one of Britain’s great military failures. It was as if little or nothing had been learnt in the wake of Florence Nightingale’s encounter with poor medical care in the Crimea over half a century earlier.

In Mesopotamia, the separation of RAMC and IMS medical units was part of the problem, as Kelly pointed out to the military commanders whenever he had the opportunity. Eventually, they gave way and merged them in the field with Kelly put in command of one of the first of the new generation of combined hospital facilities in Nasariyah.

He was not finished.

Campaign for equal quality of care
His next campaign was to ensure that both British and Indian troops, although still on separate wards in the combined hospitals, received the same quality of treatment. His most insistent complaint was the refusal of the military high command to allow British nurses to care for Indian troops instead of having to rely on less well trained male Indian orderlies. There is a remarkable exchange of memoranda in the National Archives between Kelly and Lt General Stanley Maude, the Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in Mesopotamia, in which Maude played every card imaginable, many of them insultingly racist, to block Kelly’s demands.

Kelly, second right, shows Gen Maude around his new combined hospital accompanied by Sister Phoebe Exshaw

Eventually, Kelly won as the War Office in London, reeling from Parliamentary criticism of the collapse of the medical services at Kut, stepped in and authorised a trial. Within two weeks Kelly had six British nurses, all volunteers, led by Sister Phoebe Exshaw, settling in at Nasariyah.

The combined hospitals and field ambulances, together with the deployment of trained British nurses gradually became established across all the combat zones, small victories against the institutional racism that casts its long, tragic shadow across so many aspects of the history of the British Empire. It is a shadow that needs to be acknowledged but not allowed to completely obscure the stories of those like Kelly constantly struggling to live out a higher set of values in the service of humanity.

Kelly was Mentioned in Dispatches on four occasions during WW1 and awarded the Distinguished Service Order on the recommendation of General Maude, a magnanimous gesture. At the end of the war, aged 48, he married Gertrude Fenn in Bombay, one of those six nurses who volunteered to break down some of those racial barriers.

Fighting for the Empire was published by Sabrestorm Publishing in 2016.

From → History, Publishing

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