“There was an almighty explosion. A great cloud of dust and debris rose hundred of feet above. We saw our officers leap up and unsheathe their swords, shouting ‘Come on chaps, lets up and at em!’ If I felt a thrill at this old fashioned ritual, it did not last long”
– ‘Jick’ Rudra
From Delhi to
Agit Anil Rudra, or ‘Jick’ to his friends, was born in Delhi, India in 1896. Rudra came from an Indian and Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) family of Christian converts. His mother died four months after he was born. His father, the first Indian to be appointed Principal of Delhi’s celebrated St. Stephen’s College, was a friend of Mahatma Gandhi, who often used the Rudra family home as his base of operations in Delhi.
In 1915, Rudra travelled to Cambridge, he was disappointed to find it ‘unbusy, empty and dull’. The students had all gone to the front – worst of all, there was no cricket in the city’s ‘drab, wartime existence’.
Rudra joined the Universities and Public Schools Brigade, a part of Lord Kitchener’s Army. These volunteers from more privileged backgrounds held expectations of becoming officers within three months – Rudra would later find this not to be true for Indians. The recruiting officer, on spotting the 6 foot -tall Rudra wearing his turban, informed him that Indians were illegible for service. Rudra craftily enlisted the next day with his Ceylonese passport. Rudra’s regiment arrived to the trenches in red double-decker buses. Rudra recalled going on 48-hour gas duty:
Rudra’s regiment arrived to the trenches in red double-decker buses. Rudra recalled going on 48-hour gas duty:
“We found the dead and dying strewn all over the place. The area was contaminated so badly that if one stood in an affected place too long, the gas ate through the soles of one’s boots”
“[Rudra] carried this friend on his shoulders and took him to the infirmary . . . he was carrying a wounded man, but he wasn’t sure if he wouldn’t get shot by the British military police [who thought] that he was trying to run away from the battle.”
Tarun Maninal, Rudra’s grandson
“I remember that it was a beautiful summer’s day, sunny with a clear blue sky above; and I lay there wondering how that lovely day would end.”
Rudra described the Battle of the Somme in 1916 as ‘a pipe-dream victory of the generals and their staffs, fighting that battle at one remove from the front.’
“We found that the ground in front of us was a devastation of deep craters and churned up earth, with barbed wire lying in heaped entanglements. The generals had got it all wrong. We gazed at all this with fear and wonder.”
“As soon as we had scrambled up and begun our charge, we began to be mown down by enemy machine-gun fire. Men fell on all sides, some as they tried to climb over the wire obstacles, some even as they crouched on the ground. I saw officers fall while still brandishing their swords.”
To Rest in Scotland
Rudra suffered from trench foot; his feet ‘swollen, puffy and angry-red’ after three months without washing. He was sent to a Red Cross hospital in Dundee.
In those northern regions they had probably never seen a brown-skinned man. There was a lot of well-meant ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ from the nurses: ‘Oh look, here’s a darkie!’”
Rudra was one of the first Indians to be commissioned in the Indian Army. He travelled straight to the War Office, scraping the Flanders mud off his uniform to conduct his interview.
“All Victory Day were treated to free bus rides, free food. A uniform was the passport to all amenities. There was a long table offering a buffet meal, attended by a number of girls, pretty and otherwise, who first hugged and kissed us and then helped us to goodies.”
Rudra saw through two World Wars and became a general of the independent Indian Army. His family recall his fury at embassy staff for being refused a visa to travel to France to funeral for a British general of the First World War.
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