Historic Image: Ward
South Drawing Room (now Banqueting Room Gallery) of Royal Pavilion as an Indian Hospital ward, 1915.
This is where George the Fourth retired with his guests after dinner. But he wasn’t the only king to pass through these rooms. Nearly a hundred years later, George the Fifth visited the hospital several times.
‘I have a funny story to tell which occurred at the Royal Pavilion during a visit by the King and the Queen and the children. As the King was doing his rounds in the wards, Jamedar Sobat Khan of the 129th Baluchis suddenly produced an autograph book and a pen for the Emperor to sign his name. There were looks of horror from the commanding officer, but the King most graciously sat down on Jamedar’s bed and wrote; ‘I was pleased to visit and meet Jamedar Sobat Khan. George R’. Discipline in our hospital was very strict, so immediately after the royal party had left the CO remonstrated with the patient and asked him why he had troubled His Majesty. The Jamedar just smiled and said, ‘If I can take the trouble to leave my home and get severely wounded and maimed for life for the sake of His Majesty, surely he can’t mind this little trouble to sign his name in my book’.
That was Davinder Dhillon, co-ordinator of the Chattri memorial, reading an account of the King’s visit in 1915 by D.R.Tharpar, assistant quartermaster at the Pavilion.
Throughout the war, members of the royal family visited the Pavilion to help boost morale among the patients, both when it was an Indian hospital and as a hospital for limbless men. In the case of the Indian Hospital, this was also part of a wider strategy not only to thank wounded troops for their sacrifice in person, but also to ensure the loyalty of the Indian army in supporting the British Empire.
Most of the Indian soldiers cared for at the Pavilion were illiterate, so a secretary or scribe would have written their letters for them. The letters were then sent to a censorship office in Boulogne, where they were translated into English and if necessary redacted before being sent on. Very few original letters survive, but we still have the translations, giving an insight into what the patients thought about their situation both on the battlefield and at the Pavilion.
‘Do not be anxious about me’, writes Isar Singh of the 59th Rifles.
‘We are very well looked after, white soldiers are always beside our beds, day and night. We get very good food four times a day, we also get milk. Our hospital is in the place where the King used to have his throne. Every man is washed once in hot water. The King has given a strict order that no trouble be given to any black man in the hospital. Men in the hospital are tended like flowers and the King and Queen sometimes come to visit them.’
The Indian patients knew that their letters were being censored, and sometimes used a simple code. In another letter, black pepper refers to Indian troops, red pepper to British troops.
‘I have received your card dated 24th February 1915 and mastered its contents. The state of affairs here is as follows. The black pepper is finished, now the red pepper is being used. Occasionally the black pepper proves useful. The black pepper is very pungent and the red pepper is not so strong. This is a secret, but you are a wise man; consider it with your understanding.’
The Pavilion as Political Tool
One important advantage of using the Pavilion to treat sick and wounded Indian troops was the political role this former palace could play, both in Britain and particularly back in India.
Shortly before the hospital opened, Turkey had entered the war as an ally of Germany. This presented a new threat to the Suez Canal and to British rule in India. It was therefore more important than ever for Britain to ensure continued Indian loyalty to the British Empire.
Britain had learned many lessons from the Indian Mutiny of 1857, when a series of uprisings sparked by religious insensitivity had almost ended British colonial rule in India. The British now recognised that their continued presence in India depended on understanding and respecting the religious and cultural needs of the Indian people. The Indian hospital reflected this awareness, thereby ensuring that an important message was sent back to India. Kevin Bacon explains.
‘What the British were really trying to do with the Pavilion hospital in particular was really promote it as a sign of British benevolence, and this is really benevolence that is in many ways expressed through the care given to the religious and cultural needs of the Indian patients here. And this is recognition of a political situation in which British rule in India is under intense threat, because it’s a time when Britain not only needs Indian troops to support its efforts on the Western Front, but it also has no army that it can deploy to try to keep India under its own control. So the Pavilion is part of a media spectacle in a sense, which is there to demonstrate how well cared for the Indian patients were in Brighton.’