In May 1917 the men of the Manipur Labour Corps walked the 130 miles to the railway station at Diampur to entrain for Bombay, this is their story.
Note on content: The quotes included below do not reflect the views of Alford Manor House Museum or the author. They are intended to portray the prejudice of the time. Through hard work, bravery and determination the men of Manipur helped to change that prejudice.
The Manipur Labour Corps
In Jan 1917 the Viceroy of India requested an additional 50,000 labourers. Assam provided 17 companies, drawing primarily on what the British categorized as the “primitive hill-men” of the region. Lord Ampthill, the advisor to the Directorate of Labour for the ILC in France, is recorded as wondering how the “men from the hills and jungles who have barely emerged from barbarism” would shape up as labour. He would later confess that “these Nagas, Khasis, Manipuris and Lushais were very engaging savages”. Existing corvee systems were used to coerce the chiefs to provide men for the war, tax and labour avoidance incentives were used followed by the threat of punitive measures. The relatives of Kuingai Muivah still have his Certificate of Service, issued by the Manipur State, which declares that he is exempted for life from payment of house tax, Pothang (forced labour) and Begar (free labour) as he served with the Manipur Labour Corps in France. Opposition had been marked among many of the tribes including the Tangkhul Nagas. The persistence of Higgins and others resulted in the first labour corps but plans to form a second were initially abandoned due to the strong opposition.
Quotes cited in Radhika Singh: The Recruiter’s Eye on “the Primitive”…
The Journey to France
William Pettigrew, an American Baptist Missionary was noted as being extremely helpful during recruitment by Higgins, he also sought help from Ruichumhao to persuade the elders. The Influence of such missionaries and Manipuri evangelists resulted in 2,000 recruits assembled in Imphal ready for training in April 1917, the companies of the corps were divided along community lines comprised of: 1200 Tangkhul Nagas, 500 Kuki, the Meitei and the Kom. Following three weeks drilling the Manipur Labour Corps walked the 130 miles to the railway station at Diampur to entrain for Bombay. They sailed from Bombay to the port of Aden, up the Red Sea and the Suez Canal. The sleeping arrangements consisted of two, foot wide, boards covered with straw palliasse packed very tightly side by side, two blankets each with instructions to use kit bags as pillows. The sea journey was marked by fear, seasickness, depression and a cholera outbreak that resulted in month long quarantine at Taranto, Italy, where ten Manipuri men are buried. The monotonous diet mainly comprised of potatoes onions and ginger. The men of the labour corps were enlisted as followers and as such they received a lower standard of food, kit and medical care than their counterparts in the regular army.
Regulations for Indian Labour Corps
The prejudice of the time continued in France, the Indian Labour Corps (ILC) were described as a force of primitive people who had never gone beyond their villages. The men were prohibited, on the grounds of colour, from entering French cafes and their own canteen was not allowed to sell alcohol. The established British treatment of the men when working as porters and labourers in India was confused by the terms of their engagement during the war. Specifically the accepted practice of caning came under scrutiny as the regular army contracts required a Court Martial first. The ILC officers belief that flogging on the spot was the only punishment that these men understood, and therefore the most effective, was upheld by Ampthill. The regulations were adapted to enable an immediate Court Martial to be held and up to 30 lashes could be delivered on the sole judgement of the commanding officer.
Experience of France: the work and the cold
The artisan culture of the hill men resulted in their excellence in forestry and construction work. One Manipur company set up a workshop to repair tools and boots, as they were only allowed one pair. The 65th and 66th Manipuri Labour Corps carried out semi skilled work on camp construction and trench boards, while the 66th were also noted for road making, brick making and quarrying. By March 1918 Captain Holland described the 66th Manipuri companies as “working with keenness and intelligence” they were also providing checkers for road work which released white labour. Britain’s agreement with Germany in 1917 to regulate the use of POW labour close to the front line resulted in the use of other labourers closer to the front line. Higgins’ reassurances regarding the dangers of war were far behind them.
Quotes cited in Radhika Singh: The Recruiter’s Eye on “the Primitive” ….
In October of 1917 the Directorate advised that only the hill men should be sent to Northern France during the winter. In early January 1918 Ampthill reported on the supply base at Abancourt noting that the men were withstanding the cold well, although the old huts and cold flooring were “grind of relentless toil”. Three Manipuri men died of pneumonia at Abancourt that week, in all fourteen Manipuri men are buried at the nearby cemetery, nine of them died from pneumonia. Amputations due to frostbite were very high among the ILC. Some Indian companies were given opium to keep the men going through the cold winter of 1917-1918. Mixed with treacle the twice weekly dose kept Sepoys, Followers and Porter columns working. Treacle became a euphemism under which Indian army officers ordered opium from stores.
Quotes cited in Radhika Singh: The Short Career of the Indian Labour Corps in France 1917-1919
The Manipur Labour Corps returned home in June 1918. The men of the Labour Corps who returned were treated as heroes, they were awarded the bronze medal. The fate of many men of the Manipur Labour Corps remains unknown.