Jangnama, a genre of historical poetic writing, which documents the events of a war, entered Punjab in the late sixteenth century as a literary response to the Persian epics. It found patronage in the hands of Punjabi Muslim poets such as Maulvi Rukundin, Hamid and Shahjahan Muqbal, who honed this craft commemorating the seventh-century Islamic wars of Karbala, Badr and Uhud.

Afghan invasions, the crumbling Mughal Empire and rise of the Sikh power in the late eighteenth century created another period of great turmoil and conquest in Punjab. This brought war as a tangible phenomenon to the Punjabi poet and led to a renaissance in jangnama literature. It shifted from religious metaphorical style to a historically accurate poetic description of war as witnessed by contemporary poets.

Nand Singh, an Indian poet and soldier who witnessed the First World War fighting under the British in Aden, opens his collection of poems titled Jangnama Europe with the assassination of the shehzada of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by the Serbians. His poem then goes on to talk about the events that led to the German invasion of Belgium and how “the compassionate British Government stood with Belgium and France against the arrogant Germany who broke all the agreement”.

Nand Singh’s work and other jangnamas of the British period in Punjab are valuable literary and historical narratives providing rare subaltern perspectives about the colonial wars and conflicts.

Even prior to the First World War, Punjabi soldiers had fought under British officers in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the Anglo-Egyptian war, the Second Opium War, the Boxer Rebellion in China and multiple campaigns in the North-West Frontier. There was very little documentation of these many wars spread almost two centuries “from below”, and of this limited historiography, jangnama poetry holds a vital but largely forgotten position. Nand Singh finished his Jangnama Europe on June 7, 1919; it is arguably the first work in Punjabi discussing the European and Middle Eastern people, empires and politics.

The magnum opus of this genre is about the final war of the Sikh empire of Punjab – Jangnama Hind Punjab, or Singhan Firanghian (Sikhs and British) as it is variously titled, was composed by Shah Muhammad, a Punjabi Muslim from Gurdaspur in central Punjab. It chronicles the events that led up to the First Anglo-Sikh War in 1845, from the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the treachery and politics that followed in his court and finally the battle the Sikhs lost.

In the British Raj, specifically during the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, defeated Sikh chiefs heralded the British call to “retrieve their characters” by taking up service in the British Indian Army. Most of those who signed up subsequently served in the North-West Frontier, which remained the constant theatre of war under the British. The bleak, bloodthirsty high mountain passes inspired a great deal of poetry, ranging from the romanticised ballads of Rudyard Kipling to the folk Pashto legends of Malalai of Maiwand, who died rallying the Afghan Ghazis to fight the “British infidels” in the Battle of Maiwand during the Second Anglo-Afghan War. At least half a dozen jangnamas were composed in this period; the most notable are the ones about the siege of Delhi during the Mutiny and the expeditions to Chitral, Tirah and Malakand in the North-West Frontier during the last decade of the 19th century.

The earliest Punjabi jangnama about the First World War seems to be the Germany Jung or The German War by Hakim Ishar Singh Kooner of Riyasat, Patiala.

It was published in 1914 and the author is not aware of the further spread of the war in the Balkans and the Eastern Front. Moreover, Kooner was not a soldier and thus his account is not that of an eye witness; it merely imaginatively expresses the war of Serbia, Belgium, Britain, France and Russia against Germany.

As the war progressed, a number of works were produced in Punjab. Some were part of folk culture such as mahiye and tappe sung by Punjabi women; others included government sponsored posters, gramophone recordings, songs and books. One such short book was Karza Maddat Jang by Kavishar Wariam Singh, printed by the orders of the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab along with a series of another media to encourage contribution towards the war loan by the Indian population.

Except for Nand Singh’s Jangnama Europe, most other works are of very short length and seldom have any details covering multiple fronts or the events back in Punjab. Jangnama Europe is a voluminous work and prefixed “Vadda” meaning larger to indicate the same. Havildar Nand Singh, who composed Jangnama Europe giving an empirical account of the First World War, was a sergeant in the Malay State Guides. His regiment was raised in 1896 with its headquarters in Taiping, Malaysia. It had its origins in the Perak Sikh police force and composed mainly of Punjabi Sikh and Muslim soldiers. The Guides had offered overseas service multiple times, but it was not until the First World War that the regiment was baptised by blood in Yemen. On September 26, 1915, they left Taiping to join the Aden Field Force. After opening the verse with the traditional ode to gods and deities, Nand Singh lucidly articulates the tragedy of Europe in juxtaposition with the factual and mythical tragedies popular in Punjab at the time as follows:

The wrath of destiny has fallen upon mankind since ages
Overthrowing civilisations, Hindustan has often seen the rages
Shams Tabrez and Mansur have seen its spleen, on An-al-Haq’s life it has fallen upon
Look how it endured upon Hassan and Hussain, on Ali Wali’s wealth it has fallen upon
Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva the great deities, on Krishan’s being it has fallen upon
Ram Chandra, Lakshman and Sita went through great pains, on old and young it has fallen upon
Jasrath, the King of Palaces and wealth, on his magnanimity it has fallen upon
Remember how it finished Khalil, as a saw on Zakriya it has fallen upon
The great saints of Prahlad and Pooran, the saviours of Ved and Puran it has fallen upon
Yousuf and Zulaikha the famed, as blind sold in bazaar it has fallen upon
Jaimal and Fatta, the warriors of Chittor, the men of this world it has fallen upon
Dulla had to die, on Jeona Morh’s pride it has fallen upon
Ranjha, Heer and Sohni all faced its fury, on Sahiba the beautiful it has fallen upon
Sassi died of thirst looking for Baloch, on Mirza’s bows and arrows it has fallen upon
The country of Europe now faces the inevitable, dark clouds in the sky it has fallen upon
No one can stop the wrath of the destiny, Nand Singh says on battlefield the war has fallen upon.

Nand Singh goes on to talk about the recruitment: how everyone from the weaver, the bard to the teacher, the clerk and even Pundits and Maulvis were drafted into the service and trained in digging bunkers, shooting rifles and saluting officers. Early in the war, recruitment was seen as a cause for excitement among the men as it opened up the chances of getting a uniform, of seeing the world and if, perchance, they were to survive, it offered the opportunity to earn constant wages even after the war until it was time for them to retire.

The young man was finally of some worth, the recruitment opened!
The weak and the poor man had finally some value of his being!

However, as the war progressed, and the British government pressed local officials to fulfil the recruitment quotas, it turned into a nightmare in some places. The poet repeatedly returns to talk about the misery and longing of the women left behind in their homes. For them, both local officials and Germans turn villainous, they lament the local police constable who threatened their sons with false accusations to force them to enlist and loathe the zaildar and village heads who took their sons, brothers and husbands away from them. With the progress of war, they start receiving messages of soldier’s deaths from regimental stations and they moan and wail at Germany for its cruelty, for killing their sons in the unheard lands of France and Basra.

The first lady says to the second, I have lost all appetite as I can’t see my loved son anymore
Second one says, Oh my friend I have the same grief; it pains my heart to even think about it
Third one says, curses to the police constable who made a false charge and forced my son
Fourth says, death to the village head; who with all his men charged into our home
Fifth one loathes the zaildar, I have lost the elder son and the younger one is left behind
Sixth says, I can’t forget the last moment of my son, touching my feet he said “Mother” and left!

Although the regiments had strict class compositions, with the increased demand for recruitment, the list for martial classes was expanded in addition to recruitment outside the classes. It opened new doors for both progress as well as fears among the fresh recruits and their families about the casteism they could face while away from home along with merciless battlefields.

Noori says, O! Listen to me Gama, I plead in Quran’s name; leave your name off the list!
We the weavers are suited for our jobs, among the Jats you will suffer. Whole day and night there is nothing but volleys of bullets and bombardment,
God forbid, if something happens, how will I face the world?

In contrast to most other jangnamas of this period, Nand Singh’s tone is not one of flattery; for example, he uses the word sahib once only for Lord Kitchener. However, he recurrently stresses namak halali whether it be of the 14th Sikh Regiment who fought almost to their last man at Gallipoli or as a virtue for new recruits to uphold. His work thus provides a measured outlook to the war and an insight into what regimental honour and loyalty meant to the native soldiers.

Adulation is more frequent in British-sponsored works such as Qasim Ali’s Zafarnamah-i-Kabul, which is considered a poetic rendering of the First Afghan War, which favours the British to counter the popular jangnamas of this war composed by Hamid Kashmiri and Mohammad Gholam Gholami. Similarly, the jangnama of Chitral, in which Subedar Wadhawa Singh of the 23rd Sikh Pioneers Regiment sketches the dramatic murder of the ruler of Chitral by his brother Amir-ul Mulk, the siege of the fort and then finally relief under Major General Sir Robert Low, also has a pronounced eulogising of the British. It was presented by the poet to his Colonel SV Gordon in 1896 and seems to have then been used as an instrument to further strengthen the fidelity of the native troops.

Coming back to Jangnama Europe, Nand Singh discusses multiple theatres of war ranging from Gallipoli, Kut-al-Amara and Baghdad to the Battle of Verdun on the Western Front. He vividly describes his own regiment’s multiple confrontations in and near Aden and their bravery, which won them a Military Cross, an Indian Order of Merit, eight Indian Distinguished Service Medals and praise and appreciation from Major General JM Stewart, the General Officer commanding the Aden Field Force.

Even the war’s end did not bring relief for Nand Singh and his fellow soldiers.

When the guns and artillery were silenced, they continued to lose their lives as they were struck down by the influenza epidemic, which eventually claimed the lives of an estimated 14 million Indians (not just soldiers). Nand Singh writes:

With the telegraphs of armistice, nemesis changed its face
The deadly fever spread, it takes a man’s life faster than the bullet’s pace.

In 1914, the Malay State Guides had initially refused to mobilise. The reasons have been variously linked to the seditious Ghadarite influence, the Komagata Maru incident, and sympathy of Muslim soldiers with the Khilafat Movement. Although they did eventually renew their offer, the British were ever mindful of this reluctance and disbanded the regiment in 1919. The soldiers were either absorbed into other regiments or returned to Punjab with gratuity and pensions. Nand Singh most probably returned home having proved his namak halali, but ironically with a seditious label.

The beauty of the jangnama narrative is that it reveals the soldiers’ courage in its most naked form, celebrating their ability to brave fear and continue against all odds. Nand Singh sustains this tradition and writes:

Death holds no fear for us, what honour is it to fall abaft holding the saber fine?
After raising the Sarkar’s rifle, what honour is it to fright and whine? Die thyself or kill thy enemy, what honour is it to war without all thy might?
After enlisting on the rolls, what honour is it to fear death or even its sight?
Seeking to prove loyalty, what honour is it hold back from the battlefield?
Never keep the trader’s heart, what honour is it to blame fate and yield? 

Excerpted with permission from ‘Jangnama Europe’, by Raman Singh Chhina, from The Great War: Indian Writings on the First World War, edited by Rakhshanda Jalil, Bloomsbury.