The tragedy of Syria and Iraq brings to mind those days, more than hundred years ago, when a war overtook the world, decimated the youth of England and Europe, brought technology and killing machines – the end of flag hoisting heroes and young heroic buglers, cannons and muskets, replaced instead, by mass casualties, chemical warfare and young men drowning in mire and mud.
World War I will always be remembered by the changes that came with it, ambulances, tanks, machine guns and of course Big Bertha: the gun to end all guns and finally fighter airplanes bombarding at the end the war.
In the background of the big battles in Flanders and Normandy, another war raged on: an attempt by the Kaiser to open a third front, and surreptitiously build a railway connecting Berlin to Bombay. It could have been part of the Great Game played by the European powers to gain ascendancy over the Middle East. The Springs of Abadan and oil, played the most important part then, as they do now.
Meanwhile, in a remote corner of this region, against all odds, a few Indian revolutionaries aided by German Consuls of the Kaiser, planned to enter India via the remote borders of Afghanistan and Balochistan, to provoke an insurrection against the British colonisers.
Pandurang Khankhoje, Agashe, and Pramatnath Dutta were part of this group of dedicated freedom fighters of the Ghadar Party.
An expedition led by Wilhelm Wassmuss was to take Pandurang Khankhoje, Dutta and Agashe into a series of skirmishes and battles against the British Army, led by the Brigadier General Sir Percy Sykes. Khankhoje, a young revolutionary full of patriotic enthusiasm, dreamt of entering India through the desolate borders of Balochistan.
He had studied the topography and thought the terrain suitable to sneak a small army into India, and incite the tribes into rebellion – a rebellion that he hoped would spread to bring independence to India. The caves, the rocky areas, the arid desolate land was ideal to hide small groups of men and the warring Baloch tribes could easily be provoked to fight against the British.
Wilhelm Wassmuss was a legendary figure in the German army, and has since been dubbed the German Lawrence of Arabia. This romantic figure almost out of the pages of an adventure novel was wild and reckless: he dressed and lived as an Arab chieftain, spoke the language and had adapted to the customs of the land, living in tents, and fighting guerrilla warfare with the help of tribal warlords.
Wassmuss flitted in and out of trouble with the greatest ease – he had no need to entertain the Indian revolutionaries, but he had been entrusted by the Kaiser with gold to finance this expedition, to provide arms and ammunition and to create diversionary tactics, to occupy the British forces.
Khankhoje’s plans were the dreams of an idealist fighting an almost Quixotic war – tilting at the windmills of the great British army. Although it was doomed from the very beginning, he never gave up. In an account of this episode, Christopher Sykes, the son of Sir Percy Sykes, makes only a passing reference to the “disaffected Indians” in the group. They were in the hinterland of a Great War, fighting on the sidelines, driven by democratic ideals, they were to remain unknown, unsung, some were to die in those dry desert regions to remain forever forgotten.
Khankhoje and his friends set off with Wassmuss on a train from Constantinople to Iskanderun. The allied forces based in Cyprus, bombed the German convoy. Most of the propaganda leaflets, arms, ammunition and supplies were destroyed. Badly shaken and afraid for their lives, they arrived at Iskanderun, suddenly realising that they were in the middle of a major war.
Facing an uncertain future they decided to journey from Iskanderun by crossing the difficult and mountainous region of Antioch to join the main party. They travelled on horseback, traversing those difficult regions to finally land up in Aleppo – an Aleppo so very different from the bombed and devastated city of today. They rode quietly, avoiding main routes and hiding in the rocky areas till they finally met up with the main party and soon they were on their way to Baghdad.
The journey from Aleppo to Baghdad would be one of the most dangerous ever encountered by them, as the Sultan of Turkey had declared a Jehad against the British. The shifting allegiances and abundance of British spies created not only an atmosphere of distrust but also of great danger. They traversed the 100 miles from Aleppo to Deyr-az-Zawr, always hiding and avoiding enemies and the warring tribes to finally end up on the banks of the river Euphrates in what is now Iraq, but what in those days was known as Mesopotamia.
They were now in a different country, riding for two hundred miles along the river till they entered Hit. It was like arriving in paradise: the ancient country of biblical times, where the Hittites had created date palm gardens, orchards and aqueducts with stone piers and water wheels. One wonders what is left of all this, after the constant state of attrition in this historical region. The rest of the country is hot and dry beset by terrible sandstorms and hot winds.
Khankhoje and our party of Indian revolutionaries carried on, crossing the Saklawie canal before eventually crossing the river Tigris.
They arrived in Baghdad, where Khankhoje felt he had been transported right into the Arabian Nights, to a magical place of mosques and blue tiled minarets, catching rays of the morning sun. This beautiful city was a small commercial town, well guarded and surrounded by great walls with a population of 80,000 people that mostly catered to the pilgrims of the sacred shrines of Najaf and Karbala.
In Baghdad, the revolutionaries heard that the British army had arrived in the Persian port of Bushire, the party had jumped right into the fires of war. Besieged, they decided to embark on a local makeshift boat and sail down the Tigris River in stealth. They sailed quietly, in the darkness of the night in complete silence, hiding under the sails, carrying bales of hay and farm produce. They drifted from Baghdad to Kut-el Amara, the site of a famous World War I battle, to arrive at their destination on the Pusht-e-Kuh mountain ranges.
They crossed the turbulent currents of River Dez to arrive in Dezful, and then on to Shustar, when suddenly the night sky was lit with a hundred flares. They found themselves surrounded, and after a violent skirmish, Wassmuss and the Indians were captured.
Imprisoned in a makeshift jail, they managed to escape in the middle of the night as the guards slept. Khankhoje and his friends thought it wise to separate, and left disguised as servants of the Wali Saheb. They sailed in the direction of the Persian Gulf, in a small dhow, when the direction of the wind changed, and soon, they were in the middle of a raging storm. They arrived in Persia miserable and sick, but safe, having eluded the British troops.
Khankhoje spent more than a year in Persia, now Iran. He raised a small army of 5,000 men and fought several battles against the British on the way to Indian Balochistan, where he was finally wounded, and his army decimated in the battle on the mountain of Baft. Taken prisoner, he escaped once more, and went on to live for another year under the protection and patronage of the Khashghai tribals.
But that is a story for another day…
Dr Savitri Sawhney is Pandurang Khankhoje’s daughter.