WWI Indian troops ‘denied’ shell-shock care

WWI Indian troops ‘denied’ shell-shock care

A group of Indian artists visiting the UK to mark the centenary of the end of the First World War are claiming they have uncovered documents that reveal bias against Indian troops. 

The Delhi-based artists from the Raqs Media Collective said British Library documents revealed London systematically neglected to treat psychological problems among Indian soldiers. 

Indian troops and those from what was described as “lower social orders” were not officially recognised as suffering from shell shock – a syndrome that is now called post-traumatic stress disorder.

The term “trench back” was often adopted to describe symptoms that were, in reality, psychological.

In the summer of 1915, Captain John Sandes, who was in charge of electrotherapy at the temporary Kitchener Indian Hospital in Brighton, described his treatment of trench back in the British Medical Journal. “In a certain proportion a pronounced psychical factor can be traced, and these cases present features similar in many respects to the condition known as ‘railway spine’ and are always difficult to treat.”

Reports by the chief censor of Indian military correspondence in France, Evelyn Berkeley Howell, detailed the increasing mental illness suffered by Indian troops. 

“Many of the men show a tendency to break into poetry which I am inclined to regard as a rather ominous sign of mental disquietude. The number of letters written by men who have obviously given way to despair has also increased both absolutely and relatively.”

The Indian artists have created a twisting complex of padded cells to represent the conditions in the hospitals. 

Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs said: “The condition of shell shock was first diagnosed in 1915 by the English doctor Charles Meyers. But documents we found in the British Library show Meyers quickly dropped the term because it was feared ordinary soldiers would find it easy to understand and so would ask to be seen by medics. 

“Instead Meyers suggested a more opaque diagnosis of NYD, or not yet diagnosed or nervous, which ordinary soldiers would find harder to use,” the artist said. The Senguptas artists are working on a project in the military town of Colchester. 

They said British commanding officers appeared to use both class and ethnicity to ration mental-health care during recuperation periods away from the front. 

More than 1.3 million Indian soldiers were part of the British Indian Army. 

More than 70 million personnel, including 60 million Europeans, were estimated to have been mobilised during the 1914-18 war. 


The Somme in 1916. The Indian contribution to the First World War is often neglected in Europe and India. Picture credit: Wikimedia

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