A Book of Words – XXXI

“Our Indian Troops in France”

by Rudyard Kipling

WE are told that time softens the sense of loss. That may be possible, but I am sure that, as the actual memories of the War itself recede into the background of the years, we in England have come more and more to realise the patience, endurance, and good-will of that great Ally with whom we entered into the War, and with whom, under your final direction, Maréchal, we ended it. Patience, endurance, and good-will are not spectacular virtues, but they underlie the foundations of honour, respect, and enduring affection between nations as between individuals. It is in this atmosphere of trusted honour, unity, and confidence that we have this day unveiled on your soil our memorial to the Armies of India, who, like your own incomparable legions from the south and east of your Empire, followed our united standards into the War. Like your Armies, also, they were of a great simplicity and an utter loyalty—soldiers for whom there was no darker sin than that of being false to the salt of their obligation.Our Secretary of State for India has touched on the material difficulties and bewilderments that met them in their adventure to the West. Have you ever thought what they endured on the spiritual side when they voyaged forth over oceans whose existence they had never conceived, into lands which lay beyond the extremest limits of their imagination, into countries which, for aught they knew, were populated by devils and monsters? Columbus and his men, seeking new worlds, did not confront half the dread possibilities which these men of India prepared themselves to meet. And in that mood they came to France, and presently wrote letters home to their relatives and their friends trying to make clear to them the spirit of this new universe. Some of these letters I have read. I can testify it was not long before the essential humanity, honesty, good-will, and the sane thrift of France as an agricultural nation soothed their hearts and set their minds at rest.

One young man, whose letter I can quote almost textually, wrote, to reassure his mother, in these words: “Oh, my mother, do not be afraid. These people are as civilised as ourselves, and, above all, the women are as good agriculturists as the men. I have seen it. Their land passes from father to son on payment of the necessary taxes, precisely as it does with us. They buy and sell in the streets, too—portions of fowl and meat, with needles, thread, scissors, and matches, just as we do in our bazaars at home. Have, then, no more fear, for they are in all respects like ourselves.”

That was but one soul among many of all races, castes, and religions whom the gracious spirit and reason of your country had conquered and put at ease. I wish that, in these few words, I could give you any idea of the extent and permanence of your conquest in India.

But these men have done their duty and passed on. There remains behind them the memorial to their dead, concerning which you, Maréchal, so eloquently spoke this morning.

That witness to their honour and, fidelity we confide to France—to the age-old Power with whom, for a thousand years, we have been associated in the development and charge of the world’s civilisation—which, together, we now guard!