I’ve been taking a bit of a hiatus from the blog these past few months to work on a book about my two years living in Myanmar, but this photo was simply too good to pass up.
I always suspected that troops from Myanmar fought in WW1 as the country was then part of India and troops of the Indian army took part in the Battle of the Somme and fought the Germans in East Africa, but I assumed that these Burmese soldiers would simply have been swallowed up amidst the amazing ethnic diversity of the Indian Expeditionary Force.
Then I came upon this photo showing Burmese troops serving in France in 1917. As it turns out, not only were there Burmese troops serving on the Western Front, but they served together in exclusively Burmese units.
The photo is captioned “Burmese troops hold a council of war upon rats. Contalmaison, 2.9.17” and shows a group of men conversing together. Immediately, the image hints at three interesting aspects of Burma’s participation in WW1.
The first is that most of the troops sent to France were from ethnic minorities such as the Chin, Shan and Kachin peoples of Upper Myanmar. Michael Charney’s entry for Burma in the International Encyclopedia of the First World War tells us that these groups were viewed as “martial races” by the British, whereas the British thought the Bamar (Myanmar’s majority ethnic group) “only suited to be cultivators.” As such, while the highland minorities were recruited to fight in France, the Bamar were mostly recruited as drivers, sappers and miners on the Mesopotamian front. It is likely that the men in the picture are not ethnic Bamar, but rather from one of these upland minority groups.
The second is hidden in the caption to the photo: “Burmese troops hold a council of war upon rats.” This is a joke at the expense of the Burmese men in the photo and underscores the whole of the British attitude towards colonial troops in the First World War – that they were not really suited to modern warfare and were more or less inept.
The caption seems to suggest that these troops would be better suited to fighting rats than fighting Germans. It is unlikely that these troops would have been given either the glory of the front lines, or the more cushy tasks of garrison duty. Rather, they were probably used to dig trenches, build bridges and clear roads. The photo also contains all the hallmarks of the ethnographic photography of the period (the Burmese have been caught in a very “Burmese” pose – squatting in a circle – one that can still be seen in Myanmar today and not in the heat of battle).
The third is that Burmese and Indian troops were woefully unprepared for war on the Western Front. The men in the photo are wearing cowls and woolen tunics to protect them from the cold, but lack the great coats of the British troops. They are pictured here without weapons, recalling the Indian Army soldiers who arrived at Ypres in 1915 and were unfamiliar with their new Lee-Enfield rifles and wholly without artillery support, the consequence being that they suffered from low morale and high casualty rates. It is likely that these Burmese soldiers had to reckon with similar problems of poor training and lack of equipment.
Nevertheless, the presence of Burmese soldiers on the Western and Mesopotamian fronts is the missing link in the story of the growth of Burmese nationalism. These men (and their Bamar counterparts in Mesopotamia) no doubt returned home with a new sense of self-respect and a new appreciation for the inequities of empire (or in the case of the minorities, perhaps even reinforced loyalties to the British crown). Michael Charney suggests that following the end of the War and the publication of US President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, Burmese politicians felt buoyed to fight for greater concessions from the British – how much of this new political climate was down to military service in the war?
Finding out what these unknown soldiers lives were actually like and what they hoped to gain from military service to the Empire would no doubt be a worthy topic of research.