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Posted at: May 20, 2018, 2:09 AM; last updated: May 21, 2018, 3:19 PM (IST)

100 years later, voices from WWI

Seventy-one recordings of Punjabi prisoners of war, held at the Half Moon Camp in Germany, are yearning to reach their loved ones

Sarika Sharma

Ten years ago, voice of Mal Singh, a prisoner of war from the First World War, came to India. Held captive at the Half Moon Camp in Germany, the man was batting for hope, remembering the good times in India — the butter he would eat and the milk he would drink.... He was desperate to return home, but doubted if he ever would.

As the voice reached Punjab 100 years after it was recorded at the Camp as an experiment, Mal Singh was traced to Moga after The Tribune highlighted it in a story. We got to know that he had made it back home after all, lived life fully, perhaps had the milk and butter he so longed for too, and died in the 1970s. His voice had been among the thousands of voice recordings at the Humboldt University’s Sound Archive, Lautarchiv, Berlin. Now, 70 more recordings of soldiers from what was the then Punjab have reached home, waiting to tell how they lived as prisoners in a war that they fought to earn a better living for their families. These soldiers were from 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, 47th Sikhs and 4th Gurkha Rifles, among others.

The archive has now shared the voices with Col Perminder Singh Randhawa (retd) to understand these recordings from Indian point of view. Jochen Hennig, Central Collection Commissioner at the Humboldt-University, shared these voices as part of the commemoration of 100 years of the war. The ‘access’ has been given to all those who can understand their forefather-soldiers’ languages.

The Indian soldiers, fighting the war under the British Army, were taken captive by the Germans at the Western Front. Around this time, Thomas Edison had come out with his latest invention, the wax-cylinder phonograph and the recording experiments were carried out on these soldiers. German scientists, who were awed by their “exotic”, “turban wearing” prisoners, were employing them in various experiments. Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission, founded in 1915, was one of them. The recordings were done under this project.

Among the voices is a recording of Bela Singh, a soldier from Amritsar. In almost verse form, he speaks of how they came to the city of Marseille and were ordered to set out for the war, how they fought and how they were captured.

There is a recording of Baryam Singh from Ludhiana. He says that when someone decides to do something with all his heart, he does it well. As if reading from a paper where he pauses to decipher the words (which may or may not have been written by him), he says he loves Hindustan because it is his land. He says no lure can buy him. His recording is peppered with the word ji, a word that denotes respect.

Sepoy Sunder Singh begins his recording with Ek Onkar, a central tenet of Sikh religious ethos. Apparently referring to a copy of Guru Granth Sahib, which they seem to have been given in confinement, he expresses happiness that the Guru has blessed his ilk. He says that the only one thing that could bring him as much happiness would be a peace treaty. He adds that the Sikhs consider the Guru Granth Sahib a holy book and revere it more than anything else. It appears that the Guru Granth Sahib was not accompanied by Rumala Sahib, which hurt the sentiments of Sikhs in the camp. So while he begins by praising the Germans for providing them Guru Granth Sahib, he later says that if it is disrespected, a true Sikh will take his own life then and there. These are a handful of stories; there are around 70 more that are desperate to reach their loved ones in Punjab.

Colonel Randhawa says the Germans kept the voices safe with them for a year, digitised these and have now decided to send these back to where the PoWs came from to understand their context. “Why did Mal Singh say what he said? What did it mean? They don’t have an answer? They want us to find out an answer? We must remember that this could have been their last testimony,” he says. For Colonel Randhawa, who has been translating and analysing these voices, these soldiers are like whistleblowers, who shared what went on in the camps, often in a veiled way. Mal Singh’s recording could well be reflective of the quality of food there.

He rues the government has not taken any initiative to bring these voices to India and find out what happened to these soldiers. “Is the government ignoring the First World War story under pressure from Britain and others? Or are they scared of skeletons in the cupboards coming to the fore. These were not British soldiers; these were Indian soldiers. We fought the war, won it, won Victoria Crosses too, but what was happening behind the scenes, let that also be known,” he says. While Mal Singh’s voice was able to reach his family in Moga, Colonel Randhawa feels that voice of the other soldiers should reach their loved ones, some of whom might be in Pakistan today. Also, he says that there is no information on whether these soldiers returned home or not. He feels that while we are still commemorating the FirstWorld War, “Let us at least hear what they had to say. Let us see what lessons we can draw for the youth. These voices have been ‘seized’ for a hundred years. It is time we heard them now.”

The recording project

Founded in 1915, Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission was set up to record languages spoken by the PoWs. Around 30 scientists were involved in this project. With experts from the field of linguistics, musicology and anthropology, the commission recorded the different languages spoken by these PoWs. Under linguist Wilhelm Doegen, 1,650 recordings were made. In an article in 2011, Prof Britta Lange wrote that these scientists, mainly professors at Berlin University, asked the prisoners about their traditional songs and texts. For this reason, many of the gramophone recordings.... “contain legends, fairytales, fables, religious texts and chants from individual ethnic groups. Texts freely formulated by the prisoners themselves, describing their personal situation in the German prisoner of war camp, revealing details of their biographies or the force of war-time circumstance that brought them to Germany are more rare.”

Not lost

The Germans were meticulous in documentation. Along with each recording is a transcript of the script in Punjabi and in English. There is a page on biodata of the PoW in question in both English and German. It lists out details like name, birthplace, regiment, religion, languages known and date of recording.

— To hear some of the voices, log on to www.tribuneindia.com

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