‘For your tomorrow we gave our today’
N J Ravi Chander
My maternal grandfather lieutenant M Dharmalingam and his elder brother, captain M Thangavelu, fought shoulder to shoulder in World War II. They plunged headlong into army duties at the first flush of youth – they were barely sixteen then – and rose to be one of the first commissioned officers in the Corps of Royal Engineers, commonly known as the Sappers, a corps of the British Army. They were not the only ‘boy soldiers’ who fought alongside the English. Many other underage cadets also lied about their age and enrolled in the forces searching for military glory.
There were recruits as young as thirteen in the army, including scouts and cadets from reputed English convents. The grandfather and his sibling served in places as distant as Peshawar and Rangoon, besides fighting in foreign lands. After the war, the elder brother continued to serve the army while the younger one opted to retire before settling down in his hometown, Bengaluru.
Life was challenging for the military personnel who endured arduous train and ship journeys. The long voyages on the rough seas proved harrowing, and frequent throwing up took a heavy toll on one’s health. Regiments moved from one corner of the country to another at brief notice and sometimes cargo transported by the most archaic means – mules, camels and elephants.
It was mandatory to pass a six-subject written test for promotion to the rank of major. There were cases where officers got compulsorily retired as Captain when they failed to clear the test in a maximum of 22 years. Despite his commitment, the civil authorities demeaned grandpa by denying him a job with an Indian security agency, post-retirement on the ground he had served the British Army.
The soldiers and their families faced trials and tribulations galore. Relatives were in dread of telegrams bringing terrible news from the war front. People prayed fervently to the gods for the safe return of their loved ones. The dreadful sounds of fighter aircraft above, the exploding bombs below, the landmines, the horrible sights of the dead and the dying – some whimpering in delirium – was a nightmare waiting to end.
The living lay beside the dead and fought with flame-throwers, grenades, and bazookas. Many didn’t return besides made to bear the pangs of separation from their dear ones for years. But defending the Allies against the Axis powers was foremost in their minds, and they considered fighting against the enemy a sacred duty.
Several Indian soldiers held captive in different parts of the world were repatriated to the country in troopships post-war. But identifying them was a tall order – many had either tonsured their heads or grown more facial hair. The POWs had to endure long confinement in an alien land and hostile environment while being away from their families. But the Indian government considered their guts and grit no less extraordinary and issued commendation letters to them.
My maternal grandpa and his elder sibling are no more, but they are among the countless unheralded heroes who fought on the side of the Allied powers. An epitaph in the Kohima War Memorial brilliantly captures the supreme sacrifices made by our braves who perished fighting in WW-II – “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today”.
(The author is a retired banker. He contributes to various national and regional publications and is a regular contributor to Kashmir Vision)