Two Sides of the Same Coin? Gurkhas and Indians in Polish World War Two Memoirs
The increasing interest in wartime colonial encounters in academia can be seen as an indicator of a growing need for constructing trans-national and cross-cultural perspectives on the past, which is crucial for the stability of the contemporary world. Among the multifarious contemporary theoretical perspectives on the First and the Second World Wars, one can detect a growing tendency to refocus attention from ‘clash of empires’ to multiple ‘contact zones’. The Eighth Army, a field formation of the British Army during World War Two, was a melting pot of cultures and, for most Poles, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work alongside the Nepalese soldiers of the British Indian Army.
In this study, I examine to what extent the nineteenth-century ‘martial race’ discourse was present in the Polish representations of the allegedly ‘exotic’ soldiers and argue that the image of the skilled oriental soldier from the highlands – common in the nineteenth-century British military writing, pervaded the multinational Eighth Army affecting Poles’ imagination. Since, in fact, Polish soldiers seemed to have been aware of the Gurkhas’ reputation and peculiar way of war, I also aim to answer the question of whether the presence of the British nineteenth-century ‘martial race’ ideology was occupation-dependent. Hence, this analysis focuses on the roles performed by Nepalese and Indian soldiers, as seen in the Polish Second World War memoirs. Lionel Caplan (2009) argues that the Gurkhas became ‘honorary Europeans’ thanks to their similarity to the British officer class – a privilege the Indians could not enjoy. Furthermore, he labelled them as ‘warrior gentlemen’ who are concomitantly an embodiment of masculinity and gentle and courteous soldiers. In the Polish memoirs, the Indian servicemen are frequently reminded about their subordinate status by the British. Conversely, the Gurkhas are always regarded with respect and are never subject to mistreatment. In my view, the fact that the Nepalis are always portrayed as professional soldiers performing mainly operational roles while the Indians are seen in various supporting roles, such as driving or cooking, is not without significance for the Polish reader and their perception of the South Asian soldiers. By observing their brothers in arms, the men of the Polish Second Corps learnt first-hand about the existing hierarchies embedded in the British imperial past and filtered their impressions through a specific national context. The qualitative analysis of the excerpts selected from over twenty war memoirs will be conducted in line with the new historical approach which considers the socio-historical context crucial to the understanding of the processes behind the analysis of the Polish-South Asian encounters. I argue that it is necessary to situate them within a broader framework of colonial dependencies that affected the Poles’ perception of the British Armed Forces.