Mhow 1940-45

Table of Contents | Preface | An Indian Childhood | Genealogy | Colonialism and The Raj


[An Indian Childhood] [Ajmer 1933_1940] [Ajmer 1933-1940 Continurd] [Mhow 1940-1945] [Ajmer 1945_49] [Leaving India] [Life iin the Plains] [Life in the Hills]

When I was eight in December 1941, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into the war.  Four months later in March 1942 I went to boarding school for the first time.
 August 1941 -- Atlantic Charter - Roosevelt and Churchill issue agreement the third point of which is: "Third, they respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them"

One month later in Sept 1941--Churchill states Atlantic Charter does not apply to "India, Burma and other parts of the British Empire".

Feb 1942 -- Singapore falls to Japanese.  60,000 Indian troops captured -- later form backbone of Bose's Indian National Army.
March 1942 -- under pressure from Roosevelt, Churchill sends a delegation to India with a proposal to Congress, headed by Nehru's friend Sir Stafford Cripps.  Gandhi rejected the proposal as "a post dated cheque on a failing bank." Churchill was delighted -- referred to Stafford Cripps as Stifford Craps
August 1942 Gandhi calls for non-violent resistance to  war effort.
By end of 1942 60,000 Hindus including Gandhi and all Congress leaders are in jail
In 1942 war material from  the US begins pouring into India.  India becomes the front line for the Japanese war effort.  Mhow becomes one of the main Indian military cities in India during WWII.
1942 Jinnah and Muslim League and all princely states back war effort. Indian Army increases from 200,000 to 2,000000 during WWII
"Leave India to God. If that is too much, then leave her to anarchy." --Gandhi, May 1942
1943 new Viceroy  Lord Wavell brings Indian government under martial  control. Congress leaders are now completely out of touch with  the government.  Jinnah and Muslims co-operate with British during the war
Several meetings with Jinnah and Gandhi fail to resolve Hindu-Muslim differences
1943 Subhas Bose --Indian Nationalist-- goes on epic submarine voyage from Hamburg to Singapore
1943-1945 Massive famine in Bengal.  Ignored by the Government, about three million die
January 1944 Bose's Indian National Army (INA) consisting mostly of British Indian Army POW's released by Japanese  "invades" India
June 1944 -- D-Day -- landing in Normandy
May 1945 -- VE Day  End of War in Europe



Dad, Russell, Marcia, me, Mhow ca 1945

I was six, I believe, when we moved to a town called Mhow.  I think Dad had been promoted and this was part of the deal. 

The only English language school available to civilians was a Catholic convent run by French nuns, and that is where I was enrolled.  I don’t remember too much about the school, except I don’t have a nice warm feeling about it.  I remember the nuns being ridiculously concerned about the stupidest things and that is about all I remember about the convent.  That and the fact that they were very strict.  There was not the same warmth of my little Railway school in Ajmer.

 The convent took boys until they were 9 years old and then it was a girls-only school.  There were no other schools in Mhow available to us.  So at the age of 8 in March 1942, I went to a boarding school -- Saint Mary's, a Roman Catholic, Irish Christian Brothers' boys school in Mount Abu in the Aravalli Hills.  I describe life in school in "Life in the Hills"

My two brothers and I were born in Ajmer.  Marcia, however was born in Indore, which is the capital of an "Independent" Mahratta state.  In addition to talking about our life in Mhow, I will say a little bit about the background about Mhow and how Marcia came to be born in a "princely state" and not in directly ruled British India.  The British Indian Empire "happened" in an ad hoc manner.  There was never any central plan, nor was there ever any legal continuity or logic. Whatever worked at the time was used and if it did not work it was modified.  For the entire life of the British Raj, details of laws and the relationship British governors to the governed varied from locality to locality.  The story of how Marcia came to be born in Indore and how we came to be in Mhow illustrates many of these points.

I have often wondered about the name Mhow.  It is clearly not an Indian name so I decided to do a little research.  The third Viceroy of India (~1800) was an Irish Protestant called the Marquis of Wellesley later called Lord Mornington.  Wellesley was one of the English families given Irish land confiscated from Irish Catholics and thus he became an "Irishman", one of the Protestant landed gentry who ruled Ireland and in general fought any move towards Irish independence from England.  In his later life he was known as Lord Mornington. 

Mum, Russ, Gran Roberts, Dad, Me,  Mhow ca 1941

Wellesley had powerful friends including Henry Dundas  the Secretary of the India Council.  Dundas, a Scot, was a Machiavellian figure in British politics for more that a decade.  He virtually dictated major British-India policy by dominating the India Council which was supposed to co-ordinate British Government and HEIC policies.  Dundas was obsessed with Napoleon.  He agreed with Wellesley that if the British did not expand in India, the French would.  Despite explicit directives to the contrary from the HEIC directors, Wellesley and Dundas set about expanding the British holdings in India and began several wars as soon as Wellesley got to India.  These are the wars in which Roberts and later Blanchett participated.  In particular Wellesley set about taking over the lands of the Hindu Mahrattas.    Over the course of a few years and many lives and much treasure and the laying waste of vast sectors of India, Wellesley and his younger brother Arthur Wellesley (the future victor over Napoleon at Waterloo) were successful, and the Mahrattas were eventually defeated.   My reading of the history of this time tells me that the Pindaris were mercenary warriors who fought for the Mahratta princes.  When Britain conquered the Mahrattas and imposed peace, these professional soldiers had no place to go and became marauders.  Britain spent about two decades fighting the Pindaris.  It was during the Pindari campaigns that Robert Roberts lost his life.  The map here  shows Mahratta lands in the early 1800's.  It also shows Ajmer, Indore and Trichinopoly the town where Robert Roberts died.  

Wellesley spent so much money on war that he was recalled to England in "disgrace" by the HEIC directors who were interested in commerce more than conquest, and Cornwallis was again sent to India to clean up.  Wellesley was a quite dreadful man who later became Foreign Secretary of Britain.  His younger brother Lord Wellington (Waterloo) became Prime Minister some time after his victory over Napoleon. 

Back to the story.  During his Mahratta wars young Wellesley faced a group of master guerilla fighters in the Mahrattas.  It took him several years to subdue a portion of them,  during which he needed a permanent large camp near the Mahratta lands to stage his troops.  He formed a "Military Headquarters Of War"--which is how the acronym came to be and why Mhow now (in 2004) houses one of the elite training establishments for Indian Army officers. 

Mhow was from the beginning nothing but a large British military camp and it pretty much stayed that way.  As a military camp it needed rapid access to all areas of India, hence the railway community and our family presence in Mhow.  Here is a file of pictures of British soldiers I found on the web in the Mhow cantonment in the 1930's.  (This is a large file and may take a while to download)

Back to the family.  When I was ten, in December 1943, I came back from boarding school to find the town transformed.  Burma had fallen to the Japanese and Burmese soldiers and refugees were everywhere.  I remember my parents complaining that the Americans were driving up the price of everything.

It turns out when we were in Mhow,  the town had British troops, American troops, Burmese troops and refugees, and Italian prisoners of war stationed there.  There were also Indian troops there, but we lived such separate lives that we never saw them. 

Many of the Burmese were Catholics, and we got to know some of them. Many of them were Anglo Indians who had been working on the railway in Burma.   They had terrible stories to tell about trekking through the jungle just ahead of the Japanese on their way to India.  They told horrifying tales of British abandonment of Burmese civilians when the Japanese took Burma.  If any of you are interested in a terrific (fiction) book about refugees in WWII similar to the tales these people told, read "A Town Like Alice" by Neville Shute.  It is actually set in Malaya not Burma.

Cecile Baptiste and Parents ca 1960 and (below) my Aunt Millie and Cecile

My cousin Cecile Baptiste was one of those who left Burma fleeing from the Japanese.  She and her mother were on the last ship to leave Burma before the country was overrun.  Her father stayed behind to sabotage the northern railway bridges, eventually meeting up with them in India.  I met Cecile in California for the first time when she was 74 years old.  She was visiting California to see her friend Nesta.  Cecile and her parents had left India and had settled in Australia.  Her father, my grandmother's brother, Cecil Baptiste worked for the Burmese Railway.  Burma was part of the British Indian Empire and Anglo Indians worked there as easily as they did in India.  Much of the genealogy data of my father's mother come from Cecile.  Cecile and her parents are shown in the picture on the left.  I would guess the photo would have been taken in about 1950.  Cecile now lives in Australia very near my father's sister, my aunt Millie.  A picture of the two of them is on the left, taken in about 2000.  Milly is on the left. 

Mhow was definitely not in the desert!  I remember it rained and rained and rained.  I remember shoes going moldy overnight, and I think Mhow was one of the places we did not have electricity in our house.  I had a mynah bird pet for a while in Mhow.  I remember letting him go during the rainy season like Noah and the dove, and he would always come back.  One time he didn’t and I reckoned he must have at last found dry land!   The picture on the left is me aged about eight in Mhow.  Note particularly the drain I am standing in.  I remember that drain being dug after our first monsoon when the water nearly came up our stairs.  Also note that one of the verandah arches has been walled in to make an extra room.  Behind me is the inevitable bougainvillea and a palm in a large pot. 

I think I got my first bike in Mhow.  It was so large that Dad had to have a special wooden seat made so my feet could reach the pedals.  I grew fast enough that he removed it after a few weeks.  We lived at the top of a small hill and I learned to ride by mounting the bike and coasting down the hill.  I remember falling off the bike and getting nasty gravel burns on much of my body.  The link above will take you to a nice largish photo of Russ and me and the bike -- note the verandah and plants, very typical of our houses in India.

I remember the Catholic church was small, very pretty and all the pews had cutouts in them for the soldier’s rifles!  My parents met a young pair of Italian prisoners of war, Mario and Stefano, at the local Catholic Church and invited them home.  They became close friends of the family.  I distinctly remember Mario used to come over and cook spaghetti at our house.  What the devil were two Italian prisoners of war doing in the middle of India?   I have since learned that they were probably two of  the 40,000 Italians captured by the British/Indian army in the North African desert at the battle of Sidi Barrani in December 1940.   I guess Mario and Stefano waited out almost the entire war in relatively comfortable "digs" in Mhow!

As usual my Dad had a band which played for local dances at the (Mhow) Railway Institute.  My chief memory of these dances is that the audience, which must have been a bunch of drunken soldiers, would get into racial brawls with the Burmese against the British.  As I remember there were no, or very few, Anglo Indians and certainly no Indian soldiers in the audience.  The audience included a few Anglo Indian civilians including a very few Anglo Indian girls.  For the most part it was young males.  As the brawls started, Dad would quietly fold up the music and lead the band including me out of the dance hall.  This must have happened when I was back from boarding school because I was certainly older than nine. 

My mother spent most of her childhood in Mhow, so she knew the town well.  Despite all the years she spent there and despite the fact that there were thousands of British soldiers in Mhow, her family never was friendly with any soldiers—I would guess she never met a British soldier—that is how complete the separation of the societies was. 


Apart from the difference in the weather, and the school, life in Mhow was much the same as it was in Ajmer.  The house was almost identical, the routine was the same—school, church, Railway Institute.  I give more details of general life in towns like Mhow and Ajmer in the section "Life in the Plains" .  I do remember going to the "pictures" (movies to you) at the Orpheum theatre.  So there must have been electricity in some parts of Mhow.   

My sister Marcia was born in February, 1944 while we were in Mhow .  There was no hospital in Mhow; but now that I think about it there must have been a military hospital I guess it wasn’t available to civilians;   So my mother had Marcia in a hospital in a town called Indore, about an hour and a half or so away by train.  I remember my mother being in hospital for a month or so before the birth, so I guess she was there waiting for my sister to be born.  I am pretty sure that this hospital too was run by French nuns.  Dad and Russell and I would take our bicycles on the train to Indore and cycle from the station to the hospital.  Russell rode on the back of Dad’s bike and on one of the trips he got his foot in the spokes and had to be treated in the same hospital.  Mother was not happy with Dad!  Life in Mhow was not as pleasant as Ajmer—it was wet and humid much of the year and we had to stay inside much of the time.


And here is the funny ending to the story of Wellesley and the Mahrattas.  Indore in the late 18th century was the headquarters of the Mahratta Holkar dynasty.  Wellesley conquered and captured Indore.  The Holkars fled and continued guerrilla warfare.  Wellesley is recalled to Britain in disgrace and Cornwallis is sent out again to clean up the mess, establish stability and stop the financial bleeding.  So, much to the amazement of Holkar, Cornwallis makes Holkar an offer Holkar cannot refuse.   If Holkar will acknowledge the British Government and pay "taxes" to them, he can have his city and lands and the lands of certain other Mahratta princes and the British will not bother him.  He will be free to rule and tax his subjects any way he wants as long as the British "Resident" is kept happy.  The Resident will be kept most happy by payment of a rising amount of money every year and by a lack of trouble inside and outside Holkar's borders.   Holkar agrees  and another "subsidiary", "Independent" "Princely" state is added to the British empire.   Here you will find a site for the old princely Indore-Holkar State


And that is how my sister was born in the capital of a princely state on the fringes of the Mahratta Empire.  And how I came to meet two young Italians in the middle of India.

On to Ajmer_1945_49.htm


Table of Contents | Preface | An Indian Childhood | Genealogy | Colonialism and The Raj


[An Indian Childhood] [Ajmer 1933_1940] [Ajmer 1933-1940 Continurd] [Mhow 1940-1945] [Ajmer 1945_49] [Leaving India] [Life iin the Plains] [Life in the Hills]