By Charitha Ratwatte –
World War I was a global war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918. It involved all of the great powers of the world, as at that time, which were grouped into two opposing alliances: The Allies, based on the Triple Entente of the United Kingdom and the British Empire, France and Russia on the one hand and the Central Powers, originally the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy. But, as Austria and Hungary had taken the offensive against the agreement, Italy did not enter into the war.
Alliances later reorganised, Italy supported the Allies and more countries entered the war. The United States of America entering the war on the Allies side in 1917 was a decisive factor. Ultimately more than 70 million military personnel were mobilised in the First World War. More than nine million combatants were killed. It was the sixth deadliest conflict in world history.
The conflict opened with the Austro Hungarian invasion of Serbia on 28 July 1914, it ended with the cease fire on 28 November 1918, known as Armistice Day. Arrangements are being made in the countries which were affected by the conflict to commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the war, in 2014. Most of these, plan to recognise and celebrate the bravery and sacrifice of the nine million young soldiers who lost their lives in the war.
Sri Lanka’s role
Sri Lanka or Ceylon, as we were known then, played a role in the First Word War. Sergei De Silva Ranasinghe, a researcher in Sri Lanka’s military history, strategic and defence studies, wrote a series of articles for The Sunday Times in 2004 on this subject.
He writes that, unlike most other colonies of the Empire, close to 50% of Ceylon’s volunteers to the Great War were commissioned as officers. Most of them tended to have previous affiliation to the Ceylon Cadet Battalion, military experience in the British Army, or were associated with a Ceylon Defence Force Formation.
Ranasinghe provides a table in which he gives the breakdown of 330 of the volunteers by four English medium schools at which they studied – Royal College 88, S. Thomas’ College, 86, Kingswood College 84, and Trinity College 72.
The Times of Ceylon in 1917 estimated that of the 1,250 total number of Ceylon volunteers, the newspaper knew of at that time, there were 105 fatalities, 84 killed in action, 21 died of wounds. 114 were wounded, and 18 were categorised as either missing or Prisoners of War. Of the 330 from the English medium schools 30% were casualties.
Some detail is available on four of the students of Trinity College Kandy who volunteered. They were Richard Aluwihare, Albert Halangoda, Frank Drieberg, and Ajit (Jik) Rudra. On 20 June 1994, a Thanksgiving Service was held at the Chapel of Trinity College Kandy for the life and work of Major General Ajit .A. (Jik) Rudra, Indian Army (Retd.) who had passed away on 3 November 1993. At the service, tributes were paid to General Rudra by the Principal of Trinity College, Capt. L.M. de Alwis, His Excellency the High Commissioner for India Shri Nareshwar Dayal, and the then President of the Trinity College Old Boys Association Lakshman Kadirgamar. I give below some excerpts from their speeches.
Lakshman Kadirgamar’s speech
Kadirgamar said: “The records of this school in 1911 refer to a boy named Ajit Anil Rudra. We know that he came from India, from Delhi, at a time when the great Fraser was Principal of Trinity and there were boys from 13 nationalities at this school. Fraser had become Principal in 1904 at the age of 26. The First World War broke out in 1914… The meaning of the war was brought home to Trinity in a deeper way when four boys left for the Western Front in September 1915, straight from school. They were Richard Aluwihare, Albert Halangoda, Ajit Rudra, and Frank Drieberg. A service was held in the College Chapel the evening before they sailed…
“In that year Aluwihare had been Senior Prefect, and had won the Cricket Lion and the Ryde Gold medal for the Best All Round Student. Halangoda had won a Rugger Lion. …A few months later came the news that Frank Drieberg had been killed in the Somme battle, he was only 19, and that Aluwihare and Halangoda had been severely wounded… Rudra had got safely through the battle of the Somme but was severely wounded later at Ypres. …The First World War is considered to be one of the most savage episodes in the annals of war… The scale and detail of the slaughter at Flanders, Passchendale, the Somme, Ypres as recorded by those who lived through those momentous battles, still leaves the sensitive reader numb with shock. Thousands of young men were felled in a single afternoon. The mind reels at the horror of the trenches – the mud, the filth, the stench in which men lived for months without relief.
“At the battle of the Somme which began on 1 July 1916, the British Army suffered nearly 60,000 casualties within a few hours, the highest tally of casualties in one day of battle in the First World War. The battle of the Somme went on into September 1916. The allied armies gained a mere seven miles of territory at a cost of over one million casualties, over 600,000 Germans, nearly 400,000 British and nearly 200,000 French. The Trinity boys were in the thick of the battle of the Somme. …It is not to romanticise or glamorise war that I have recounted this fateful day in the lives of Ajit Rudra and his friends. It is merely to tell you that these soldiers were mere school boys who suddenly became soldiers, suddenly became men, and fought with great valour and distinction in that savage war. They went from the playing fields of Trinity to the killing fields of France…
“At the end of the war, the King of England presented a captured German machine gun to Trinity College. The gun was unveiled by the Governor of Ceylon at the College Quadrangle on 16 October 1919. The Governor in his speech paid a glowing tribute to Trinity. He said: ‘To me Trinity College has a record and a Roll of Honour of which it may be justly proud. I find that 65 masters, men and boys gave their services overseas during the war and of these 65, there were no fewer than 33 casualties – 13 killed, 18 wounded, and two taken prisoner by the Germans. Now that is 50% of the number that proceeded to the battle front. It is a record, I repeat again of which Trinity College may well be proud of – a record, I am sure you will agree with me, which any battalion, any regiment, any unit of His Majesty’s service would be proud of.’”
After quoting the Governor General, Kadirgamar continued: “In the fullness of time Richard Aluwihare became, in 1948, the first Ceylonese Inspector General of Police, later from 1959 to 1963, Ceylon’s High Commissioner in India. Ajit Rudra rose to the rank of Major General in the Indian Army… At the Trinity prize giving of 1949 Sir Richard was the Chief Guest. His old friend Ajit (Jik) Rudra, then General Officer Commanding, Southern Command of the Indian Army, came to the prize giving and sat next to Sir Richard on the platform.”
The ever-modest Lakshman Kadirgamar, in his speech, does not mention that he was the Senior Prefect of Trinity College in 1949, and Ryde Gold Medal Winner, who, in the words of Sharm de Alwis, quoted in an article in the souvenir published for the 1993 Trinity Carnival and Trade Fair, entitled ‘General Rudra of the Indian Army,’ published to commemorate the centenary of the Trinity OBA: “President’s Counsel Lakshman Kadirgamar was the Senior Prefect and Ryde Gold medallist that year and lived up to the hallowed traditions of his office by making an evocative speech of much brilliance that gave early promise of his flair for advocacy.”
The Senior Prefect, traditionally, delivers the Vote of Thanks at the Trinity College Prize giving. Kadirgamar continuing his speech said: “During Sir Richard’s years in New Delhi the two friends met very often. There is an old belief in Trinity circles that Ajit Rudra saved Richard Aluwihare’s life by carrying him back to the trenches at the battle of the Somme when Richard Aluwihare had been wounded… Confirmation of this old belief comes from members of Sir Richard’s family who recall this incident being mentioned often when the two friends were in conversation… It is never too late to salute the brave; it is never too late to applaud courage, leadership, loyalty, decency. General Rudra was a soldier and a gentleman of the highest order. We Trinitians are proud that he was one of us and we give thanks for his life and work.”
Leonard de Alwis’ speech
The then Principal of Trinity College Captain Leonard de Alwis, speaking at the Thanksgiving Service said: “Today we are gathered in this Chapel to thank God for the life and work of Major General Ajit Rudra who passed away on 3 November 1993, at the age of 98. I make this humble tribute to a distinguished old boy of Trinity… Young Rudra… was influenced by the great ideals of Trinity, where the College turned out well-disciplined men, an example to the rest of the schools.
“The respect for law and order, readiness to carry out orders with precision, promptness and punctuality, ability to maintain physical fitness and mental alertness under trying conditions, and to win or lose with fairness and acceptance – all hallmarks of a good citizen. These ideals no doubt influenced him all his life… In the Trinity College Library there remains enshrined a shield and a ceremonial sword presented by General Rudra. In the shield is inscribed ‘No task is impossible’. That indeed was the motto of the greatest military genius of Europe, Napoleon. But that genius fought for gains while Rudra fought for peace.”
Shri Nareshwar Dayal’s speech
High Commissioner for India Shri Nareshwar Dayal said: “I am honoured to participate in this memorial service at this very great College to honour a very great son of the College, Major General Ajit Rudra. I cannot claim that I have any special qualifications to deliver this memorial address, though I can stake a claim to a certain kingship General Rudra, for General Rudra’s father was the son of S.K. Rudra, the first Indian principal of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, a College which happens to be my alma mater…
“General Rudra was a man of iron discipline, which I believe is Trinity’s forte… General Rudra’s self discipline is regarded as legendary and his dedication and valour in the heat of battle and crisis, as quite extraordinary. In 1915 he enlisted in the University and Public School Brigade to fight in France. He was twice wounded but this did not deter him in the least. I understand that it is an established fact that is the trenches he saved the life of his school mate and comrade in arms – Richard Aluwihare. He went on to serve later in Palestine, and in Afghanistan and also in Burma. He was the first Indian senior officer to be appointed to General Staff. But he never lost his sympathy for those who had participated in the struggle for independence. It was he who persuaded Bhulabhai Desai, a senior Congress leader, to represent the Indian National Army Officers at their trial in post independence India…
“General Rudra had the distinction of serving in three armies: the British Army; His majesty’s Indian Land Forces, and the Army of Independent India… I shall let the Garhwal Rifles in which General Rudra last served so diligently after independence have the last word. In a touching obituary which might as well serve as General Rudra’s epitaph, the men of the Garhwal Rifles said: ‘General Rudra, a constant source of inspiration to generations of officers, was a living symbol of dedication, perseverance and sagacity.’ Simply said and every word true.”
Major General Rudra’s story
In 1997, Reliance Publishing House, New Delhi, published a biography of Major General Rudra. Its author was Major General D.K. Palit, its title ‘Major General A.A. Rudra, His Service in Three Armies and Two World Wars’. As General Palit says in his preface: “General (Jik)) Rudra, wanted his story, in my words!”
I will quote, from the book General ‘Jik’ Rudra’s description of his first day in battle in World War I: “The seven day bombardment stopped sometime during the night… we were made to line up along the parapet of the trench. The great battle of the Somme was about to begin – a pipedream victory of the Generals and their staffs fighting the battle at one remove from the front… We saw our officers leap up and unsheathe their swords, shouting, ‘Come on chaps. Let’s go and get at ‘em… I felt a thrill at this old fashioned ritual, it did not last long. As soon as we scrambled up and began our charge we began to be mowed down by enemy machine gun fire. I saw officers fall while still brandishing their swords.
“On our right I saw an extraordinary sight, a Highland Regiment going into the attack. I could make out through the dust haze succeeding lines of burly Scots, advancing in their kilts and plaids, line after line, their pipers playing them on. It was like a parade ground drill: line followed line as the men kept falling. They marched resolutely to their deaths, in drill formation. Only one NCO and 11 men of the Scottish Battalion survived. Crawling forward into a crater I suddenly caught sight of Aluwihare lying wounded. His arm had been wounded, but not too badly. I helped him to put on his field dressing and then advised him to crawl back to our trenches: but he refused, he said he could not leave me there and go back to safety. I was still trying to talk him into going back when suddenly a shell landed close to our crater. We were all lifted up and flung a few feet away.
“Glancing around I saw Aluwihare lying in the open… his uniform covered with blood… Helped by a survivor in my section I pulled him into the crater and removed his equipment and tunic. There were two or three dead soldiers lying in the crater. We took their field dressings and patched up Aluwihare. We lay in the crater the rest of the day. Darkness came slowly… we ventured to crawl out of our crater, dragging Aluwihare with us as gently as we could. We encountered a line of our own Military Policemen lying in position behind the trenches. Their job was to prevent anyone from coming back – and to shoot them down, if they persisted. We had a wounded man with us and since our machine gun was clearly unusable, we were allowed to return.
“We later learned that our Commanding Officer, the Adjutant and all the Company Commanders had either been killed or wounded. Of the 30 or more Officers who went into battle, only three or four came back. Of the men in the Company, only about 60. Of our foursome from Trinity College, Ceylon, Drieberg had been killed: Aluwihare and Halangoda wounded and evacuated to hospital. Only I was unscathed, so far.”
Centenary of the great sacrifice
2014 will be the centenary of the great sacrifice made by a whole generation of young people for our enduring freedom. Nine million young men gave up their lives. Albert Marshall, the last surviving Cavalryman of the First World War, who died on 16 May 2005, described what he never could forget: “Going into no man’s land a few hours after another abortive infantry advance, following an officer with a white flag, to bury the dead. There were hundreds of them: all but a handful had been killed immediately. The mud was too compacted to dig down far. As his unit marched back, he trod under his boots the corpses of the men with whom, that morning, he had eaten breakfast.
The sacrifice of these youth was whittled away by scheming politicians and by 1939; the world was at war again. This has happened over and over again, when post war or conflict diplomacy and politics are mishandled and war has to be resorted to again, throughout the history of the world. Winston Churchill warned after the First World War: “Woe betide the leaders, now perched on their pinnacles of triumph, if they cast away at the conference table, what the soldiers had won on a hundred blood soaked battlefields.”
It will help all right thinking Sri Lankans, to focus our minds on Churchill’s prophetic words, if some commemoration event is organised to honour the sacrifice of the young ‘Ceylonese’ who fought in the Great War, 100 years ago. Also the sacrifice by all young enlisted men, before and since, including in Sri Lanka’s past few years. Maybe the lead can be taken by the four Colleges, Trinity, Royal, S. Thomas’, and Kingswood, which sent volunteer school boys into the holocaust.
The successor to the Ceylon Defence Force, the Sri Lanka Army, and the successor to the Ceylon Cadet Battalion, the National Cadet Corps, since all four Colleges had and have Cadet Platoons, could also contribute. It is a real need of the hour. Political leaders must be guided by ordinary people, who end up making the supreme sacrifice as enlisted men, while the politicians survive, ‘perched on their pinnacles of triumph,’ as Churchill said.