Brighton’s Royal Pavilion is one of the most iconic buildings in the United Kingdom, famous for its flamboyant, Indian-themed domes and minarets. Commissioned as a seaside pleasure palace for the 25-year-old Prince of Wales in 1787, it would later serve a radically different purpose. For a little over a year during the First World War, this former royal palace served as a military hospital for wounded Indian soldiers.
Over a million men from the Indian subcontinent served in the armed forces of the British Empire during the First World War, including in some of the early battles on the Western Front: La Bassée, the First Battle of Ypres and Neuve Chapelle. In 1914 Sir Walter Lawrence, Commissioner for the Welfare of Indian Troops, came to Brighton to scout for locations for hospitals that could manage the casualties flooding in from the war across the channel. The Pavilion, because it was owned by the city, offered a cheap alternative to converting local hotels and became one of three hospitals in Brighton set aside for Indian soldiers.
More than 4,000 Indian patients were treated in 724 beds at the Pavilion between December 1914 and January 1916, including Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. Special arrangements were made to respect the cultural differences amongst the troops: the nine kitchens were divided into three groups, and spaces for religious observance were set up within the Pavilion’s grounds. Those Sikhs and Hindus who did not recover from their wounds were taken to a hill beside Brighton, where a pyre was constructed for their cremation, and their ashes scattered in the sea.
The presence of so many young Indian men in a British city helped to create a shift in attitudes. At the beginning, recovering servicemen were allowed to go into town and mingle with the locals (though restrictions were later imposed, as it was considered that some of the servicemen might be enjoying themselves too much for the authorities’ liking). Contemporary reports suggest that the soldiers were warmly received, with locals eager to meet and engage with these romantic figures from across the world.
There was no doubt a propaganda element to the conversion of a famous royal palace into a venue for the treatment of injured Indian subjects. The Royal Pavilion became something of a media sensation both at home and in India, the image of Indians being cared for amidst palatial luxury used to imply that the Empire would always care for its sons. Yet the men who stayed there were among the first ordinary Indians to make meaningful contact with local people, on their own terms and as equals. As such, the hospital at the Royal Pavilion is a landmark moment in the history of the British Indian community, and of our multi-ethnic society.
‘World War One at Home: The Royal Pavilion, Brighton’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01s6x3c
Brighton Museums: http://brightonmuseums.org.uk/royalpavilion/history/
‘Royal Treatment’, The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/apr/18/brighton-pavilion-war-indian-hospital
‘How Brighton Pavilion Became a Temporary Hospital’, The Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/history/world-war-one/11026562/How-Brighton-Pavilion-became-a-temporary-hospital-for-Indian-soldiers-in-WW1.html
First World War Centenary Site for Brighton & Hove: http://www.visitbrighton.com/first-world-war
Sikh Museum: http://www.sikhmuseum.com/brighton/
David Omissi (ed.), Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters 1914-18 (1999)
Shrabani Basu, For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914-18 (2015)
Gordon Corrigan, Sepoys in the Trenches: The Indian Corps on the Western Front 1914-15 (2015)