Only hours after being awarded the French Légion d’honneur, British Lieutenant Reginald Warneford was killed in an aeroplane crash on the 17th of June, 1915. A 1919 painting depicting the moment th…
‘At a solemn service before sunset in a rural Yorkshire churchyard, a battered lead-lined coffin was reburied hours after being opened for the first time in 89 years. As prayers were recited, samples of the remains of Sir Mark Sykes, the aristocratic diplomat and adventurer whose grave had been exhumed, were being frozen in liquid nitrogen and transported to a laboratory with the aim of saving millions of lives.
During his life, Sir Tatton Benvenuto Mark Sykes made his mark on the world map. As the British government’s lead negotiator in a secret 1916 deal with France to carve up the Ottoman Empire, he laid the groundwork for the boundaries of much of the present-day Middle East and, according to some critics, its current conflicts.
But it was the manner of the death of this Conservative MP, British Army general, and father of six children, that may yet prove the source of his most significant legacy by providing key answers in how medical science can cope with 21st-century lethal flu pandemics.
Early in 1919, Sir Mark became one of the estimated 50 million victims of the so-called Spanish flu and died in Paris.
His remains were sealed in a lead-lined coffin and transported to the Sykes family seat in Yorkshire. He was buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s Church, adjoining the house.
Were it not for the fact that Sir Mark’s body was hermetically sealed by a thick layer of lead, the story of his life would have passed quietly into history.
But the accident of chemistry – the decay of soft tissue encased in lead is dramatically slowed – has presented scientists investigating ways to deal with the inevitable mutation of the H5N1 “bird flu” into a lethal human virus with a unique opportunity to study the behaviour of its predecessor.
There are only five useful samples of the H1N1 virus around the world and none from a well-preserved body in a lead-lined coffin. Sir Mark’s descendants are delighted that his influence may reach a different sphere of human endeavour. His grandson, Christopher Sykes, said: “We were all agreed that it was a very good thing and should go ahead. It is rather fascinating that maybe even in his state as a corpse, he might be helping the world in some way.”
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Please welcome fellow blogger Rajiv Chopra who has written a guest post at my urging about this profound stain on British conduct in India. Thank you, Rajiv.
‘I saw three men writhing in great pain and a boy of about 12. I could not leave the place. The boy asked me for water but there was no water in that place. At 2 am, a Jat who was lying entangled on the wall asked me to raise his leg. I went up to him and took hold of his clothes drenched in blood and raised him up. Heaps of bodies lay there, a number of them innocent children. I shall never forget the sight. I spent the night crying and watching…”
The above is an excerpt from the diary of Rattan Devi, who spent the night of the 13th April, 1919, in Jallianwallah Bagh. Her husband was amongst those killed, and she sat watch over his dead body through the night, protecting it from jackals and vultures.
This was the aftermath of the massacre of innocent Indians (Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs), gathered peacefully, to celebrate the Indian festival of Baisakhi, on the 13th April, 1919.
The period, 1914-1918, was a turbulent one in Indian history. The Nationalist movement was underway, yet India had contributed much to England’s efforts during World War I, as she would again, during World War II. While India expected to be compensated for her contribution during World War I by way of better opportunities for Indians, the English governors reacted to the happenings on the ground.
One of the events that lead to significant protest, was the Rowlatt Act of March 1919. As per the tenets of the Act, Nationalist papers were banned. Furthermore, an Indian could be imprisoned on mere suspicion, without the requirement of any proof of unlawful activities, or those considered to be an act of sedition.
Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned in Delhi, and two other freedom fighters – Satya Pal, and Saifuddin Kitchlow – were arrested. Rumours flew, as people expected them to be removed to a secret location.
On the 11th April, an English school teacher, Marcella Sherwood, was beaten up by a mob. She was saved by Indians, including by one who was the father of her pupil. The attack on her became the pretext for the British forces to launch an attack that must go down as one of the most infamous acts of the British Government.
This incident was used, as a pretext, by the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer, to presume that mob attacks were now the norm in the Punjab.
Jallianwallah Bagh is a small garden, bounded on all sides by houses and buildings. The few small gates were kept mostly closed. It is within walking distance of the holiest of Sikh shrines, the Harminder Sahib, or the Golden Temple.
Baisakhi is a festival that is much revered in the region. It is also the day on which the Sikhs celebrate the inauguration of the Khalsa Panth, by 10th Guru of the Sikhs – Guru Gobind Singh.
It is on this day that a crowd of Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus gathered together to celebrate the festival.
It is also on this day that the British Indian Army, under the leadership of Brigadier General Reginald Dyer, gathered at the main entrance and, without any warning or order to desist, began shooting at the crowd.
The shooting went on and on until all the ammunition had been exhausted. By some estimates, 1,650 rounds were used. As per Brig. Gen. Dyer’s comments, the only reason he did not use the machine guns was because they were mounted on armoured vehicles, which could not be moved into the garden. He ordered his troops to shoot and kill.
Bullets passed through bodies and entered other people’s bodies. The crowd ran about in panic trying to escape but there was no escape. Some threw themselves into the well in the garden and more bodies fell down on the bodies that had already fallen into the well.
When the ammunition was exhausted, 379 people lay dead, and 1,100 were wounded. This is the estimate given by the British official records. The Indian Congress estimated that 1,100 died and a total of 1,500 injured.
Brig. Gen. Dyer did not arrange for any medical help for those wounded and dying. “Certainly not. It was not my job. Hospitals were open, and they could have gone there” were his words.
Lt. Gov. O’Dwyer supported his actions and in a telegram congratulated him with these words, “Your actions are correct. Lt Governor approves.”
Marshall Law and shoot-at-sight orders were imposed in Amritsar after the massacre, and the Crawling Order. Indians, passing through the 200-foot road on which Ms Sherwood lived, were forced to crawl on their bellies to compensate for the alleged incident that had taken place earlier.
Many hailed Brig. Gen. Dyer as the Saviour of Punjab. Yet he was to appear before a commission – the Hunter Commission. The commission did not impose any penal or other action against Brig. Gen. Dyer since his actions were supported by his superiors.
Many conservatives in Britain applauded his actions, and claimed that he had averted another Indian Mutiny. He was presented with a bejewelled sword and was called The Saviour of the Punjab. A group of his sympathisers gathered a sum of £26,000 which was presented to him.
Yet, apart from the inevitable Indian backlash and the intensification of the freedom movement, the actions of Brig. Gen. Dyer did come under criticism from some quarters in England. One of his most trenchant critics was Winston Churchill. In his words, in Parliament, on the 18th July 1921:
“The crowd was unarmed, except with bludgeons. It was not attacking anybody or anything. Pinned up in a narrow place considerably smaller than Trafalgar Square, with hardly any exits, and packed together so that one bullet would drive through three or four bodies, the people ran this way and the other. When the fire was directed upon the centre, they ran to the sides. The fire was then directed to the sides. Many threw themselves down on the ground, the fire was then directed down on the ground. This was continued for 8-10 minutes, and it stopped only when the ammunition reached the point of exhaustion.”
There was a young Sikh teenager, Udham Singh, who did vow revenge. He killed Lt .Gov. O’Dwyer at Saxton Hall of London in 1940. He was hanged at Pentonville Jail in London on the 31st July, 1940.
During the last years of his life, Gen. Reginald Dyer became increasingly isolated due to a series of strokes. Some say that he never did regret his actions. “I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself.” “…I considered it my duty to fire on them and to fire well.”
Yet, other sources would have us believe that he was haunted by memories of that day. On his deathbed, The Butcher of Amritsar, as he was also called, is said to have said. “So many people who knew the condition of Amritsar say I did right. But so many others say I did wrong. I only want to die and know from my Maker whether I did right or wrong.”
Not much remains, except a memory. Jallianwallah Bagh endures as a memory of those brutally murdered on this day ninety-six years ago. The bullet holes on the walls are a grim reminder of one of the most ghastly acts of military power in a bid to suppress the soul of the people who would be free.
Rajiv Chopra © 2016
SM U-118 was a 267-foot mine-laying submarine, one of the 329 U-boats which served in the Imperial German Navy in World War I.
Commissioned in May 1918, U-118 sank two British ships in its short career before the war ended. At the end of the conflict, the entire navy was surrendered, and U-118 was handed over to the French.
On April 15, 1919, as U-118 was being towed through the English Channel on its way to be scrapped, a storm caused the tow cable to snap, setting the U-boat adrift.
The vessel ran aground on a beach at Hastings, England, right in front of the…