The Naga Labour Corps
14th February 2019
This post comes from Ed Barrett, PhD student in Illustration and History at the University of Gloucestershire.
About the project
The Naga Labour Corps [NLC] was a group of companies of men from the Naga Hills in North-East India who went to France in 1917. Their contribution to the war effort included vital salvage work and road building. However, they – like much of the rest of the various Labour Corps – have since been largely forgotten in the West.
I found out about the NLC on a trip to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where there is a pickelhaube that had been taken home by a Chang Naga, who had turned it into a dance-hat. I wondered who might think that a German helmet could be repurposed in such a way, and wanted to find out more. This project grew out of an earlier version that was part of my MA in Illustration, and I intend on taking it further after completing my PhD. My visual interpretation of the experiences of the NLC follows four fictitious Labour Corps men who I use to explore alternate viewpoints. One of the difficulties with this project was finding visual references. It’s relatively easy to find photographs of warriors since anthropologists tended to focus on them, but they didn’t take many photographs of anyone else, including women at different social levels. In the future version of the project, I’d like to ask Naga people whether they could help by contributing images of their own. My artistic influences are mainly contemporary with the First World War, such as illustrator Bert Thomas, who made propaganda posters and cartoons; the Nash brothers, Paul and John; and Percy Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticist movement.
About the Naga Labour Corps
In January 1917, Austen Chamberlain, Secretary of State for India, discovered that 50000 men from South Africa had been sent to France as the South African Native Labour Corps. He wanted to send an equal number of men from India to serve as the Indian Labour Corps. From about February 1917 through to early summer that year, a recruitment drive was carried out across India. The British informed people that joining the Labour Corps would allow them to travel to Europe, and that any man who joined would be exempt from paying certain taxes.
The men signed a contract stating that they would serve in the Labour Corps for a year. Some deliberately requested to be sent to Europe. In addition to having medical examinations, and being given uniforms, they were drilled for a few weeks on how to march in formation, how to react under fire, and how to cross roads in cities.
After an introduction to military life, they made their way to the sea, which most had never seen before. At the Gulf of Taranto, they boarded a train for Marseille. From there, they were sent on to places such as Arras, where some were photographed by Lt. J. W. Brooke, and to the supply centre at Abancourt. In addition to portering and constructing camps and trenches to help release British troops to go to the front, some NLC companies also built roads and collected salvage from battlefields. This is probably where the Chang Naga man acquired the helmet that became a dance-hat.
In January 1918, the War Office wanted to extend the Indian Labour Corps’ contracts from twelve months to the duration of the war, but many companies, including the Naga Labour Corps, refused to sign. They were due to be sent home in the spring, and didn’t want to spend any more time in France than necessary. Following action by the ILC, including strikes and an alleged threat of arson, they were informed that they would be sent home. At the end of May, the NLC set sail for India.
On their return, festivities were held to honour the returning warriors. Despite their non-combatant role, in their own culture they were perceived as warriors. Lord Ampthill, Director of Labour, tried to have the Indian Labour Corps reclassified as combatants due to the dangerous nature of their work.
What’s next for the project?
I intend to broaden my coverage of the subject, including to the Naga Club, the Kuki Rising and the Manipur Labour Corps, which seems to have involved Nagas from various tribes. I’d like to collaborate directly with Naga people. This is part of their heritage, and the story of the NLC is connected to the creation of the state of Nagaland. I’m now in contact with a few people from the Naga tribes – scholars, historians, and relatives of Labour Corps men – via Instagram, after I posted some of my Labour Corps drawings. I’ve already learnt a great deal from them.
I wondered if you had any information regarding my great grandfather Pat Smith
Smith DSO (A/Capt) Service No 1631 T.S Indian Army Reserve of officers. Commanding Officer 35th Naga Indian Labour Company India April 1918
Earlier, on the Somme was Company Sergeant Major listed as wounded and awarded the wound stripe and was awarded the DCM for conspicuous gallantry when a mortar landed in the trench and he hurled it over the parapet, where it immediately exploded probably saved many casualties as stated in London Gazette 27 July 1916
Thanks for reading the article and for getting in contact. Unfortunately I haven’t got any information specifically about your great grandfather, but he sounds excellent – thank you for telling us about him. From what I recall, wounded officers were often put in charge of labour companies.
You’ve probably already looked there, but have you tried checking with the Imperial War Museum? The National Archives might also have something useful; they’ve got a medal card for a Captain Thomas S. Smith, who was with the NLC (reference WO 372/18/175734) but I’m not sure whether there’s any for Captain Pat Smith.
There’s also a facsimile edition of the Notes for Guidance of Officers of the Labour Corps in France issued by the War Office, which might help you to get a better idea of what your great grandfather’s experiences and duties might have been like.
I’m totally absorbed by the fact that there, now are many non-naga scholars, who are making an effort to understand the history of Nagas and Nagaland. Well, now, Nagaland does not even look like the Nagaland that was mapped by the Britishers for the Nagas. India claims Nagaland to be part of India but compromised half of Nagas territory to Burma in 1947. Nagas are now divided and the present Nagaland is not even 20% of what was mapped for Nagas.
As per the Army List of 1918, Second Lieutenant (Acting Captain) T.A. Smith was the Company Commander of 35 Naga Labour Company. He had with him Lieutenants W. H. Lyall and H. E. Ranson. Also Second Lieutenant W.E.C. Jhonson. The Company was visited by Lord Ampthill, Indian Adviser on August 5, 1917. His remarks of the visit was-To train Nagas in the rudiments of discipline and sanitation. Hope you find it interesting.
Im a Naga and the The Naga Labour Corps who came back home after the war transformed our society. The experiences and consciousness they gain while in France and Italy, was in fact the turning point where our society, once a closed society was exposed to the civilization of the world. The came back home and formed the Naga Club in 1918, the first Naga socio-political organization. One main aim of this club was to unite the Nagas as a distinct identity.
It submitted a memorandum to the Simon Commission that was sent to India to leave the Nagas alone and decide their own fate as in ancient times. With the conciousness growing as a result of NLC exposure to western countries and the realization of freedom and dignity, Nagas began to identify themselves as a distinct group of people different from that of Indian. Therefore by 1950s, the club was transformed into Naga National Council ( NNC). Through series of events, Nagas was subjugated by India after the British left and since then, NNC was broken into several factions, those demanding independence and those happily accepting to be under Indian Union.
In 2018, NSCN-IM a breakaway of NNC and one of the major factions signed a framework agreement with Government of India, accepting the limitations of Indian government on its part of being bound by a constitution and India, recognizing the history of Nagas as distinct and hence a political issue.
The fate is yet to be decided, for better or for worse but it all began in the minds of 2000 Nagas who went to France as porters and stretcher bearers.
Thank you for reading the article, and thank you very much for the information about the Naga Club and the NNC, and how the political situation is still changing. It’s fascinating how the experiences of people a century ago can still have an impact on today’s society.
Also, I had no idea that some of the Naga Labour Corps worked as stretcher-bearers – thanks again!
Yes it is indeed amazing how these few men paved the way for us.
We are thankful that such men at one point of time had endured the blood and tears for our future. Like the Kohima War epitaph say ‘When you go home tell them of us and say for your tomorrow we gave our today’.
I wish all the best for your future endeavour. God Bless.
What you say, along with the quote from the Kohima War Epitaph, sums up the situation very well. Thank you for your support, and brightest blessings to you. Thanks again!
My village Phalee or Phadang is in Ukhrul District Manipur. We are one of the village who volunteers most number from a village for the labour corps. And we still have the artifacts and memoriabilia of the corps.
Thanks for reading the article and for getting in contact – this is valuable information! Would you mind telling me more about the volunteers from your village, and the artefacts and memorabilia, please? (We can discuss this by email, if that would be more convenient for you.)
Could you tell me what artefacts, memories , details of your village people who came to France
Hi Ellena, are you from France?
Can you please help me to find out my great grandfather Zuren Thang larb.1786 36th (Naga) ILC died on 15th Jan 1918.
Dear Sir/Madam, I am the grandson of Mr Yanchumo, ILC from Lotha/Naga tribe. Reportedly he had participated as Labour Corp during 1st World War, 2nd World War period and Burma War. He died while my father was three years of age. I saw three Medals said to have preserved by him. On each side of medal inscribed his name ‘Yanchumo’ and on the other side, names of British Monarch. Unfortunately, in the passage of time all these Medals were lost. My request is where can i find his name, be it museum or archives, so as to show his posterity.
Besides, i also want to share one brief write up by elderly father on Labour Corps from Lotha/Naga during 1st world war through my mail, if interested. Thank you so much, in anticipation.
is this of any use to you:? these are the records I have found :
1. Chansao, Mr Lotha 1945
2. Yambhamo Lotha 504 Lance Naik 1945 Assam Regiment
My great grandfather Mr Mashangva left for the war as Naga Labour corpse but never return home nor information about him. Can anybody help me to find more about him?
My email. email@example.com
Thanks and regards!
My grandfather served in Egypt during WW1. I have good quality photos of Naga tribesmen on board ship outside army GHQ Baghdad and then anchored off Sicily. I remember my grandfather saying they were “a lost” tribe. He has a few cuttings about these people from later years. Taking advantage of these days to tackle photos and albums. What a task!
Can you please send me the photos of our Naga corps you have? We have very few pictures of our fathers who went to such mission.
My email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Thank you very much.
Hello Ed Barrett.
Iam a grandson of Yamolo/Yamulo NLC (Lotha/Naga) from Patin(should read as Pangti village) Naga Hills who served as labour during the First World War in France and return home with Medal according to my Uncle (his eldest son) but unfortunately we don’t have any evidence of his participation since his hard earned Medal is lost…
So Sir,my sincere request to you is would you kindly take trouble to get his Labour No. and if possible Photos of my Grandfather… Thank you
Hello Ed Barrett.
Iam a grandson of Yamolo/Yamulo (Lotha/Naga) NLC from Patin (should read as Pangti village) Naga Hills, where Capt. John Butler British Surveyor and his team has been ambushed and fatally wounded him in 1875, he served as a Labour during the First World War in France and return home with Medal according to my Uncle (his eldest son) but unfortunately we don’t have any evidence of his participation in the Labour corps since his hard earned Medal has been lost, so my sincere request to you Sir would you please take trouble to locate his Labour No. and if possible photos of my grandfather as well..
Hello, sir/madam ,my great grandfather was also in the NLC from Chang Naga, have you ever come across by the name Chongshen Tangu. If yes, please can you tell me his corp no.. as the medal which was given ,got lost . your kind contribution will help me in finding out more about the Chang Nagas who never come back from that war. Thank you kindly reply