Photograph albums relating to a soldier’s service in India during the Second World War have been donated to the museum collection by his granddaughter. William (Billy) Salkeld was a painter and decorator living in Sunderland with his wife and family when war broke out. He was quick to join up, and served with the regiment’s 2nd Battalion.
“My mother was about 8 or 9 when Billy left for the war. When her father returned she was a teenager, aged 15”, recalls Lynn Henderson who has donated the photo albums. “He did not talk about the war. Occasionally, he would utter some Indian phrase and would talk about Bomber, the troop’s dog, who they all loved. He suffered from terrible nightmares, which would wake up the whole house.”
The museum has no specific archive records relating to Billy (service records for individual soldiers of this period are held by the Ministry of Defence), but we do know the details of the battalion’s movements at the time he served. The 2nd battalion was in India at the outbreak of war, and remained there until September 1944, when it moved to Burma.
Between September 1939 and October 1942, the Battalion was based in Firozpore and Jabalpur where it effectively acted as an Imperial Police Force. With British attention and resources focussed on the war in Europe, the Government was worried that pro-Independence movements in India might take advantage of the situation and step up agitation against British rule. There were a number of demonstrations and rioting, and the 2nd Battalion played a part in suppressing them.
From October to December 1942 the Battalion moved up-country to Razmak to defend the north-west frontier.
Despite being an ally, the British government did not wholly trust the Soviet Union and were always wary of any possible Soviet move south. Being positioned close to the frontier, the Battalion could monitor traffic moving into India, particularly along traditional smuggling routes. A piece in the September 1942 Gazette (Vol. L, No. 582, page 85) gives a flavour of life on station, entitled Jabalpur Battalion Notes:
“It is most unfortunate that the arrival of the hot weather (the thermometer has been registering arounds 110 degrees for the past few weeks) should coincide with the deplorable scarcity of beer. There is an ominous rumour about that beer will shortly be rationed to the extent of one-sixth of a bottle per man per day, or one bottle per man per week – we don’t quite know which sounds worst! Murchie (14648012 Private Kenneth Murch) had a spot of excitement last week and experienced his first baptism of fire. He was returning from a course when his train was derailed and attacked by some 200 members of a lawless tribe. Fortunately, his compartment was the only one not shot into, as the coach had turned nearly completely over, and the windows were inaccessible. He suffered injuries to his arm and shoulder, but after extricating himself and helping to recover bodies, both dead and living, from the wreckage, he went on a lone patrol armed with a .45, to the next village four miles away, for assistance. He got through successfully, and despatched armed police and doctors to the scene. There are about 30 killed, mostly by shot-guns and axes, and 50 injured. Murchie says he would rather be back home amongst the air raids!”
In May 1944 the Battalion moved to Ranchi and then Lohardaga in eastern India, where it trained for jungle warfare. In September 1944, the Battalion landed in Burma.
The ‘end of empire’ style scenes depicted in the photo albums, the majority of which show groups of friends, concert parties, local people, wildlife and scenery belie the massive impact of Billy’s war on him, and his family.
“When we think of the Second World War, the war in European countries often takes precedence in our collective memory, but so many soldiers were serving elsewhere in the world, often protecting British interests against pro-Independence movements,” says Collections Manager, Zoe Utley. “Albums like this show one side of soldiering. Just like social media today, the albums were curated by Billy to describe his experiences as he wanted to remember, or present, them. By adding in family stories and memories, regimental records and the experiences of other soldiers who also recorded their experiences that we can perhaps piece together a broader picture of the impact of service.”
“My mother said his return from war had been very frightening for her – her father was essentially a total stranger, and she’d run away to her grandmother’s house when he came back,” says Lynn. “Not only was Billy suffering from recurring nightmares, there were also the ongoing legacy of malaria, which he had contracted in Burma. It was quite terrifying, he was very ill. He’d seen some quite dreadful things in Burma, could not forgive the Japanese and just couldn’t bring himself to talk about the war. The esteem he held for the Ghurkas was immense and he was proud to have fought with them.”