In the early years of the First World War, more than 12,000 Indian soldiers were treated in hospitals in Brighton. Indian troops made up almost a quarter of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front and by late 1914 it was clear that new medical facilities were required. Brighton was chosen as the site of three hospitals for the exclusive use of these men.
The Royal Pavilion is the most famous of these hospitals, largely because it played a political role.
The British authorities promoted the Pavilion as showpiece of imperial generosity, with widely circulated photographs showing Indian patients treated in the sumptuous rooms of a grand palace.
While the men were undoubtedly well-cared for, it was a place of mythmaking as much as medical practice.
By far the largest hospital was the Kitchener, established in the former workhouse. More than 8000 men were treated here, usually for lighter injuries. This was run with a much harsher regime than the Royal Pavilion, with barbed wire surrounding the walls and patients expected to act as orderlies if fit enough to walk.
The Kitchener was designed to speedily return men to active, with soldiers often returning to the frontlines within six weeks of their hospitalisation.
The York Place School hospital is the most mysterious as no photographs of the interior exist. This is probably because it took the most severely injured patients and had the highest death rate. While the British were keen to present soldiers with crutches and slings as examples of valour and loyalty, some wounds were too severe to spin.
The building used for the York Place hospital became part of Brighton MET college and has recently been demolished, but many traces of Brighton’s Indian patients remain. The Kitchener became Brighton General Hospital. The Chattri memorial on the Downs marks the soldiers who died in Brighton.
The Indian Gate at the southern entrance to the Royal Pavilion Estate was a gift from the people of India as thanks for the care given by Brighton.
The Royal Pavilion itself has now become a gateway for understanding India’s role in WW1. At a time when many are reflecting on the legacy of the British Empire, the story of these hospitals is a unique reminder of the contribution made by South Asian soldiers to the war effort and the long, complex and often contested relationship between Britain and India.