South African units

Natal Volunteer Indian Ambulance Corps

The inception and service of this volunteer unit was described by Gandhi, its founder, in his Autobiography: 'When war was declared, my personal sympathies were all with the Boers, but I believed then that I had yet no right, in such cases, to enforce my individual convictions. I have minutely dealt with the inner struggle regarding this in my history of the Satyagraha in South Africa, and I must not repeat the argument here. I invite the curious to turn to those pages. Suffice it to say that my loyalty to the British rule drove me to participation with the British in that war. I felt that, if I demanded rights as a British citizen, it was also my duty, as such, to participate in the defence of the British Empire. I held then that India could achieve here complete emancipation only within and through the British Empire. So I collected together as many comrades as possible, and with very great difficulty got their services accepted as an ambulance corps. The average Englishman believed that the Indian was a coward, incapable of taking risks or looking beyond his immediate self-interest. Many English friends, therefore, threw cold water on my plan. But Dr. Booth supported it whole-heartedly. He trained us in ambulance work. We secured medical certificates of fitness for service at the front. Mr. Laughton and the late Mr. Escombe enthusiastically supported the plan, and we applied at last for service at the front. The Government thankfully acknowledged our application, but said that our services were not needed. I would not rest satisfied, however, with this refusal. Through the introduction of Dr. Booth, I called on the Bishop of Natal. There were many Christian Indians in our corps. The Bishop was delighted with my proposal and promised to help us in getting our services accepted. Time too was working for us. The Boer had shown more pluck, determination and bravery than had been expected; and our services were ultimately needed. Our corps was 1,100 strong, with nearly 40 leaders. About three hundred were free Indians, and the rest indentured. Dr. Booth was also with us. The corps acquitted itself well. Though our work was to be outside the firing line, and though we had the protection of the Red Cross, we were asked at a critical moment to serve within the firing line. The reservation had not been of our seeking. The authorities did not want us to be within range of fire. The situation, however, was changed after the repulse at Spion Kop, and General Buller sent the message that, though we were not bound to take the risk, the Government would be thankful if we would do so and fetch the wounded from the field. We had no hesitation, and so the action at Spion Kop found us working within the firing line. During these days we had to march from twenty-five miles a day, bearing the wounded on stretchers. Amongst the wounded we had the honour of carrying soldiers like General Woodgate. The corps was disbanded after six weeks' service. After the reverses at Spion Kop and Vaalkranz, the British Commander-in-Chief abandoned the attempt to relieve Ladysmith and other places by summary procedures, and decided to proceed slowly, awaiting reinforcements from England and India. Our humble work was at the moment much applauded, and the Indians' prestige was enhanced. The newspaper published laudatory rhymes with the refrain, 'We are the sons of Empire after all.' General Buller mentioned with appreciation the work of the corps in his despatch, and the leaders were awarded the War Medal.... I cannot forbear from recording a sweet reminiscence of how human nature shows itself at its best in moments of trial. We were marching towards Chieveley Camp where Lieutenant Roberts, the son of Lord Roberts, had received a mortal wound. Our corps had the honour of carrying the body from the field. It was a sultry day - the day of our march. Everyone was thirsting for water. There was a tiny brook on the way where we could slake our thirst. But who was to drink first? We had proposed to come in after the tommies had finished. But they would not begin first and urged us to do so, and for a while a pleasant competition went on for giving precedence to one another.'

As unpaid civilians, the Natal Volunteer Indian Ambulance Corps were not eligible to receive Medals. Dean Booth lobbied the Secretary of State for War, St. John Brodrick on behalf of the 34 Leaders. He already had a report on the NVIAC placed before the Queen and he asked Brodrick to award Medals to the Leaders, who had given their services free but would prize such a reward. Lord Wolseley decided this should be agreed to because if it was brought to the Queen's notice she would undoubtedly demand that it be done.

Gandhi's QSA is in the Nehru Museum, New Delhi.

34 men received the QSA.

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