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The unlikeliest of Pals? An Indian soldier alone among Yorkshiremen

The unlikeliest of Pals? An Indian soldier alone among Yorkshiremen

A shattered pair of spectacles in an Indian museum has helped shed light on the fascinating story of a lone non-white soldier among Yorkshire volunteers fighting on the Western Front.

Jogendra Sen, a highly-educated Bengali who completed an electrical engineering degree at the University of Leeds in 1913, was among the first to sign up to the 1st Leeds “Pals” Battalion when it was raised in September 1914.

He remained the only known non-white soldier to serve with the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment during the First World War. Despite his education, he was thwarted in his attempt to join up as an officer and unable to progress beyond the rank of private. 

Killed in action near the Somme in May 1916, aged 28, the bachelor is thought to have been the first Bengali to have died in the war. Private Sen’s name is on the University’s war memorial.

His story caught the attention of Dr Santanu Das, Reader in English at King’s College London and an expert on India’s involvement in the First World War. On a visit in 2005 to Sen’s home town of Chandernagore – a former French colony – Dr Das came across Sen’s bloodstained glasses in a display case in the town’s museum, the Institut de Chandernagore.

He said: “I was absolutely stunned when I saw the pair of glasses. It’s one of the most poignant artefacts I’ve seen – a mute witness to the final moments of Sen’s life. It was astonishing that something so fragile has survived when almost everything else has perished.”

A contemporary photograph shows Private Sen relaxing with his fellow Pals – who knew him as Jon – wearing what is thought to be the same spectacles Dr Das found almost a century later.

While giving a talk in Leeds as part of the University’s Legacies of War centenary project, Dr Das mentioned his discovery in India. Keen-eyed members of the audience pointed out that Sen’s name was among those on the University war memorial nearby.

Further information began to pour forth from community researchers Dave Stowe and Andrea Hetherington, who have worked with academics on Legacies of War. Mr Stowe had already been researching Jogendra Sen as part of work to find out more about those on the University roll of honour.

Professor Alison Fell, who leads the project at the University of Leeds, said: “I found the piecing together of Sen's story from the historical traces of his life and death that had survived in India and in Yorkshire very moving. 

“His story also illustrates the extent to which the First World War was a global war that involved colonial soldiers and workers as well as those who volunteered or who were conscripted in their home nations.”

Dr Das added: “The glasses led me to find other remarkable objects, some from my own extended family, and onto a tantalising trail of other educated middle class Bengalis, who often served as doctors – and partly inspired my book 1914-1918: Indians on the Western Front, which tells their story through photographs and objects.

“More than a million Indian soldiers and non-combatants served in different theatres of the First World War, but what is so unusual about Jogendra Sen is that he was not part of the Indian army but of the Leeds Pals Battalion. 

“I sometimes wonder what his experiences would have been as the only non-white person in the battalion at that time – and of his family when the glasses arrived, all the way from France to Chandernagore.”

Bengalis, deemed by the British to be a “non-martial” race as part of their divide-and-rule colonial policies in India, were initially excluded from the Indian Army and were rarely found in British regiments. 

Relatively few Bengalis fought in the conflict, although they supported the war effort in other ways, such as through fundraising or medical work. Instead, the British recruited Punjabis and Ghurkhas to fight in the West. 

In total, India contributed some 1.5 million men as soldiers and non-combatants (including labourers and porters) to the war effort. 

Background: A Bengali on the Western Front

Born in 1887 in Chandernagore, Jogendra Nath Sen left India in 1910 and, in the early days of the 20th century phenomenon of Indians flocking to British universities, graduated from the University of Leeds with a BSc in electrical engineering in 1913. 

Known as Jon to his fellow soldiers, he was among the first to sign up to the Leeds Pals shortly after the outbreak of war, while working as assistant engineer at Leeds Corporation Electric Lighting station.

A comrade, Arthur Dalby, told historian Laurie Milner in 1988: “We had a Hindu in our hut, called Jon Sen. He was the best educated man in the battalion and he spoke about seven languages but he was never allowed to be even a lance corporal because in those days they would never let a coloured fellow be over a white man, not in England, but he was the best educated.” 

The battalion had been formed in September 1914 by mayor Edward Brotherton. Some 20,000 people gathered to wave off the first recruits from Leeds on September 25. 

The title “Leeds Pals” is unofficial, but as it suggests, pals battalions were often made up of friends from the same street, school, factory, church or even university. Heavy losses inflicted on such battalions from towns and cities across the country were therefore felt even more keenly back home.

Private Sen ended up in Number 16 Platoon (D Company) of the 15th (Service) Battalion (1st Leeds) Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) – often abbreviated to the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment or 1st Leeds Pals. 

After training in Colsterdale, North Yorkshire, and on Salisbury Plain, the battalion was sent to Egypt in December 1915, before moving to France in the following March.

By May, Private Sen and his comrades were at the front at Bus-Les-Artois in the Somme department. He was killed in action as part of a wiring party that was heavily bombarded late on the night of 22 May, after being hit by shrapnel in the leg and neck. 

He left a widowed mother back in India, and an older brother – Dr Jotindra Nath Sen, a railway company doctor. Private Sen was buried in Sucrerie Military Cemetery, Colincamps, near Albert, along with 1,102 other men. 

According to his obituary in The Times in September 1916, his commanding officer wrote of him: "His loss is felt very much throughout the whole of the company. He always showed himself to be a keen and upright soldier, and myself and the officers of this company thought a great deal of him.”

Sen’s obituary in the Yorkshire Evening Post on 2 June 1916, referring to his pre-war employment at the power station, said: “While there he gave much promise of a successful career and being of a cheerful disposition, was much liked by everybody. Several months ago when the 'Pals' paraded in the City, Private Sen came in for much notice because of his evident connection with the East.”

As well as the University’s Brotherton War Memorial, two rolls of honour at Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel in Leeds city centre also bear Sen’s name. Despite his Hindu background, the young Bengali was a member of the chapel choir. 

Sen’s personal effects were sent from York back to his brother in India in 1920. Along with a graduation picture, regimental cap badge, notebooks, snaps and a pocket knife was – somewhat tantalisingly – an undated photograph of a well-dressed young woman taken in a Scarborough portrait studio. It bears the inscription “Yours with love, Cis”. 

Nothing more was known about the mystery woman, who also gave the young soldier a book of quotes about the value of friendship inscribed: “With the very best of good wishes in this world + after, To Jogi, my dear brother, From his loving sister, Cis”.

But then researcher Ruth Allison was able to identify her as Mary Cicely Newton (nee Wicksteed), who may have met Sen through her connection with Mill Hill Chapel. Their relationship appears to have remained a platonic one. 

Cicely went on to become a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse with two of her sisters, and earned the Royal Red Cross while serving in France, where she met her future husband Australian surgeon Alan Newton. They were married in Adel, Leeds, in 1919. Two of their granddaughters are today successful journalists – Kate Kellaway at The Observer and Lucy Kellaway at the Financial Times.

  • With thanks to Dave Stowe for new research – see his blog post here: See also Leeds Pals by Laurie Milner and the web site and book on the Leeds Pals by Stephen Wood. 

Further information

For images and interviews, contact University of Leeds press officer Gareth Dant on 0113 343 3996 or

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