At sea

Praying at sea

In the First World War diaries of the Indian infantry units deployed to the Western Front, it is recorded that the 111th Indian Field Ambulance of the Lahore Division troops were travelling to Mesopotamia by sea from August 1914. The Field Ambulance was a mobile front line medical unit that had responsibility of caring for casualties during and after battle.

On the 11th September 1914, an entry in the diary shows how they were allowed to pray on the deck of the ship:

11.9.1914: ‘Last evening, about 8 o’clock … Mahommedans were informed and were allowed to come up on the Promenade deck to pray, facing east towards Mecca – they all appreciated this very much, and are most grateful to Lt. Colonel C. Coffin R for his kindness in thinking of it’.


To travel to Mesopotamia, the recruits completed a long journey with many stops. Some felt both homesick and seasick, and struggled with the new, difficult weather. The 111th Indian Field Ambulance’s diary notes their gradual recovery as the days passed aboard the H.M.H.T Castalia ship on the Arabian Sea, heading towards Aden in Yemen, before receiving instructions to continue to Marseille. The ship was ‘so crowded’ with soldiers that the Smoking Room on the Promenade deck was ‘the only place available as a Hospital’. What’s more, on the 1st September 1914, the entry reads: ‘Saw a shark cruising round the ship this morning’.

Profile: Ata Khan

Ata Khan, from Bombay, was a lascar (Indian sailor-man) employed on British ships. He was on the H.M.T Kalyon troopship, which would carry thousands of soldiers, when he wrote a letter explaining his ordeals. Writing in October 1915, Khan describes how 2,500 soldiers and much ammunition were boarded onto a warship. It headed to Dardanelles where fighting had already started. He writes that ‘shells were raining all round the ship’. When a shell struck the ship ferociously, Khan and his comrades began ‘to cry out’, thinking that they were about to die. He survived this scare, and describes how, two months later, he returned to London, and along with the other soldiers, confronted their seniors. They told them that they could not go back on the warship, and that they would like to return to Bombay. In response, the soldiers were threatened that any person who refused to enter the ship would be imprisoned for six months. ‘This frightened us’, admits Khan, who at the time of writing this letter, was aboard the ship for seven whole months.