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Reminiscence on Zhaimai Labour Corps to France

Robert

Situated on the North eastern part of Senapati District, Manipir, Zhaimai village (officially known as Liyai) is considered to be the largest village amongst the Paumai Naga villages in Manipur. Zhaimai comes from two words that is ‘Zhai’ meaning ‘Lake’ and ‘Mai’ meaning ‘People’. Literally it connotes ‘People who live near the Lake’. Bestowed with rich heritage of chronicle, folklores and historical places, Zhaimais are well known for their sense of humour, simple living and innocence. Being renowned for their bravery, the natives who once defended their village and neighbouring villages courageously in times of war, 34 Zhaimai people were chosen for the Labour Corps to France out of which two could not go owing to ill health.

According to history, when the war progressed by late 1915, the British War Committee were alerted that shortage of labour might cost them dearly in the Western Front in France  as their combatants could not be spared for non-combat roles. Consequently unskilled labours were found to be required for construction of roads, laying of railway tracks, handling ammunition, docks, supply and store depots, forestry, quarries, trench building, grave digging and so on. The request for labour corps came to Manipur in 1917, when the then Raja of Manipur, Chura Chand Singh and the then political agent, Lieutenant Colonel Cole came to an official understanding to contribute labour corps to serve in France. Many of the villages were horrified at the idea of sending their men to unknown lands from where perhaps they might not return at all. However, despite their doubt, about 2000 men were recruited for the Manipur Labour Corps which again was divided into four companies- 40th, 64th, 65th and 66th Manipur Labour Companies. Thus the British recruited the corps from many parts of the world including ethnic people from mainland India, Africans, Chinese and the native groups. Zhaimai were part of the 21,000 strong Indian Labour Corps that was recruited by the British in early 1917. Unfortunately only 30 of them returned after the war.

As recorded from what was narrated by the homecoming Zhaimai Labour Corps in early days to the villagers, they set out their journey from their village and met other recruits from Senapati region and Imphal at Mao Gate and then advanced towards Dimapur on foot. On reaching Dimapur station, kits and baggage containing unit numbers, labour corps’ numbers, uniforms and utensils were handed over to them. Before their departure to France, knowledge on  warfare along with rigorous physical training including the manner of walking, standing, resting and even following traffic rules in the city were taught. Then after, they were boarded the train from Dimapur to Guwahati and from Guwahati they boarded another train to Bombay via Jabalpur. On reaching Bombay Sea Port on 6th June, 1917, they were overwhelmed to see the sea (Arabian Sea) for the first time. After boarding the ship Mary Land to France, they were confined to different accommodations according to their ranks. It took nine days to cross the Arabian Sea to reach Aden Sea Port. Then after on 17th June 1917, they boarded the ship Egera to cross Red Sea, which took six days to reach Said Port of the Suez Canal. From Said Port, they boarded Victoria ship that took seven days to cross Mediterranean Sea and finally reached the Gulf of Taranto (Italy) where they spent about a month to overcome sea-sickness.

After the lengthy and tiresome journey by ships, they headed out for Marseilles by train. While passing the Alps, they were astounded by the innovative underground tunnel. Marseilles was the destination of 40th Labour Corp Company, while the 60th, 65th and 66th labour corps moved ahead further and worked at several other places in France. They were not engaged for holding of guns or firing at the enemies. However, they often found themselves at the warfront while performing their duty. Whenever there was firing, the French armies would bend down and hide. But they often ran up to the hillside to see the firing and whenever they see bullets hitting the ground, they would rush and pick up the bullets so as to see what it was and some of them even bit it to find out how it tasted. Sighting their act, it created psychological panic among the German soldiers who eventually retreated from the warfront. They played the role of saving life as they took care of the injured and buried the deceased that were killed in action. It is believed that their presence made the French armies stronger mentally and physically.

Their life experiences were one of struggle and at the same time an excitement. Leaving behind their loved ones and going abroad for the first time in their life, experiencing many new things like travelling by train and ships, meeting different types of people, food habits and involving in unusual jobs left them with much anxiety and worry. Nevertheless they were treated equally as the combatants. But history has never considered their contribution important; especially the stories of the labour corps recruited from Northeast India. They sacrificed their time, energy, life and family for the state and the country; hence the villagers recognize their great achievements and pay rich tributes to them as they celebrate the completion of 100 years of this honourable expedition.

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