Jogendra Sen was a Bengali engineer who studied at Leeds University before joining the Leeds “Pals” in 1914. Chris Bond looks back at his remarkable story.
A shattered pair of spectacles in an Indian museum has helped shed light on the remarkable story of a Bengali man who signed up with Yorkshire volunteers to fight on the Western Front.
Jogendra Sen, a former Leeds University student, was an engineer by trade and among the first to sign up to the 1st Leeds “Pals” Battalion when the call to arms went out in September 1914.
Private Sen was the only known non-white soldier to serve with the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment during the First World War and was killed in action near the Somme in May 1916, aged 28. It’s thought that he was the first Bengali to have died in the conflict and today his name can be found on the university’s war memorial. His story could easily have been forgotten had it not been for Dr Santanu Das, from King’s College London.
Dr Das is an expert on India’s involvement in the war and during a visit to Sen’s home town of Chandernagore, a former French colony, he came across his bloodstained glasses in a display case in a local museum. “I was absolutely stunned when I saw the pair of glasses,” he says. “It’s one of the most poignant artefacts I’ve seen – a material token of the fragility of life at the front.”
A photograph taken at the time 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.
It was while giving a talk in Leeds as part of the University’s Legacies of War centenary project that Dr Das mentioned his discovery in India, at which point he was told that Sen’s name was among those on the university’s war memorial.
More than a million Indian soldiers and non-combatants served during the conflict but what makes Sen’s case so unusual is that he wasn’t part of the Indian army but was fighting in a Yorkshire battalion.
Dr Das, with the help of local researchers and academics at the university, was able to piece together strands of his life.
Sen was among the well-educated Indians who flocked to British universities during the first decade of the 20th Century and was working as an assistant engineer at Leeds Corporation Electric Lighting station when war broke out.
He was popular with his fellow soldiers but was thwarted in his attempt to join up as an officer despite being one of the best educated men in the battalion.
On May 22, 1916, he was among a wiring party that came under heavy bombardment at Bus-Les-Artois in the Somme Salient and died after being hit by shrapnel in the leg and neck.
He was buried in Sucrerie Military Cemetery near Albert, leaving behind a widowed mother and an older brother back in India.
Alison Fell, who leads the Legacies of War project at the University of Leeds, says his story reflects the scale of the shadow cast by the conflict.
“It 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.”
Jogendra Sen’s story is featured on Inside Out on BBC One (in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire) tonight at 7.30pm.