Buckinghamshire, the Indian Army and the First World War: a forgotten history?

Dr Priya Atwal, University of Oxford

For many, a mention of “the First World War” immediately conjures up images of young and perhaps wounded British soldiers engaging in brutal combat across the blood-soaked, muddy trenches of France and Flanders. Increasing attention has also recently been given to the presence and contributions of soldiers and labourers from other parts of the world in the battles of the Western Front, particularly men from the Indian subcontinent (today constituting India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) and other countries that formed part of Britain’s vast empire in the twentieth century.

However, what is often still lacking in our understanding of this period of history, is just how wide-reaching its local and global connections were. In fact, between 1914 and 1918, men from the neighbouring counties of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire were thrown together with South Asian soldiers into the crucible of war in more far- flung arenas than Ypres or Passchendaele – in Iraqi towns instead. Over half a million Indians would serve in Mesopotamia during the war years (as Iraq was known then),

out-numbering their British counterparts in the region at least three times over.

Such large numbers can be difficult for our imaginations to grapple with. The new, free mini-exhibition at the Old Gaol Museum enables visitors to get a sense of the war as experienced by ordinary people, having been designed by a dedicated group of British Asian volunteers, together with historians and heritage consultants from the University of Oxford, to tell the tales of fascinating individuals whose lives were transformed by the conflict. 

One cannot help but admire Basant Kaur, the young war widow who unexpectedly became the head of her family after her husband was killed in Basra; or fail to be moved by the tale of Mahomed Ali, the Muslim storekeeper who fell in love with a young Catholic girl in war-torn Iraq.

The exhibition also highlights the longstanding imperial and military connection between Buckinghamshire and India, revealing new insights into the somewhat forgotten history of the presence of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in South Asia in the decades leading up to the First World War. 

The stories told in the display are only part of a growing picture however. The other aim of the exhibition is to get more people thinking about how their ancestors might have been impacted by the First World War, or even for an earlier period, how service in the ‘Ox and Bucks’ regiment might have led to them spending time in British India. 

If you have such a story to share, you are welcome to get in touch with the exhibition’s research team by email at Any such contributions are warmly appreciated, as part of this important ongoing endeavour to broaden and enrich our understanding of people’s multi-faceted experiences of the Great War.

A Victorian Royal Christmas

One of the treasures of Buckingham Old Gaol Museum is a shawl crocheted by Queen Victoria; it has her initials sewn into the corner. It is now fully restored and on display in the Flora Thompson Room.   1837 was Queen Victoria’s first Christmas as Sovereign, and she spent it at Buckingham Palace. Victoria noted in her diary that she received a pair of slippers, a box for pens and paper, a sable muff, a silver lamp, a bracelet and a pin. She attended midnight service in the Chapel but found the Bishop of London’s sermon “very severe and harsh”.  

 (Photograph of the dining room at Osborne House, Christmas 1873. Royal Collection, RCIN2103818)

By December 1846, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had 5 children (and was pregnant with her sixth). Eleanor Stanley, her Lady in Waiting, wrote that, “Round the tree were all our presents with the name of each person, written by the Queen... The children had each a little table with their new toys, and were running about in great glee showing them off; Prince Alfred…was shooting us all with his new gun, and Princess Alice was making us admire her dolls. "

However, the death of Prince Albert in December 1861, made future Christmases a sad time for the Queen. On 24 December 1864 she wrote in her diary; “Again this festive time has returned, which we used to celebrate so gladly and brightly.” Her gifts that year included drawings by her children and ‘a large blotting book’ from her youngest daughter Beatrice (aged 7), but Queen Victoria was tired and depressed and wrote how she missed the happy, gay, blessed times with dear Albert.  

In December 1890 Victoria was 71 years old and spent Christmas at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. On 24 December, despite it being a cold, frosty day, she drove out in her carriage with her daughters Beatrice and Vicky and then went into the Durbar Room to see her many children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Several members of her family had ‘clubbed together’ to buy her a copy of the Holbein painting of Queen Anne of Cleves (wife of Henry VIII) which Victoria noted in her diary was both “valuable and interesting."

There was one person missing at the 1890 Christmas celebrations; Prince George (who in 1910 would become King George V), was serving in the Royal Navy in Bermuda. In his diary for 25 December 1890 he noted that he had lunch with the Admiral, and in the evening played games, whist, and sang songs with his hosts. On 31 December he wrote, “Good bye old 1890. Wish I was at home; thought of all those darlings I love best.”   

Extracts for this blog taken from the book A Royal Christmas by Jeremy Archer (2012) 

Photograph left, Courtesy of Miranda Winnett, December 10th 2017

The end of summer & new beginnings...

31st October, commonly known as Halloween, is also remembered by some as Samhain; The ancient Celtic festival marking the end of one year and the beginning of the next.  It was believed that at this time of year, the veil between the living worlds and those of the dead was at its thinnest, that the spirits of ancestors were at their closest and that this should therefore be a time for remembrance, celebration and preparation for the long, dark winter ahead.

Looking around it is easy to see why our ancestors chose this time as one of closure and the start of new beginnings.  With the harvest completed and nature transitioning into its dormant state, the shortening of the days and the onset of cold, we are rewarded with some astonishing displays within the natural world.

A walk up Stowe Avenue on these crisp, fresh mornings highlights this to very good effect. Equally, the slow ebb of the River running through the old town provides a natural rhythm and literal reflection on the surrounding world. Autumn in Buckingham is beautiful.

And as the children enjoy the mischief of Halloween, and the bonfires burn on November 5th, consider that while these practices have more modern links to history, that actually both link squarely back to our Celtic past and that it is no coincidence of their timing. 

At the Old Gaol, we too are celebrating old endings and new beginnings. Accepting that some doors have closed while we make way for better things.

The natural world is key in this transition. Winter is coming. But it is a joy to behold. 

November 2017

Get out of the rain!

Yet again, the August weather fails to surprise with another display of endless rain and wind across Buckingham!  But what more should we expect for the summer holidays?!

Thankfully, at the Buckingham Old Gaol we have a huge array of summer activities - Indoor - designed to entertain and engage minds from all ages.

The Friends of the Old Gaol have created a series of activities for Children, all linked to the fascinating past of the town and our summer 'Treasures from the Soil' exhibition. Learn about Buckingham's Anglo Saxon monier and design your own coin, dig in the sand and see what artefacts lie beneath, and create your own fabulous mosaic.  Loads more to do and only for a 50p supplement to our usual children's admission.

Our 'Treasures from the Soil' exhibition focuses squarely on the amazing array of objects found in the immediate locality.  In pride of place we have on display an incredible Iron Age Tankard, on loan from the British Museum no less.  The tankard is huge and showcases the skill of Iron Age metalworking in Buckingham over 2,000 years ago.  You will also get to see artefacts dating from the early stone age (the Palaeolithic), through the Dark-Ages, Medieval and Tudor periods.  Buckingham has an incredible history...what lies beneath the soil of your own garden...?  Come and talk to us and find out more...

August 2017

(The stunning photograph of the Old gaol below was captured by local photographer Michael Peter Lake)

Accreditation, Saxon Silver & 50,000 steps....!

It has been an incredibly busy and exciting start to the summer for the team at the Old Gaol, and in turn the community at large.

We begin by celebrating our award as an Arts Council of England Accredited Museum.  This ranking puts us on a par with the likes of the British Museum as it ensures that we maintain a nationally agreed set of standards regarding management, curation and care of exhibits as well as the services we offer to the public. We are delighted with this recognition and invite you to come and share in our success by making a visit and seeing our remarkable exhibits and collections.

The museum also eagerly anticipates the arrival of its share of the Saxon coins from the now globally famous 'Lenborough Hoard' which we will display with great pride.  Special thanks must be extended to the people of the town who contributed so generously to the fundraising activities of 2016...Your efforts and support paid off as this unique discovery, local to this area, is now secured as one for the future.

Finally, we took great pride in supporting the Maids Moreton Archaeological Group in preparation for the summer excavations.  Our trustees and members learned a great deal about geophysics and the raw power of the sun as they paced a field for 4 days in +25 degree heat collecting data to determine where this years excavation efforts should be focused. 

With an exciting range of summer activities and events planned, come along and see us to learn and experience the rich history of this town, and how you might be able to help us do more...

June 2017