Indian WWI fighter pilot's story emerges in archive

An Indian World War I fighter pilot's moving story emerges in rare UK archive

One of the images released by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission

The remarkable story of an airman who overcame prejudice to become one of only a handful of Indian fighter pilots in the First World War has emerged in newly-released archive files by the UK's Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).

Lieutenant Shri Krishna Chanda Welinkar is one of the thousands of moving stories from the war preserved in family correspondence and being brought alive as part of a digitisation project.

The never-before-published files contain thousands of letters, pictures and other papers sent between the Commission and the next of the kin of First World War dead.

Among them is the story of Welinkar, who hailed from Bombay in colonial India. After much hardship and discrimination, he eventually became a pilot and went missing while on patrol over the skies above the Western Front in June 1918.

His family had to wait nearly three years before they finally knew for certain that he had died, and his grave was located.

“For everyone who died in the First World War, there was inevitably a partner, parent or child back home who had questions. The heartbreaking letters in CWGC's archive give us an insight into what it was like for those families trying to come to terms with their loss,” said Andrew Fetherston, chief archivist for CWGC.

“They are stories that show desperate searches for closure, former enemies uniting and, on many occasions, the sad realisation that a missing loved one would always remain so. We are pleased to be able to make this invaluable piece of World War history accessible to a new generation and help deepen our understanding of how the First World War impacted those who were left behind,” he said.

Welinkar was one of the 1.3 million Indians who answered the call to fight for the British Empire. Nearly 74,000 never saw their homeland again and are remembered today in cemeteries and memorials throughout the world, including France, Belgium, the Middle East and Africa.

Welinkar was a well-educated man studying at Cambridge University. He trained to become an aviator in Middlesex and wished to join the Royal Flying Corps, later known as the Royal Air Force.

Upon attempting to enlist, Welinkar encountered the same prejudices as his other fellow Indian airmen and was encouraged to become an air mechanic instead.

He was eventually given a commission in the Royal Flying Corps as an Officer. In 1918, he was posted to France and patrolled the skies above the Western Front.

In June 1918, Lieutenant Welinkar embarked on what would be his final patrol; he did not return and was reported missing. His fate remained unknown for many months afterwards.

The newly-released e-files chronicle the remarkable discovery of Welinkar and his final resting place long after the war had ended. Colonel Barton, who knew Welinkar, acted on behalf of his mother and helped find her missing son. They spoke to former enemies and honed their search to the grave of an unidentified man, buried by the Germans as “Oberleutnant S.C. Wumkar” in a grave in Rouvroy, Belgium.

The body was later moved and reinterred in Hangard Communal Cemetery Extension but it wasn't until the vital clue, found in the original German burial records in February 1921, that it was confirmed beyond doubt this grave was of Welinkar's.

In May 1921, Colonel Barton, on behalf of Welinkar's mother, requested that a Commission headstone be placed on the grave with the following personal inscription: “To the Honoured Memory of One of the Empire's Bravest Sons”.

This records – known as Enquiry Files – are part of a collection of nearly 3,000 files which have never been made available to the public before. Nearly half have been digitised so far, alongside a previously unreleased collection of more than 16,000 photographs held in negatives in the Commission's archive.

The files, internally referred to simply as E-Files, contain correspondence between the CWGC and the next of kin of the war dead. They often contain letters, typed memos between Commission staff and on occasion photos, maps and diagrams.

CWGC only holds an enquiry file for a small proportion of the 1.7 million people it commemorates from the Commonwealth. Today it is only possible to release those surviving records from the First World War because correspondence with families of Second World War casualties often involves people still alive today and cannot be made public for many years, due to the UK's data protection rules.

To date, more than 1,300 of the surviving 3,000 First World War enquiry files have been digitised.

The CWGC commemorates the 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen and women who died during the two World Wars. It also holds and updates an extensive and accessible records archive, while operating over 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries and territories.

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