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Know Your City: Bengaluru’s oldest war memorial is dedicated to Madras Pioneers who died in WW1

Disbanded or absorbed into the Madras Engineers Group or the Madras Sappers in 1933, the Madras Pioneers regiment was raised by the British in 1780. The Sappers War Memorial is located at the Brigade Road-Residency Road junction in Bengaluru.

The Sappers War Memorial is dedicated to the memory of soldiers who died in various battle zones on behalf of the British army, including in Burma, East Africa, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier Province. (Express Photo)

In the Sherlock Holmes short story titled ‘The Adventure of the Empty House’, author Arthur Conan Doyle refers to a British army regiment called the 1st Bengaluru Pioneers where the villain of the story, Colonel Sebastian Moran, had served.

The reference to the 1st Bengaluru Pioneers is believed to be a fictionalised version of the 1st Madras Pioneers regiment raised in 1780 by the British – which was based in Bengaluru in the 1800s – since there is no historical account of a Bengaluru Pioneers regiment during the British era.

The Madras Pioneers, disbanded and absorbed into the Madras Engineers Group or the Madras Sappers in 1933, still have an existence in Bengaluru through a war memorial built in 1928 for 449 soldiers of the regiment killed in battles around the globe during World War I between 1914 and 1918.

In the heart of the central business district of the city, at the junction of the busy shopping avenue Brigade Road and the commercial Residency Road (also known as Field Marshal Cariappa Road) is the Sappers War Memorial, the oldest in the city. Maintained as a restricted, triangular city park, the war memorial has now been opened to full public access following conversion of the space into a public square.

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The Sappers War Memorial is dedicated to the memory of soldiers who died in various battle zones on behalf of the British army, including in Burma, East Africa, Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier Province. It is quite similar to war memorials or cenotaphs built in other former British colonies across the world in memory of soldiers who succumbed in the First World War, says Meera Iyer, convenor of the Bengaluru chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (Intach).

“The cenotaph in Bengaluru is quite similar to the one in Whitehall, London designed by Lutyens in 1919. Many colonies adopted that same design when they built cenotaphs for commemorating those who died in the First World War. For example, there are similar-looking cenotaphs in New Zealand and Hong Kong, too,” Iyer said.

The main face of the Sappers War Memorial states it was erected by the Madras Pioneers in memory of “officers and non-commissioned officers and Pioneers of the 1st Madras Pioneers who gave their lives during The Great War 1914-18.”

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In the heart of the central business district of the city, at the junction of the busy shopping avenue Brigade Road and the commercial Residency Road (also known as Field Marshal Cariappa Road) is the Sappers War Memorial, the oldest in the city. (Express Photo)

It names Kutalamara (1917), Baghdad Mesopotamia (1916-1918), Persia (1918), North West Frontier India (1915), Baluchistan (1918), Kilimanjaro East Africa (1914-18) as battle zones where the 1st Madras Pioneers laid down their lives during the war.

A second face of the Sappers War Memorial with the title East Africa 1914-18 is dedicated to soldiers of the 61st KGO Pioneers and has inscriptions in English and Tamil accounting for four British officers, eight Indian officers, and 223 non-commissioned officers and Pioneers. KGO is a reference to the term King George’s Own Pioneers. “The Pioneers were raised in Fort St George, ie, in Madras, now Chennai. The centre moved to Bangalore in the early 1800s, then to Mercara (Madikeri), then Dowlaishwaram (Dhavaleshwaram) in Andhra Pradesh, then to Bangalore in 1865, and they have been here ever since,” the Intach convenor said.

Two other faces of the memorial are titled Mesopotamia 1916-18 and North West Frontiers 1915, and are dedicated to the 64 Pioneers based in Afghanistan which lost 73 soldiers in WW1 and the 81 Pioneers based in Burma which lost 140 soldiers.

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Since the Madras Pioneers units were raised in Madras, there were lots of Tamil-speaking men in its ranks and this is reflected in the Sappers War Memorial containing Tamil inscriptions alongside English inscriptions.

The Madras Pioneers were present in Bengaluru long before east Bangalore became a British army cantonment in the late 1800s, says Iyer. “They date back to 1780. Two companies of the Pioneers were officially sanctioned by the then Madras government on September 30, 1780, because of which the Madras Sappers celebrate September 30 as their Raising Day. The 61st Pioneers, mentioned on the memorial, were raised in 1758 itself,” she said.

Efforts of civic activists, including retired defence personnel, have resulted in the preservation of the Sappers War Memorial over the years. The memorial, which had fallen into decay, has been spruced up and is now lit at night.

“There was an effort to construct public toilets in the war memorial park. We were able to protect the memorial due to the help of former minister Ramalinga Reddy who was in charge of Bengaluru at the time,” said Wg Cdr (retired) G B Athri.

The development of the Bengaluru central business district under a TenderSure project enabled the conversion of the memorial from a restricted park managed by a real estate firm to a public plaza. “Today people are aware of the presence of the war memorial in the heart of Bengaluru. Earlier, people did not know it existed. The place is now well-preserved,” said Wg Cdr Athri.

First published on: 05-06-2022 at 06:34:53 pm
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