Portrait Photography: Ganga Ram

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Ganga Ram was one of approximately 1,000 South Asians in German prisoner-of-war camps during the First World War. Fighting at the Western Front, he was taken prisoner and brought to Germany. South Asians were mostly interned in the so-called Halfmoon camp in Wünsdorf near Berlin. This photograph of Havildar Ganga Ram Gurung was taken by Otto Stiehl, one of the military camp's leaders. It was published together with 95 other portrait photographs in Otto Stiehl's famous book 96 Charakterköpfe unserer Feinde (96 Characteristic heads of our enemies) (Stuttgart, 1916).


About 1.4 million South Asians, including combatants and non-combatants, took part in different theatres of the First World War, mostly in Mesopotamia, France, and Belgium, but also in East Africa, Gallipoli, Egypt, and Palestine. Around 140,000 of this number were sent to Europe and many thousands of these were taken prisoner in France, Belgium, Mesopotamia, East Africa, and other places. The conditions under which POWs had been captured differed enormously in terms of housing, food, disciplinary rules, medical treatment, and social and cultural facilities. It was common for the men to be segregated not only according to their military ranks, but also along ethnic, social, and religious lines. South Asian prisoners were exposed to intensive propaganda activities. In Germany, they also became the target of scholarly interest when German anthropologists and linguists carried out studies in the camps.
Ganga Ram Gurung was probably born in 1881 in Chilgarhi in the district of Kangra (today known as Himachal Pradesh, India). He was a so-called line-boy, a Gurkha not born in Nepal but nevertheless in a regiment town because his father were already an army officer. At the age of 17, Ganga Ram joined the regiment school in Dharmsala. At the outbreak of war, he was sent to the Western Front where he was soon captured by the Germans and brought to the Halfmoon camp in Wünsdorf near Berlin. He was one of about 1,000 South Asians captured at the Western Front and imprisoned in Germany, mostly in Wünsdorf. Together with the majority of the other South Asian POWs, Ganga Ram was transferred to Romania in spring 1917. As a member of the Red Cross and an ambulance man, he came to Switzerland in 1918, from where he might have been repatriated and returned to India.