[This article was published in Times of India under a different title: Leeds Remembers its Forgotten War Hero.]
The Yorkshire Evening Post of 2nd June 1916 carried an obituary titled - "Leeds "Pals" lose an Indian Comrade. Private Sen is killed in Action."
Known as Jon or John Sen among contemporaries, Jogendra Nath Sen had caused as much stir when he volunteered to fight, as he has among present academicians and historians of Leeds. As part of the Legacies of War Centenary project of University of Leeds, which was also Sen's alma mater, fresh light has been thrown on him and his connections to the conflict. Earlier this year, BBC One (Yorkshire) featured Jogendra Nath in a segment of its Inside Out programme.
Laurie Milner's 'Leeds Pals', first published in 1993, makes the earliest reference of Pte Sen. In an interview with the author, a survivor from the battalion, Pte. Arthur Dalby said, "We had a Hindu in our hut, called Jon Sen, he was the best educated man in the battalion and he spoke about seven languages. Sen had arrived in Leeds in 1910 to study electrical engineering at the university. Little is known of his previous life save that he was born in Chandernagore in eastern India in 1887, lived there till his departure to England, and was survived by his widowed mother and an elder brother, who was a doctor."
When war broke out, Sen was working as an assistant engineer with Leeds Corporation Electric Lighting Station. He lived in Blackman Lane and was an enthusiastic chorister at the Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel (which still stands across the City Square opposite Leeds railway station), where he made friends. Photographs from the Liddle Collection of the University of Leeds show him relaxing with army companions during training in Colsterdale and in full uniform during a photo call, for what was officially known as the 15th Battalion, The Prince of Wales's Own (West Yorkshire Regiment).
Another shows him in the ship journeying from Egypt, their first post of duty, to France, where two months later on 22nd May, 1916 he lost his life in the Battle of Somme. In a poignant letter written home, Pte. Harold Burniston described, "We suffered a good many casualties...poor Jon Sen had been brought in killed. He was hit in the leg and neck by shrapnel and died almost immediately."
Pte. Sen was evidently well loved and respected by his compatriots. Pte. Dalby claimed that he was only turned down from an officer's post due to British military policy of the times. This did not deter Sen from joining as a private, the lone Indian in the all-white Yorkshire regiment. Probably, he was also the first Bengali to be killed in World War I.
"His loss is felt very much through the whole of the company. He always showed himself to be a keen and upright soldier, and myself and the officers of the company thought a great deal of him," wrote his commanding officer.
Pte. Sen is buried in the Sucrerie Military Cemetery at Colincamps, France. His name appears on both the University of Leeds and Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel war memorials. His personal belongings were sent to his brother and later donated to the Institut de Chandernagore, where they are exhibited.
Why an Indian-origin French citizen - Chandernagore was a French colony during the British rule - a young engineer with a promising career, should feel compelled to volunteer in what many present day Indians dismiss as "Whose war was it, anyway?" is a puzzle yet unsolved. Unlike later soldier poets and writers, Sen did not leave behind any journals and letters; or if he had, these have not survived.
Perhaps his actions indicate how well integrated he was to the Leeds community and its charged ethos at the time.
While Pte. Jogendra Nath Sen is largely unknown in his home land his adopted city celebrates his bravery. As community historian, David Stowe, puts it, "A Bengali by birth - he was also a son of Leeds."
[Acknowledgements: Gareth Dant, University of Leeds Press Office, Alison Fell, David Stowe, Jo James, Rila Mukherjee, Arup Ganguly, Institut de Chandernagore.]