The British Empire Library

Letters from India 1945-47

by Peter Zuntz-Henry ed. Irene Gill

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
This collection of well-edited letters tell of the experiences; views and hopes of a very young army volunteer, aged seventeen and a half who was sent out to India at a crucial period in its recent history. Peter Henry, aka Hans Peter Zuntz, had been born in Germany of a half Jewish family, but they all left when he was just ten and so he grew up 'English' in Oxford. His 500 odd letters home were written in both English and German - the latter well translated by his sister who compiled the collection.

Peter was clearly intelligent and well educated: his letters are remarkably thoughtful, analytical and humane; in short this book reveals a trooper bored stiff by the tedium of army life of that period but sympathetic to India and her problems. He was lively, enjoyed the company of his friends and especially admired the small vagabond children in the camps he lived in and the wild life of India. He was shocked by the dirt, poverty and diseases of India, he wrote of the hopelessness of the very poor and the games played by politicians at the time, all unusual themes for such a young recruit. His sense of humour comes through many of his letters, and when really roused by the waste and heartlessness he saw in the army administration he developed a nice line of irony to describe all that he considered was preventable, and a sensible alternative!

He was moved from camp to camp across the subcontinent (Bombay, Poona, Hyderabad, Delhi, Ranikhet, Peshawar, etc), but his various postings never involved him in having to quell riots nor did he intervene in the many racial conflicts of the time, in fact it seemed he did not even overtly keep the difficult peace across India between 1945-7. Instead he writes of repairing tanks, engaging in endless square bashing, enduring routine inspections and being engaged in meaningless tasks. As often as he could he went sight-seeing locally, and when his mother sent him a box Brownie camera, his letters home began to include snaps of famous sights. Some of these are included as illustrations, but unfortunately they are rather too small and poorly reproduced. His descriptions of the Himalayas, Risalpur and the Taj Mahal are fresh and poetic - far from the usual guidebook cliches. He presents a healthy and cheerful view on life, even whilst cursing the monotony and routine of army life with its 'time filling boy scout manoevers' (sic). He concluded just before he left, 'in over two years, we never saw any action, our only justification for being out here is internal Security Duties - certainly not much to show for two long years'.

To relieve the mental boredom he used to send home for serious reading matter, the novel Indigo, and political tomes on India and Britain. He enjoyed the films of the period and analysed why. He cast a thoughtful eye on the politics of this most difficult political period between the end of World War Two and Indian Independence. His comments on British decisions in 1947 are well worth reading; on the mass exodus by trains between India and the future Pakistan, he queried in advance 'Can such a thing work?' The American presence in India had enviable 'sheer luxury in their camps'. Concerning Gandhi he noted 'he has a huge following but a bloke can't spout wisdom all day!' In observing the Anglo-Indian community, he remarked 'The Indians will certainly not carry such puppet-Sahibs around on cushions.' His views are clear, sensible and above all revealing of the period.

It comes as no surprise to learn that finally he gave up his ideas of farming for the life academic. On demobilisation he entered Oxford, read Russian and later became the professor of Slavonic Studies at Glasgow University. He would certainly have brought a warm and generous nature to generations of students there to judge from his voice and attitudes in this collection of his earliest 'Letters Home '.

British Empire Book
Nina David and Amrita Dass
Yarnells Books.
978 0 9563591 1 7.
Review Originally Published
Spring 2013 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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