Pvt Jogendra Nath Sen (1887 – 1916) of the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment

A rather poignant story about Jogendra Nath Sen of Bengal and Leeds.

JN Sen by Caroline Jaine

JN Sen by Caroline Jaine

Born in Chandernagore in 1887, Jogendra Nath Sen left from Calcutta in 1910 and travelled to Leeds University to study electrical engineering (54 years before I also travelled from Calcutta to the UK though I was on my way to the Midlands and mechanical engineering). He graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree and took up employment with Leeds Corporation at their Electric Lighting Station when the First World War broke out. He was one of the first to volunteer when the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment (Leeds Pals) was formed a month later in September 1914 (service number 15/795). He served first in Egypt and then on the Western front. He was killed during heavy shelling in the trenches of Bus-les-Artois on the night of 22 May 1916 and is buried in the Sucrerie Military Cemetery at Colincamps.

In spite of his education, the colour bar of the time prevented his ever reaching any rank higher than Private. He was not permitted even to be a non-commissioned officer, and to be a regular officer was completely out of the question. Twenty five years later the situation was somewhat changed when my father enlisted for WW2.

15th (Service) Battalion (1st Leeds)
Formed in Leeds in September 1914 by the Lord Mayor and City.
June 1915 : came under orders of 93rd Brigade, 31st Division.
December 1915 : moved to Egypt. Went on to France in March 1916.
7 December 1917 : amalgamated with 17th Bn to form 15th/17th Bn.

Leeds University has published this account of their  former student:

The unlikeliest of Pals? An Indian soldier alone among Yorkshiremen

A shattered pair of spectacles in an Indian museum has helped shed light on the fascinating story of a lone non-white soldier among Yorkshire volunteers fighting on the Western Front.

Jogendra Sen, a highly-educated Bengali who completed an electrical engineering degree at the University of Leeds in 1913, was among the first to sign up to the 1st Leeds “Pals” Battalion when it was raised in September 1914.

He remained the only known non-white soldier to serve with the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment during the First World War. Despite his education, he was thwarted in his attempt to join up as an officer and unable to progress beyond the rank of private. 

Killed in action near the Somme in May 1916, aged 28, the bachelor is thought to have been the first Bengali to have died in the war. Private Sen’s name is on the University’s war memorial. 

His story caught the attention of Dr Santanu Das, Reader in English at King’s College London and an expert on India’s involvement in the First World War. On a visit in 2005 to Sen’s home town of Chandernagore – a former French colony – Dr Das came across Sen’s bloodstained glasses in a display case in the town’s museum, the Institut de Chandernagore.

He said: “I was absolutely stunned when I saw the pair of glasses. It’s one of the most poignant artefacts I’ve seen – a mute witness to the final moments of Sen’s life. It was astonishing that something so fragile has survived when almost everything else has perished.”

A contemporary photograph shows Private Sen relaxing with his fellow Pals – who knew him as Jon – wearing what is thought to be the same spectacles Dr Das found almost a century later. ……… 

……. Known as Jon to his fellow soldiers, he was among the first to sign up to the Leeds Pals shortly after the outbreak of war, while working as assistant engineer at Leeds Corporation Electric Lighting station.

A comrade, Arthur Dalby, told historian Laurie Milner in 1988: “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 but he was never allowed to be even a lance corporal because in those days they would never let a coloured fellow be over a white man, not in England, but he was the best educated.” 

The battalion had been formed in September 1914 by mayor Edward Brotherton. Some 20,000 people gathered to wave off the first recruits from Leeds on September 25. 

The title “Leeds Pals” is unofficial, but as it suggests, pals battalions were often made up of friends from the same street, school, factory, church or even university. Heavy losses inflicted on such battalions from towns and cities across the country were therefore felt even more keenly back home.

Private Sen ended up in Number 16 Platoon (D Company) of the 15th (Service) Battalion (1st Leeds) Prince of Wales’s Own (West Yorkshire Regiment) – often abbreviated to the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment or 1st Leeds Pals. ….

…. Sen’s personal effects were sent from York back to his brother in India in 1920. Along with a graduation picture, regimental cap badge, notebooks, snaps and a pocket knife was – somewhat tantalisingly – an undated photograph of a well-dressed young woman taken in a Scarborough portrait studio. It bears the inscription “Yours with love, Cis”. 

Nothing more was known about the mystery woman, who also gave the young soldier a book of quotes about the value of friendship inscribed: “With the very best of good wishes in this world + after, To Jogi, my dear brother, From his loving sister, Cis”.

But then researcher Ruth Allison was able to identify her as Mary Cicely Newton (nee Wicksteed), who may have met Sen through her connection with Mill Hill Chapel. Their relationship appears to have remained a platonic one. 

David Stowe also did much research on Jogendra Nath Sen and his account is here,

PTE. JOGENDRA SEN: A LEEDS PAL AND SON OF LEEDS

I first came across the name Jogendra Nath Sen in 2010 when researching the Leeds University Roll of Honour. More recently my attention was drawn to the work of Dr Santanu Das after he had lectured at a Legacies of War event at the University of Leeds.1 Dr Das is an expert on the Indian soldier and his work in that area is impressive. However, as I began to read his work on Jogendra Nath Sen I realized the archive in Chandernagore, where he had located several artefacts belonging to Sen, had caused confusion by mislabeling the collection and mixing Jogendra Nath Sen with his doctor brother who shared the same initials.2

This article seeks to not only correct that confusion, but also answer the question posed by Dr Das: ‘Now, was Dr Sen, a member of the elite Indian Medical Services, fighting as a British imperial subject, or as a Bengali (a member of the ‘non-martial’ race) or as a resident of Chandernagore, which was a French colony, or all three?’3Using both local and national sources it might be impressed that Jogendra Sen had settled into the local community and even joined a local battalion at the outbreak of war. It might be further impressed that Jogendra Sen was a volunteer who had made Leeds his home. ……… 

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