Jogendra Sen: An unlikely pal

By Chris Ward

An obituary in the Yorkshire Evening Post for June 2nd 1916 reads: “Several months ago when the 'Pals' paraded in the City, Private Sen came in for much notice because of his evident connection with the East.”

The Private Sen in question? Jogendra Nath Sen - known as “Jon” to his comrades in arms; a highly-educated Bengali who had completed a degree at Leeds University just three years before his death, an engineer with Leeds Corporation Electric Lighting and, despite his Hindu background, a choir member at Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel.

His obituary gives a little insight into his character: “While there he gave much promise of a successful career and being of a cheerful disposition, was much liked by everybody.”

The promise of a successful career took a different turn when war broke out on July 28 1914. Sen was among the first to sign up for the Leeds Pals, raised that September by the then Mayor Edward Brotherton.

Private Sen would be the only non-white person in his regiment. He was given the service number 15/795 and assigned to 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.

Credit: Caroline Jaine “Forgotten Heroes”. Courtesy of Leeds City Council.

Some 20,000 people would wave off those new recruits from Leeds - among them the unmistakable bespectacled face of the young Private Sen.

The Pals title was an unofficial one, but often made up of friends from the same street, school, factory, church or university. It would have been with those men that Private Sen marched shoulder to shoulder through the crowds.

After training at North Yorkshire’s Colsterdale camp and on Salisbury Plain, Private Sen and his battalion first saw active service in Egypt in December 1915 defending the Suez from advancing Turkish troops before being posted to France the following March.

By all accounts he was a popular soldier. Private Arthur Dalby remembered him: ‘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 LCpl 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. He was at university when he joined up.”

Come May, Jon was on the front line at Bus-Les-Artois on the Somme, assigned to a wiring party.

Deadly and difficult, a wiring party’s job was to clear the enemy’s barbed wired in preparation for an Allied attack or repairing and reconstructing their own defences.

They faced the constant danger of being heard or spotted by enemy spotters trained to listen or look for these night-time raiders. Unprotected and often standing, they would be exposed by enemy flares and an immediate concentration of gun fire and shelling.

It was work which would indeed prove deadly for Jon. On the night of May 22nd 1916 he and his wiring party, laden with equipment, crept out into No Man’s Land. Somehow they were spotted and subjected to a hail of shells.

Private Sen was hit in the neck and leg by shrapnel and killed outright. He left a widowed mother and an older brother back in India.

WWI memorial with Jogendra Sen's name at Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel in Leeds

In his Times obituary of September 1916, Jon’s commanding officer wrote: "His loss is felt very much throughout the whole of the company. He always showed himself to be a keen and upright soldier, and myself and the officers of this company thought a great deal of him.”

He was buried in plot I.J.96 at Sucrerie Military Cemetery in Colincamps near the French city of Amiens along with 1,102 other men. Not one but three war memorials in his adopted city bear his name; the Leeds University Brotherton War Memorial and two rolls of honour at the Mill Hill Unitarian Chapel.