On arrival in England I learned that Gokhale had been stranded in Paris where he had gone for reasons of health, and as communication between Paris and London had been cut off, there was no knowing when he would return. I did not want to go home without having seen him, but no one could say definitely when he would arrive.
What then was I to do in the meanwhile? What was my duty as regards
the war? Sorabji Adajania, my comrade in jail and a Satyagrahi, was
then reading for the bar in London. As one of the best Satyagrahis
he had been sent to England to qualify himself as a barrister, so
that he might take my place on return to South Africa. Dr.
Pranjivandas Mehta was paying his expenses. With him, and through
him, I had conferences with Dr. Jivraj Mehta and others who were
persuing their studies in England. In consultation with them, a
meeting of the Indian residents in Great Britain and Ireland was
called. I placed my views before them.
I felt that Indians residing
in England ought to do their bit in the war. English students had
volunteered to serve in the army, and Indians might do no less. A
number of objections were taken to this line of argument. There was,
it was contended, a world of difference between the Indians and the
English. We were slaves and they were masters. How could a slave
co-operate with the master in the hour of the latter's need? Was it
not the duty of the slave, seeking to be free, to make the master's
need his opportunity? This argument failed to appeal to me then. I
knew the difference of status between an Indian and an Englishman,
but I did not believe that we had been quite reduced to slavery. I
felt then that it was more the fault of individual British officials
than of the British system, and that we could convert them by love.
If we would improve our status through the help and co-operation of
the British, it was our duty to win their help by standing by them
in their hour of need. Though the system was faulty, it did not seem
to me to be intolerable, as it does today. But if, having lost my
faith in the system, I refuse to co-operate with the British
Government today, how could those friends do so, having lost
their faith not only in the system but in the officials as well?
The opposing friends felt that that was the hour for making a bold
declaration of Indian demands and for improving the status of Indians.
I thought that England's need should not be turned into our
opportunity, and that it was more becoming and far-sighted not to
press our demands while the war lasted. I therefore adhered to my
advice and invited those who would to enlist as volunteers. There
was a good response, practically all the provinces and all the
religions being represented among the volunteers.
I wrote a letter to Lord Crewe, acquainting him with these facts,
and expressing our readiness to be trained for ambulance work, if
that should be considered a condition precedent to the acceptance of
Lord Crewe accepted the offer after some hesitation, and thanked us
for having tendered our services to the Empire at that critical
The volunteers began their preliminary training in first aid to the
wounded under the well-known Dr.Cantlie. It was a short course of
six weeks, but it covered the whole course of first aid.
We were a class of about eighty. In six weeks we were examined, and all
except one passed. For these the Government now provided military
drill and other training. Colonel Baker was placed in charge of this
London in these days was a sight worth seeing. There was no panic,
but all were busy helping to the best of their ability. Able-bodied
adults began training as combatants, but what were the old, the
infirm and the women to do? There was enough work for them, if they
wanted. So they employed themselves in cutting and making clothes
and dressings for the wounded.
The Lyceum, a ladies' club, undertook to make as many clothes for
the soldiers as they could. Shrimati Sarojini Naidu was a member of
this club, and threw herself whole-heartedly into the work. This was
my first acquaintance with her. She placed before me a heap of
clothes which had been cut to pattern, and asked me to get them all
sewn up and return them to her. I welcomed her demand and with the
assistance of friends got as many clothes made as I could manage
during my training for first aid.