FB   
 
Powered bysps
        Society for Policy Studies
 
 

 
Indian soldiers' monumental contribution in First World War
Updated:Oct 15, 2014
 
Print
Share
  
increase Font size decrease Font size
 
By Raja Menon

Title: 'If I die here, who will remember me?' -India and the First World War;
Author: Vedica Kant;
Publisher: Roli Books;
Pages: 255.
 
 
The First World War was probably the last war that soldiers went to with a sense of glory and the feeling that something good may come of it. The war itself was to prove otherwise, particularly as the leaders of the military proved inadequate to either understand slaughter on an industrial scale or to manage the administration and logistics for millions of men.
 
The Indian army, an all-volunteer force, was one of the few that could be thrown into the trenches to stem the tide against 'civilization' as the purpose of the war was defined. Raised, outfitted and equipped to fight Britain's colonial battles in tropical climes, the Indian troops were ill-equipped to deal with a European winter. All troops were unprepared to deal with the slaughter of the trenches, but the Indians, more than the rest, were stunned by the lack of physical contact of trench warfare and by the death caused by firing at remote distances.
 
Great literature came out of the First World War in English, and a whole generation of Indians were exposed to the poetry of Sassoon and Owen. As the leader of the Indian expeditionary corps quite rightly noted - all combatants from Europe would have their experience in the war recorded and published - but the poor Indian soldier, who went loyally to Europe to fight a war, neither comprehended nor agreed to have a chronicler.
 
In that sense Vedica Kant has done a great service by writing this book about an army that lost 74,000 solders to the British cause without or at least with little dissent. In macro terms, the Indian nation's contribution to the war was truly monumental.
 
Vedica has worked out that India's financial contribution alone amounted to eight billion pounds in today's money but nothing, of course, equals the loss in lives that the Indian army cheerfully contributed.
 
The first battle that the Indian corps fought in was Neuve Chapelle, where the Indian contribution helped stem the German advance and where the Indian casualties amounted to almost 5,000. Vedica has sourced much correspondence from Indian soldiers, recording their impression of going abroad, the social turmoil and the strange wonder of being sent to fight 'white men'.
 
The author refers to an initial reluctance on the part of Britain to involve Indian troops in a white man's war, for the consequences it could have on keeping the Indians without home rule after the war. But the urgency of the situation on the western front necessitated throwing the Indian army into the cauldron.
 
Although the soldiers went without demur, Indian nationalists expected that Indian participation would force the British morally to give India home rule after the war. As quoted, Bal Gangadhar Tilak advised Indians to buy war bonds as they would be uncashed after the war to trade for home rule. So incumbent upon the Indian soldier was the loyalty to cross Kala Pani, to die for the honour of the regiment, and to come back to India without having been corrupted by the idea that he had defeated white men.
 
The Germans, on the other hand, were at first contemptuous of the Indian soldier, which he soon corrected after seeing them in battle. In captivity they made every effort to seduce the loyalty of the Indian soldiers, apart from using the human pool for anthropological studies.
 
Later on, by 1915-16, the Indians were withdrawn from the western front and the predominant fighting occurred against the Turkish Ottoman empire. Here again there was unease that the position of the Ottoman ruler as the Caliph would suborn the loyalties of the Muslim soldier from fighting the Turks.
 
However, apart from the Pathans who were willing to be seduced by Turkish propaganda, the subcontinental Muslim remained loyal to the Raj. In the Middle East, the Indian soldier's loyalty would truly be put to the test by the incompetent leadership of General Townshend.
 
In all, a little short of 600,000 Indian soldiers served in Mesopotamia and it must be remembered that at the time, almost 30 percent of the Indian army were Muslims. One of the most serious incidents in this campaign was the shortage of food, and the men being fed horsemeat, which resulted in many suicides.
 
Eventually, the war ended, but the troops went on to stay in the Middle East, to set up the boundaries of the countries, now in a state of flux as in Syria and Iraq. The driving purpose was of course oil, which had been discovered in present-day Iraq.
 
The tragedy for the soldier returning home was that there was no opportunity to put into practice all that he had learnt in 'Vilayat'. Quite often the soldier was pensioned off to his village. In fact, shortly after the end of the war occurred the tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh which, conceding that 30 percent of the army was recruited from the Punjab, was a slap on the face of the Indian soldier, followed by the infamous Rowlatt Act which indefinitely stretched the wartime restrictions to civil liberty beyond 1919.
 
A century later Vedica Kant poignantly illuminates a forgotten chapter of India's military history.
 
(Rear Admiral Raja Menon is a retired naval officer and now a Delhi-based strategic analyst. He can be contacted at raja.menon39@gmail.com)
 
 
 
 
 
Print
Share
  
increase Font size decrease Font size
 
Comments (Total Comments 0) Post Comments Post Comment
Review
 
 
 
 
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will be visiting India between 7th and 10th of April and plethoras of agreements are likely to be signed then. Among the various agreements, the two countries will be signing the defence cooperation agreement which  has been getting the most attention. 
 
read-more
The Congress needs to come up with a more aspirational narrative than that of the BJP. The party doesn’t lack talent, but its leadership clearly lacks hunger and enthusiasm required for winning elections, writes Tridivesh Singh Maini for South Asia Monitor.
 
read-more
 If the civil war in Syria continues, it will be impossible to control in the future. To stop the massive humanitarian destruction, necessary steps need to be taken immediately, writes Mohammad Kawsar Ahammed for South Asia Monitor.
 
read-more
Society for Policy Studies in association with India Habitat Centre invites you to a lecture in the Changing Asia Series by by Prof. K. Srinath Reddy, President, Public Health Foundation of India on Health And Development: India Must Bridge The Disconnect Chair: C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Soci...
 
read-more
spotlight image 'Covert military actions or surgical strikes against terror launch pads in Pakistan have limited utility that won't change the mind of the Pakistan Army or the ISI  which sponsor cross-border terrorism
 
read-more
In Dutch politics, alliances are imperative to construct an administration. The post-election government formation is, therefore, a slightly time-consuming process. In due course, a coalition led by the incumbent Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, will surface.  
 
read-more
Japan is a special country in several ways. For centuries, it remained isolated and disconnected with the outside world. But once it opened itself up to the West with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854 by the use of force by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry of the United States Navy, Japan has never looked back. Japan is a spe
 
read-more
Recently, under the leadership of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, and earlier under the late Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, King Abdallah bin Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud, Saudi Arabia has rolled out a series of women-friendly initiatives.  Recently, under the leadership of Custodian of the
 
read-more
The attacks in London on Wednesday are grim reminders of not just the growing menace of terrorism but also of the urgent need for the global community to join hands in combating it. 
 
read-more
Column-image

India remians the inflexible bête-noir for Pakistan, yet there are few books by Indian authors that have sought to interpret the prodigal neighbour in a holistic, informed and empathetic manner.

 
Column-image

The line that Mortimer Durand drew across a small map in 1893 has bled the Pashtun heart ever since. More than a century later both sides of that line remain restless. But the mystery behind what actually happened on 12 November 1893 has never ...

 
Column-image

What went wrong for the West in Afghanistan? Why couldn't a global coalition led by the world's preeminent military and economic power defeat "a bunch of farmers in plastic sandals on dirt bikes" in a conflict that outlasted b...

 
Column-image

What will be Pakistan's fate? Acts of commission or omission by itself, in/by neighbours, and superpowers far and near have led the nuclear-armed country at a strategic Asian crossroads to emerge as a serious regional and global concern whi...

 
Column-image

Some South African generals, allied with the British forces, sought segregation from the enlisted men, all blacks, after being taken prisoners of war. The surprised German commander told them firmly that they would have to share the same quarte...

 
Subscribe to our newsletter
Archive