The bravery and sacrifices of almost 1.5 million Indian troops in World War 1 were acknowledged by the armies and peoples of the Allied nations on whose soil they fought and defended those countries, as being a decisive factor to the allied victory. Offically, 74,187 Indian soldiers were killed in this war. Outstanding valour by many Indian soldiers finally got acknowledged like never before by the British, who decided to bestow the coveted highest gallantry award in war, the Victoria Cross, to Sepoy Khudadad Khan. That set a precedent and 10 more Indian soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross in that war.
Seven war memorials dedicated to Indian troops killed in various operations in various countries during WW1 were built within a few years after that war by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC).
Two of them built at New Delhi, India are the famous majestic India Gate, which has the names of the 74,187 Indian soldiers killed in various battles of WWI etched on all its walls and Teen Murti, recently re-named Teen Murti-Haifa Chowk, a memorial to the Indian Cavalry Brigade which liberated Haifa. Accounts of valour of the Indian cavalrymen are mentioned in Israel’s school history books for classes 3 to 6.
The other five are Chattri, at Brighton, UK; Zehrensdorf Indian Cemetery, Germany; Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial, France; Haifa War Memorial, Israel and Pieta Military Cemetary, Malta. In recent years, two more WW1 memorials to Indian soldiers, the eighth and ninth ones, were constructed.
The eighth was at Menin Gate, in Ieper, Belgium, named after the river Ipere which flows through it. Spelt by the French as Ypres it was pronounced as Wipers by British troops. The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing, at Ipere, has thousands of names inscribed of British, Irish, Australian and Canadian soldiers, but only about 400 names of Indian soldiers. To quote researcher and author Dominiek Dendooven, “In Flanders Field Museum, Ieper, the contribution of the Indians though highly crucial, was largely underplayed.”
In 2001, at the request of the Government of India, a separate memorial stone was placed at the lawns on the ramparts of the Menin Gate Memorial. This was a Duhallow Block, a gravestone used by the CWGC to mark the ‘grave of a number of persons who had no known Resting Place.”
Initiated by the Indian Defence Attache for France and Belgium, Brig (now Lt Gen Amit Sharma, retired), it took years of protracted efforts with the Indian Ambassador in Belgium, the Indian High Commissioner in UK lobbying with the CWGC Headquarters in London, to get the approval of the local government for a befitting memorial to be made for honouring the sacrifices of Indian troops. This memorial was inaugurated on 12 March 2011.
The ninth one at Cambrai (pronounced Combray), France was constructed very recently. The Battle of Cambrai is best known for Indian Army’s 9th Hodson’s Horse, which surprised the Germans by its rapid and unwavering advance under concentrated artillery fire and made a breakthrough in their defences. This very gallant episode was watched with great admiration by onlookers, because, for horse-mounted troops to advance in the face of heavy modern firearms requires the greatest courage and daring. Also in this battle, the very first of battle tanks manufactured then and named Big Willy, were used to make a safe lane through minefields.
The Indian memorial at Cambrai also came about owing to the efforts of Maj Karun Khanna (retd) of Hodson’s Horse, who after visiting Cambrai brought to the notice of the Indian Army chief that there should be a separate memorial to honour Indian soldiers killed there.
A new memorial for Indian martyrs got constructed at Cambrai and was inaugurated befittingly by Vice President of India, M. Venkaiah Naidu, on 10 November 2018.
Also after 100 years of WW1, the marigold signifying India’s massive contribution got added to the poppy signifying the bloodshed at Flanders.
(The author, a strategic analyst and former Defence Ministry and Indian Army spokesperson, can be contacted at email@example.com)