Inside India #28: The forgotten fallen – Soldiers of the subcontinent in WW1

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

In the city of Ypres, some 125 km out from Brussels, the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is etched with fifty-five thousand names. Fifty-five thousand fallen soldiers. Of those, four-hundred and forty are the names of soldiers from the subcontinent.

In the autumn of 1914, soon after the commencement of WW1 hostilities, it was Indian jawaans who bore the brunt of the German advance at Ypres; it was Indian infantrymen who helped stop the Germans in their tracks. Indian soldiers similarly distinguished themselves at Gallipoli, and in multiple engagements against the Ottoman Empire across the Middle East.

All in all, over one point three million troops recruited from the subcontinent served in the war, of which seventy thousand perished and almost the same number were wounded.

Attribution: Wellcome Images, CC 4.0

And yet, a century later, out of all those who are remembered for their valiant efforts during the Great War, the Indians are invariably the last to be praised, their contributions glossed over or completely forgotten.

In this respect, the recent Sam Mendes film 1917 generated something of a furore. Following its release, the actor Lawrence Fox stirred controversy by commenting on “the oddness in the casting” of a Sikh soldier in the film. He was duly called to account, and, in fairness to him, duly apologised: “Fellow humans who are Sikhs, I am as moved by the sacrifices your relatives made as I am by the loss of all those who die in war, whatever creed or colour.”

In my personal opinion what should have astonished Fox is the not that an Indian was shown fighting with the British, but the fact that more Indians were not shown. In some ways, this is symptomatic of the way we teach history in the West, and the way that the subcontinental contribution to the Great War (and the contribution of other minorities and foreign fighters) has been neglected as a matter of course.

For the Indians themselves, the war was a genuinely confusing time.

Transported from villages and towns from across the vastness of the subcontinent, usually from the lowest rungs of society, they found themselves bogged down in trench warfare, unable to grasp the language or the culture of those who commanded them, invariably the very men who were sending them charging to their deaths. If they survived for any length of time, they were battling freezing cold, terrain alien to their upbringing, unpalatable food, and an enemy they could not fathom. And all for a country and a cause that was not even their own.

And yet they fought with the courage of proverbial lions. The Sikhs, who made up twenty per cent of the Indian force, particularly distinguished themselves with their bravery and willingness to throw themselves into the fight – for little more than personal honour. The Gurkhas too – both those from Nepal and those born in India – became known for their valiant acts of heroism. Together, these fighting men earned a significant number of military honours, including several Victoria Crosses. (The first Indian to earn a Victoria Cross was Sepoy Khudadad Khan, at the First Battle of Ypres in October, 1914. Khan led his machine gun team in the face of a brutal German onslaught. His entire team was killed and he was left for dead, but survived, and managed to crawl back to his regiment despite severe injury.)

In order to make it easier to recruit such able warriors, the British, eager to use India as a supply line for men and materiel, vowed to deliver the self-rule that the subcontinent’s leading political agitators had begun to demand in the first decade of the new century. It is because of this promise that men like Gandhi temporarily halted – or modified – their growing anti-colonial rhetoric in order to support the war.

But when the war ended the British proved themselves duplicitous.

Instead of self-government, Indians were rewarded with the Rowlatt Act, an onerous piece of legislation that gave the subcontinent’s colonial masters extraordinary powers to bring to heel the nascent revolutionary movement. The Rowlatt Acts directly led to many incidents of brutality against those who continued to protest peacefully against the occupation of their country, none worse than the murder of nine hundred unarmed souls at Jallianwallah Bagh in Amritsar in 1919.

Perhaps this explains why the soldiers who made it back from the various theatres of war found little recognition or sympathy from their countrymen. They were deemed to have fought on the side of the devils, on the side of India’s oppressors.

And perhaps this too explains the lack of First World War memorials in the country, an absence that resonates all the more deeply as we gradually bring to light the great sacrifices made by Indian soldiers in that most terrible of conflicts.

This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

My latest novel, The Dying Day, is set in India, in the 1950s, and features India’s first female police detective, Persis Wadia, as she investigates the disappearance of one of the world’s great treasures, a 600-year-old copy of Dante’s The Divine Comedy stored at Bombay’s Asiatic Society. Soon bodies begin to pile up… Available from bookshops big and small and online. To see buying options please click here. 

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