Remembering India's WW1 dead

  • Noopur Tiwari, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Nov 10, 2014 12:02 IST

Standing on what used to be the Indian trench line cutting through a small French village on the Western Front is an Indian looking building surrounded with weeping willows. A white pillar flanked by two lions emerges from this memorial of Neuve Chapelle, looking over what were once battlefields where Indian soldiers fought.

Designed by Sir Herbert Baker, the famous architect of Parliament House in Delhi, this monument bears the names of more than 4,700 Indian soldiers and labourers who lost their lives in France and Belgium during World War 1, and have no known graves.

Excited Parisians surround Indian sepoys after the Bastille Day Parade of 1916, keen to be part of a historical moment.Photo courtesy Mapin Publishing / The Print Collection / Getty Images and Indian Troops in Europe by Santanu Das

Not far from the memorial is the village where Dominique Faivre has put together an exhibition on the Indian contribution to the war. Faivre is the biggest private collector of personal objects belonging to Indian soldiers who fought in WW1. He has been meticulously collecting these items over decades.

Also read: Life goes on as if nothing happened, but we must never forget, says Dominique Faivre

"I found the history that these objects tell more moving than what I have read in books and records," he says. "There remains a bit of those men's stories in these objects that they touched and used, and I have found many of these objects right here, on the very soil where they lived, fought and died."

The Indian memorial at Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium

Faivre says he unearthed many items, including lotas (tumblers), thalis (large ridged dining plates) and insignia, from farms in the region. He has also been combing flea markets and local websites for objects found by others and put up for sale. In all, Dominique now owns more than 50 objects, including 20-odd insignia (see below).

"In these quiet towns and villages, the dark brown earth of the plush countryside hasn't forgotten the horrors of the war," says Faivre. "Farmers here still unearth shrapnel and bullets as they till their fields."

Two faujis, descendants of soldiers, visit Neuve Chapelle memorial, a tribute to their grandfathers

Like most locals, Faivre grew up hearing stories of the war. His grandmother encountered many Indians at the local evacuation centre and hospital where she worked. Faivre remembers her saying that she felt sad for them because they were so far from home.

The Indians were not allowed to mix freely with the local population, but they were often approached by curious children in the areas where they were stationed. Stories that those children later told Faivre drew him to study the history of these Indian soldiers.

A thali, lota and medals that once belonged Indian soldiers, from the Dominique Faivre collection

"People in the region spent four years getting to know foreign troops from various countries in the Commonwealth and beyond. But it's the Indians who left a lasting memory," he says.

Faivre works with an organisation that cares for developmentally challenged people, and does his world war research in his spare time. He has done a great deal of research on the story of the Indian corps and was the first to publish a book in French about their history in the region. His dream is to see a historical centre set up where the Indians lived for a year and where the labour corps continued even after the troops had left.

While some of the war stories are finally being claimed with pride, Faivre regrets that others are still taboo. He speaks of 'illegitimate' children born from relationships between Indian soldiers and French women.

"Although time has passed, it is still a difficult subject to discuss," he says. "Their grandchildren do not want to talk about it."

Indians in WW1

An Indian insignia (Left); Indian infantry in the trenches, prepared against a gas attack. Photo courtesy India Corps on the Western Front by Simon Doherty and Tom Donovan (middle); A khaki tunic worn by an Indian solider. Most Indian soldiers came dressed in this kind of uniform (Right) | Photos courtesy Dominique Faivre


The First World War was waged from 1914 to 1918. The centenary is being observed around the world for four years.

The war was between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied forces (Great Britain, the United States, France, Russia, Italy and Japan).

9 million soldiers from around the world were killed.

When the war broke out, only one British colony was ready with a standing army: India (which then included present-day Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma).

1,440,437 Indians were recruited for WW1. They served overseas, specifically in France and Belgium (the Western Front), between August 1914 and December 1919; 50,000 served in the Indian Labour Corps in France.

64,449 Indian soldiers died fighting in battles on various fronts in France, Belgium, East Africa, Gallipoli, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Salonica, Russia and even China. 9,000 Indians died fighting in France and Belgium.


To retrace the steps of Indian soldiers on the Western Front, browse through...

The India Corps on the Western Front: A Handbook and Battlefield Guide, by Simon Doherty and Tom Donovan. The book combines the historical background that led to the employment of the Indian Army Corps in Europe with narratives of the 10 main operations that the Indian Army fought in France and Flanders (on the Western Front).

Indian Troops in Europe by Santanu Das, to be published December 2014. This is a visual record of the lives of the soldiers in photographs. "British India contributed the highest number of men - both combatants and non-combatants. Of them, over a million served overseas. This book is about these men: it is a visual record of their lives in Europe as well as the world they had left behind in India, the relentless routine of travel and the way we remember them," says Das, who teaches English at King's College, London.


November 11 is Armistice Day, observed to mark the end of the war in 1918. The centenary of WW1 is being commemorated around the world over the next four years.

Last Post at Menin Gate: Since 1928, the traffic passing under the Menin Gate has been stopped at 8 pm sharp every night as buglers play in memory of the soldiers who fought in World War 1. This Gate in Ypres, Belgium was built on the spot from where thousands of soldiers left for the front. Many never returned. An Indian memorial here is dedicated to the 9,000 Indians who died in France and Flanders during the War.

Indian Heroes, Europe's War: Watch this 22-minute documentary on for a moving account of the story of Indian soldiers on the Western Front. Directed by Noopur Tiwari, it contains rare footage of Indian soldiers, and scholars working to unearth more about the forgotten Indians and their role in the War.

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