Indians in World War 1 were fighting someone else’s war, writes Capt Amarinder Singh
Having been born a few years after his death, I did not have the pleasure of hearing of his personal experiences as a soldier during World War I. Of course I heard of the valour of my grandfather, Bhupinder Singh, from my father and others in the family. However, it was not until I myself joined the Indian Army that I absorbed the full implications of the contribution made by him, and over a million other Indian soldiers, to the First World War, in which India had no stake at all except that it was then a part of the British Empire, which was directly engaged in the war.
Extensive research over the years helped me unearth some interesting data on India’s role in WW1, which I even captured in my book ‘Honour and Fidelity - India’s Military Contribution to the Great War 1914-18’. The grand total of the British and Indian officers, other ranks and non-combatants sent on service overseas from India was 1.38 million, including 285,037 British and 1,096,013 Indian personnel.
Unfortunately, while most of us in India are quite aware of the sacrifices made by millions of known and unknown Indians in the battle for independence, WW1 and WW2 still remain a largely forgotten story for us. Perhaps because it was too remote, considering that the battlefields were located in various parts of the world, far removed from our own land. The Indian Army reportedly fought against the German Empire in German East Africa and on the Western Front. Indian troops, in fact, fought in all the major theatres of war, from the Western Front in Europe to Africa and China. India sent seven Expeditionary Forces to the various theatres of the war between 1914 and 1918. In these four years, it lost 74,000 men killed in action and 67,000 wounded, of which many were to die later of wounds.
With more soldiers than Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa combined, India’s contribution to WW1 cannot be undermined, even though a large part of this history has been forgotten, despite being scripted in various historical documents. The reason for the Indian role in the big war being pushed into oblivion over the years is not really clear. One can only assume that the war was centered around Western interests and India’s role, though extremely vital, did not merit an acknowledgement from them.
That, perhaps, is the reason why India continues to be relegated, albeit unfortunately, to the lowest rung of the ladder of the events of the Great War even today, though there has been renewed interest in those events in recent years. In fact, to share a small part of this perspective, a few years ago, I happened to go through a BBC serial of the war which had just been released. It comprised 12 parts with around 23-and-a-half hours of viewing. Having seen it, I was greatly saddened by the fact that India was relegated to less than a minute of total viewing in the 23-and-a-half hours. This, despite the fact that India was the first army to reach France to prop up the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of Sir John French, which was on the verge of collapse after being in constant battle for on to a hundred days. Had Indian troops not shown up and strengthened British units, or filled gaps in the trench lines, till more troops and formations could arrive from Britain, the BEF could well have collapsed.
However, as mentioned, the recorded data shows that India played a critical role in mandating the eventual results of the war, with its efforts having commenced within 20 days after the start of the war, when the first Indian division – the Lahore Division (forming part of the Indian Corps) – sailed from Karachi for France on August 24th. By the end of 1914, seven expeditionary forces had been sent from India to various theatres of the war. These included two infantry divisions, eight infantry brigades and one mixed force with three infantry battalions, two cavalry divisions, one cavalry brigade and the attendant administrative services, as well as four field artillery brigades in excess of the normal allotment to France.
Concurrently, with the dispatch of the Indian Expeditionary Force to France, a mixed force was sent to East Africa to defend Zanzibar and protect the Mombasa-Nairobi railway. An infantry brigade was sent to the Persian Gulf while six infantry brigades, together with one Imperial Service Cavalry brigade, were sent to Egypt. Expeditions to Mesopotamia and Aden too sailed out of Indian ports. By the early spring of 1915, two more infantry brigades and one more cavalry brigade had been sent abroad.
The princely states, including my home state of Patiala, also played a notable part, sending 26,099 combatants overseas and recruiting 115,891 combatants and non-combatants for the regular army. These troops were maintained in the field at the expense of their rulers, and gave an excellent account of themselves, winning many distinctions in the far-flung theatres of war.
Indeed, throughout the war, Indian soldiers displayed courage, valour, devotion to duty and loyalty of the highest order. The rigours of the terrain and the inclement weather did not deflect them from their duty. From the damp and flat fields of Flanders to the burning and swirling sands of Mesopotamia, the rocky cold and windy hills of Gallipoli, the healthy uplands and stifling jungles of East Africa, Indian soldiers – Sikhs, Gorkhas, Baluchis, Punjabis, Pathans, Rajputs, Jats, Dogras, Marathas, Kumaonis, Garhwalis and Madrasis – left indelible imprints of their heroism, winning world-wide acclaim.
For the first time, Indian soldiers won the Victoria Cross for which they had become eligible in 1911. Eleven Victoria Crosses were won by them in Belgium, France, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Palestine. In addition, six British officers of the Indian Army also won the highest award of gallantry, the VC. These awards etched the gallantry and courage of our soldiers as precious historic moments in India’s military history, and continue to inspire the military forces till this date, especially when they hear of stories of how these soldiers fought in what was possibly the worst winter of the decade in France, some of them even freezing to death during the night while on duty. I salute these men, a majority of whom remain unheard of even today.
And mind you, it was not just men and animals that India sent in large numbers for the various battles, it also made massive monetary contributions, without which no war can be fought or won. In addition to sending a hundred million pounds to Great Britain’s war fund, a sizeable sum in 1914, the entire funding of over a million Indian troops overseas, in weaponry, ammunition, rations and expendable war stores, was contributed by India.
Unfortunately, a large number of the soldiers who died in the war did not even get proper graves and were buried in fields in the countryside, where they remain unknown and unhonoured. To them, and to the other Indian soldiers who gave their lives during the Great War, I pay my humble tributes.
And today, as the world prepares to observe the centenary of the culmination of the Great War, it is my sincere hope that the Indian soldiers, without whose contribution the contours of the war might well have changed, get their due recognition on the global stage.
(Captain Amarinder Singh is the chief minister of Punjab and the author of the book ‘Honour and Fidelity - India’s Military Contribution to the Great War 1914-18’)