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Home / World News / World War 1: Indians wore cotton khakis in the trenches in winter, many died of cold

World War 1: Indians wore cotton khakis in the trenches in winter, many died of cold

An interview with author and journalist Shrabani Basu on the racism faced by Indian soldiers who fought in the First World War

world Updated: Nov 11, 2018 10:44 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Author and journalist Shrabani Basu has written a book on World War 1 titled ‘For King and Another Country – Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914 -18.’
Author and journalist Shrabani Basu has written a book on World War 1 titled ‘For King and Another Country – Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914 -18.’

Author and journalist Shrabani Basu has written on diverse topics – the curry, the exploits of the Indian spy Noor Inayat Khan, and the special relationship between Abdul, an Indian clerk, and Queen Victoria – but all have one abiding theme: the Indo-British encounter. Both the World Wars and the Indian role in it are other areas of specialisation. She has written a book on World War 1 titled ‘For King and Another Country – Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914 -18.’ Paramita Ghosh interviews her on the racism faced by Indian soldiers who fought in the First World War:

Over a million Indian soldiers fought in WWI, the largest contingent from Britain’s colonies. Why has Indian history writing ignored them as did British history? Does this history find mention in Britain’s school textbooks?

When India became independent, the contribution of the Indian soldiers was forgotten by both India and Britain. For India, the new heroes, understandably, were those who had fought for freedom and kissed the hangman’s noose like Bhagat Singh, Raj Guru, Sukhdev and all the other martyrs. They no longer cared for those soldiers who had served the colonial power.

For Britain, honouring and commemorating the soldiers was now India’s problem.

So the Indian soldiers fell in a kind of no-man’s land, forgotten by their own country and their former masters. I grew up in India and studied the First World War but had no idea that there were Indian soldiers in the trenches on the Western Front. My daughters went to school in England, and they did not know this either. Neither British textbooks nor Indian history books mention the role of the Indians in the First World War.

It is important to remember that the soldiers did not go there on their own account. They were sent there as part of the British Indian Army. Also, the Indian leaders including Dadabhai Naoroji, backed the war effort. Mahatma Gandhi, who was in London at the time, raised volunteers for the war effort from the Indian community. The Indians fought and died in foreign fields with honour, dignity and bravery. To forget them is to do them an injustice.

In your research for the book, For King and Another King Country, which findings shocked you the most about the difference between Indian and British soldiers in terms of rations, clothing, winter clothing, weaponry, promotion. Would you say this was racism?

The most shocking fact was that the Indian soldiers did not receive their warm woollen greatcoats till November. The Indians left India in their cotton khakis and entered the trenches in the cold October months in the same uniforms. They were not prepared for the long harsh winter and the incessant snow and rain that turned the trenches into bogs. They died of cold and frostbite as well as their injuries.

They were not adequately trained, and did not have the latest guns. They faced the German army – the best-trained military machine in the world – with improvised bombs made by filling jam jars with cotton wool and nails. In the early years of the war, the casualties were highest as the British Army was simply not equipped enough. It was not racism as such, but sheer negligence.

While the British soldiers could go home on short leave and come back refreshed, the Indians could not go back as the journey was too long and ships could not be spared. As a result, they worked continuously without a break for four years. What was also shocking was that children as young as ten reached the frontline and many were injured.

What kinds of pressure – whether in recruitment practice or in battle – did Indian soldiers have to face vis-a-vis their superiors , which in this case was made worse because here the superiors were literally masters as India was under British rule at the time? Is there any particular WWI battle where this comes to the fore?

The soldiers ‘volunteered’ for the war. Yet, there was no doubt that there was a lot of coercion in the process. The local village chiefs were under pressure to recruit the villagers. They had to answer to the district collector or magistrate who was British. The British strategy was to recruit from the villages, so there was a sense of loyalty and pride among the men. The soldiers would try to win military honours for the pride of the village.

At the end of the day, the Indians signed up for a uniform, three meals a day and a pay of eleven rupees. For most families, this was still a better choice than starvation.

In battle itself, there was no evidence of racism. In the trenches they fought shoulder to shoulder. The British Indian Army officers were familiar with the Indian soldiers. The officers all spoke Hindustani and communicated well with the soldiers. Many of their personal diaries show accounts of camaraderie in the trenches and loyalty on the part of the Indians. There are accounts of British officers saving Indian soldiers and Indian soldiers going out of their way to save the lives of British officers. It is also important that there were very few desertions from the Indians.

Did the letters that soldiers wrote to their families express the angst of colonialism, difference in work conditions, the difference in work, pay, and leave and the alienation and absurdity they felt in having to die for another country, and that very country that is oppressing theirs? Were these letters censored?

The letters expressed angst about the conditions in the trenches, the constant shelling, the weather, the loss of their colleagues. Many soldiers pleaded with their relatives not to volunteer for the war in Europe, others worried that they would never see their home again. However, most were very loyal, saying they had to fight as it was their duty. They could not understand why three Christian Kings were fighting each other. But they knew they had to be loyal to ‘Jarj Parcham’ as they called King George V.

Some were fascinated by what they saw in the West and realised how important it was to be educated. Many admired the scientific achievements of the west. They had great praise for the hard-working Frenchwomen who looked after the farms when their husbands were away fighting.

Thousands of letters were translated from Gurmukhi, Urdu, Hindi, and other Indian languages and passed through the censor’s office. Some were held back if they revealed any military or strategic points. Letters that suggested that British women were interested in the Indian soldiers and ‘available’, or if they described relations with white women, were also held back. Many letters asked for substances that would induce fever, so they would not have to return to the trenches. These were not sent out either. A few praising the Germans were held back. Newspapers inciting the Indian soldiers to rise against the British were confiscated at ports and post offices.

French nurses tended to Indian soldiers wounded in war. Why were English nurses not allowed to? What was the colonial administration afraid of?

English nurses could not tend to the wounded Indian soldiers. They could only supervise the wards. It was a completely racist directive without any logic. It raised many objections from the Indians who complained that they were good enough to fight but not good enough to be treated by English nurses. White women were also not allowed to visit wounded Indian soldiers in the hospitals.

The administration was afraid that lonely white women would be attracted to the Indian soldiers, who were also lonely and looking for comfort. They did not want any liaisons or romantic attachments developing between them.