Essay by Jon Dorschner
“If I die here, who will remember me?” (India and the First World War) by Vedica Kant, Roli Books, New Delhi, India, 2014, ISBN 978-81-7436-976-6, 255 pp., $49.95 (Hardcover).
For Kind and Another Country (Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914-1918) by Shrabani Basu, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2015, ISBN 978-93-84052-91-1, 224 pp., $30.00 (Hardcover)
Those of us residing in the world of the 21st Century look back on the First World War with disdain. To us, it was a senseless war, fought for no purpose. We cannot conceive the naiveté of the millions of young men who eagerly marched off to war. So many never returned to their loved ones, as the war settled into a systematic wholesale slaughter on an industrial scale that the world had never seen before. In 2016, the world is in the midst of this war’s centennial. Commemorations are taking place throughout Europe and to a lesser extent in the United States.
In India (and Pakistan), by contrast, the event is passing practically without notice. This is not because colonial India did not fully participate in the war.
“By the end of the war, nearly one-and-a-half million Indians—including combatants and non-combatants —had gone to the frontline, the largest volunteer army from any of the colonies and more than the combined armies from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The dead and missing were nearly 72,000 with many more wounded.”1
Shortly after the British Empire declared war on the Empire of Germany and its allies in August of 1914, the Viceroy of India confirmed India’s participation in the conflict and committed the Indian Army. Unlike the British dominions, which were self-governing, the Indian population had no voice in the ruling of its own country. The Viceroy committed India to the war without consulting the Indian people.
The German offensive on the Western Front caught the British unawares. Great Britain did not have enough troops to man the rapidly expanding trench lines being dug across France. There was growing fear that the German troops would break through, capture French coastal ports and knock Britain out of the war. Three Indian divisions were quickly mobilized for combat. Two were sent to France and one to Egypt to prevent German capture of the Suez Canal. Within months, Indian soldiers were plugged into the trenches facing the onslaught of the German Army.
Who were these nameless Indians shipped across the world to fight for “King and Country?” Modern historians have concluded that colonialism is, by definition racism, for it rests on the supposition that one group of people is superior to another and can deny them self-determination and civil rights. British colonialism in particular, was obsessed by race and skin color. This racial obsession permeated the British administration of India and dominated the thinking of the Indian Army, which refined racial thinking beyond white and black.
The Indian Army was based on a “martial races theory,” which supposed that the vast majority of Indians were unfit for military service. The Indian Army confined its recruitment to “martial races,” which the British believed possessed a natural talent for warfare. These groups included the Gurkhas of Nepal, the Pathans of the Northwest Frontier Province, the Sikhs and Muslims of the Punjab, and the Gahrwalis and Dogras of the Himalayan region. The recruits were by and large simple villagers, many from remote areas with little access to the outside world. The overwhelming majority were illiterate. They included Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs.
The British Officer Corps that staffed the regiments of the Indian Army took a paternal attitude toward their troops.2 They believed that under the leadership of white officers, Indian enlisted men made some of the finest troops in the world. However, in their view, Indians were not fit to command troops, as they did not possess the necessary skills or abilities.
Although Indian Army Regiments were commanded by white British officers, the British realized that however strong their devotion to duty, these officers would never bridge the vast gap between them and the Indian “other ranks.” Viceroy Commissioned Indian Officers (VCOs) served as intermediaries between British Officers and their Indian troops. Their Commissions were issued by the Viceroy of India not the King. They were only allowed to command Indian soldiers. Although they served side by side with British Officers, the most junior British officer outranked all Indian officers, no matter how senior. Indian Officers were not allowed to set foot in the Officer’s mess. British officers addressed their Indian counterparts respectfully as “sahib,” but never called them “sir.”3
It was a very different India in 1914. No Indians had yet called for independence. The Congress Party and the Indian troops welcomed the declaration of war. Indian elites believed that if Indians fully committed to the war effort, put their lives on the line, and displayed their loyalty to the Empire, they would be rewarded with greater self rule after the war. The white colonies of South Africa, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, were self governing dominions within the Empire. Indian leaders believed that full participation in the war could gain India the same status.
Indian troops had never been committed to a war in Europe. British racial thinking decreed that Indian troops should only fight colonial wars against non-White opponents. The British colonial system rested on the supposition that Indians must always look on the British as their racial superiors. The British feared that if Indian troops fought white Europeans, they would become contaminated and come to view whites as their equals, thus undermining the entire colonial system. The fact that the British government committed Indian troops to fight on the Western Front was a solid indicator of its utter desperation.
Indian soldiers welcomed the chance to fight. They viewed it as great adventure. They would see Europe and win honor and glory for themselves, their regiments, their villages and their families. Most enlisted personnel came from poor villages. Army service provided recruits with a steady income and a means to provide for their families. In 1914, everyone was convinced the war would be over in a matter of months. Young men, including Indian young men, were eager to get into action before they “lost their chance.”
Indian troops were plugged into the trenches as soon as they arrived in France. They were not used to the weather and initially did not have adequate clothing. The winter of 1914 was the coldest in living memory. The trenches soon filled with water and troops spent days at a time in cold water up their their waists, while under constant shelling. Indian soldiers were also psychologically unprepared for the type of warfare they would find in France.
They were thrown into a meat-grinder, which quickly decimated their regiments. They endured massive artillery barrages that lasted for days and quickly killed many of them. They attacked fortified German positions and were mowed down by machine guns. They initially had no gas masks and were subjected to poison gas attacks that killed hundreds in a matter of minutes. Most of the 4,742 Indian soldiers and laborers who died on the Western Front were never buried. Their bodies were atomized by artillery, while dead bodies were left in the trenches for weeks until completely crushed under the boots of the troops.
Military doctrine in 1914 called for officers to “lead from the front,” and to fearlessly charge the enemy. As a result, both British and Indian officers were quickly wiped out. Enlisted men, left leaderless in the middle of battle, had to fend for themselves. Despite the alienation and dislocation, the deprivation and suffering, Indian soldiers performed amazingly well. In 1914, they stopped the German advance in their sector. Individual Indian soldiers performed astounding feats of bravery. Not allowed to receive the Victoria Cross, Great Britain’s highest award for bravery until 1914, eleven Indian soldiers won the award during the war.
As Indian units were ground up in relentless combat, thousands of wounded flooded hospitals in the UK. The Indian Army quickly realized it needed to establish hospitals for the Indian wounded. The British also determined that the treatment of Indian wounded would be reported to the Indian population. Poor treatment would cause resentment back in India and put the British Empire in a poor light in the midst of the war, while good treatment would be a powerful propaganda tool. The British thus established showplace hospitals for wounded Indians that provided state of the art medical care. Brighton Pavilion was the most famous. Originally built as a holiday palace for the Prince of Wales in the early 19th Century in a faux oriental style, it sported crystal chandeliers and Chinese ornamentation throughout. King George and Queen Mary made two visits to the hospital to thank Indian troops and award medals for gallantry. The British government distributed thousands of postcards featuring happy Indian wounded at the hospital and 20,000 picture books in India featuring the hospital.
Although the British presented an idyllic picture, all was not well. British racism undermined the best of intentions. The British cultivated an obsessive fear that Indian soldiers would conduct sexual liaisons with white British women. They therefore restricted Indian wounded to their hospitals, letting them out only rarely under close supervision for shopping trips and excursions. They did not allow white nurses to minister to Indian patients. Male orderlies provided all nursing care. British authorities did not allow casual visits to Indian hospitals, most particularly by women. Many Indian patients felt they were in a prison rather than a hospital.
While British troops took periodic leave to visit their families, Indian troops were denied leave. The British stated that this was because the Indian soldiers had no relatives in England and therefore no reason to take leave. Only the most severely wounded Indian troops were sent back to India. The remainder returned to the trenches as soon as they had recovered from their wounds. Some Indian soldiers were hospitalized three or four times with wounds, and were returned to the front each time.
After a year of combat on the Western front, the British determined that the Indian divisions were completely spent. Almost all of the officers and a large majority of the enlisted personnel were dead or wounded. In 1915, the high command withdrew all but the Indian sappers (combat engineers) and cavalry from the trenches. The sappers did not return home until 1919, as they were used to clean up the battlefield after the end of hostilities. The cavalry made one charge in the Battle of the Somme and were totally decimated by German artillery.
Indian troops did not only fight on the Western Front. They participated in combat in Italy, Macedonia, Gallipoli, North Africa, the Sinai, Palestine, Persia, Mesopotamia, South Arabia, the Northwest Frontier Province, Russia, and East Africa. The fighting in Mesopotamia (present day Iraq) was particularly grim. Sent to secure British oilfields in Basra, the Indian troops were subsequently sent across the desert to capture Baghdad. Over 4,300 Indian troops died in an unsuccessful assault on the Baghdad defenses. The survivors retreated into the desert, ran out of food, and were defeated at the disastrous battle of Kut. Most of the 10,000 Indian troops captured at Kut died in captivity.
Indian sacrifices did not gain the expected reward. British accounts of the fighting failed to mention Indian participation. The Indian economy was decimated, as it made enormous financial and economic contributions to the war effort. The diversion of Indian food crops to Europe caused famine in India. The value of Indian currency plummeted. Indian “loans” to the war effort were never repaid. India did not achieve its political objectives. Its wholehearted participation in the war did not bring about self rule or dominion status. Instead, the Indian colonial government imposed the Rowlatt Acts, which curtailed Indian civil liberties.
The final blow took place at Jallianwalla Bagh, a park in the Indian city of Amritsar. On April 13, 1919 some 15-20,000 Indians met at Jallianwalla Bagh to hear speeches condemning the Rowlatt Acts. Troops under the Command of Brigadier General Reginald E. Dyer fired on the crowd without warning and continued firing for 10 minutes until they ran out of ammunition. The British determined that 379 Indians were killed in the carnage. The Congress Party said the actual death toll was up to 1,000, with approximately 1,500 wounded. Jallianwalla Bagh changed everything. The Indian/British relationship would never be the same.
Many of the Indian soldiers that departed for Europe with such high hopes in 1914 returned blind, with missing limbs, or psychologically devastated by “shell shock.” Expecting to be greeted as heroes by their countrymen, they were instead forgotten.
Modern Indians do not want to reopen this sad chapter in Indian history. Contemporary Indians have grown up in independent India. They cannot conceive of a time when Indians were colonial subjects. Modern Indian accounts portray Indian soldiers who fought in World War One as “mercenaries,” who fought only for money. The actual situation was far more complicated than that.
During the World War One centennial, several Indian authors have written books attempting to explain this period to the Indian population, which is largely unaware of what happened. Two of these books “if I die here, who will remember me?” by Vedica Kant, and “For King and Another Country,” by Shrabani Basu, make a complementary set. Kant’s work is primarily a collection of photographs. This long ago period is so different from our present world, that it is very difficult to understand without photographs. The book provides enough text to put this amazing collection of pictures into context, but the pictures largely speak for themselves. Basu’s book is a short, work written not for historians, but for Indians desiring to gain an understanding of India’s role in the war. For American readers, the two works provide a vivid insight into an aspect of history few are aware of.
An air of unrelenting sadness permeates the accounts and the photographs. They open a door to another era, when Indians were subject to colonial rule, by people who viewed themselves as Indians’ racial superiors. In such a context, the soldiers of the Indian Army inhabited a limbo. Outside of a few British officers, few in England cared about them, and their sacrifices were quickly papered over. After World War One, India moved headlong into a struggle for total independence. As the population mobilized for the independence struggle, there was little room for the Indian soldiers, who were increasingly marginalized and condemned as British lackeys. That is certainly how they are viewed by most contemporary Indians. Europeans and Americans are conducting heartfelt commemorations to honor the sacrifices of those who served in the First World War. There are no such commemorations in India.
There is always a tendency to simplify history in retrospect, to identify heroes and villains. There are no clear cut heroes and villains in this story. Indian soldiers fighting in a colonial context were as much victims as anyone else in India. Despite their dedication to the army and their regiments, they were denied their self respect and their place in Indian history. The same soldiers who fought for the British King before independence fought for their own country after independence. These Indian officers and enlisted men were among those that benefitted the most from independence, for it removed all sense of stigma from their service. After independence, Indian soldiers proudly sacrificed for their own country with the full respect of their countrymen.
1. “For King and Country,” pg. xxi
2. The devotion of General Lord Roberts (Commander of the Indian Army), General James Wilcocks (Commander of the Indian Army Expeditionary Force in Europe), and Captain George Henderson to their Indian troops, is particularly touching.
3. In 1918 the British allowed Indian candidates to attend the Military Academy in Sandhurst. Upon graduation, these Indians were given King’s Commissions and were extended the same privileges and courtesies as British Officers.