Lest We Forget: Indian Soldiers In World War One

The Second Indian Cavalry Division at the Battle of the Somme (Image: Public Domain)
Lest we forget: 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in the first world war, and 74,000 lost their lives.

Do not think that this is war. This is not war. It is the ending of the world.

When Indian soldiers fought across the world during the Great War, they witnessed and were victim to the worst form of warfare ever devised. From fighting in the trenches to starving in the deserts, to being struck with chemical gas attacks by their own government, Indian soldiers were at the frontline of the Great War at its very worst.

In the weeks leading to and from Remembrance Day on November 11, across the United Kingdom, a sea of poppies bears testimony to the war that took place nearly a century ago. But in India, little commemorates this event that over a million Indian soldiers bore witness to – and that claimed the lives of more than 74,000 in battle.

An international survey conducted by the British Council revealed many misconceptions about the war worldwide. The presence of troops from Commonwealth countries doesn’t seem to have registered, with very few respondents associating India with World War I. Even within India, under half of all respondents believed that India fought against the Allies during the war.

Fighting for Empire, South Asian soldiers from modern-day India, Pakistan, Burma, Sri Lanka and Nepal were present at the site of the Allies greatest victories and most staggering defeats. At a lonely monument in the middle of Bangalore’s busiest shopping street, at Brigade Road Junction, is a World War I memorial commemorating the 350 soldiers of the First Madras Pioneers. Most of the places named were those of military success for the regiment. But the first name below the Rondel – Kut Al-Amara (1917) reminds us how terrible loss can be.

Emaciated Indian soldier after the Siege of Kut

During the Great War, this regiment known informally as the Thambis (meaning brothers in Tamil) would have served as the 2nd Queen Victoria’s Own Sappers and Miners. In Britain’s disastrous initial campaign through modern-day Iraq (Mesopotamia), they lost nearly 8,000 men in total – to battle, disease, starvation and exhaustion.

The Siege of Kut has been described as the worst defeat of the Allies in World War I. It was the result of a tacit overconfidence by Major General Charles Vere Ferres Townshend, who privately wanted to become the Governor of Mesopotamia. In his eagerness, he led the 13,756 strong division 320 miles up along the river Tigris, defeating all the Ottomans encountered along the way. Baghdad was almost within reach, save for a town called Ctesiphon. But here, Townshend’s forces were vanquished, losing half in battle. The remaining tried to retreat along the Tigris and were picked off along the way.

The Ottomans had dug in and had reinforcements, supplies and grit on their side. The Indians were forced to hold the town of Kut, where they were completely surrounded for five months while awaiting reinforcements. The reinforcements themselves lost 23,000 men trying to rescue Townshend’s division. The situation grew so desperate that T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) tried to negotiate the men’s release – but failed. With nothing to eat but horsemeat – which the men objected to on religious grounds – the division was forced to surrender. But the worst was yet to come.

Nearly starved the death, they were made to walk 500 miles to Aleppo in Syria – to become prisoners of war. Clearly, the Ottomans wanted no prisoners, as few of the captured soldiers were capable of surviving the journey through the desert. 4,000 died during this deadly March, though Townshend himself was captured and kept alive.

The missing voices

Indian Army soldiers after the Siege of Kut (Image: Public Domain)

Throughout the Raj’s many wars, the voice of the Indian sepoy – the subaltern – has always been missing. In World War I as well, it’s a rare excerpt. Amitav Ghosh translated the experience of Sisir Sarbadhikari, who was present and captured at Kut. Amazingly, despite describing the hardships and horrors of the siege, Sisir still feels empathy for the local people, as “their tragedy was a hundred times worse than ours.” He even has a respect for the Ottomans, whose frayed uniforms he critiqued, but then wrote that “No matter what their clothes, they were very good soldiers.”

These accounts show a humane and often forgotten voice from the first war. Their letters – often demonstrating poetry – displayed a growing sense of despair at the way the world had turned out around them. There was a consequence to this; it necessitated the rise of Army psychiatry and mental health care in India.

In Vedica Kant’s book “India and the First World War”, we can see these stories come alive with one poignant question: “If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me?”. The Indian sepoy was fighting a war that was not his, but that nevertheless, was one that he had signed up for. The Indians formed the second largest volunteer army in service during the war. But with a military tradition based on sepoying, they were caught off guard by the horrors of industrialised war. Fighting far from home, they would write letters that never made it back – as wartime censorship barred depressing talk.

Lest we forget, the Indian Army fought in all battlefields. Expeditionary Force A served in Europe, B and C in East Africa, D in Mesopotamia, E in Egypt and Palestine, F for the Suez Canal and G for Galipolli. Indian soldiers also attacked China, during the Siege of Tsingtao, defended Singapore in 1915 and aided in the Malleson mission to Turkmenistan.

1.3 million Indian soldiers served in total, and 74,000 lost their lives. The war broke the image of Europe as a civilized continent; and dented the allure of nationalism, which had made the conflict bloodier than any before. Were Indians fighting for the ‘right’ cause? As Rabindranath Tagore said sardonically:

We, the famished, ragged ragamuffins of the East are to win freedom for all humanity!

India’s condition was greatly weakened by the war. India gave a loan worth £2 billion in today’s terms to the United Kingdom, not to mention the loss of so many of its young lives. But most devastating was the war’s end and aftermath – when the Spanish Flu struck after being spread across the world by the tides of war. In India, it caused up to 20 million fatalities; five percent of the Indian population at the time.

When the war was about to end, an epidemic struck that would outpace both the First World War and the Great Plague in terms of the number of casualties – the Spanish Flu, which we now know as the H1N1 virus, or ‘Bird Flu’. Flu-affected troops returning home brought the disease with them, and India recorded the highest mortality count. The decade between 1911-1921 saw India register negative population growth – so severe was the impact of the Great War and the Flu that followed.

A century has passed since the Great War. Many of its battles are no longer known, as too many generations have passed since it took place. At the India Gate, India’s foremost war memorial, the sacrifices of Indian soldiers in the first world war are made prominent. The war had big consequences for India, renewing the nationalist movement and struggle for independence.

It was the first time Indians in large number were sent around the world in the service of the British empire. It is a tragedy that this first sight was such a scarring one.

For some Indian subjects of Empire, it was a difficult task to have to kill their co-religionists in Turkey and Iraq, men with whom they had no grudge – yet against whom they died in the largest numbers fighting. Despite fighting far from their home country for a cause that was alien to their culture, these soldiers remained loyal throughout the war – often making the ultimate sacrifice. How often do we remember the sacrifices of Empire’s subjects when we wear the red poppy?

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