NEW DELHI ― One hundred years after the start of World War I, the world has been commemorating that seminal event. Described as “a war to end all wars,” the Great War, as it was called at the time, failed to live up to its billing. Those who fought and died in it would not have expected its sequel just 25 years later.
But while the war took the flower of Europe’s youth to premature graves, snuffing out the lives of a generation of talented poets, artists, cricketers, and others whose genius bled into the trenches, it also involved soldiers from faraway lands that had little to do with Europe’s bitter traditional hatreds.
The role and sacrifice of Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, and South Africans have long been celebrated in history books, novels, and award-winning films like “Gallipoli.” But the world hears very little about the 1.3 million Indian troops who served in the conflict, which claimed the lives of 74,187, with another 67,000 wounded. Their stories, and their heroism, have long been omitted from popular histories of the war, or relegated to the footnotes.
India contributed divisions and brigades to the European, Mediterranean, West Asian, North African, and East African theatres. In Europe, Indian soldiers were among the first to suffer the horrors of the trenches. They were killed in droves before the war entered its second year, and they bore the brunt of many German offensives.
It was Indian jawans who stopped the German advance at Ypres in the autumn of 1914, soon after the war broke out, while the British were still recruiting and training their own forces. More than a thousand of them died at Gallipoli, thanks to Churchill’s folly. Nearly 700,000 Indian sepoys fought in Mesopotamia against the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally.
Letters from Indian soldiers in Europe to their families back home bespeak cultural dislocation and tragedy. “The shells are pouring like rain in the monsoon,” declared one. “The corpses cover the country like sheaves of harvested corn,” wrote another.
These men were undoubtedly heroes. They were pitchforked into battle in unfamiliar lands, in climatic conditions to which they were neither accustomed nor prepared, fighting an enemy of whom they had no knowledge, risking their lives every day for little more than pride. Yet they were destined to remain largely unknown once the war was over ― neglected by the British, for whom they fought, and ignored by their compatriots.
Part of the reason is that they were not fighting for India. The soldiers were all volunteers; soldiering was their profession, and they served the very British Empire that was oppressing their own people back home.
While raising men and money from the subcontinent, the British promised to deliver self-rule to India at the end of the war. Had they kept that pledge, the sacrifices of India’s WWI soldiers might have been seen in their homeland as a contribution to India’s freedom. But the British broke their word, and nationalists had nothing for which to thank India’s soldiers. They had merely gone abroad to serve their foreign masters. Losing one’s life in a foreign war fought at the behest of colonial rulers was an occupational hazard; it did not qualify as a form of praiseworthy national service.
Thus, Indian nationalists allowed the soldiers’ heroism to be forgotten. When the world commemorated the 50th anniversary of WWI in 1964, there was scarcely a mention of India’s contribution anywhere, least of all in India. The India Gate in New Delhi, built in 1931, is visited by hundreds daily who have no idea that it commemorates the Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting in WWI.
But, though historical amnesia about the Great War is pervasive across India, the centenary is finally forcing a rethink. The British have been flocking to an exhibition showcasing Indian troops’ role; the French are making a film about the brown-skinned and turbaned men who fought to save their land from the Germans; and, in India, curiosity has overcome the fading colonial-era resentment of British exploitation.
Indians are beginning to see the soldiers of WWI as human beings who took the spirit of their country to battlefields abroad. The Center for Armed Forces Historical Research in Delhi is painstakingly working to retrieve memorabilia of that era and reconstruct their forgotten story.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains war cemeteries in India, mostly commemorating WWII rather than WWI soldiers. The most famous epitaph is inscribed at the Kohima War Cemetery: “When you go home, tell them of us and say/For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”
The Indian soldiers who died in WWI could make no such claim. They gave their “todays” for someone else’s “yesterdays.” They left behind orphans, and history orphaned them as well. It is a matter of quiet satisfaction that their long-overdue rehabilitation has now begun.
By Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor, a former U.N. under-secretary general and former Indian minister of state for human resource development and minister of state for external affairs, is currently an MP for the Indian National Congress. ― Ed.