It’s been a hundred years since the First World War, and not surprising, one of the main casualties of that is our memory of it. Most people falsely believe that the war was fought exclusively by Europeans. But the truth is that the Indian Corps won 13,000 medals and 12 Victoria Crosses in the First World War, a fact that has faded with time.
As plans for the centenary commemorations of the First World War are taking place all through the world, it is time to set things right. It’s time the Indian community understood their contributions too.
At the onset of the war itself it was clear to the allies that additional troops from India were necessary to fight in North Africa, Europe and the Middle East. India supported British politically, by way of the military and economically too. At a time when majority of Indians were suffering from abject poverty, they gifted 100 million pounds for war with the condition that the British would their demand plea for Independence a hearing.
The Indian army comprised men of diverse faiths. Indian soldiers were involved in the lands as diverse as Palestine, France, Syria and Mesopotamia. A school of thought says it was the Indian army that changed the course of the war by turning German soldiers at Marne.
Sadly, thousands of Indian soldiers lost their lives, and the war graves in France and Belgium are grim reminder of largely anonymous Indian soldiers. One of them was Mir Dast, a Victoria Cross holder, which is the highest award of gallantry in Great Britain. He was the officer of 57th Rifles of the Indian Army, who came under vicious gas attack by Germans in April 1915. As he held his defence against the army, without a gas mask, he managed to save lives of eight officers.
Lying in the hospital bed at Brighton, England, he wrote to his family that he was twice wounded, once in the hand and second from gas.
One of the reasons the history of the role Indian soldiers played in the War is so fragmented is that there is only a limited record of correspondence between the soldiers and their families as most Indian soldiers were illiterate. They would have one of the literate ones among them write the letter, which would then be read out to a British officer as part of censorship procedure.
These letters and diaries are the source of information on the anguish felt by the soldiers about the war. The soldiers talk about guns, poisonous gas, destruction, longing to see their family. Extracts of these letters could be sourced from summaries prepared at the time of censoring of letters.
The caste system was practiced by British in the army as well as the hospitals where Indian soldiers were treated. In one hospital in Brighton, where the wounded soldiers were treated, hospital wards were segregated on caste lines. The so called ‘untouchables’ were employed as support staff.
In fact, discrimination faced by the volunteers in the army worked as catalyst for them to join the movements for independence in their respective countries.
Chatri (which means Umbrella in English), is the only memorial of significance to honour the contribution of Hindu and Sikh soldiers. The monument is on the Downs, near Patcham in Brighton. It was unveiled by the Prince of Wales on 21 February, 1921 and is the cremation site for 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers.
In 2010, their names were inscribed in stones on the site. It is truly disappointing is that it has taken over a century after their deaths that Commonwealth War Graves Commission to inscribe the names of the martyrs.