By Nadeem Saeed

“Teja Singh and Sundar Singh have been killed by bullets. Ladda Singh has been wounded by a bullet in the leg,” wrote a wounded Indian soldier from a hospital in Milford, England, on 22 January 1915.

BGF001_15112015_ISS10In the letter written in Gurmukhi to his father in Punjab, the anonymous soldier who had experienced the horrors of war first hand pleaded “My advice to you is that you must not allow any of our people to enlist, for think over this … some of the balls weigh 10 maunds (300 pounds), with one shot we kill 20 or 25 of them and they do the same to us. The big guns fire a ball 20 miles. There are several other matters about which I cannot write. Now I have learnt what kind of thing (military) service is.”

We do not know whether his people listened to his advice but in weeks, months and years to come more than 1.3 million Muslim, Sikh and Hindu men from the regions such as Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Bihar travelled overseas to join the Indian Expeditionary Force for “King and the Empire”.

It was believed to be the largest voluntary army ever raised in the known history of warfare. They fought on almost all the war theatres including Western Front, East Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Gallipoli.

Later, more than 2.5 million soldiers from undivided India (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka) took part in the Second World War.

The Indian soldiers shed blood and sweat wherever they were posted on the call of their professional duty. As many as 74,000 of them lost their lives in WW1 while in the WW2 their death toll had been recorded as more than 87,000. Thousands other were wounded and reported missing in action.

Britain and allies received heavy battering from Germans in the first month of the WW1 on the Western Front. Reinforcement was urgently needed to halt the German advance while the fresh recruitment was yet underway. In a surprise move it was decided to cash in the imperial human capital from the colonies.

Within six weeks of the war’s inception Indian soldiers were fighting on the Western Front. They had no previous experience of the trench warfare while freezing European winter was around the corner. But they took part in fiercely fought battles of Ypres, Givenchy, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Loos with valour. They guarded one third of the British line in France.

A group of soldiers with two Hotchkiss M1909 machine guns in front.
A group of soldiers with two Hotchkiss M1909 machine guns in front.

Half of the attacking force in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 was made up of Indian soldiers. They fought with extraordinary courage with Khudadad Khan becoming the first South Asian to receive the Victoria Cross.

War historian and author of “Sepoys in the trenches”, Gordon Corrigan says “If the Indian army hadn’t arrived when they did, the Germans might well have broken through. The whole history of the war might have been different”.

According to the figures of Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), some 11 soldiers from undivided India won the Victoria Cross in WW1 while 31 got it in the WW2. Some 13,000 won other military medals for gallantry in the WW1 and 4000 in the WW2.

But their sacrifices and valour were soon forgotten. In Britain they could not become part of the narrative of military history and heroics while at home they were riled as collaborators of the colonial masters.

Last year, British Council prepared a report “Remember the World as well as the War” and also conducted a survey to see how much knowledge people have about the First World War. The survey reveals that the UK comes as one of the of the top ten unprompted associations with the First World War while India was not mentioned a single time as a top-of-mind association with the First World War among the 1,215 respondents from the UK.

Report’s co-author Anne Bostanci says it is hardly surprising, therefore, that twice as many respondents in India compared to the UK feel that their country’s role in the First World War is often misrepresented and misunderstood in global history (almost one quarter of Indian respondents indicated this).

At the same time, around three quarters of respondents in India as well as in the UK felt that their country is still affected by the consequences of the First World War.

An Indian meal line at the Marine Lines Convalescent Camp.
An Indian meal line at the Marine Lines Convalescent Camp.

When the WW1 broke out the Indian subcontinent was politically simmering. Congress and other mainstream political parties were paddling the idea of more autonomy in self rule like the ‘white’ dominions of the Empire had been exercising. So when the Empire demanded show of allegiance the mainstream Indian political leadership openly supported the British cause and encouraged people to prove their worth to the master after having ‘tasted the salt”.

Gandhi is quoted to have said “if we desire of its privileges, we should desire the responsibilities of the membership of this great empire”.

Britain already had a sizeable regular army in India commanded by British officers but populated by Indian soldiers. But that army was also needed to remain deployed in India in the face of growing unrest against colonialism. Hence, an extensive recruitment campaign was launched in the areas the British authorities thought to have martial races like Punjab and North West Frontier.

People thronged the recruitment centres and those who did not turn up were coerced to do so. Compelling propaganda material was rolled out to capture imagination of the people especially those who came from humble backgrounds. One of the posters reads:


Here you get old shoes

There you will get full boats

Get enlisted

Here you get torn rags

There you will get suits

Get enlisted

Here you get dry bread

There you will get biscuits

Here you have to struggle

There you will get salutes

Get enlisted

Those who were already serving in Army under British control joined the war out of their regimental pride and career advancement prospects while others for the promised financial benefits. Within few weeks of the war soldiers from undivided India were landing Marseilles in France through ships after setting off from Bombay and Karachi ports. Majority of them had never travelled that far before. They came to a world unknown to them.

First there was a cultural shock as is depicted in this letter of a Maharatta clerk, posted at Bournemouth, which he wrote to his friend in India: “The men and women of this country go about boldly hand in hand. We feel ashamed, but such is the custom of the country. It suffices if one has a very slight acquaintance. They even come with us for walks thus.”

They were even shocked to see “sahib (white man) is fighting against white man”. Trenches were full of mud and water while winter was setting in. But these men and women played incredible role in the war in completely unfamiliar circumstances and land.

A Group of British and Indian soldiers.
A Group of British and Indian soldiers.

Throwing light on inequalities the Indian soldiers suffered compared to their white comrades, historian and academician Prof Peter Stanley of Australia’s University of New South Wales says Indian soldiers were given only Rs 12 to 15 per month while their Australian counterparts got 5 shillings per day; roughly an Indian soldier was being paid £1 per month against £8 monthly salary of an Australian soldier.

Gandhi and other leaders supported the Empire’s cause under the false hope of getting more autonomy but soon it became evident that that was not going to happen. The “Jallianwala Bagh Massacre” that took place in Amritsar on 13 April 1919 and claimed lives of more than 1000 unarmed protestors further widen the trust deficit between rulers and the subjects.

Demand for complete independence from the British rule started gaining more support from the masses. By the start of WW2 political situation had reached to the boiling point with Gandhi calling for civil disobedience and opposing the Allied cause in the Second World War. But yet more than 2.5 million joined the British military campaign.

Indian soldiers were again filling the gaps in the ranks of Allied forces to fight against Axis powers led by Germany, Italy and Japan. They fought bravely in almost all the war theatres; the most famous of them were the ‘Battles of Kohima and Imphal’ in British India near the Burmese border.

It is considered to be the heaviest defeat in the history of Japanese army. The battle was voted in 2013 as the winner of a contest by Britain’s National Army Museum, beating out Waterloo and D-Day as Britain’s greatest battle.

A group of British soldiers bidding farewell to Indian officers in a dock.
A group of British soldiers bidding farewell to Indian officers in a dock.

While giving interview to BBC for the broadcaster’s documentary ‘The forgotten volunteers’, Capt John Tucker who served in the Indian Regiment from 1940 to 1945 said, “Without the Indian Army Japan would have overrun India, they would have linked up with Germany in Iran. The whole world would have come under the Axis”.

But the historical role of Indian soldiers in both the great wars has largely remained unappreciated because of British colonial arrogance and political expediency of the leadership who took the helms after independence in Indian, Pakistan and other countries of the sub-continent.

Those who were allies of the Axis were admitted as ‘freedom fighters’ while those who fought for the British cause were loathed as traitors. But for them who acted on the call of duty that was not a lost cause. The epitaph at Kohima reads: “When You Go Home, Tell Them of Us and Say, For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”.


Image Credit: IWM