There is nothing more humbling or haunting than to stand head bowed silently in front of a war grave or to pay obeisance at a memorial to a fallen soldier. While travelling across the world, especially Europe, I have had the good fortune to visit many war cemeteries and memorials where innumerable Indian soldiers lie silently, forlorn in far off countries at places with unpronounceable names! I wonder if people are aware that a staggering 160,000 soldiers of undivided India laid their lives in the two great wars, fighting for a nebulous cause and for a colonial power! It intrigues me that they fought with such amazing bravery and fortitude in the most difficult and trying circumstances. These are the same semi-literate, simple and hardy people from remote villages across India who sacrificed everything; in those days where even traveling abroad was considered a taboo.
The graves and memorials of these fallen heroes in about 50 countries around the world are documented, managed and maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). India is a member of the CWGC. The two wellknown war cemeteries managed by CWGC in India are the ones at Kohima and the other at Brar Square, Delhi Cantt. As per the agreement at partition, all assets and liabilities were divided between India and Pakistan in the ratio 70:30. Accordingly, on partition, the cost of maintaining the graves/memorials of undivided India was to be shared and paid to the CWGC in same ratio. This is being done to date. Since a large proportion of Indian soldiers were Hindu/Sikhs and were cremated, plaques/ or names were etched on various memorials. All Muslim soldiers of undivided India were laid to rest in graves at various cemeteries. No distinction can be made of their country now as they were soldiers of pre partition India.
One of the starkest, well cared and poignant cemeteries is the one at Ypres in Belgium. The Battle of Ypres (and the numerous battles that surrounded this Flanders town) has become linked forever with World War One. Along with the Battle of the Somme, the battles at Ypres and Passchendaele have gone down in history as the bloodiest battle with casualties running close to a million! The sheer devastation of the town and the surrounding countryside seems to perfectly summarise the futility of battles fought in World War I. Fierce fighting took place around the town and neither the British nor the Germans could claim to control the area. The trench warfare fought in bitter cold with snow, sleet and rain for a few hundred yards of land must have been living hell for soldiers used to the warm and dry conditions back home.
At a place called Wijtschate (about 10 miles south of Ypres) a German corporal called Adolf Hitler rescued a wounded comrade and won the highest honour a German soldier could win – the Iron Cross. Despite fearsome losses on both sides, neither could dominate the other.
Another memorial, a Gurudwara (Saragarhi Memorial Gurudwara) symbolises the unparalleled bravery and devotion to duty and izzat one can encounter in the annals of military history, is in Ferozepur. In this battle, a small outpost of 22 Sikh soldiers of 21 Sikh fought to the last man, last round against a force of nearly 10,000 Pashtun tribesmen who attacked Saragarhi. In Britain, when the story of Saragarhi’s defence was unfolded in the House of Commons, every Member of Parliament rose with awe and spontaneously gave a standing ovation to the brave Sikh heroes. All the 21 Sikh non-commissioned officers and soldiers who laid down their lives in the Battle of Saragarhi were posthumously awarded the Indian Order of Merit, the highest gallantry award of that time, which an Indian soldier could receive by the hands of the British crown, the corresponding gallantry award being Victoria Cross. This award is equivalent to today’s Param Vir Chakra awarded by the President of India.
When you travel in India or go to Europe make it point to spare a few moments, head bowed in respect at the many memorials and cemeteries saluting our fallen brethren in arms!