To commemorate the war dead in the First World War, the British built a majestic memorial known as India Gate at Kingsway, now known as Rajpath in New Delhi. On it are engraved the names and Regiments of all ranks of the Indian Army who laid down their lives during the war. The Imperial War Graves Commission erected another Indian War Memorial at Neuve Chapelle, which was the site of the first major action by the Indian Corps in France. Similarly, the Teen Murti Memorial was erected in New Delhi at the road junction facing the residence of the Commander of the British forces in India (subsequently renamed Teen Murti House) to commemorate the heroic deeds of the Jodhpur, Mysore and Hyderabad Lancers who served in Gaza, Mesopotamia, and Palestine during the First World War.
Writing about the deeds of the soldiers of the Indian Army just after the War, Lord Curzon put pen to paper in the following words. “Of the Indian Corps it may be said that as much was asked of them as had been asked of any troops at any period or in any theatre of the First World War.”He noted that these soldiers stemmed the first German onslaught, through the late autumn of 1914, which ended in the bitter fighting at Givenchy. Specific mention is made of the “glorious part” played by Indian soldiers in the battle of Neuve Chapelle, the second battle of Ypres, the struggle for the Aubers ridge and the desperate assaults of Loos. India contributed immensely to the War effort in terms of both men and material. Indian soldiers served with credit and honour in numerous battlefields around the world: in France and Belgium, in Aden, Arabia, East Africa, Gallipoli, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Persia, Salonica, Russia, and even China.
Indian troops were on the Western Front by the winter of 1914 and fought at the first Battle of Ypres. By the end of 1915, they had sustained many casualties. Along with the casualties from sickness, the decision was taken to withdraw the Indian Corps from front line duty by the end of 1915.By the end of the war 1,100,000 Indians had served overseas at the cost of 60,000 dead. They earned over 9,200 decorations for gallantry, including 11 Victoria Crosses. Khudadad Khan won the first Victoria Cross in the Indian Corps and belonged to the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis. These figures, include the contribution of over 26,000 Imperial Service troops who were a part of the Indian States Forces. In all some 47,746 were killed or missing, with 65,000 wounded.
This was the first time that Indian soldiers were fighting on European soil and they fought in all the major theatres of war, on land, air and sea, alongside British troops. Their many awards for bravery, as well as their War graves and memorials on the battlefields, are testimony to their sacrifice in the service of Great Britain. This was not India’s war but the contribution of Indian soldiers needs to be recalled and remembered as the as the world commemorates the Centenary of the War’s beginning this year.
The Indian Corps (Lahore and Meerut Divisions) was sent to France in October 1914 followed by the 4th and 5th Cavalry Divisions. Ironically, like in the 1962 border skirmishes with China, they went without winter clothing. But they saved the day by preventing the German breakthrough to the Channel ports. The war in this theatre was on a 500 km front, of which the British held one-tenth, the Indians one-third of the British sector.
There was not much lateral movement in this theatre because both sides remained bogged down in the trenches and there was little scope for manoeuvres. The Cavalry fought dismounted most of the time for which they had no training; even the Sappers fought occasionally as Infantry. As a result of heavy casualties, some reformed units consisted of men from as many as a dozen units. The average Indian battalion had around 764 men when they landed in France, but by November 1914, the 47th Sikhs had only 385 men left. In Gallipoli, the 14th Sikhs lost 371 officers and men in minutes, and thousands of other Sikhs died in various other encounters such as Neuve Chappelle and the Somme.
The battle of Neuve Chapelle(10-13 March 1915) epitomized the Indian contribution to the First World War. This action was originally intended to be part of a wider Allied offensive in the Artois region of France.The decision to attack the village of Neuve Chapelle, situated north of La Bassee and west of Lille in north-west France, was Sir John French’s, Commander-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).The village had changed hands four times in October 1914. In March 1915, while the Germans were mainly engaged on the Russian front, the British decided to take offensive action. In the first planned attack preceded by heavy artillery bombardment on a wide front of some 20 kms stretching from Armentieres to La Basee, the village of Neuve Chapelle, five km north of Givenchy was captured. Loss of lives on each side was 13,000. Among the units honoured were the Malerkota Sappers and the Indore Transport Corps of the Imperial Service Troops. Riflemen Gobar Singh Negi, of the 1/39 Garwhal Rifles won the Victoria Cross.
During this battle, Rifleman Gane Gurung single-handedly captured eight German soldiers. His bravery in action was noted by the Lieutenant General Sir James Willcocks, Commander of the Indian Corps in France, who later remarked that there was probably no other instance in English history of an individual solder being cheered for his bravery by a British battalion (2nd Rifle Brigade) in the midst of battle!
India played a significant part in the First World War . However, India’s part in the war is frequently overlooked as a result of the horrors experienced in trench warfare and by general tendency to home in on battles, such as those fought at the Somme and Verdun, which many assume only Europeans fought in. India’s contribution was not confined to the Army. The Royal Indian Marine was armed in 1914, and some of its ships served with the Royal Navy, on escort duties and others as coastal minesweepers or river gunboats, in the Mesopotamia campaign.
It is of note that the Indian Army, at this time, comprised mainly of the middle peasantry, recruited from the North and North-West of India, partly because of the “martial races” theory of the British, which suggested that some races or castes were inherently more warlike than others. Most Indian soldiers in France in the First World War were Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs.
Another way of understanding the Indian contribution is to highlight the fact that more Indians volunteered to fight for Britain in World War I than all the Scots, Welsh and Irish volunteers combined and more than the sum total from all the rest of Britain’s colonies and dominions. This contribution by 1.27 million Indian volunteers has been almost completely neglected by British and Indian historians.
They were experienced and professional soldiers, but were inadequately equipped for the cold weather in Europe and unprepared for new types of warfare like trench warfare. They suffered huge casualties and the British officers who led them were largely wiped out in the first few weeks of fighting, leaving them under the command of men who did not speak their language. Despite all this, the Chief Military Censor in the UK, who was charged with monitoring the morale of troops commented that “not since the days of Hannibal has any body of mercenaries suffered so much and complained so little.” These men, called “Black Lions” by the Arabs in Mesopotamia, sacrificed their lives for an ally who was ruling their own country. They did it out of honour and loyalty!
Dr Bhashyam Kasturi is a historian
and security analyst who has studied at
Cantab and Jawaharlal Nehru
University. The article has been written
in his personal capacity.