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Indian soldiers in the service of the Empire

Thursday, 14 August 2014 | Claude Arpi | in Edit

Over one million Indians fought on different European fronts during World War I. A 100 years later, their contribution is being recognised by some foreign Governments. In India, they are a forgotten lot

Decoration season is in full bloom. The Indian media is distributing Bharat Ratnas to political personalities, though Government sources say that there is no move yet to confer the country’s highest civilian honour before the next Republic Day. Many important political names have been doing the rounds in the buzzing capital of India. Instead of politicising Indian decorations, the media should look at India’s participation in World War I, whose centenary is celebrated this year. It is far more inspiring.

The ‘Great War’ (I have never understood how a war which left millions of dead can be ‘great’) officially started on August 3, 1914, the day Germany declared war on France. More than 1,30,000 Indian troops, including the Sikhs and Gorkhas regiments, fought in France and Belgium during the bloody conflict in which more than nine million people died.

Can you imagine that a quarter of the Indian contingent never returned to their native Provinces? It is said that during the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in France in March 1915, the Sikh regiments lost 80 per cent of their men. These jawans were part of over one million Indian soldiers who served on the different fronts during the War; between 1914 and 1918, 74,187 of them died.

Some of the French battlefields where Indian soldiers showed their bravery and dedication to a cause which was not theirs, are today part of the history of France. It is good that a 100 years after the so-called ‘Great War’, the French Government has decided to pay homage to those who fought and lost their lives in the cold and cruel trenches of the Somme and other battlefields.

For example, a documentary film titled 100 Years shows the sacrifice of Subedar Manta Singh who saved the life of his British companion before losing his own. Born in Jalandhar district in 1870, Manta Singh belonged to 2 Sikh Royal Infantry. One day, crawling through no man’s land, his friend Henderson and he came under German fire. Manta  Singh somehow managed to push his companion under a wheelbarrow, saving the Brit’s life; unfortunately, fatally wounded in the process, he died soon after.

The film, written and directed by Paris-based Punjabi writer Vijay Singh, uses rare photographs, film footage, and Press clippings to show that many Indian soldiers won the appreciation of the French.

Retrospectively, it is interesting to note that the empire knew how indispensible Indian troops were to fight its battles. In 1999, Mr David Omissi, a military historian published Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldier’s Letters, 1914-18. This edited collection of letters sent by Indian soldiers to their family in India (and their replies) is deeply touching.

Places such as Ypres, La Bassée, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert, Loos and Givenchy will remain engraved forever in the military history of India and France. So many jawans of the 9 Bhopal Infantry, 15 Ludhiana Sikhs, 47 Sikhs, 57 Frontier Force, 58 Frontier Force, 59 Frontier Force, 89 Punjabis, 107 Pioneers, to quote a few, valiantly fought for a country that they did not know; they could not even speak the language.

For most of the Indian soldiers in the Allied forces, it was their first trip to Europe (and for many, their last, as they ended being buried on the front). As he arrived in France, an Indian soldier wrote to his family: “What is Paris? It is heaven!” He soon discovered that the trenches were Hell. Another bewildered jawan described Paris: “To-day I saw a museum in which all the living fishes of the world were kept in boxes of water and a magnificent palace which cost millions of pounds.” He must have visited Versailles Palace. Another one in transit in London explained: “In the train that goes under the earth… a strange and wonderful experience — they call it the underground.” Nobody had ever heard of the ‘Tube’ in his native Punjab.

Though some of the Indian soldiers could not read or write, they dictated letters to their families and the answers were read out to them. On September 19, 1916, one Farrier Major Khan wrote from Punjab to Wali Mahomed Khan of the 18 Lancers who was on the front: “I have heard all about your amours with the French women and how the officers forbid it. I can quite imagine how, if you know enough of the language, you have a great time and try to make yourself out a trustworthy person.”

They did not have a ‘great time’; in any case their missives were heavily censored. Today, the censored mails provide vivid testimonies of the bravery of the Indian jawans who were aware that the letters were opened. One Farrier Major Khan ‘wisely’ advised his relative: “No doubt your officers read the letters. But cannot you devise any way of dodging them? I will tell you what to do. When you write a letter, on one page write in invisible ink made out of lemon juice. If you cannot get this, take some lime which has not been wetted and grind it up and mix it with water and write, and I shall be able to read it all.” The story does not tell us if Wali Mahomed tried the trick.

One Jemadar Indar Singh explained to his relative Chattar Singh who lived in Ludhiana district: “It is quite impossible that I should return alive because a cavalry charge is a very terrible affair, and, therefore, I want to clear up several things… Don’t be grieved at my death because I shall die arms in hand, wearing the warrior’s clothes. This is the most happy death that anyone can die.”

This is perhaps what made the Indian soldier so special to the Empire. For which cause, the Punjabis, the Balochs or the Gorkhas bravely fought, nobody really knew; and they did not know themselves. And in an irony of history, the Germans and the French are today great pals trying to build Europe together. It is undoubtedly better that way.

From the British point of view, to have the Indian jawans on their side was a great boon. They realised this when a strike was called by Indian sailors of the Royal Indian Navy on board a ship at Bombay harbour on February 18, 1946. As the revolt rapidly spread and found support throughout British India, and as 78 ships, 20 shore establishments and 20,000 sailors got involved, the Empire started trembling.

The day these ‘local’ naval officers and men began calling themselves the ‘Indian National Navy’, and offered left-handed salutes to British officers, London realised the importance of being on India’s side. We should not forget these jawans who died for the Empire 100 years ago.