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50,000 Indian soldiers perished on foreign shores during World War I. Yet we know little about them even today…

World war 1

Around 1.5 million Indians had participated in World War I. At the end of War, around 50,000 Indian soldiers were dead, 65,000 wounded, and 10,000 were reported missing, while 98 Indian army nurses were killed. Warriors from India had won 11 Victoria Crosses, including the very first awarded to a British Indian Army soldier – Khudadad Khan, a machine gunner.

Yet, Indian history books hardly talk about the sacrifice made by these million valiant  soldiers. The British too, have showed selected amnesia on the topic, conveniently leaving out the the contribution of India and its men in the War.

World war 1
The Indian regiments were sent to Europe in their tropical cotton drill; winter kit, including greatcoats, did not arrive before dozens had perished from cold and frostbite.

As for Britain, they cared little that brown-skinned men fought in unknown climes with minimal food and facilities. The heavy death toll also resulted due to negligence. The Indian regiments were sent to Europe in their tropical cotton drill; winter kit, including greatcoats, did not arrive before dozens had perished from cold and frostbite. But why would India obliterate this portion of history that had made a great impact on the world?

India at that time was finding teeth for its fight against the British. Freedom was the cause everybody was concerned about; everything else secondary. The World War I was inextricably winded with the Freedom Movement. Before the War had started, Germany tried to influence India in raging war against Britain.

World war 1
It was expected that India will use the opportunity to fire up the freedom movement during World War I, while Britain was engaged in elsewhere.

And once the War broke out, it was expected that India will use the opportunity to fire up the movement, while Britain was engaged in elsewhere. But India shocked detractors by agreeing to send men to strengthen the Allied forces. National leaders, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah were hopeful that such an act of benevolence will definitely work in India’s favour, and probably it will sway the British Raj’s mood.

Undivided India’s contribution to the War was financial too. Several Princely states provided large donations to support the Allied campaign, and engaged in fund-raising efforts such as raffles and fetes. India provided for 170,000 animals, 3.7 million tonnes of supplies, jute for sandbags, and a large loan (the equivalent of about £2 billion today) to the British government.

World war 1
Indian soldiers digging up trench in Europe during World War I.

Over a million Muslim, Sikh and Hindu men from various parts of undivided India — the Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Bihar — volunteered in the Indian Expeditionary Force Opens, which saw fighting on the Western Front, in East Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Gallipoli. Many opted for the War because the pay was good, and it raised the ‘untouchables’ to the ‘warrior’ caste, a much better proposition than that in the society.

When War ended, and soldiers both healthy and maimed, returned home with tales of great valour, India’s hopes upped. But the hopes came crashing down when the British started cracking the whip harder. Following this, Gandhi launched his first India-wide campaign of civil disobedience against British in February 1919.

World war 1
A mix of Indian and British soldiers during World War I.

As the intensity of the movement intensified, World War heroes took a backseat. Also, they were like a sore point, and a grim reminder of India’s plan to appease its White master gone kaput. This resulted in more glorifications of the national leaders getting into a more aggressive mode of fight for freedom. Indian nationalists felt that the country had nothing to thank its soldiers for. They had merely gone abroad to serve their foreign masters.

While India did not sing for its war heroes, the British Raj erected the All India War Memorial on February 12, 1931. Viceroy Lord Irwin. The mammoth memorial is now popularly called the India Gate, located in the heart of Delhi.

About the author


Whether it’s women issues, politics or the paranormal, Rubi has an opinion on everything. Art and entertainment interest her, too. Hindu College alumni, she has written for The Hindustan Times and The Financial Express. Every now and then, she loves picking up her camera to capture life and its various shades.

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