World War I, the India story retold

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    The stories of 1.3 million Indian soldiers who fought the First World War have been almost forgotten. Now in the centenary year of the Great War, a project plans to collate their tales.
    Manimugdha S SharmaFar from the public eye, a handful of men have been hard at work for the last one year at the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research in Delhi. Their mission is to painstakingly put together the forgotten story of the 1.3 million Indian soldiers who had been sent to fight for the British Empire in the First World War.Far from the public eye, a handful of men have been hard at work for the last one year at the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research in Delhi. Their mission is to painstakingly put together the forgotten story of the 1.3 million Indian soldiers who had been sent to fight for the British Empire in the First World War.

    For a hundred years, the story of this force had been nearly forgotten — the narrative of World War I has so far been predominantly white. The Indian story had to be told because it rarely happens that one nation's war is fought by another's armies. But not only did Britain downplay the contribution of these men but India, too, chose to ignore them. In fact, the nationalist voices in free India actively disowned parts of this history.

    "It's a shame that we have to push for preservation of the memory of the First World War through the centenary celebration. Even in Britain, there is less public awareness about the Great War. There is an instant connect when it comes to World War II, since people who took part in it or saw it are still alive. Also, it happened just a little over 20 years after the Great War, nobody really got enough time to think about the importance of the first. But four years ago, we opened a gallery at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton dedicated to the memory of the Indian soldiers who stayed there, and that generated a lot of awareness about them. Now, people in Brighton know and understand the important role the Indians played in WWI," says Jody East, creative programme curator of Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

    East was on a whirlwind trip to India in search of WWI relics and was in Delhi when TOI spoke to her on Tuesday. Earlier, she was in Kolkata to meet the curator of Victoria Memorial Museum . But she couldn't find much there to take back home, save some valuable verbal inputs. Finding comprehensive records of the war in India is a problem. But there are countless profiles in courage buried in the cold vaults of libraries and museums across the world.
    Squadron Leader (retd) Rana T S Chhina, an authority on the history of the Indian armed forces who is heading the project, acknowledges this neglect. "WWI records do not exist in a consolidated form in India. We have been trying to put together an archive for some time now. We've made some progress and have been collaborating with the Commonwealth countries. We will soon bring out a coffee table book, leaflets and booklets on the Indian Army's involvement in the war," he says.

    He points out that the First World War exposed Indian troops to modern warcraft for the first time. Roped in by the British to help halt the German juggernaut, these men were only trained and equipped to fight 19thcentury wars. "This was a modern war with casualties of an industrial nature — whole battalions would be wiped out in a single day. But despite that, the Indian soldier doggedly held his ground and pressed on with such tenacity that the enemy was forced to take notice."

    Indian troops suffered heavy casualties as they fought in the frozen trenches of Europe, in the bloody campaigns of the Middle East, the Dardanelles and the Mediterranean, and East Africa. The Indian Expeditionary Forces would lose 74,187 in the war and 69,214 would return home wounded.

    Sadly, when the survivors returned home, no hero's welcome awaited them. India had given full military, political and economic support (the country had gifted 100 million pounds to fund the war) to Britain anticipating dominion status and home rule in return. But once the war ended, the British were in no hurry to appease India. So, the returning army seemed to Indians like the Empire's instrument of oppression. But now, there is hope that the Indian soldier will get his due place in history.

    By 1915, the British Indian Army lost over 3,000 men in the Western Front. The 14,000 wounded were brought to Southampton and from there to the three hospitals in Brighton of which the Royal Pavilion was the most noteworthy . It was a palace that was converted into an Indian military hospital and 4,306 men were treated here.

    "The soldiers were well looked after and even King George V and Queen Mary visited them at the hospital. But the whole thing became part of the British propaganda. Happy-looking Indian soldiers were filmed relaxing in the palace environs; picture postcards of Indian soldiers were made and 1,20,000 of them were sold locally. Sometime later, a multilingual commemorative book was also printed and 20,000 copies were shipped to India alone," East says.

    There is no denying that the loyalty of many of these soldiers to the King Emperor grew stronger in England. But the letters these men sent home also reflect a sense of despair. "They were constantly watched and couldn't go out alone. This was probably because English women were interested in them and the government didn't want word of any liaison between Indian men and British women to reach India," East says.

    An exhibition is being put together at the Royal Pavilion where the Indian soldier and his role in the First World War will be honoured. After all, he belonged to the largest voluntary force in history at that time, significantly bigger than the combined troops of Ireland, Wales and Scotland, and even bigger than the 1.12 million-strong Indian Army of today.

    World War I, the India story retold - The Times of India
     
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