The unsung saga of Indian soldiers in WW I

The unsung saga of  Indian soldiers in WW I

For Delhiites India Gate is the City’s pride. For tourists it is an exceptionally designed monument in the heart of the national Capital – something they easily relate Delhi with, amongst other things.

Over the years this war memorial has become a major tourist destination. But as the world observes the centenary year of World War I, this monument reminds us of India’s participation in the war, a country which was then under colonial rule.  

History records that the global war which centred in Europe took lives of more than 1.3 million Indian soldiers who fought the war. Indians sufficed the man-power hunger of the war, not only as combatants, but also as labours and porters. Experts says Indian soldiers were mainly cannon fodder. 

Rajendra Kumar Jain, professor, Centre for European Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, says, “Participation of Indian soldiers in the World War is like an unsung story. Though they were posted on the most difficult fronts during the war, the British Government sidelined their sacrifice. Soldiers were left with no option but to fight the battle in difficult circumstances. 

Indians were dragged into the war.” Surprisingly, every Indian that was pushed into the war was not a soldier, there were non-combatants too. ‘Coolie corps’ were a regular feature of the militarised frontier-making in colonial India, and accompanied Indian Army expeditions overseas.

In World War I, the men were formally enrolled as followers under the Indian Army Act and such units acquired the politically more acceptable title of the Indian Labour Corps (ILC) and Porter Corps (PC)” says Radhika Singha, professor, Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, who has done research on the Indian Labour and Porter Corps in World War I. 

In 1914, Railway Coolie Corps and Supply Coolie Corps were sent to East Africa and in 1915, a unit of PC and two LC were sent to Mesopotamia. “They were also deployed in Persia and Salonika. In 1917 the Government of India undertook to provide 50,000 labourers for France, where they were re-organised into units of 500,” says Singha. 

Talking about the recruitment of these labourers and porters under the aegis of the Adjutant-General, one of the most senior officers in the British Army, Prof Singha says, “Labour depots were set up with demarcated catchment areas, and the civilian administration assisted more forcefully.

Jails were also tapped to send some 16,000 convicts to Mesopotamia. However, some literate members of ‘low caste’ and ‘tribal’ strata were channelled through missionaries and Indian catechists. 

Long work-hours, and unrelenting toil in porterage, stevedoring, construction-work and salvage activity marked the ILC’s war regime, with particularly harsh conditions in Mesopotamia. “Both the Government of India and the Indian intelligentsia allowed non-combatants to swell the total for India’s manpower contribution to the war without dwelling over-much on their role,” she says. 

However, the war also brought into focus the need of industrialisation too. “World War I led to the emergence of Tatas in the country,” says Dr Deepak Kumar, professor, Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies. “Heavy demand of steel and iron during the war made colonial rulers think that had India been industrialised, the situation would have been different. Therefore, in 1916, the British Government decided to institute Indian Industrial Commission under the chairmanship of TH Holland. Madan Mohan Malviya was a member of that Commission.” 

According to Kumar, the Commission’s report filed in 1918 underscored the importance of imparting technical education in the country too. “Malviya was the one who highlighted the fact that for industrialisation Indians need to be made aware about the technology.” 

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