Unearthing the life of Indian soldiers in WW I

Unearthing the life of Indian soldiers in WW I

Historians till today debate how the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke of Austria-Hungary and his pregnant wife in 1914 led to World War I. Europe was the centre of conflict.

For four years the fighting took place between two colonial powers Great Britain and France, in countries like Europe, Africa (areas under European control), the West Asia, Central Asia and the Far East. Since India was a colony of Britain, hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers were made a part of the war. They fought at the Western front, West Asia and East Africa.

Ill-prepared for the European winters, dusty Mesopotamian summers and warfare tactics, which used extensive bunkers and weapons that were hitherto unheard of, proved to be a challenge.

“Issues of racism and language followed the Indian soldiers wherever they were deployed. And yet, they fought bravely for the prestige of their regiments.

They proved to the world that they were brave, loyal, and capable soldiers, and till date, the Indian troops are spoken of reverently in the villages across the Western Front. And yet, history books find little to no mention of this aspect of the war,” says Vedica Kant, author of the ‘If I die Here, who will remember me?

India and the First World War’, who along with Pramod Kapoor, publisher, Roli Books went to Western Front to bring alive the stories of Indian soldiers.

Masters in Middle-eastern studies, Vedica’s was intrigued by the book project. “We don’t have much knowledge about our own soldiers who fought the First World War. Bits and pieces have been written on the subject.

Whatsoever has been written so far has been from the perspective of the Europeans. It ignores the reality of the war and the soldiers who were at the front. Ironically, every sixth soldier fighting on behalf of British Empire would come from Indian subcontinent and that history has been completely forgotten. They not only fought the battle at the Western Front but were also sent to West Asia, Africa and China by the British rulers,” says Kant.

As per the estimate 70,000 Indian soldiers died in the war. In terms of monetary assistance, India contributed several ten billions. India also provided 170,000 animals and 3,700,000 tonnes of supplies and stores to support the war effort. The war had an impact on India’s struggle against the colonial power.

As mentioned in the book “When the war broke out, numerous nationalist leaders in India, including Mahatma Gandhi, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Sarojini Naidu among others, pushed for Indians to take on a large role in the war. It reflected India’s interests to fight Germany and her allies for the sake of its own security. The bombardment of Madras by the German cruiser SMS Emden in September 1914 only made such fears more acute.’

Vedica’s interest in India’s role in the First World War grew as a tangential interest from researching the various fronts the Ottoman Empire fought on during the war. But for Pramod Kapoor, the 10-day expedition to the Western Front was more than going beyond a book.

“I took a trip to the Western Front, travelling between Ypres and Lille in France. I visited the villages that dot the countryside and learned that Indian war heroes such as Khudadad Khan and Gabbar Singh Negi are household names there, and that each family has a story to share about the warmth and bravery of the Indian troops stationed in this region,” says Kapoor.

Kapoor and Kant visited Indian War Memorial, Neuve Chapelle, France. “I was moved by the sight of the tricolour and Ashoka’s lions at Menin Gate, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that the look of the Indian War Memorial was a hundred per cent replica of Sanchi Stupa. It was a surprise to see Gurumukhi, Hindi and Urdu written on the same tombstone,” says Kapoor. Interestingly, the memorial was designed by Sir Herbert Baker, who also co-designed New Delhi.

He realised the potential and gravity of this project when he visited Flanders Museum, Belgium. Dominiek Dendoo­ven, Annick Vandenbilcke, and Piet Chielens, at the Flanders Field Museum, suggested the duo to  visit to Dominique Faivre, a collector of items used by the Indian soldiers who fought on the Western Front.

Faivre is an accountant in a school for handicapped children. He grew up hearing his grandmother’s stories about Indian soldiers billeted in France and this spurred his interest in collecting First World War-- era Indian Army images and materials. He collected memorabilia of Indian soldiers, from clothes to cartri­dges, medicine box, utensils and daily used items.

“When we asked Faivre about the money he will charge for taking his collection to India for exhibition, he simply replied ‘I will earn on the blood of Indian soldiers’. Then with the help of the French Embassy we brought the collection to India,” says Kapoor, who organised an exhibition commemorating 100 years of Great War (1914-1918) “India and the First World War”.

Kant made a special trip to Germany to collect the available literature on the Prisoner of War (POWs) in Germany.

“I came across actual video recordings which were done at the time of war. One gets a grim picture of the POW camps,” says Kant.

To get more information about Indian soldiers Kant and Kapoor visited Imperial War Museum, British Library, London, and French Military Archive. Captain Christophe Cazrole and Sergeant Nicolas Nacher at French Military archives helped in identifying valuable material. In Germany, they found Hindi and Urdu newspapers in the archives, published by Germans to brainwash Indian soldiers who were fighting for the Britishers. “

According to locals, people were scared of Indian soldiers because of their built and rugged look,” says Kapoor, who walked along the fields of Flanders where, “you can still pick out pieces of spent bullets embedded in the soil,” he says.

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