Earlier this year I spent a few months collecting books and research on Indian soldiers in WW1. Initially this was for the podcast. Later I was briefly in discussions with a publisher to write a short book about India during WW1. The original plan was to get it out in time for the centenary of the war next year. But then I shelved the idea when I simply ran out of time because of other projects. The research is still chilling on assorted hard drives though.
So who knows? Maybe I will revisit it in 2019 for the centenary of the Armistice.
Two of the books I enjoyed the most during the research was David Omissi's Indian Voices of the Great War. Soldier's Letters, 1914-1918 and Gordon Corrigan's Sepoys In The Trenches: The Indian Corps On The Western Front 1914-15.
Omissi's book helps to put in perspective what patriotism and national identity meant to many Indians a century ago.
On 15th January 1915, a wounded Sikh soldier convalescing in England wrote a letter in Gurmukhi to his brother in Amritsar. From Omissi's book:
Brother, I fell ill with pneumonia and have come away from the war. In this country it rains a great deal: always day and night it rains. So pneumonia is very rife. Now I am quite well and there is no occasion for any kind of anxiety... If any of us is wounded, or is otherwise ill, Government or someone else always treats him very kindly. Our Government takes great care of us, and we too will be loyal and fight. You must give the Government all the help it requires. Now look, you my brother, our father the King-Emperor of India needs us and any of us who refuses to help him in his need should be counted among the polluted sinners. It is our first duty to show our loyal gratitude to Government.
At least in the early stages of the war, before enthusiasm has been dampened by the meat-grinder of the front, this is a recurring theme in the letters. Many soldiers were enthusiastic, and much of this enthusiasm came from a sense of patriotism that is hard for us to make sense of a century later.
Also it is important to keep in mind that in 1914 the Indian Army was perhaps the largest volunteer army in the world. Many were poor peasants who had joined for the pay and had been coerced by hunger rather than colonial exploitation. (This would change later in the war when local administrators, especially in Punjab, were forced to meet manpower quotas and intimidated, even blackmailed many young men into enlisting. )
Corrigan's book gives a narrative structure to the experiences encapsulated in Omissi's letters. It starts with clashes of civilisations as shiploads of sepoys are unloaded in France and then moves onwards to their staging areas. The French, it appears, welcomed these exotic, turbanned 'Les Hindoues' with tres enthu. Corrigan writes:
The reception given to the Indians by the citizens of Marseilles was ecstatic.... Although the war was but two months old the number of young women in widow's weeds was an indication of the scale of French casualties, and the Sikhs in particular were embarrassed by the number of even younger women, not in widow's weeds, who rushed into the marching ranks to embrace and kiss them...Unloading of the ships was carried out by regimental fatigue parties assisted by French labourers, and by the time it was completed some Indian soldiers, generally natural linguists, were beginning to pick up a few words of French.
The book then goes on to paint a very detailed picture of how these sepoys fought the war, how they worked with the British officers and how they coped with the misery.
By the end of the war between 1 and 2 million Indian soldiers fought on one of the fronts. Around 75,000 of them died. Which doesn't seem much given that around 10 million soldiers died across both sides. But more Indians died than Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and even Belgians--all countries that seem to do much more to commemorate their war dead than India does.
(In fact now that I think about this... the Indian participation in the war is almost universally treated with unjustified lightness. Norman Stone's popular short history of the war has one reference to India. John Keegan's history has a handful but none of any great substance. However in the UK, at least, there is a growing sense of this oversight.)
I can posit many reasons for this oversight. The Indian presence on the Western Front--the one that posterity finds more sexy--was somewhat fleeting. And most Indian troops had been transferred to the Middle East by the end of the war. (Which is just as well. The mortality rates would have been immeasurably greater otherwise.) Then there is the odd compartmentalisation of the history that is taught in our schools and accentuated in our media:
Time immemorial - 1526 AD: Ancient awesome
1526 AD - 1757 AD: Mughal mayhem
1757 AD - 1857 AD: Whiteman wankery
1857 AD: Brief hurrah starring Aamir Khan
1857 AD - 1947 AD: Resumption of whiteman wankery
1947 AD onwards - Jhingalalaho plus Sachin
Anything that does not fit into these compartments is left to fend for itself.
Most importantly the real custodians of this history, the modern Indian republic, finds these stories somewhat troublesome to take ownership of, let alone commemorate, in a public fashion. The friend--Indian troops--of our enemy--colonial masters--is surely not our friend?
But I think we should remember these poor fellows. By any frame of reference that is cognizant of their reality, what they did was immensely brave and honourable. The dividing lines of nationality and the moral compasses of patriotism are all transient. We all like to think that we exist in static political enclosures that will always exist in glory. So did every generation before us going back centuries. They were all wrong. We will be wrong too.
Much more permanent are the virtues of courage and honour. So perhaps we should do more to remember these chaps. They were mostly nice.
And if niceness is not Indian enough for you... then how about the sepoy's capacity for ingenious, 100% desi jugaad?
In April 1917 soldier Mahomed Khan of the 6th Cavalry fell in love with and married a Frenchwoman. This appears to have pissed off everyone including his fellow soldiers. But most of all it upset his family. So in June 1917 he wrote a letter home explaining how he was 'forced' into doing this. From Omissi's book:
I want to tell you my misfortunes. I was stationed in a village and was in a house where they were very kind to me. There was a young woman in the house and the parents were very pleased with me. She wrote to the King in London and asked permission for me to marry her and the petition came back with the King's signature on it, granting leave. But she did all this without my knowledge. The Colonel sent for me and asked whether it was true. I said it was, and asked his leave to marry, but said I must make the girl a Muslim. The Colonel then got very angry and took away my rank of Lance Dafadar, and said he would not give me leave to get married. When this came to the girl's ears, she sent another petition to the King and he gave leave, and said that directly the marriage was celebrated he should be informed. According to His Majesty's order, the wedding came off on the 2nd April. There was a General Sahib and a Muslim jamedar as witnesses. But I swear to God that I did not want to marry, but after the King's order I should have got into grave trouble if I had refused.
What nice, jugaadful boys they were. Let us remember them more.