The forgotten Indian soldiers of WWI’s European battlefields

Indian soldiers who fought in Europe during WWI are finding their place in history after years of being forgotten.

Patrol Indian Lancers. (Photo Courtesy-French National Library)
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NEW DELHI // Thousands of kilometres from home, on First World War battlefield in France, an Indian soldier composed a letter.

“There is no telling whether the war will be over in two years or in three, for in one hour 10,000 men are killed. What more can I write?”

His name, like the names of so many other Indian soldiers on those battlefields, has disappeared from public memory. But his despondency, amid a war that he was dragged into, survived in his letter.

At the centenary of the beginning of the First World War, a new appreciation for the role of colonial soldiers among the Allied troops is beginning to emerge.

Until now “the First World War, despite its name, hadn’t really been looked at in a global context. Much of the huge body of work on this subject tends to see if from a European perspective”, said the Delhi-based historian Srinath Raghavan, who is writing a book that examines India’s participation in the war — one of several such projects expected to be released this year.

Pre-partition India, which included present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, provided more than 1.27 million men to the Allies, more than the troop-levels in the current Indian Army.

More than 800,000 of these soldiers were fighting in the European theatre.

Between 62,000 and 64,000 were killed in Europe or died of wounds received there.

Some Indian soldiers were drafted into service, especially around 1916 when both sides suffered heavy casualties, and others volunteered as the UK offered attractive remuneration for recruits.

Nearly every Indian soldier in the Allied regiments was on their first visit to Europe. A sense of wonder pervades some of their letters, which have been published online by the British Library and archive Europeana.

“What is Paris? It is heaven!” one wrote.

In another letter, a soldier wrote: “To-day I saw a museum in which all the living fishes of the world were kept in boxes of water, & a magnificent palace which cost millions of pounds.”

A soldier temporarily in London wrote of travelling “in the train that goes under the earth … a strange and wonderful experience — they call it the underground”.

The collections also include letters from the soldiers friends and family back in India, who were curious about the faraway places they were stationed.

“I hope you have toured the most beautiful country of Europe at the expense of the Government and have seen what people yearn to see,” Kazi Abdul Hai from Peshawar wrote to his friend Suliman, who was serving in France in 1916. “You, I hope, have become the master of the French language.”

Their travels in Western Europe challenged the Indian soldiers’ world view, Mr Raghavan said.

“This not only drove home to them the stark disparities between these countries and India, but also made them think about social hierarchies in a new way,” he said. “The war, in a sense, acted as an agent of globalisation.”

The soldiers also expressed their misery and homesickness.

The trenches were muddy, the food was unfamiliar, and lice gnawed at their flesh, they wrote.

The Germans proved “harder to crush than well-soaked grain in the mill”, one soldier said.

Another wrote: “No man can return to the Punjab whole. Only the broken limbed can go back.”

Every letter was scrutinised closely by military censors. So the troops used code to convey their true thoughts.

“I will now write about the war,” a soldier named Shadma Khan hinted while writing home in 1915 from an English hospital, where he was recuperating from bullet wounds.

“There is a full crop of ripe barley,” he wrote. “Crowds are gathering around the woman who parches the grain. She parches the whole lot at once. Her stove is very hot. I hope you will read very carefully what I have written so badly.”

“The woman who parches the grain,” referred to the German forces, according to a censor report from the time.

Matthew Shaw, a curator at the British Library in London, told The National that there is now "a growing awareness and gratitude for the millions of Indian soldiers who served".

Some of the original letters will be exhibited between June and October at the library while another exhibition will start in July at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, which served as a hospital for Indian troops during the First World War.

Penguin Books will publish a collection of soldiers' letters home, Indian Voices in the Great War, assembled by First World World historian David Omissi.

The Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research, in Delhi, is also assembling an archive of documents related to the Indian war effort.

Mr Shaw said that in the academic world, “there has been, recently, almost a counterpressure to play down British troops on the Western Front in favour of an acknowledgement of the involvement of empire troops in Europe and beyond”.