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The wars we fought

As Europe observed the centenary of Armistice Day, there was no acknowledgement of the hapless Indian soldiers

The wars we fought

Europe is currently reliving the painful memories of its past. More particularly, that part of its recent history in the first half of the twentieth century when two bloody wars had devastated the continent and decimated its population.

The trigger for this looking back over the shoulder is the hundred years from the conclusion of the Armistice in the small French forest in Compiegne, where inside the railway compartment of the supreme commander of the Allied Forces Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the armistice was signed marking the cessation of all fighting "on land, seas and air".

The Armistice was signed at five o'clock in the morning but the end of World War I was formally announced on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918. Ever since the day has come to be known as the 'Armistice Day' and it has been celebrated so for the last one hundred years.

Over the course last week, Europe remembered the end of the Great War again and it is reliving the ghastly experiences. Separately, France and Britain are organising solemn events recalling Armistice Day in 1918.

In London, the Prince of Wales, who has just turned 70, laid a wreath at the Cenotaph in London. For the first time in the last hundred years, the German president accompanied him in placing a wreath as well. The French President was joined in Paris by US President Donald Trump, badly mauled only last week in the mid-term elections.

The lawns in front of the Tower of London have been decorated and the Cenotaph area has received a new installation of red poppies made of ceramic and everyone in London is said to be wearing poppies on their coat lapels to say goodbye to the fallen soldiers.

The French capital has been painted blue on the other hand with typical blue French flowers. Paris will also have the Russian president joining them, and Trump and Putin tried to play a bit of present-day war game talking about the unilateral US withdrawal from a Russo-American strategic arms control treaty. But the French president poured cold water on the idea that any such move will detract from the sombre mood of the Armistice Day Commemoration.

Meanwhile, in the run-up to the Armistice Day, history professors and eminent panelists have been holding elaborate discussions on the inevitability of the First War and the joining of forces by different players. The British are keenly re-examining whether it was possible for it to join the war or it could have stayed outside of the fracas.

One thing is, however, clear that the present day world would not have been possible without the First War as it had for good destroyed the status quo and with it the final hour of high imperialism. The colonial powers were humbled and the old established order of the world was changed.

Germany was humiliated and that led to the rise of the later underlying fascist forces inevitably leading to the even worse Armageddon — the Second War. The German monarchy was swept aside and this led to the rise of populist forces, which ended in a dictatorship.

The centre point of this entire spectacle currently has been the remembrance of the dead. All the events are around paying homage to the fallen soldiers of the First War. Some film directors have also got involved and they are holding remembrance gatherings on the beaches across England and the Continent.

This, as well as the formal and popular gathering, are all saying the final goodbye and RIP for the departed souls. That their sacrifices have not gone in vain. The remembrance, however, is only around the soldiers of those countries on whose soil the wars were fought. Who remembers those unfortunate sons who had travelled from far off lands fighting for the causes of some other countries and some other regimes than their own?

No less than 15 lakh Indian soldiers had fought in the War on the soils of European countries. They fought along with their French, British, American and other compatriots. They were no less valiant than any others fighting those brutal wars. For them, it was even worse.

They had moved from a hot country and not familiar with the cold climes of Europe. They fought in muddy trenches across the Maginot lines or in the Flanders or in the German borders. They fought relentlessly in the midst of snow and were ill-equipped to fight in those conditions.

But they fought on and their bravery could not be ignored even in those days of white supremacy and colonial high-noon when Indians were generally taken to be inherently inferior. They won Victoria Crosses and other battle honours in the face of adversaries by dint of their professionalism and heroism.

But through all the celebrations, not a word so far about the role of those fallen Indian soldiers — not in those countries on the Continent, and worse still not in their homeland here in India.

Yet there are some memorials erected to their memories long time back that lie mostly neglected. The First World War memorials to the fallen soldiers have been disowned even by the Indian Army, which is the legitimate inheritor custodian of those memorials. These are lying forlorns in the corners of Calcutta, just as the city itself.

(The views expressed are strictly personal)

Anjan Roy

Anjan Roy

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