Remembering the sacrifices made
From March 9 to 14 this year, coinciding with the historic battle of Neuve Chapelle, fought during World War I (WW1), there will be a Centenary Commemoration for the Indian Army. On the morning of March 9, the President, Prime Minister, Defence Minister, the chiefs of three services, High Commissioners/Ambassadors and Defence Attaches of Allied and opposing nations will converge at India Gate for a Wreath Laying Ceremony. The troops participating in this function will be horse-mounted Sowars of the President’s Bodyguard and 61st Cavalry, a 150 strong tri service guard of honour, buglers and a military band.
From March 10 to 14 there will be a grand exhibition at the sprawling Manekshaw Centre, Delhi Cantonment. On March 10 President Pranab Mukherjee will inaugurate the Commemoration exhibition widely spread out over Zorawar Auditorium, Gallantry Hall, Corner of Remembrance, Sacrifice Hall, Commonwealth War Graces Commission’s ‘Seek Your Hero’s Display’ and the lawns of Manekshaw Centre, where a section of trenches will be simulated. On March 11 the exhibition will be open to Services personnel and their families and for the following two days, it will be open to the public. The last function on 14 March will be the Chief’s Conclave.
The year 2014 marked the centenary of the commencement of WW1, fought from July 28 1914 till November 11 1918. Of the 1.5 million Indian troops on the rolls of the Indian Army then, 13,81,050 played a decisive part in the Allied effort. While the Indian Army, since its inception 256 years ago, had a splendid and unsurpassed record of acquitting itself in every theatre, both in war and peace, it was WW 1 which established its global reputation as a very professional, disciplined and fearless fighting force, acknowledged by both allies and adversaries.
While the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Turkey and Australia held commemoration ceremonies in 2014 and showered praise on Indian Army’s exploits, the Government did not. On October 30, 2014, the UK High Commission and United Service Institution of India (USI) jointly held a commemoration function at the British High Commissioner’s residence, in which then Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, Army Chief General Dalbir Singh, some serving and a number of retired officers were invited. War diaries of Indian regiments, which fought in WW 1, compiled and reproduced by UK High Commission and USI, were presented to their officers. It was then that Jaitley announced digitization of all war records involving Indian Army. Jaitley also decided then that commemoration ceremonies would also be held in the national capital.
During his recent visit to Australia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a special mention of how Australian and Indian soldiers fought side by side 100 years ago and laid a Wreath at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. Meanwhile, Maj Karun Khanna (retd), of 4th Horse (Hodson’s Horse),a distinguished regiment, who had attended some of the commemoration ceremonies in 2014, suggested a format to Army HQ, which was accepted for the March 9 Wreath Laying function. More events have been planned till November 2018 in India and other countries involved in WW 1.
Preceding the outbreak of WW1 in 1914, the political consensus reached between Indian leaders was that if India desired greater responsibility and political autonomy, it must also be willing to share the burden of Imperial defence. It is significant that Mahatma Gandhi and other political leaders were of the opinion that participation of Indian Army would enhance India’s stature, lead to self rule and finally Independence. Mahatma Gandhi even raised an Ambulance Company but could not proceed due to ill health.
While this war was very costly in terms of Indian casualties-74,187 killed and over 60,000 injured/maimed- the Indian Corps won 13,000 medals for gallantry including 12 Victoria Crosses (which were never before awarded to non-whites) and Indian Regiments were awarded a host of Battle Honours in both the Eastern and Western Fronts. WW1 also paved the way for development and organisational reforms in the Army, ‘Indianisation’ of the army’s officer corps and formation of the Indian Air Force.
The advent of the machine gun, improvements in the accuracy of firearms/ artillery greatly increased casualties on the battlefield. With both cavalry and infantry becoming more vulnerable, trenches were found to be more suitable arenas for battle. Much of the European theatre became furrowed with trench lines. However, rain and the high subsoil water table soon made trench warfare a very messy ordeal.
Indian Army units landed in France three to six weeks after war had been declared. They were involved in their first military operation a month later, briefly capturing the town of Neuve Chapelle, before a strong German counter attack drove them out again. Less than a month later, the Indian Corps was once again embroiled in fierce fighting, after the German army had breached the Indian Corps’ trenches in Festubert. Hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches resulted in heavy losses of Indian troops. The trenches were recaptured the following day after an order from Command. The following year, the Indian troops were to experience the savagery of chemical warfare in a particularly grueling offensive in Langemarck, near Ypres.
The stalemate left men caught in the trenches for months and months. By 1915 the dismally deadlocked Western Front brought Allied strategy under scrutiny, with strong arguments for an offensive through the Balkans or even a landing on Germany’s Baltic coast, instead of costly attacks in France and Belgium. Referring to the fierce battles of 1915, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Commander of Allied forces in France in WW 1, stated: “…The Indian Troops were thus among the first to show the way to a victorious offensive. It is only right that a Memorial should perpetuate the glorious memory of officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of the Indian Army at the very spot where later on a general attack by the Allied troops was to bring the decisive victory in sight. Return to your homes in the distant, sun-bathed East and proclaim how your countrymen drenched with their blood the cold northern land of France and Flanders, how they delivered it by their ardent spirit from the firm grip of a determined enemy; tell all India that we shall watch over their graves with the devotion due to all our dead. We shall cherish above all the memory of their example. They showed us the way, they made the first steps towards the final victory.”
While there are memorials to the Indian Army in France, Belgium, UK and Egypt, the Brits made the All India War Memorial, now India Gate, located on Kingsway, now Rajpath, which has names of 74,187 Indian soldiers who died in World War I and elsewhere between 1914 and 1919 inscribed on the memorial arch. In addition, there are names of 12,516 Indian soldiers, who died while serving in India, North-West Frontier and the Third Afghan War. Designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, India Gate resembles the architectural style of the Napoleonic Arc de Triomphe in Paris and Menin Gate, at Ypres, in Flanders, Belgium.
Despite many wars and conflicts since India’s Independence, no war memorial was made. After it came to power last year, the BJP-led government announced the construction of a national war memorial at the traffic roundabout behind India Gate and a war museum at the nearby Princess Park, with an underground connecting route. The Centenary Commemoration will be a befitting tribute to those India soldiers who fought. Many of these personnel’s sons and grandsons have done India proud in the many wars and conflicts since Independence.