Wronged then, forgotten now

This is the centenary year of Indian participation in the First World War. 100 years ago, over a million Indian soldiers set out overseas to defend the British Empire with the hope that after the end of the war their country will get self-rule under Dominion status. But despite the death of thousands of Indian soldiers and several being injured, the British colonial rulers regrettably failed to live up to their assurances. 

The denial of self-rule under Dominion status led to the call for complete independence from the British colonial yoke. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 disappointed the Indian people who longed for greater constitutional changes in the direction of self-rule. Repressive laws like the Rowlatt Act rubbed salt to their wounds. Worst then non-fulfilment of the demand for self-rule was the situation of de-mobilisation after the war that left many Indian soldiers jobless. A combination of all these factors led to the call for complete independence.

Indian participation in World War-I began after Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914 and remained till the war finally came to an end on 11 November 1918. Britain’s former dominions that joined the war – Australia, Canada, Newfoundland (merged with Canada in 1949), New Zealand and South Africa – had self-governing status but their foreign policy and defence were controlled by Britain. After the end of the war these dominions were subsequently given more powers. The sentiments across the dominions led to the enactment of 1931 Statute of Westminster recasting British Empire as a Commonwealth of Nations. But India remained as a British colony till 15 August 1947.

The weakening of the Ottoman Empire led to incomplete emergence of nation-states in Europe and this resulted in Balkan Wars. To trace the origin of World War-I, history says that it began as the Third Balkan War and transformed itself into European War on 28 July 1914. It was called the Great War for Civilisation and much later came to be known as World War-I. The war began between two opposing alliances – Britain, France and Russian empire on one side and the Central Powers of Germany and Austro-Hungarian empire on the other side. Later Italy, Japan and United States joined the alliance of Britain, France and Russia while Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria joined the Central Powers of Germany and Austro-Hungarian Empire.

After the end of the war, four major imperial powers – the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires – ceased to exist. The war resulted in the defeat of Central Powers. The map of Europe was redrawn with several independent nations restored or created with boundaries arbitrarily fixed to serve the interests of the victors. In Asia and Africa new states were created out of former imperial territories of defeated powers. Colonies exchanged hands and areas of influence were mandated amongst victors. It led to the gradual rise of United States as a world power. League of Nations was formed to prevent such future conflicts, but it had its natural death as it could not prevent World War-II that erupted due to renewed sense of European nationalism and German feeling of humiliation imposed upon after defeat in World War-I.

When Britain joined the World War-I on 4 August 1914, British colonies joined the war. The overwhelming majority of mainstream political opinion in India was of the view that if Indians take up the burden of imperial defence, the British colonial rulers would grant the country Dominion Status and self-rule, if not complete independence. Mahatma Gandhi said: ‘If we would improve our status through the help and cooperation of the British, it was our duty to win their help by standing by them in their hour of need.’

There is no detailed account available as yet on Indian participation in World War-I.  Estimates of Indian participation are varying. Indian Ministry of External Affairs and United Services Institution of India have jointly launched a project to unearth details from various sources.

According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission about 1.1 million Indians participated in World War-I in France and Flanders (Belgium), Mesopotamia (Iraq), Egypt, Persia (Iran) and Palestine (including Israel). Smaller Indian contingents were deployed in Aden, East Africa, Gallipoli and Salonika. Indian troops were also deployed in Russia and even in China.

The semi-autonomous princely states in India also sent over 26,000 soldiers to join the war. The Royal Indian Marine carried troops and other war stores to Egypt, Mesopotamia and East Africa.
According to the Rushbrook Williams Report there were about 80,000 British army officers and men in India and about 2,30,000 Indian ranks, both combatants and non-combatants at the outbreak of the war in 1914. During the war British India recruited 8,00,000 combatants and more than 4,00,000 non-combatants raising the total of Indians in British army to 1.3 million.

Out of 1.3 million, over 7,00,000 Indians were deployed in Mesopotamia, over 1,50,000 in France (including Flanders) and Egypt each, about 1,00,000 in Gallipoli, Salonika, Aden and the Persian Gulf and over 50,000 in East Africa and rest in other places including India.

Ashok Nath of University of Stockholm says in August 1914 Indian Army mustered 1,55,423 regular soldiers and by the end of the war the number swelled to 14,40,337. Santanu Das of Kings College, London estimates the total number of Indian soldiers at 1.5 million, including 9,00,000 combatants and 6,00,000 non-combatant who served overseas.

According to available records 60,000 Indian soldiers died in the war. First Indian to die was Naik Laturia who faced the poisonous gas of the Germans. He is commemorated in Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres in Belgium. As per Montagu 1,01,439 Indians sustained casualties. Indian soldiers earned over 9,200 decorations for gallantry including 11 Victoria Crosses.

Besides, India made contribution of Rs 4,57,50,00,000 to war fund plus materials like foodgrains, oil, jute, cloth, blankets, iron, steel, timber, railway tracts, bridge materials, engines, vehicles, telegraphic and telephonic equipment and so forth.

It is high time that the country honour the deeds of these brave hearts, especially when the government has decided to erect a War Memorial. IPA
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