World War 1: India's Forgotten Sacrifice
The modern-day altruistic ethos of the Indian Army can trace its origins to the unrelenting and dedicated service it personified even prior to India gaining independence. India’s colossal and prolonged peacekeeping engagements in the most perilous regions of the world today, should, to a historian, be by no means surprising – owing to the fact that as an entity, the Indian Armed Forces have been fighting in wars on sides that seek to uphold the lofty ideals of liberty and freedom from tyranny. Such ideals, despite being denied to them back at home, prior to 1947, never subdued the spirit of their enthusiasm and valor – as evidenced by the historical testimonies, which although significant, remain underrepresented in popular historical discourse. This article seeks to shed much needed limelight on the contribution of India to war efforts in the First World War. The term of the “Indian Army” for the purposes of this article will pertain to the Armed Forces of the Indian subcontinent then under British rule, but having formally been established in 1895 as a distinctive unit which represented and resembled much of the modern Indian Army.
The origins of the Indian Army during the British Raj can be traced back to the East India Company’s activities. Initially officers and troops of these regiments, set up by the East India Company to protect its factories, were all Europeans (Dhapali 2019). However, effective Military force proved impossible without the much-needed incorporation of native troops – experienced in various kinds of indigenous warfare. In order to reinforce its Military presence abroad, the Crown had started dispatching regiments of the regular British Indian Army to foreign lands from the mid-eighteenth century onwards (Kaul 2017). It is widely believed that the British Indian Army was one of the strongest armed forces during the colonial period. In the aftermath of the 1857 mutiny, the armies of three separate presidencies – Bengal, Madras and Bombay were abolished and merged into a single entity on April 1, 1895 with four commands: Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western under the British Crown (Barkawi 2017).
As the First World War commenced in 1914, the United Kingdom positioned itself among the Allies while also championing the cause for self-determination and independence of the Balkan nations under Ottoman rule. Cleverly tailored propaganda pieces popularized the war effort in the Empire in a manner which made being employed as a soldier an attractive proposition without divulging any detrimental ideas about liberty that might inflame nationalist sentiments. India sent a staggering number of volunteers to fight and die on behalf of the Allied Forces. Almost 1.5 million men were conscripted in the Army from all over the country, despite the British only possessing 247,000 trained soldiers at the onset. With more soldiers than Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa combined, the men volunteered in the Indian Expeditionary Force , which saw fighting in Mesopotamia, France, Gallipoli, Salonika, Somaliland, Egypt, Persia, Aden, West Africa, and Palestine (Tinker 1968).
Course of the War
Within the first twenty days of the outbreak of the war in Western Europe, the first division of the Indian Army had already set sail for France. By the end of 1914, seven expeditionary forces had been sent from India to various theatres of the war. These included two infantry divisions, eight infantry brigades and one mixed force with three infantry battalions, two cavalry divisions, one cavalry brigade as well as four field artillery brigades (Dhapali 2019). The Western Front first subjected the Indian troops to conditions never before experienced in their training and earlier deployments. Severe weather, shell shock resulting from continuous bombardment and most importantly with the omnipresence of trench warfare led to several unacknowledged and underappreciated Indian sacrifices. By the end of 1914, the Indian Army had offered their early support in protecting strategic ports in northern France and Belgium which ensured that the Allies were saved from an early and ignominious defeat (Singh 2018).
Concurrently, with the dispatch of the Indian Expeditionary Force to France, a mixed force was sent to East Africa to defend Zanzibar and protect the Mombasa-Nairobi railway. An infantry brigade was sent to the Persian Gulf while six infantry brigades, together with one Imperial Service Cavalry brigade, were sent to Egypt. Expeditions to Mesopotamia and Aden too sailed out of Indian ports. By the early spring of 1915, two more infantry brigades and one more cavalry brigade had been sent abroad (Barkawi 2017).
On 22nd April 1915 the second Battle of Ypres began with the first gas attack in the history of warfare with the usage of mustard and chlorine gas to disorient, incapacitate or kill Allied troops. The limited protective equipment available in the form of hurriedly arranged gas masks in the initial stages of the war were first offered to the European Allied troops as a priority, exposing the Indian troops to the chemicals. Over 9000 Indian troops died on the Western Front including battles at Neuve Chappelle, Aubers Ridge, Festubert and Loos (Bostanci 2014).
During the winter months of 1915, arrangements were made to send the infantry divisions to the Middle East and the Mesopotamian (present day Iraq) theatre of war. At Gallipoli in 1915, some 1,000 Indian Army troops were killed serving as part of the British forces in the flawed offensive against Turkey (Sidel 2018). In the Middle East, they battled against the Ottoman Empire, Germany’s ally, in Palestine and secured key oil reserves in Mesopotamia. The Mesopotamian campaign was largely an Indian campaign and saw deployment of the largest Indian Army force abroad. The 16th Infantry Brigade of the 6th (Poona) Division was sent from Bombay for the Mesopotamia Campaign, under General Sir Arthur Barrett (Hyson and Lester 2012).
Significant Indian Involvements
Over 75,000 of the Indian Army were killed in action for causes entirely alien to them and their country while being guided by the dedication and altruism which still is still reflected in it today. Over 65,000 were wounded, and 10,000 were reported missing, while the country also supplied 170,000 animals, 3,7 million tonnes of supplies, jute for sandbags, and a large loan (the equivalent of about £2 billion today) to the British government. The Indian Army won several laurels to its name including 11 Victoria Crosses, 5 Military Crosses, 973 Indian Orders of Merit and 3130 Indian Distinguished Service Medals (Morton-Jack 2018).
The awarding of the Victoria Crosses acquired significance since Indians had only become eligible for it in 1911 and by the end of the war 11 had been won for their indispensable services in Belgium, France, Egypt, Mesopotamia and Palestine.
Flanders in Belgium was most notable for it was where the bravery of Sepoy Khudadad Khan earned him the Victoria Cross – thereby becoming the first Indian to receive this honour.
Sepoy Khudadad Khan
Mir Dast, for his actions in Ypres under chemical attack, received the Victoria Cross from King George V himself in 1915 (Morton-Jack 2018). He later temporarily returned to India in early 1916 to recuperate from injuries and dedicatedly returned to the war front in 1917.
Even away from the battlefront, Indian soldiers like Awal Nur made themselves indispensable in more covert operations. Despite having served in Belgium, France and East Africa from 1914 to 1917, and having been wounded thrice, Nur’s most extraordinary exploit was on His Majesty's secret service. Nur was one of 16 Indian soldiers specially chosen to join British officers on a secret Indian Army mission into Soviet Central Asia in early 1918. On the direct orders of London, this mission's goal was to stop Soviet resources in Central Asia from reaching the Germans by railway and the Caspian Sea (Morton-Jack 2018).
Awal Nur among the Indian soldiers as a part of His Majesty's special service
Soldiers of the Indian Army were indispensable in the liberation, setting up and the granting of independence to several modern-day countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. The fact that the ideals being upheld by the Allies and exposed to the Indian soldiers at the warfronts, were the very same hypocritically denied to a majority of the Global South, never gave reason for the British to reduce or doubt their reliance on the Indian Army. The decision of the British to revert once more to India’s valuable manpower during the Second World War provides testimony to the notion of resilience and reliability still exhibited by the modern Indian Armed Forces.
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