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Indian foot soldiers of the First World War

Troops from colonial India fought in key battles in France, Belgium, Mesopotamia and East Africa, but when the history of the war came to be written, it was mainly that of its impact on European society

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This month marks the 100th anniversary of the start of First World War. Alongside the many interesting new views of the war that historiography and hindsight have made available a hundred years on, there is also a new awareness of the aspects of the war’s history that were under-regarded at the time. It has been almost forgotten that more than one million subjects of undivided colonial India (now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) fought in the Great War for the Allies, whisked into the battlefields of Flanders and Gallipoli by a massive recruitment drive in the east by their British masters. This was a force much bigger than Britain’s own expeditionary army and one that literally often served as cannon fodder in a conflict that horrified even its principal movers with its brutality and toll on both combatant and civilian life.

Indian troops carried out Allied commands in key battles in France, Belgium, Mesopotamia and East Africa, but when the history of the war came to be written, it was mainly that of its impact on European society and civilisation, the “centre” of the world. Adrift in a strange land, where few could speak his language, the often illiterate Indian sepoy, or soldier, could not speak back to his master or leave a private mark on his age.

‘What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?/ — Only the monstrous anger of the guns,’ wrote Wilfred Owen in his famous poem Anthem For Doomed Youth. However, one doubts he saw in this scene any sepoys or jawans. The asymmetries of race and empire were inevitably extended even to the profound experiences of shock and awe, sorrow and pity, on the battlefield and in the trenches. To commemorate the centenary of the Great War, though, many new initiatives at historical reconstruction of the Indian war effort have started in India. And many foreign archives are making available their newly digitised records of the war, allowing us to experience vicariously the life of the subcontinental soldier marvelling at the streets of London, arousing wonder in the small towns of France, holding to the rules of caste even when laid up in a hospital in Brighton and trying to communicate with his loved ones back home.

In this last endeavour, he often faced considerable resistance from the very powers that had dropped him down into Europe, as several letters recently posted online by the British Library reveal. For fear that the Indian sepoy’s letters may give away important information or stoke civilian unrest back in India, all letters from the front were subject to inspection by the Censor of Indian Mails, which commissioned a translation of random samples for inspection. These snippets are for the most part what survives today of these fascinating letters. In one letter, a soldier recalls a tale suggesting that a woman whose husband was away at war, even if she loved him dearly, could not remain chaste for more than three months — a worrying thought for him, as he was away for a year-and-a-half.

Massive recruitment drive

Soldiers became aware of the suspicious eye of the censor and devised elaborate strategies to convey meaning. In perhaps the most famous metaphor in this small archive, Khan Mohammad of the 40th Pathans regiment wrote that “the black pepper which has come from India is all used up,” and more will therefore soon be requisitioned. “Otherwise, there will be very little red pepper remaining.” The red pepper referred to the British.

Other aspects of the Indian effort in Europe and the massive recruitment drive back in India — the numerical strength of the Indian army increased fourfold from 1914 to 1918 — surprise even Indians today. For instance, a key figure in Britain’s recruitment efforts in India was Mohandas Gandhi, later the greatest anti-colonial strategist of the 20th century. In his youth, Gandhi, who had studied law in England and then supported the British in the Boer War in South Africa, was very much a loyal subject of the British Empire. By 1918, despite his already considered views on nonviolence, Gandhi was led by his assessment of the Great War to argue that the British were fighting for a just cause and further that recruitment in the war efforts would improve India’s own martial capabilities, long hobbled by the Raj.

The scholar Aravind Ganachari quotes a letter to Gandhi in December 1917 from E.L.L. Hammond, the chief recruiting officer in the backward Indian province of Bihar. This reveals much about economic incentives held out to poor Indian peasants to induce them to fight in a distant location for a king they had never seen and a cause about which they had no clue. “We give an advance of Rs30 (Dh1.83). The men get Rs15 per month while in India and Rs20 in overseas. Rs3 capitation fee for each man brought in,” Hammond writes to Gandhi. “Cannot you in course of your tour point out the great economic opportunity now offered? If one man from a household goes, he can remit Rs8 per month to his family and still have Rs100 or 200 according to the duration of the war as undisbursed pay to start him in life on his return.”

Of course, there was to be no return to a life of greater economic security for many. About 75,000 Indians lost their lives in the First World War; they are memorialised today at the India Gate in New Delhi.

One of the effects of the Great War was to break up the grand European empires of the 19th century and bring in a new age of nationalism. These winds of change would soon reach India, allowing for a new self-conception of India — and, eventually, a wider view of the First World War — to come into being.

— Washington Post

Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is based in New Delhi. His novel Arzee the Dwarf is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter at @Hashestweets.