This year India marks 67 years of independence from British colonial rule. Independence Day serves as a timely reminder for the inestimable sacrifices of our noble freedom fighters. But delving deeper into history reveals that over a million Indian soldiers set out overseas, 100 years ago, to defend the British Empire. They were hopeful that after the war concluded, India would obtain self-rule under Dominion status. But despite the death of thousands of Indian soldiers and many being injured in the war, the British failed to live up to their assurances.
The denial of self-rule under Dominion status led to the call for complete independence from British colonial rule. The Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms of 1919 disappointed the Indian people who longed for greater constitutional changes in the direction of self-rule. Repressive laws such as the Rowlatt Act added insult to injury. Worst than non-fulfilment of the demand for self-rule, was the situation of de-mobilisation following 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 August 4 ,1914, and continued till the war finally concluded on November 11, 1918. Britain’s former dominions which joined the war, such as Australia, Canada, Newfoundland (merged with Canada in 1949), New Zealand and South Africa – did possess 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 the 1931 Statute of Westminster which recast the British Empire as a Commonwealth of Nations. But India remained a British colony till August 15, 1947.
The weakening of the Ottoman Empire led to the fractured rise of nation-states in Europe, which resulted in the Balkan Wars. It is said that World War I began as the Third Balkan War which transformed itself into a European War on July 28, 1914. It was called the ‘Great War for Civilisation’ and only much later would it come to be known as World War-I. The war began between two opposing alliances – Britain, France and the Russian empire on one side and the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the other. Later Italy, Japan and the United States joined the alliance of Britain, France and Russia while the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria joined the Central Powers of Germany and the 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 the Central Powers. The map of Europe was redrawn with several nations regaining their independence, and new states were created with arbitrarily fixed boundaries fixed to serve the interests of the victors. In Asia and Africa, new states were carved out of the former territories of defeated imperial powers. Colonies exchanged hands and areas of influence were distributed amongst the victors. It led to the gradual rise of United States as a world power. The League of Nations, formed to prevent future conflicts such as the World War I, died a natural death since it could not prevent World War II – which erupted due to heightened European nationalism and the German feeling of humiliation after their defeat in World War I.
When Britain joined the World War I in 1914, its colonies also joined the war. The overwhelming majority of mainstream political opinion in India was that if Indians shared 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 is our duty to win their help by standing by them in their hour of need.”
No detailed account is available as yet on Indian participation in World War I. Estimates of Indian participation are varying. India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the United Services Institution of India have jointly launched a project to gather details, pertaining to the issue, from various sources.
According to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, about 1.1 million Indians participated in World War in France and Flanders (Belgium), Mesopotamia (Iraq), Egypt, Persia (Iran) and Palestine (as well as 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 transported troops and other war supplies 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 230,000 Indian ranks, both combatants and non-combatants, during the outbreak of the war in 1914. In the war period, British India recruited 800,000 combatants and more than 400,000 non-combatants, raising the total number of Indians in the British army to 1.3 million. Out of 1.3 million, over 700,000 Indians were deployed in Mesopotamia, over 150,000 in France (including Flanders) and Egypt each, about 100,000 in Gallipoli, Salonika, Aden and the Persian Gulf and more than 50,000 in East Africa and the rest in other places, including India.
Ashok Nath of the University of Stockholm says that in August 1914, the Indian Army mustered a strength of 155,423 regular soldiers and, by the end of the war, the number swelled by 1,440,337. Santanu Das of Kings College, London estimates the total number of Indian soldiers at 1.5 million, including 900,000 combatants and 600,000 non-combatants, who served overseas during the war
According to available records 60,000 Indian soldiers died in the war. The first Indian to die was Naik Laturia – his death was due to poison gas from the Germans. He is commemorated at the Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres in Belgium. As per Montagu, 101,439 Indians sustained casualties. Indian soldiers earned over 9,200 decorations for gallantry including 11 Victoria Crosses.
Besides, India contributed Rs 4,575,000,000 to the war fund, and also contributed material such as foodgrains, oil, jute, cloth, blankets, iron, steel, timber, railway tracts, bridge materials, engines, vehicles, telegraphic and telephonic equipment, etc.
It is high time that the deeds of these brave soldiers be honoured, especially at a time when the government has decided to erect a War Memorial.
(Ashok B. Sharma is a Delhi-based journalist. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author)
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