'If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me?' India and the First World War
Review By :- Monica Arora
Date :- -------
Publisher :- Roli Books
Price :- -------
Pages :- -------
As events are being held worldwide to mark the centenary of the First World War, a lesser known fact of Indian participation in the war is coming to the fore. Ironical as it may sound but despite having sent some 74,000 soldiers to participate in different theatres of war at different locations scattered far and wide, such as France and Flanders, Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt, Africa and so on, very little information of the war actually exists be it in the forms of letters, chronicles, historical documents, official papers and likewise. Hence, it was pertinent that some time and effort was spent to study, research, record and publish these neglected accounts of the lives and hardships faced by the Indian soldiers during the war whilst grappling with unfamiliar terrain, aggressive weather conditions, hostile enemies, new-fangled methods of warfare with relatively unused weapons, absence of any contact with friends and family and so on.
This makes Vedica Kant’s latest illustrated book on ‘India and the First World War: 'If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me?' all the more important and relevant as it is a significant chronicle of the impact of the war not just on those fighting it but also on the socio-political and economic conditions of India which was under the British Raj. Besides manpower, India had spent at least a 100 million pounds worth of money and resources, (approximately £8 billion in today’s value) along with livestock and animals and stores and supplies to support the war. And despite this mammoth contribution, not may speak about Indian participation of any kind in the Great War.
The most endearing aspect of Vedica’s well-researched and beautifully illustrated book is that it brings forth a humane side of the war, hitherto forgotten. She dwells on how the British were initially reluctant to send Indian soldiers to fight ‘goras’ in Europe but sheer necessity forced them to dispatch additional manpower to complement their troops on the battlefield. Even once the decision of sending Indians was finalized, only the Gurkhas, Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims, and Pathans were deemed ‘martial’ enough to fight Britain’s war.
Obviously, most Indian soldiers sent across the nooks and crannies of the world in places such as the damp outfields of Flanders or the icy-cold, windswept Gallipoli or the shimmering deserts of Mesopotamia or the tropical jungles of East Africa, were clueless about weather conditions, local traditions and culture, languages, food, climate conditions and so on. Forget interactions or communication with other soldiers of nationalities such as Canadian, Algerian, Morroccan, Australian, and many more, they were mostly illiterate and used thumb impressions to mark documents.
Interestingly, despite the ambiguity surrounding the future of the soldiers and the war in general, various sections of society during early 1914 supported the cause for self-vested interests: the nawabs, begums, and other royalty wanted to toe the line of the British officers; political leaders such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak saw it as a golden opportunity for Indian freedom fighters to get trained in latest methods of combat, while even the non-violence supporting Mahatma Gandhi and Indian National Congress pledged their support to the Allies based on the calculation that India’ strong role in the war would eventually lead to political pay-offs.
Through the book, the author also attempts to create humane portraits of chivalry and daredevilry by narrating anecdotes of the decorated soldiers such as Mir Dast as well as clandestine encounters of the romantic kind such as Mahomed Khan’s love affair and subsequent marriage to a French woman despite hostile reactions from his family back in India. Besides, references to religious iconography that inspired the soldiers despite the odds of the situation at war as well as the joys of visiting and exploring unseen foreign lands also find mention in this book with little accounts in the form of some odd letter or an article published in a journal.
However, as was bound to happen, the experiences of war firsthand at the frontlines and in the trenches changed the basic mental makeup of these soldiers, who started looking at colonialism and the resistance to it through a war for freedom. Poor living conditions, lack of warm clothing and other essentials, shoddy treatment at the hands of the European seniors led to a low morale and an ascension in instances of dissent and dissertation. As Vedica Kant describes, “ the war made its Indian participants reflect on a diverse range of topics such as customs, manners, sensibilities, culture, education, hierarchy, the status of women, marriage, as well as the economic and physical environments that they became exposed to. These experiences, which no doubt had a lasting impact on the lives of those who lived through them and indeed impacted Indian politics in the immediate aftermath of the war, have failed to acquire any wider social recognition in India’s historical consciousness.’
Working with colonial and imperial archives and personal collections such as photographs, objects such as letters and worn garments and other memorabilia and others, Vedica Kant has recreated an account which is humorous, informative, yet poignant at the same time as is evident from the sub-heading of the book, “'If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me?”, which was a rhetorical question posed by a wounded Sikh soldier in a letter to his father. Indeed, many few cared to remember those martyrs who died in foreign lands and it has taken us a good hundred years to acknowledge their contribution in the history of the First World War.