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Honour and Fidelity

Honour and Fidelity: India’s Military Contribution to the Great War, 1914-1918

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Reams of newsprint have been dedicated to chronicling the First World War that raged from 1914-18. The Great War that is mostly remembered as being responsible for altering the course of modern history completed a centenary in 2014 and events commemorating the landmark were held all across the globe. Interestingly, very few are aware of the fact that 1.38 million soldiers were sent from India to participate in various theatres of the war. Captain Amarinder Singh, an active Member of Parliament and a former military officer of the 2nd Battalion of the Sikh Regiment that was one of the Regiments sent from India to fight in the First World War, realized that the stories of these unsung Indian soldiers needed to be chronicled and brought forth for all to read and savour. And thus was born the idea of writing this book, ‘Honour and Fidelity: India’s Military Contribution to the Great War’, which draws information from archives, regimental histories and other sources and narrates the important story of the tremendous contribution of the Indian warriors to the victory of the Allied Forces comprised of Britain, France, other European powers, Russia, the United States, Canada.
Commencing with a deblockedion of the army’s mobilisation for the War, the author goes on to describe how India raised 1,440,037 volunteers and deployed seven Expeditionary Forces to various war theatres. So, the War was declared on 5 August, mobilization in India was ordered on the 8th and the first of the hundreds of Indian troops departed from Karachi and Bombay on the 24th and landed at Marseilles on 26 September. In fact, the Indians were the first troops to reach France two months after the deployment of the British Expeditionary Forces, who were completely exhausted after enduring the ravages of warfare for two months and the Indian soldiers were able to offer much respite to these weary warriors. The Indian Corps in France, at the first and second battles of Ypres, Festubert and at Neuve Chapelle fought non-stop for over a year. The larger Indian commitment was to the Middle East, the Suez, Mesopotamia (present day Iraq), and Palestine wherein 588,717 men fought for the duration of the war and of these, 93,000 were either killed or wounded.
Noteworthy is the fact that Indian soldiers were ill-equipped and not adequately kitted to fight a war in Europe and hence, appropriate weapons and equipment had to be issued to the forces going to fight alongside the British Army so that arms and ammunition were standardised. The dire situation can be gauged from this excerpt carried in Captain Amarinder Singh’s book, from the Indian Corps Commander General James Willcocks’ book entitled ‘With the Indians in France’, where he writes: Two divisions sailed from Karachi and Bombay, but their equipment had to be completed at Marseilles and Orleans, and actually in the battle area itself, whilst the artillery was only made up by denuding other divisions of their guns. The rifles were of a pattern which did not suit the latest class of ammunition with which the army at home was supplied, and both rifles and ammunition had actually to be handed into store at Marseilles and fresh arms issued…Even the machine guns, which in some cases were much worn, had to be refitted with new tripods at Orleans. Further, there were no howitzers, no mechanical transport, a scant supply of medical equipment and signaling apparatus…”
Amarinder Singh further adds to this dire situation by saying, “Perhaps the worst of deficiencies was warm clothing. Indian soldiers had arrived in France in the autumn of 1914 in summer kit – khaki drill uniforms – and most remained wearing this uniform till 1915, going through possibly the worst winter of the decade without warm clothing. In a few cases, sentries on duty at night were found to have frozen to death where they stood…In addition, the bedding issued was one blanket per man. Jerseys and warm socks were perhaps never thought of, as they are nowhere on record as having been issued. As an officer, a quarter master of an Indian battalion, recorded: ‘…it was not uncommon to see troops wrapped in whatever they could lay their hands on, pieces of coloured cloth, curtains and even table cloths to ward off the biting cold’. Trench foot and frost bite were common.”
However, the fact remains that the Indian soldier stood his ground in the freezing cold and fought valiantly during the winter of 1914-18, and that these two divisions served in France the entire duration of the war is testimony to the Indian soldiers’ dedication to duty. The Indian units fought bravely, but suffered grievously. The two Indian divisions that fought in France for under a year comprised nearly 24,000 men. In the same year, these divisions received around 30,000 replacements from India. In other words, they suffered casualty rates of well over 100 per cent.
Inspiring individual accounts of the daredevilry of Indian soldiers offer a very real account of the actual incidents at war, such as that of Risaldar Badlu Singh in Jordan who dashed to recapture a hill without any regard for danger, thereby saving the squadron from heavy casualties but succumbing to his own injuries on the very top of that hill and winning a Victoria Cross for his valour. Or the story of VC Lance Naik Lala of the 37th Dogras as part of the 35th Brigade in Baghdad, Mesopotamia, who dragged the wounded Captain Nicholson along with six men to safety and then went out again to bring his adjutant Lt Lintop, who was lying seriously wounded in the field.
The author also offers much insight into the other important theatres of war where the Indian soldiers were sent to fight such as those of East Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Palestine and Syria, as well as Gallipoli. By the end of 1914, seven Expeditionary Forces had been sent from India to various war zones. 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 and one Imperial Service Cavalry brigade was sent to Egypt, along with expeditions to Mesopotamia and Aden…As the War progressed and commitments grew, more and more men, animals and stores were sent to India. Up to November 1918, 1,302,394 personnel, 172,815 animals (including horses, ponies and mules, camels, bullocks and dairy cattle) and 369.1 million tonnes of stores and supplies had been dispatched from Indian ports to various destinations.
Undoubtedly, Honour and Fidelity: India’s Military Contribution to the Great War, 1914-1918 is an important book for every student, researcher, scholar or anyone who wants to discover hitherto less talked about facts about the Indian contribution the First World War. The mostly unsung heroes certainly deserve to be remembered and honoured even if it is after a century since their significant contribution and the author has in the right spirit stated that ‘whether it was the damp, flat fields of Flanders or the burning sands of Mesopotamia, the rocky, cold and windy hills of Gallipoli or the unhealthy uplands and stifling jungles of East Africa, Indian soldiers – Sikhs, Gurkhas, Baluchis, Punjabis, Pathans, Rajputs, Jats, Dogras, Marathas, Kumaonis, Garwalis and Madrasis - left indelible imprints of their heroism, winning world-wide acclaim.’ And for the first time, Indian soldiers won the Victoria Cross for which they had become eligible in 1911. All in all, India sent 1,338,620 men to the Great War and its direct monetary contribution has been officially estimated to be some £146.256 million.

Author: Amarinder Singh