Millions of colonial subjects fought alongside their ‘masters’ in World War I. Long ignored by both coloniser and colonised, are these forgotten soldiers now getting their due, asks Vedica Kant
At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month last year, the world marked the centenary of the armistice signed between the Allied powers and Germany. The armistice brought to an end the hostilities on the Great War’s Western Front, and essentially marked the end of the violence that had begun with a gunshot in Sarajevo in June, 1914, and slowly embroiled most of the globe over the ensuing four years.
When the war broke out, Britain and France had imperial presences that spanned the globe. Nearly four million non-white non-Europeans fought for these empires, including in Europe itself. India sent seven expeditionary forces overseas. Nearly 1.5 million Indians from undivided India took part in the war effort as combatants and non-combatants. They served in infantry, artillery and cavalry units, as doctors, sappers, miners, signallers, drivers, labourers, cooks and veterinarians. Never before had such numbers of Indians crossed the kala pani en masse.
And what a range of places they found themselves in—the Western Front (where Indians served in the battles of Ypres, Festubert, Neuve Chapelle and Loos); Mesopotamia (the Indian Army’s main theatre of battle where more than half a million served); Palestine (participating in one of the largest cavalry campaigns on record at the time); and even East Africa.
This bizarre cosmopolitanism of the First World War battlefield and its repercussions on the imperial project and the personal lives of the colonised subjects, is one of the most important details of the war, and one that has required slow excavation. As the British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga has noted, “Indians, North Africans, French West Africans on parade was one of the great stories of the war that journalists couldn’t get enough of, because it was romantic and exotic. Then that stops almost immediately when the great guns fall silent. Decade by decade, the war becomes monochrome while the bones are still leached in the jungles.”
The armistice commemorations in November 2018 were marked by nearly seventy world leaders who had gathered in Paris to attend a sombre and rain-soaked ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Images from news coverage of the event mostly showed politicians we are used to seeing photographed together at the high table of international politics—Emmanuel Macron, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau and Vladimir Putin. Such an overwhelmingly Western (and white) representation of those most impacted by the war is in keeping with the notion of it as a largely European concern.
A wider panorama of images from the event, though, showed a more diverse group of dignitaries—Indian vice president Venkaiah Naidu could be spotted in the background behind Macron; King Mohammed VI of Morocco had a prime spot at the side of Melania Trump—which was a closer reflection of the fact that this really was the first truly global war. Naidu’s low-key presence at a ceremony so rich in symbolism and meaning spoke volumes about India’s continuing unease about how to create a narrative that explains her participation in the war.
There are specific reasons why these pages of history were neglected. Most simply, in a postcolonial milieu the remembrance of colonial involvement in an imperial war effort was uncomfortable both for the coloniser and the colonised, precisely because it required an acknowledgement of the complex ways in which the enterprise of European colonialism functioned. It was easier for Europe to focus on remembering its own dead, and use nationalist narratives to replace imperial ones wholesale.
Santanu Das, Professor of English Literature at King’s College London, has pointed to the need to de-Eurocentricise the tools and sources of history writing if we are to get to any sort of meaningful cultural history of the war. As Das puts it, most of the participants were non-literate, the postcolonial states ambivalent about their war participation, and both official and national memory woefully inadequate, it is hardly a surprise that these histories of the war have been ignored.
Still, while it is on many levels shocking that it has taken a century for the involvement of colonial troops in the war to get even the modicum of attention that it does today, a broadening of the war narrative has been one of the key accomplishments of the four years of centenary commemorations that began in 2014. In no small part this has been enabled by the pioneering work of scholars who have attempted to broaden the archive to include letters, diaries, notebooks, photographs, and oral histories. Two new books, Das’s magnificent India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs, which brings together nearly a decade of pioneering research on the Indian involvement in the war, and George Morton-Jack’s The Indian Empire at War: From Jihad to Victory, the Untold Story of the Indian Army in the First World War are only the most recent in a small series of works, including my own, that have attempted to bring attention to the subject.
Quite often narratives about historical events are shaped by coaxing private memories into the public domain through an act of what the historians Jay Winter and Emmanuel Sivan call ‘remembrance’. By gathering these bits and pieces of the individual past and joining them in public, a collective memory is created.
In many ways, the impetus of remembering and commemorating the Indian contribution to the war has come from Britain. According to a study conducted by the think tank British Future, mainstream awareness of the contribution of Indian soldiers has increased from roughly 40 to 70 per cent since the centenary commemorations began in 2014. This extension of personal, hidden histories into the public domain has happened thanks to the support of public institutions like the BBC and the Heritage Lottery Fund as well as community projects, exhibitions, plays and other creative productions engaging with the specific subject of colonial involvement in the war.
This year the Royal British Legion, which supports British Army veterans and their families, created a special ‘khadi poppy’ to remember Indian soldiers who fought in the First World War. The poppy was worn by captains Virat Kohli and Joe Root on the first day of the fifth Test match of the Indian cricket team’s recent tour of England. During the lunch break, a cricket match between the Royal Manchester Regiment and the Sikh Regiment of the Indian Army was re-enacted.
Unsurprisingly, many early immigrants to the UK had deep ties to the Indian Army or came from areas of India that were traditional recruiting grounds for the army (Punjab, in particular). For many British-Asians their family histories are often a way to highlight their contribution to one of the most important episodes in recent British history. This is also entirely in keeping with the fact that family and personal histories are the primary lens through which the war is publicly viewed in Britain. So, public memory now includes war memories of not just the Tommies, but (in the words of Baroness Sayeeda Warsi) the Tajinders and Tariqs as well. As Das notes, colonial war memory has become “a stage on which to play the anthem of multiculturalism”.
If multiculturalism is one idea that is advanced through such public remembrance, the other is that of the Commonwealth. This grouping of (mostly) former colonies of the British Empire has gained new-found importance in light of Britain’s Brexit vote. The Tory MP, and Chairman of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, who was in India for the Armistice centenary commemoration, has quite openly stated that he views remembrance of the contribution of Indian troops in the war as one way to build links with South Asia in a post-Brexit world and further enhance integration in Britain itself.
Such narratives have increased awareness of Indian involvement in the war, but they come hand in hand with a sanitisation of colonial history and the complexities of motivations, experiences and emotions that serving in a colonial army no doubt entailed for the Indian participants of the war.
In India, too, the last four years of commemoration have resulted in an increased acknowledgement of Indian troops’ role in the war. During the centenary commemorations, prime minister Narendra Modi visited sites of commemoration specifically associated with India’s role in the war—at the Neuve Chappelle Memorial in France and Haifa in Israel. He also accompanied his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu to pay tribute at the Teen Murti Chowk, which memorialises the Hyderabad, Jodhpur and Mysore Lancers who played a crucial role in the victory at the Battle of Haifa. Whenever such remembrance has occurred, it has often been because it ties in with India’s diplomatic efforts. More broadly though, it would be fair to characterise India’s engagement with the subject as tepid.
It is interesting that for a government that has challenged—for right and wrong—conventional nationalist historiographies, there has been no interest in claiming or creating any national narrative when acknowledging the role of Indians in the war. The prime minister’s tweet on Armistice Day, “India remembers our brave soldiers who fought in WW-1. This was a war in which India was not directly involved yet our soldiers fought world over, just for the cause of peace”, was notable in being a small, if anodyne, act of remembrance. The tone of remembrance has been sanitised here too. It is a generic ode to bravery and world peace. There is little acknowledgement of the lived reality of the Indian troops or the fact that the war might have provided them with experiences that made them question the underpinnings of colonial power.
In postcolonial Indian history the Indian sepoy has proved too controversial a protagonist to champion. For many, these men, written off as mercenary, carried out the dirty work of an oppressive regime. That is, perhaps, an over-simplification of more complex narrative. Indian soldiers, like soldiers everywhere, had multiple, often overlapping motivations to join the army. Money was, of course, a major incentive, but more abstract notions of family and martial traditions, aspiration, masculinity, a sense of adventure and even honour (‘izzat’, in all its ambiguity, is mentioned repeatedly as a motivator by Indians during the war) all played a part. Amitav Ghosh has argued that over centuries of service one of the things that remained constant was the sepoy’s ambivalent relationship with his job. Yet, as the historian David Omissi has noted, even among scholars who champion the telling of subaltern histories these tensions have rarely merited deeper engagement.
Through the lens of history, we can see quite clearly that the war changed politics both internationally and in India. It is important to remember that the freedom movement did not arrive in India fully formed. Nationalist leaders like Tilak and Gandhi beat the drum for military recruitment once war broke out. India’s contribution to the war effort was important because it would make her demands for self-rule more legitimate. The British need for men on the Western Front also meant that traditional rules of imperialism, where brown men could not fight white men (as was the case in the Boer War), were suspended. There was an underlying need to prove Indian martiality amongst many nationalists, thinking no doubt of the boost the colonised national psyche would get if the brown man could fight as well as the white.
The men who had to take on this burden of representing India were changed by the four years of war, as were their families and communities. There was no homogenous Indian war experience, but that is not to say, as Das argues, that their involvement in the war did not lead to the production of a distinct and recognisable culture, even though fragments of this culture have had to be excavated. For many on the front, the war defied logic and description and yet necessitated, even demanded, engagement. Comparisons were drawn to religious battle scenes from the Mahabharata and Karbala. Literary forms—fasanas, stories, poems, songs, qissas, laments, reportage—and imagery and metaphors tied to the agrarian lands that most of the men hailed from were all used to describe and bring to life what the men were seeing. It wasn’t just the madness of the war that these men had to grapple with; there was the mundane and profane too. In his book, Das highlights a notepad belonging to the deserter Jemadar Mir Mast (whose brother Mir Dast was a Victoria Cross winner, pointing to some of the ambivalences of the sepoys). It contains a list of Urdu words and their English translations that starts with ‘brain’, ‘turnip’, ‘carrots’ and continues to ‘penus’, ‘brests’, ‘harshole’, ‘cunt’, ‘fuck’.
In his classic book, The Great War and Modern Memory, the cultural and literary historian Paul Fussell argued that irony was one of the war’s bequests to the modern world. “Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected. Every war constitutes an irony of situation because its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its presumed ends… But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing Meliorist myth which had dominated the public consciousness for a century. It reversed the Idea of Progress.” Fussell did not have colonial troops on his mind when he wrote this, but one can extend the irony of the war to them. Not only had they been dragged into an imperial conflict, they had witnessed the fragility, weakness, indeed the very ordinariness of those who ruled you and were by all accounts supposed to be superior. As Maya Jaggi has noted, “The war demystified the coloniser; the veil fell.” Joel Waiz Lall, a teacher at a Christian boarding school, asked in Haqiqat-i-Jung (The Truth of War), published in 1915, “Who would have thought that such a cry will be raised from the same Europe which was a guide to other nations?”
The individual trajectories of the Indian troops once they returned to India were probably just as diverse as their war experiences. We know there was a range of responses—some stayed loyal to the British, some questioned the government and engaged in nationalist politics and resistance movements, and some focused on their communities, building schools, for example. Still, it is hard not to argue that their experiences did change India, even if it is hard to pin down how exactly.
What did change for sure was politics. When the war ended, the British not only began stalling on the promise of the Montague Declaration of 1917, which stated British rule in India would move towards gradual realisation of self-government, but also began heavily repressing any dissent (the Rowlatt Acts were passed in 1919). The mood in India had shifted from support to bitterness. It is easy to imagine the levels of disbelief as the British tried to reimpose the colonial rules that had been suspended during the war. Anti-Western ideas of pan-Asianism and pan-Islamism gained mileage. And it was in the shadow of post-war British repression and pan-Islamist zeal that Gandhi launched his first national satyagraha. Iqbal’s poem ‘Khizr-e-Rah’ captures the mood: The monster of despotism is dressed up in democracy’s robes /And you consider it to be the blue-mantled fairy?
In pre-independence India, many no longer had any time for the charade.
This essay was published in the Jan-Mar 2019 issue.