God is One, He is the Victory
Inscribed in English, Arabic, Hindi and Gurmukhi are these words on the column in the foreground of a memorial in the village of Neuve-Chapelle in the Pas de Calais region of France, dedicated to 4700 Indian soldiers who fell fighting in the Western Front during the First World War. Neuve-Chapelle was chosen for the location of the memorial because this was where the Indian field force fought its first major action as a single entity in that war. Indian Soldiers made up half the allied attacking force in the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle that took place from 10 – 13 March 1915 wherein, braving heavy casualties, they captured vital sections of the German line.
Arriving in Marseilles in September 1914 to take the field merely six weeks after the declaration of war, the Indian Army contingent to the Western Front, named Indian Expeditionary Force A, comprising two divisions each of cavalry and infantry, moved to the Ypres Salient and earned laurels for their doggedness in the First Battle of Ypres during October – November that year. Later they went on to form the lead division of the Allied offensive in French Flanders, proving their mettle at the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle. There is no better testimony to a soldier’s worth than what the enemy thinks of him.
Historian Shrabani Basu’s recent book, For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front 1914 – 18, quotes a German soldier commenting on the Sikh troops he had encountered in hand-to-hand combat so, “At first we spoke of them with contempt. Today we look on them in a different light….In no time they were in our trenches and truly these brown enemies are not to be despised. With butt ends, bayonets, swords and daggers we fought each other and we had bitter hard work.”
While the infantry divisions were moved to the Egyptian theatre after a year of fighting in the Flanders Fields, the cavalry divisions fought on there for one more year excelling with their dash and daredevilry in many more battles to come.
Nearly half a dozen Indian Soldiers were honoured by Britain with her highest gallantry award, the Victoria Cross, for exceptional acts of valour at the Western Front. Sepoy Khudadad Khan of The Baluch Regiment (which was later transferred to Pakistan) earned the honour of being the first among them, closely followed by Naik Darwan Singh Negi of the Garwal Rifles. Three more won the honour; Jemadar Mir Dast of the Frontier Force Regiment (which too was later transferred to Pakistan), Rifleman Kulbir Thapa of the Gurkha Rifles and Lance Dafadar Gobind Singh Rathore of the 28th Light Cavalry (present-day Indian 7th Light Cavalry) and later attached to Gardner’s Horse (present-day Indian 2nd Lancers).
During the course of the war, India sent some 140, 000 men drawn from all over the subcontinent to the western front; 90,000 of them combatants and 50,000 non-combatant labourers. Nearly 9000 of them were killed and 50,000 wounded. More than 5000 of the dead have no known graves. While the Neuve-Chapelle Memorial commemorates 4700 of these, another 400 are commemorated at the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing at Ypres, Belgium.
Why and how these brave souls, less remembered back in India, met their ends fighting a war so far from their homes? The answer is complex, because the compulsions were many; varying from finding a means to alleviate the poverty of their families to an urge to see the world and be where the action was. Loyalty to the British Crown couldn’t have been the motivator for these men to fight, as many Britons tended to fantasize. Loyalty, yes, to their comrades, to their regiments and above anything else, their sense of honour – a fierce commitment that they shall not betray the ‘salt’ they have eaten. Those ideals made them a breed of men apart and lofty.
Inadvertently, in their own way, they were opening India to a whole new world of progress and ideas and helping to nurture the nationalist feelings. Many were driven by the conviction that their contribution in the war would see a grateful Britain grant India her independence sooner, a feeling they shared with the country’s nationalist leadership which overtly encouraged army recruitment; alas, only to be betrayed in the end. Post independence historians of India have expediently chosen to erase any impact the country’s armed forces might have had on her gaining freedom to suit the agenda of the political leadership, thereby relegating the memory of our men in arms who fought the two world wars to the status of an embarrassing colonial legacy.
Britain and the West are awakening to the fact that there were turbans aplenty alongside the Tommies’ helmets in the trenches of World War I, and they had a lot to do with which way the war went. And they were not some naïve colonial automatons, but first class fighting men, intelligent and conscientious of their acts, who did their country proud. It’s time that we in India remember them and revere their deeds of valour.