When Jemadar Abdul Rahim Khan wrote a letter to his father back in Hyderabad about how the war was going, it was clear the rifleman thought he was in hell. “We are like goats tied to a butcher’s stake,” wrote the young soldier in 1917. “If I were to tell you all we have to face it would make a book; but there is no road of escape for this helpless one.”
Khan was one of the thousands of Indian soldiers who had been sent to the killing fields of Flanders as part of the larger British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in an attempt to halt the Germans’ move to attack France via Belgium during World War I.
With Christopher Nolan’s latest film Dunkirk, raising eyebrows over its portrayal of the evacuation, and resulting in a plethora of articles arguing about 'white-washing' coloured soldiers out of the narratives surrounding World War II, this seems appropriate to remember the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers during the WWI, especially given the recent centenary of the battle of Passchendaele.
Unsurprisingly, the role that the British Indian army played in the Belgium theatre of war during the Great War has been ignored and diminished by both the British and Indian governments — for reasons we’ll come to later.
First, it’s important to begin with why Khan and his compatriots were in Flanders.
“Long live the Indians!”
When Britain first decided to deploy Indian troops into Belgium, there was a lot of scepticism about how effective they would be.
Deploying Indian sipahis (soldiers) into Belgium would necessitate training more of them to act as commissioned officers, something which the British were loath to do for two reasons. The first was the widely prevalent racist view that Indians were unfit to lead unlike the white man — “the Indian has not the instincts which make leaders in modern war,” as General James Wilcocks, the commander of the Indian corps in France, wrote in a memo to the War office.
But the more pressing concern was that training Indian officers would imperil the stability of the Empire. Imperial projects, after all, are sustained by controlling the means of violence.
Lord Kitchener, secretary of state for war, clearly thought so. “Sooner or later the preponderating influence in the Army would be Indian instead of British,” he wrote in a memo to Parliament a year before the start of WWI. “When that point was reached, our position in India would be one of sufferance, terminable at any moment when the people so desired it.”
At the start of the war, the total Indian army numbered 1,90,140 combatants, commanded by a corps comprising 2,600 British officers. Of that, 85,000 troops along with 1,500 officers would form the expeditionary Indian corps that was summoned to assist in the British war effort in France.
When the 129th Baluchis, the first Indian regiment to arrive in France, disembarked in Marseille on 30 September 1914, they were meet with raucous cheers from the French. “It was a delirious scene,” wrote Massia Bibikoff, a Russian artist who witnessed the Indian regiments march through the streets of the French port. “People who were drinking in the cafes of the Canebiere, men, women, officers, stood up on their chairs and shouted ‘Vive Angleterre! Vivent les Hindous! Vivent les Allies!” (Long live England! Long live the Hindus! Long live the Allies!)
Given the lack of training, proper equipment, and non-Indian officers, the conduct of the Indian Army corps in Belgium was nothing short of miraculous. In October, they managed to recapture the town of Neuve Chapelle after the British had lost it, before losing it and subsequently recapturing it from the Germans the next year, becoming the first troops of the BEF to break through the German defense.
It’s hard to emphasise just how important, and surprising, the corps’ victories were. Poorly-equipped (none had winter gear in the first year of combat), in an unfamiliar land far from home, facing a superior military force and enduring new horrors, like chemical warfare, the Indian troops still managed to hold the line. There were a few desertions here and there due to low morale in 1915, but those who fled later regrouped and rejoined the war effort under new battalions.
During the entire duration of World War I, the Indian army fighting in the trenches suffered 34,252 total casualties. This was similar to the other units that made up the BEF, but what was markedly different was that many of the Indian forces’ casualties were officers, severely hampering their chain of command.
Huddled in muddy low-lying trenches, suffering frost-bite, and being bombarded by German artillery for days on end before having to madly dash across a No Man’s Land pockmarked with rows of barbed wire, groups such as the Lahore Division and the Sirhind Brigade played instrumental roles in regaining the strategically important town of Ypres from the Germans twice, despite immense casualties across the entire corps.
Their valour did not go unnoticed. Usman Khan of the 57th Rifles became the first Indian to win a decoration during the BEF’s first battle in the Western Front. And Khudadad Khan received the Victoria Cross in 1914 after surviving a German offensive that wiped out the rest of his battalion and continuing to fight despite being badly wounded.
Even Wilcocks had changed his mind about his troops. “The Indian soldiers are due a great debt of gratitude,” he wrote to readers of Blackwood’s Magazine in 1917. “They...were able to step in and fill a gap.”
A forgotten history
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the role played by the Indian soldiers in both World Wars was either downplayed, or completely ignored by the British in the decades after them.
British historiography, both official and popular, held right up until the 1960s that the Indian sipahis conducted themselves poorly, essentially regurgitating the racist ideology that underpinned the Empire which saw the colonised as being completely inferior to the white man.
Underplaying the part played by colonial and coloured troops is not just unique to Britain, of course; all the Allies did in in order in order to diminish what the anthropologist Ann Laura Stoler has termed “metissage” — “the threat to white prestige.”
It’s only relatively recently that there has been a greater interest in the Indian Army, with calls for their role to be respected among the British public.
As for India, the sipahis sit uncomfortably with the ideology of the Nationalist movement. Fighting as part of a colonial force under the command of the same occupiers that the Independence movement was attempting to eject from India has meant that their actions have either been ignored, or seen as bordering on the treacherous.
That certainly wasn’t the case during World War I, however. Rabindranath Tagore wrote a poem in honour of those who died in Flanders called The Oarsman. And Sarojini Naidu, in her 1915 poem The Gift of India, described the fallen as “sons of my stricken womb…” who “are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance/ On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France.”
In contemporary India there has been an increasing interest in publicly commemorating the role that Indians played in both World Wars. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor has repeatedly called for the sipahis to be honoured, while the success of recent books on the subject, such as Farthest Field by Raghu Karnad hints that popular fiction might be able to do what Indian historiography has not in salvaging the reputation of the sipahis.
Ultimately, history is a constant process of reinterpreting and understanding the past.
If you visit the small Belgian town of Neuve Chappelle, you can find one of the few monuments dedicated to the Indian soldiers who fought and died in WWI. In the visitor’s book lies an anonymous entry: “One dead for every kilometre held.”
Until India decides otherwise, perhaps this will remain the most poignant tribute to the fallen.
Aditya Iyer is an independent journalist based in London.
Updated Date: Aug 12, 2017 13:21 PM