The Telegraph
| Sunday, July 27, 2014 |


'We fought true'

World War I broke out on July 28, 1914. Thousands of Indians died in the conflict. Shrabani Basu chronicles their contributions to the Great War

Lance Naik Lala of the 41st Dogras was in the thick of the action during the First Battle of Hanna in Mesopotamia on January 21, 1916. Indian troops had been in action in World War I thousands of miles from their homes for nearly two years. It was going to be a long day for the 40-year-old Indian soldier from Himachal Pradesh and one that was going to bring him honour.

As the relentless shelling carried on, Lala saw a British officer of another regiment lying close to the enemy. Without a thought of danger, he dragged the officer into a temporary shelter, which he had made himself, and in which he had already bandaged four wounded men. He'd just done that for the injured officer when he heard calls for help from the adjutant of his own regiment. He was lying in the open, severely wounded.

The enemy was less than a hundred yards away, but Lala rushed to the adjutant, hoping to crawl back with him on his back. But the enemy was close, and he couldn't do so. So he stripped off his own clothing to keep the wounded officer warm, and stayed with him till just before dark, when he returned to the shelter and then, with the help of a stretcher, carried him back.

For his outstanding bravery Lala was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military honour from Britain. His citation read: "He set a magnificent example of courage and devotion to his officers."

Lala was one of 11 soldiers from India, Pakistan and Nepal to be awarded the Victoria Cross in WW I. To mark the centenary of the war the British government has issued commemorative brass plaques to honour the Victoria Cross awardees from the former colonies and dominions. The plaques are being presented to the countries to keep in a prominent place, so the soldiers may be remembered.

"I am determined that we ensure that people of all backgrounds, and of all generations, learn about the courage and heroism of their forefathers a hundred years ago," said British foreign office minister Baroness Warsi, who led the campaign to honour the Victoria Cross awardees from overseas.

Inscribed on the India plaque are the words "From the people of the United Kingdom in honour of the men from India who were awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for gallantry, during the First World War." Carved on the plaque are the names of Risaldar Badlu Singh, Sepoy Chatta Singh, Naik Darwan Singh Negi, Rifleman Gabar Singh Negi, Lance Daffadar Gobind Singh and Lance Naik Lala. The Pakistan plaque carries the names of Sepoy Khudadad Khan, Jemadar Mir Dast and Naik Shahmad Khan, while the Nepal plaque has the names of Rifleman Karnabahadur Rana and Lance Naik Kulbir Thapa.

It was the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, that started a chain of events in Europe leading to the journey of the Indian soldiers to the battlefront. Within a month three emperors were at war; Germany was close to Austria while the Russians were seen as supporting the Serbs. Despite last-minute diplomatic efforts, tension mounted as France, Germany, Russia and Austria began mobilising their armies.

On July 28, 1914, exactly a month after the assassination, Austria declared war against Serbia leading to a domino effect. By August 1, Germany was at war with Russia. Britain was in a dilemma. It issued a warning to Germany to protect the neutrality of Belgium under the terms of the Treaty of London. Germany ignored the ultimatum. On August 4, German troops entered Belgium. By midnight Britain declared war on Germany. The face of Europe would be changed forever.

Britain needed troops, and it looked to its colonies for support. The armies of Australia, Canada and New Zealand were not yet ready. Only India had a standing army, which had fought in campaigns in Afghanistan and the North West Frontier. By August 8, the Viceroy of India, Lord Hardinge, was given orders to mobilise two divisions to send to Europe.

It was the first time Indian soldiers would cross the proverbial "kala pani" and take part in a Western war. They were sent to all the theatres of war: from France and Belgium on the Western Front to North Africa, Turkey, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Salonika and Gallipoli on the Eastern Front.

  • Home-bred heroes: Wounded Indian soldiers on the grounds of Brighton Pavilion; (top) Indian troops in France during the Battle of the Somme in 1916

There was no time to prepare. Within weeks they were sailing to Marseille, still dressed in their cotton khaki drills and hopelessly low on ammunition. They would enter the freezing muddy trenches in Flanders and France, facing one of the most powerful armies in the world.

They did not understand the language, could barely tell the difference between the French and the Germans and had never seen artillery warfare and aerial combat in their lives. They watched in horror as their comrades were blown to pieces and suffered frost-bite, trench foot (from standing in trenches) and trench back (when trenches collapsed on them). They faced the German gas attack covering their faces with their turbans, the ends dipped in chloride of lime. Yet they fought bravely, winning many gallantry awards and helping the British to hold the line in France and Belgium and preventing Germany from accessing the ports.

In desperate letters home from the trenches and hospitals they described the war as a "Mahabharat". Over 8,000 men died on the Western Front — and 5,000 bodies were never found. Their names are carved on the memorial at Neuve Chapelle in France and on the Menin Gate in Ypres in Belgium.

The condition was worse on the Eastern Front. By 1916 the skeleton of the Indian infantry was transferred from the freezing trenches of the West to the deserts of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Over 20,000 lost their lives in the siege of Kut alone.

Photographs of emaciated prisoners of war in Turkey tell the grim story. Many died of fever and starvation. Others were forced to eat their own mules in desperation. One and a half million Indian soldiers went to the front in the course of the war between 1914 and 1918. Over 72,000 would die in the field; many others would return disabled, and suffering from shell shock and depression.

However, there were some happy stories: those lucky enough to survive the trenches with relatively minor injuries were taken to England to recover and recuperate. Injured soldiers lay beneath the ornate chandeliers in the former Royal Palace of Brighton Pavilion which was converted into a hospital for Indian soldiers, remarking that they were in paradise.

They were visited by the King and Queen and taken to London for sight-seeing, leading a soldier to say that the King looked after them like his own children. "Sahib is our mai-baap," a soldier called out to Queen Alexandra when she visited the hospital. But most of the soldiers urged their officers and the King not to make them return to the trenches when they had recovered.

Their pleas were not heard. Many Indian soldiers stayed in Europe for the whole duration of the war, without getting any leave. The sappers and miners stayed on till 1919 clearing the bomb sites. The anniversary may be a chance to remember the forgotten Indian soldiers who fought and died in their first Western war. Their contribution will be remembered in a special exhibition in Brighton over the summer and at the new WWI gallery of the Imperial War Museum in London.

As Lance Naik Lala said when he died of polio in 1927: "We fought true." It is time to rescue the soldiers from being a mere footnote in history.

(Shrabani Basu's book on Indian soldiers in WWI is to be published in 2015)

Profiles in courage

Calcutta-born Indra Lal Roy was the first Indian flying ace and was only 19 when he posthumously received the Distinguished Flying Cross. Five Indian pilots joined the Royal Flying Corps.

Sepoy Khudadad Khan was the first Asian to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

Many Indian maharajas went to the frontline including the maharajas of Bikaner, Patiala, Jodhpur and Cooch Behar.

Gandhi offered to mobilise support for the war effort from Indians living in Britain.

Two Indians attended the Imperial War Cabinet in London: Lord Sinha and the Maharaja of Bikaner.

The Maharaja of Bikaner signed the Treaty of Versailles on behalf of India.