By: Mandeep Bajwa
At the beginning of the First World War, Indian political opinion supported the British. Nationalists like Mahatma Gandhi and Bal Gangadhar Tilak felt that a vigorous contribution to the British effort in the First World War would be duly rewarded with dominion status after the war. India’s contribution was massive. Military and financial help poured in from all over the country. The greatest contribution was in terms of manpower — 1,440,437 soldiers and labourers were recruited, 1,381,050 of them serving overseas in theatres of war as far apart as France, Belgium, Aden, Arabia, East Africa, Gallipoli in Turkey, Egypt, Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq), Palestine, Persia, Salonika, Russia and China. The Indian establishment bore the cost of these troops and gifted 100 million pounds in 1917 towards the war. Nearly four million tonnes of materials and over 1.75 lakh animals were also provided. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission estimates that 1,16,000 Indian soldiers died of all causes; 9,200 decorations for gallantry were awarded to Indian jawans.
The Indian Army sent seven expeditionary forces to serve abroad. The 1,38,000 men of Expeditionary Force A comprising the 3rd (Lahore), 7th (Meerut) and 1st and 2nd Cavalry Divisions were the first to arrive just in time to stabilise the crumbling Allied front in October 1914 at the crucial 1st Battle of Ypres in Belgium. The Indian Corps provided half of the assault force at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March the next year, the Lahore Division being thrown into the counter-attack at the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April. Heavy losses were sustained at Loos in September. Low morale coupled with heavy casualties and underlying political factors saw the withdrawal of the Indian infantry divisions from France in December 1915.
Some 6,75,000 Indian troops fought in the British campaign to safeguard their oilfields in Mesopotamia and Persia. With the exception of aircraft, all supplies for the campaign came from India too. Initial successes were negated by incompetent military leadership. The capitulation of the 6th (Poona) Division at Kut-al-Amara was followed by great suffering for the Indian prisoners of war at the hands of their Turkish captors. Some 4,000 out of 10,000 perished due to starvation, disease and ill-treatment. Eight Indian infantry and cavalry divisions were deployed before ultimate victory in this theatre, which came at a cost of 30,000 Indian dead. The victory here and in Palestine, both won with the aid of Indian troops, ensured British control over the Middle East and its vital oil resources.
The Great War had a profound effect on India and Indians. Jawans came back from Europe and the Middle East filled with new ideas, not the least of which was wonder at the zeal with which they had witnessed the people of these regions fighting to preserve liberty. The disappointment over not receiving the expected reward of political autonomy gave a boost to the emerging freedom movement, changing the course of Indian history. The anti-British mood was exacerbated by heavy casualties, new taxes to offset the huge expenditure in the war, rising prices, forced recruitment, the worldwide influenza epidemic and crop failures resulting in food shortages. For all its impact on our history, we have chosen not to commemorate the war’s centenary. Our intentions to sup at the high table of the comity of nations could be strengthened by letting the world know of our sacrifices and contribution to the fight for liberty and against fascism and oppression.
Bajwa is a defence analyst and military historian