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Why it is important today to recover stories of sacrifice and honour in WWI.
The year 2014 marks many centenaries. A brief review of 1914 reveals that many momentous events occurred in that year and, depending on individual preference, there are many ways of either celebrating or commemorating the centenary.
The spectrum ranges from the first steamboat passing through the Panama Canal to the first successful blood transfusion in Brussels to Charlie Chaplin’s film, The Tramp, which debuted in 1914. Historically, it was a rich year and among the many events that vie for notice, there is none more tragic and tectonic than the onset of World War I in July 1914.
A hundred years later, there is concern among historians and security or foreign policy professionals that the world is similarly poised and that there could be a correspondence with the cascading events of 1914, which began with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.
The UK-Germany contestation of 1914 is now transposed to the uneasy US-China relationship of the early 21st century, and while it is a truism that military history will never quite repeat itself, certain abiding patterns cannot be ignored. Regionally, 2014 is laden with many ominous possibilities and the turbulence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region has received considerable attention. In the larger Asian context, the assertiveness of China and the current Japanese determin tion to resist Beijing are cause for concern.
While these strands will receive the attention they deserve in the course of the year, this recall is to place the Indian contribution to WWI in a larger context and to apprise a younger generation (for whom even the 1971 war for Bangladesh is distant history) about a bloody war in the last century that affected thousands of families in the subcontinent.
Undivided India, then under colonial rule, contributed over one million volunteers to this effort, of whom almost 75,000 died and 70,000 were wounded. The names of 13,300 Commonwealth martyrs are engraved on the imposing India Gate — the memorial British India had built in 1931.
A major international effort is underway to commemorate the centenary of WWI in the period 2014-18, and India is also part of this recall. Appropriately, last October, President Pranab Mukherjee, the supreme commander of the Indian armed forces, laid a wreath in Brussels to pay homage to these long-forgotten martyrs. Various organisations are part of this collective Indian effort, spearheaded by the venerable USI (United Service Institution), which has an ambitious four-year programme.
A more modest effort is also gathering traction under what may be called a voluntary, civil society initiative that comprises a few military veterans, WWI buffs and some from the Indian diaspora who share the continued…