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The war’s forgotten

Rediscovering the importance of Indian soldiers’ contribution during World War I.

Published: November 11, 2013 3:57:13 am

By Penny Brook

Rediscovering the importance of Indian soldiers’ contribution during World War I.

As 2014 approaches,Britain is preparing to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I and those who served in it,including over a million volunteers from India. These soldiers served in almost all the campaigns and theatres of the war,including northern France,Belgium,East Africa,the Middle East and Gallipoli. The wounded from the Indian Corps serving in France and Flanders established their base hospital at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and to this day,there are memorials in Brighton to the Indian soldiers who were treated there and to those who sadly succumbed to their injuries. Thanks to the detailed information in the India Office Records and photograph collections preserved and cataloged at the British Library in London,it has been possible to go back in time and rediscover the importance of the Indian soldiers’ contribution to the war effort.

At the British Library,we believe that the best way for us to commemorate World War I is by making the raw materials of research,namely the archives and photographs,freely available online,enabling future historians to take account of stories such as those of the Indian soldiers. Through the Europeana Collections 1914-18 digitisation project,we are providing free online access to a selection of India Office Records and photographs relating to the war in Europe and the Middle East,including files about the treatment of British and Indian prisoners of war in Germany and India’s memorial at Neuve Chapelle in France,where there were heavy casualties among Indian soldiers. The online resources include a file relating to the “Appreciation of assistance rendered to the Australian Medical corps by Indian ambulance men in Gallipoli,1915”,reminding us of how much the Commonwealth contributed during this terrible conflict. The online resources also include files on the Mesopotamia Campaign,where almost 7,00,000 Indian soldiers served during the war as part of Indian Expeditionary Force D. The files cover military operations in Mesopotamia,the battle and siege of Kut-al-Amarah,and the treatment of British and Indian prisoners of war in Turkey. Among the online resources is a list of recipients of the Victoria Cross,highlighting the bravery of the Indian soldiers.

The jewel is the collection of censored Indian mails. This is a rare case where we hear the Indian voice describing the experiences of World War I,albeit constrained by the risk of censorship. All letters from the front line were subject to censorship as the government was concerned about the risk of military intelligence leaking to their enemies. One letter written by an Indian soldier from Barton Hospital on the south coast of England vividly conveys the horrors of the war. “I cannot write it,for over the whole earth and ground between the trenches bodies were lying on bodies like stones in heaps,which no words can be found to describe or relate. This is nothing but the anger of the Almighty and it is his will. When a man dies in the world,I and you think it a great event. But here in this war,corpses are piled upon one another so that they cannot be counted.” Indian soldiers also recorded their impressions of Britain,complaining about the weather and high prices,but marvelling at the sights they saw in London.

Memorials for Indian soldiers provide a physical legacy in Britain,such as the Chattri on the downs near Brighton,where 53 Indian soldiers were cremated during the war. Some Muslim soldiers were buried at a cemetery built in Woking in 1915,where traces of it still remain. In 2002,the Commonwealth Memorial Gates in London were inaugurated,marking an increased appreciation of the contribution of soldiers from overseas.

The writer is the lead curator of India Office Records at the British Library,London

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