Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Reflections on Armistice Day

As an Indian, the 11th of November never really had much significance for me. World War I is largely absent from the Indian consciousness. Sure, many English-speaking Indians are aware that it happened - we studied it in our history books and perhaps even read British and American books about it. Even so, it is largely a war that happened to other people. We wear no poppies on the 11th of November, and nor do we hold solemn marches on the 25th of April. The poem In Flanders Fields hold no significance for us, nor does the vast majority of the literature written by men who fought in that futile and pointlessly wasteful war.

Yet Indian soldiers served, fought and died in this war. A million men - forming the largest all-volunteer force to serve in the war - were sent overseas to fight for a country they would never see and a King-Emperor whose name they could not pronounce. They fought in the meat-grinder of the Western Front, where Khudadad Khan became the first non-white man to win the Victoria Cross. They fought in the East Africa Campaign where they died in the thousands of disease and privation while their incompetent commanders let a tiny German force run rings around them for four years. Some were even sent to Gallipoli to fight in the ill-considered and badly thought out Dardenelles Campaign. The greatest number by far fought in the original War for Oil - the Mesopotamia Campaign.

Perhaps the defining event of the Indian experience in World War I was the Siege of Kut, a part An Indian survivor of the Siege of Kut and subsequent imprisonmentof that same Mesopotamia campaign. The Siege began in the December of 1915, when the Sixth (Poona) Division of the Indian Army established a position in the town of Kut after retreating from another battle. Their dithering commander, Charles Townshend, failed to break out of the town despite multiple opportunities to do so, and his equally incompetent counterparts in the relief force failed to dislodge the numerically inferior Turkish besiegers. Finally after four months, his soldiers starving and reduced to eating their pack animals, Townshend surrendered unconditionally to the Turks. While he lived out the rest of the War in comfort, Townshend's troops were treated brutally by the Turks. Of the 30,000 odd troops he started out with, about 13,000 lived to surrender along with Townshend. Barely four thousand survived the two and a half years of ill-treatment and privation at the hands of the Ottoman Army. After failing to do much to protect his men from their captors, Townshend returned home to a hero's acclaim and was elected to Parliament.

While the Siege of Kut is a particularly egregious example of the suffering of Indian troops in the War, other theaters and battles were quite bad as well. Three thousand Indians died in East Africa of disease alone. The Indian contingent in Gallipoli suffered close to 60 per cent losses, along with most of the other Allied forces. Why did so many sign up to fight this faraway foreign war in such terrible conditions? Undoubtedly many joined up for the money, for the steady pay and the wartime bonuses. Some joined to continue the martial traditions of their families and communities. A large part of the Indian contingent in World War I were actually soldiers in the armies of the Indian Princes, sent to fight for the Emperor of India, who also conveniently happened to be King of England. Given the paucity of written accounts by these soldiers though, in most cases we will never know why they joined up.

My great-grandfather was one of those men. We do not know why he joined, but he served as a Regimental Medical Officer in the 1/1 Gurkha Rifles for duration of the War. He spoke of serving in Iraq and Palestine, so perhaps he took part in the Mesopotamia Campaign (where, among other actions, his unit participated in one of the failed attempts to relieve the Siege of Kut) and Allenby's march to Jerusalem. He left the Army at the War's end, settled down in Bombay and began a successful practice. He was a pillar of the community who raised five children, including my grandmother. He was lucky. Lucky not to have been with his unit in the year it spent on the Western front (where they were gassed by the Germans in the second battle of Ypres, the first use of chemical warfare in modern warfare). Lucky not to have been in the Siege of Kut, where only one out of six who joined survived to the end of the war. Lucky not to have otherwise fallen to enemy bullets, disease or hunger, as fully one in every ten Indian soldier in that war did.

Many were not as lucky. Between 90,000 and 100,000 Indian soldiers died in World War I. A similar number were wounded, and perhaps some of them died of their wounds in peacetime. Many surely returned physically whole, but mentally and emotionally scarred by shell shock and post-traumatic stress to communities that did not understand their conditions and could not treat them. Their courage, sacrifice and honourable service in this futile foreign war won them few favours from the British, who continued to think them inferior. And we, their descendants, have largely forgotten them, made their names mere footnotes in the histories of our newly independent nations, and ignored their memorials.

They were, as the saying goes, the unknowing, led by the unworthy, doing the impossible for the ungrateful. So this Armistice Day, I say, let us just think of these men. Let us remember them, and the courage they displayed in the face of great hardship for little reward. That is the least they deserve.

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Anonymous Lekhni said...

100,000 is a lot of casualties, and I wonder why there isn't more family memory passed down on WWI.

Was it because those brave soldiers still had the stigma of having fought for the British? It's sad that no one valued their efforts as they should - not the British, and not their countrymen, for whom these men were on the wrong side.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Kunal said...

I'm not sure there really was much stigma attached to serving in the Indian Army of the Raj. Many families from the so called "martial races" took great pride in their service in Raj units.

One possible reason for our lack of collective memory is that at the time, Indians could in most cases only join the Army at the enlisted level. The few Indian officers who served as Medical officers (like my grandfather) or were commissioned while in the UK (like fighter pilot ace Indra Lal Roy) were the exceptions that proved the rule. This meant that most of the Indians who served were illiterate, and had little knowledge of the foreign places they served in. They and their families would have known they went off to war, but probably had no idea which war, or where they fought (apart from the fact that it was outside India).

6:59 PM  
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