2014 marked the centenary of the commencement of the Great War/World War I (WWI), fought from 28 July 1914 till 11 November 1918. Of the almost 1.5 million Indian troops on the rolls of the Indian Army then, 13,81,050, who fought in all theatres of this war, were the decisive factor leading to the Allied victory.
While the Indian Army since its inception 256 years ago, has had a splendid and unsurpassed record of acquitting itself in every theatre, both in war and peace, it was the WWI which established its reputation globally as a very professional, disciplined and fearless fighting force, acknowledged by both allies and adversaries. In ceremonies held in the UK, France, Belgium, Turkey and Australia, in 2014 alone, praise has been showered on Indian Army’s exploits. More events have been planned till November 2018.
Preceding the outbreak of WWI in 1914, the political consensus building up between Indian leaders was that if India desired greater responsibility and political autonomy, it must also be willing to share in the burden of Imperial defence. It is significant that Mahatma Gandhi and other political leaders were of the opinion that participation of the Indian Army would enhance India’s stature, lead to self rule and finally to independence. Mahatma Gandhi even raised an Ambulance Company but could not proceed due to ill health.
While this war was very costly in terms of Indian casualties — 74,187 killed and over 60,000 injured/maimed — the Indian Corps won 13,000 medals for gallantry, including 12 Victoria Crosses (which were never before awarded to non-whites), and Indian regiments were awarded a host of battle honours in both the eastern and western fronts. WWI also paved the way for the development and organisational reforms in the Army, “Indianisation” of the Army’s officer corps and formation of the Indian Air Force.
The advent of the machine-gun, improvements in the accuracy of firearms/artillery greatly increased casualties on the battlefield. With both cavalry and infantry becoming more vulnerable, it was trenches which were found suitable to fight from and within some months of the beginning of WWI, much of the European theatre became furrowed with trench lines. However, rain and the high subsoil water table soon made trench warfare a very messy ordeal.
The Indian Army units landed in France three to six weeks after war had been declared and were involved in their first military operation a month later, briefly capturing the town of Neuve Chapelle, before a strong German counter-attack drove them out again. Less than a month later, the Indian Corps was once again embroiled in fierce fighting, after the German Army had breached the Indian Corps’ trenches in Festubert. Hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches, resulted in heavy losses of Indian troops and trenches.
The trenches were recaptured the following day after an “at all costs” order from the command.
Referring to fierce battles of 1915, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, commander of the Allied Forces in France in WW I, stated: “…The Indian troops were thus among the first to show the way to a victorious offensive. It is only right that a memorial should perpetuate the glorious memory of officers, non-commissioned officers, and men of the Indian Army at the very spot where later on a general attack by the Allied troops was to bring the decisive victory in sight. Return to your homes in the distant, sun-bathed East and proclaim how your countrymen drenched with their blood the cold northern land of France and Flanders, how they delivered it by their ardent spirit from the firm grip of a determined enemy; tell all India that we shall watch over their graves with the devotion due to all our dead. We shall cherish above all the memory of their example. They showed us the way, they made the first steps towards the final victory.”
While there are memorials to the Indian Army in France, Belgium, the UK and Egypt, the Brits made the All-India War Memorial, now India Gate, located on Kingsway, now Rajpath, which has names of 74,187 Indian soldiers who died in World WarI and elsewhere between 1914-19 inscribed on the memorial arch. In addition, there are names of 12,516 Indian soldiers who died while serving in India, North-West Frontier and the Third Afghan War. Designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, India Gate resembles the architectural style of the Napoleonic Arc de Triomphe in Paris and Menin Gate, at Ypres, in Flanders, Belgium.
Despite many wars and conflicts since India’s Independence, no war memorial was made. The BJP coming to power last year, announced the construction of a national war memorial at the traffic roundabout behind India Gate and a war museum at the nearby Princes’ Park, with an underground connecting route.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his recent visit to Australia made a special mention of the Australian and Indian soldiers fighting side by side 100 years ago and laid a wreath at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
The following year, the Indian troops were to experience the savagery of chemical warfare in a particularly gruelling offensive in Langemarck, near Ypres. The stalemate left men caught in trenches for months and months. By 1915 the dismally deadlocked western front brought the Allied strategy under scrutiny, with strong arguments for an offensive through the Balkans or even a landing on Germany’s Baltic coast, instead of more costly attacks in France and Belgium.