The Great Indian Heroes

As the West commemorates its soldiers’ valour in the World War-I, India, barely finds any mention in these tributes. In his book, Honour and Fidelity, India’s Military Contribution to the Great War 1914-18, Capt Amarinder Singh pays a tribute to over 74,000 Indian soldiers killed in action during the war

The Jhelum’s banks had witnessed oft her waters stained with gore,
Had heard the tramp of countless feet,
Had known both triumph and defeat,
But never had her waters swirled
A prouder message to the world
Than Hurnam’s story bore.
For India’s sons had sealed their oath, according to their laws;
Sealed it with blood across the sea, from Flanders to Gallipoli,
On Tigris’ banks, on Egypt’s sands,
‘Mid Afric’s swamps and hinterlands,
And died in England’s cause.
For ages long the Mullah’s cry, the temple bells shall wile,
And call to prayer for those who died,
The father, mother, son, and bride,
Descendents of the loyal brave
Who rest in warriors’ simple grave,
And need no marble pile.

— An excerpt from a poem by General James Willcocks as a tribute to the Indian soldier (With the Indians in France). Sepoy Hurnam Singh represents his Indian soldiers.

Honour and Fidelity
India’s Military Contribution to the Great War 1914-18 by Amarinder Singh. Roli Books. Pages 432. Rs 595

When war was declared on the midnight of the 4–5 August, 1914, Lord Charles Hardinge was the Viceroy of India. War was declared on 5 August, mobilization in India was ordered on the 8th, and the first of the hundreds of Indian troop ships departed from Karachi and Bombay on the 24th, reaching Marseilles on 26 September. In addition to sending a hundred million pounds to Great Britain’s war fund, a sizeable sum in 1914, the entire funding of over a million Indian troops overseas, in weaponry, ammunition, rations, and expendable war stores were paid for by India. When mobilization started on 8 August, units that had soldiers on leave in interior areas with poor telegraph and postal facilities – such as in Nepal, the North-West Frontier region, and Baluchistan – had to send couriers to physically contact them with messages to return to their units without delay. The extraordinary part is that Expeditionary Force ‘A’, the vanguard of which was the 3rd Lahore Division under Lieutenant General H.B. Watkis, embarked on 24 August for France – just nineteen days after the declaration of war. This was a remarkable achievement, considering the distances and poor communications that existed then in India and Nepal.

There were three separate armies at the time owing allegiance to the three Presidencies – Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta. From an army of ‘Presidencies’, Commander-in-Chief Lord Herbert Kitchener made it into an army of India, which comprised two portions, the Indian and British troops. In 1914, the army of India stood at 155,423 officers and men of the Indian army, and 76,953 British troops who were then stationed in India.

In an infantry battalion, the officers’ strength was 13 British officers and 17 Indian officers (later called Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers (VCOs), and 734 other ranks. In the cavalry, there were 12 officers, 21 Indian officers, and 500 sabres (the strength of a cavalry regiment).

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Premier Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, French Premier Georges Clemenceau and President Woodrow Wilson at Versailles at the Paris peace conference on May 27, 1919
British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, Italian Premier Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, French Premier Georges Clemenceau and President Woodrow Wilson at Versailles at the Paris peace conference on May 27, 1919 File photo: Reuters

On 1 August 1914, the Indian army’s strength stood at 155,000 officers and men. This strength broken down was 120,605 infantry, 25,035 cavalry, 4,160 artillery, 5,018 sappers and miners, and 604 signals. These figures included 2,561 British officers and 366 British other ranks. This strength comprised 128 infantry battalions (including 12 pioneer and 10 Gurkha regiments), 39 cavalry regiments, 12 mountain batteries, and 4 divisional signal companies. In three-and-a-half months, by 11 November, the strength of the army would grow, almost four times to 573,484, all ranks. By 1918, the strength would reach 1.4 million of which 1.3 million would serve overseas. Of these, during the fifty-two months of war, 74,187 officers and men would die and 67,000 would be severely wounded, many beyond recovery. The confusion prevailing at the onset of the war, which usually takes place prior to any conflict, till clarity manifests itself, is illustrated by Field Marshal Lord William Birdwood in his autobiography Khaki and Gown. He was then posted in Delhi as a secretary in the army department.

It was also decided that the Indian formations going abroad would carry "name prefixs" to their numbers, to avoid confusion as British formations carried the same numbers.

At the opening of the legislative council on 8 September, 1914, at Delhi, the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge addressed the House, ... It was moreover with confidence and pride that I was able to offer to His Majesty the finest and largest military force of British and Indian troops for service in Europe that has ever left the shores of India. I am confident that the honour of this land and of the British Empire may be safely entrusted to our brave soldiers, and that they will acquit themselves nobly and ever maintain their high traditions of military chivalry and courage... India would send seven Expeditionary Forces overseas to fight in the various theatres of the war.

An Indian soldier who gave his life 6000 miles from home a photo from the book
An Indian soldier who gave his life 6000 miles from home a photo from the book

To start with, the right weapons and equipment had to be issued to the force going to fight alongside the British army so that arms and ammunition was standardized. As the Indian Corps Commander General James Willcocks writes in his book With the Indians in France: "Two divisions certainly sailed from Karachi and Bombay, but their equipment had to be completed at Marseilles and Orleans, and actually in the battle area itself, whilst the artillery was only made up by denuding other divisions of their guns. The rifles were of a pattern which did not suit the latest class of ammunition with which the army at home was supplied, and both rifles and ammunition had actually to be handed into store at Marseilles and fresh arms issued. To anyone acquainted with the science of musketry, and that in the days when our infantry had to depend on this arm alone; when hand grenades and trench mortars were unknown, it will readily be understood that the handicap of going into action with brand new arms was a very real one. Further, there were innumerable other shortages which were essential to a force suddenly dumped down from railhead into the trenches."

Perhaps the worst of deficiencies was warm clothing. Indian soldiers had arrived in France in the autumn of 1914 in summer kit – khaki drill uniforms and most remained wearing this uniform till 1915, going through possibly the worst winter of the decade without warm clothing. In a few cases, sentries on duty at night were found to have frozen to death where they stood. What is unfortunate is that the army headquarters in Delhi had endorsed such a situation in a matter-of-fact noting in its war diary, ‘Telegram No: H-871/15 Sep. VAD To SSI – As sufficient khaki surge is not available in the country, Indian troops and followers of Force "A" will be clothed in khaki drill with warm underclothing referred to in our telegram Nos H 686 and H 828, dated 5th and 13th September respectively; viz., 1 warm vest, par warm drawers and 1 flannel shirt…’

The bedding issued was one blanket per man. As an officer, a quarter master of an Indian battalion, recorded that winter: ‘…it was not uncommon to see troops wrapped in whatever they could lay their hands on, pieces of coloured cloth, curtains and even table cloths to ward off the biting cold’. Trench foot and frost-bite were common.

The day that the Jodhpur Lancers paraded for their first inspection it began to snow, and the men were astonished to see themselves covered in white. They had never seen snow before. The Lahore and Meerut Divisions were transferred from France to Mesopotamia in September 1917, on the grounds that the climate of that region was more congenial to the Indian soldier.

The fact, however, remains that the Indian soldier stood his ground in that freezing cold, and fought a most gallant fight during that winter of 1914–18, and that these two divisions served in France the entire time is testimony to the Indian soldiers’ devotion to duty.

Twelve Victoria Crosses were won in France in that year. Casualties on 2 October 1915 stood at 483 British officers, 478 Indian officers, and 20,709 Indian soldiers killed or wounded – more or less the total strength of the two divisions.

— Excerpted with permission from the publisher