100 years of World War I

worldwar1Exactly 100 years after the “guns of August” boomed across the European continent, the world has been extensively commemorating that seminal event. The Great War, as it was called then, was described at the time as “the war to end all wars”.

But while the war took the flower of Europe’s youth to their premature graves, snuffing out the lives of a generation of talented poets, artists, cricketers and others whose genius bled into the trenches, it also involved soldiers from faraway lands that had little to do with Europe’s bitter traditional hatreds. Of the 1.3 million Indian troops who served in the conflict, however, you hear very little.

The most painful experiences were those of soldiers fighting in the trenches of Europe. Letters sent by Indian soldiers in France and Belgium to their family members in their villages back home speak an evocative language of cultural dislocation and tragedy. “The shells are pouring like rain in the monsoon,” declared one. “The corpses cover the country like sheaves of harvested corn,” wrote another.

Credits: The HINDU

The British raised men and money from India, as well as large supplies of food, cash and ammunition, collected both by British taxation of Indians and from the nominally autonomous princely states. In return, the British had insincerely promised to deliver progressive self-rule to India at the end of the war.

Mahatma Gandhi, who returned to his homeland for good from South Africa in January 1915, supported the war, as he had supported the British in the Boer War. The great Nobel prize-winning poet, Rabindranath Tagore, was somewhat more sardonic about nationalism: “We, the famished, ragged ragamuffins of the East are to win freedom for all humanity!” he wrote during the war. “We have no word for ‘Nation’ in our language.”

India’s absence from the commemorations, and its failure to honour the dead, were not a major surprise: the general feeling was that India was ashamed of its soldiers’ participation in a colonial war and saw nothing to celebrate.

But the centenary is finally forcing a rethink. Remarkable photographs have been unearthed of Indian soldiers in Europe and the Middle East, and these are enjoying a new lease of life online. Looking at them, i find it impossible not to be moved: these young men, visibly so alien to their surroundings, some about to head off for battle, others nursing terrible wounds.

My favourite picture is of a bearded and turbaned Indian soldier on horseback in Mesopotamia in 1918, leaning over in his saddle to give his rations to a starving local peasant girl. This spirit of compassion has been repeatedly expressed by Indian peacekeeping units in UN operations since, from helping Lebanese civilians in the Indian battalion’s field hospital to treating the camels of Somali nomads. It embodies the ethos the Indian solider brings to soldiering, whether at home or abroad.

For many Indians, curiosity has overcome the fading colonial-era resentments of British exploitation. We are beginning to see the soldiers of World War I as human beings, who took the spirit of their country to battlefields abroad. The Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research in Delhi is painstakingly working to retrieve memorabilia of that era and reconstruct the forgotten story of the 1.3 million Indian soldiers who had served in World War I. Some of the letters are unbearably poignant, especially those urging relatives back home not to commit the folly of enlisting in this futile cause. Others hint at delights officialdom frowned upon; some Indian soldiers’ appreciative comments about the receptivity of Frenchwomen to their attentions, for instance.

Astonishingly, almost no fiction has emerged from or about the perspective of the Indian troops. But Indian literature touched the war experience in one tragic tale. When the great British poet Wilfred Owen (author of the greatest anti-war poem in the English language, ‘Dulce et Decorum est’) was to return to the front to give his life in the futile World War I, he recited Tagore’s ‘Parting Words’ to his mother as his last goodbye. When he was so tragically and pointlessly killed, Owen’s mother found Tagore’s poem copied out in her son’s hand in his diary.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains war cemeteries in India, mostly commemorating World War II. The most famous epitaph of them all is inscribed at the Kohima war cemetery in northeast India. It reads, “When you go home, tell them of us and say/ For your tomorrow, we gave our today.”

The Indian soldiers who died in World War I could make no such claim. They gave their “todays” for someone else’s “yesterdays”. They left behind orphans, but history has orphaned them as well. As Imperialism has bitten the dust, it is recalled increasingly for its repression and racism, and its soldiers, when not reviled, are largely regarded as having served an unworthy cause.

But they were men who did their duty, as they saw it. And they were Indians. It is a matter of quiet satisfaction that their overdue rehabilitation has now begun.

Excerpted from an essay commissioned by the British Council and BBC World Service.

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100 years of World War I

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