Indian soldiers, who made up a tenth of the Allied forces on the Western Front in 1914, fought with remarkable dedication and yet their important role has been largely forgotten.
They arrived with the wrong rifles and wearing thin, cotton uniforms better suited to fighting tribal skirmishes in the searing heat of India than battling the mighty German Army in the cold and wet of northern France.
But these soldiers fought with remarkable dedication – and helped save the Allies from collapse in the crucial early stages of World War One.
Yet their vital role – particularly in stopping the Germans from capturing France’s Channel ports – has largely been forgotten, says historian Simon Doherty, who has recently co-written a book shedding new light on their involvement on a front characterised by trench warfare and mass slaughter.
“It is probably true to say that India’s contribution to the World War One, and particularly on the Western Front, is better known in Britain than it is in India, but it is still not very well known even in Britain,” he said.
“Among Indians, perhaps one of the main reasons that their nation’s contribution to World War One is relatively little known in India itself is that since Independence the Indian nationalist narrative has been dominant and Indian interest in the colonial period has therefore been, understandably, limited.”
India, which until 1947 had been a British colony that also included all of modern-day Pakistan and Bangladesh, had the largest volunteer army in the world at the outbreak of the war, with 155,000 well-trained and battle-hardened soldiers.
Initially, 35,000 men were sent overseas – and that number eventually rose to more than a million when fighting finally stopped in 1918.
The majority, however, served in the Middle East in what was considered a peripheral conflict with Germany’s ally, the Turkish-ruled Ottoman Empire.
Another reason why their role on the Western Front is so little known is that their infantry divisions only fought there for a year before being shipped east.
But the Indian Army’s involvement in this bloodbath – with 9,000 out of the 130,000 who served in France and Belgium being killed – was nevertheless important.
The soldiers, who were largely from northern India, modern-day Pakistan and included Gurkha regiments, fought with incredible skill and gallantry, notably at the First and Second Battles of Ypres, in October 1914 and April 1915 respectively.
It was in this slice of unoccupied Belgium that Ganga Singh, who had the rank of halvidar, equivalent to a sergeant, killed five Germans with his bayonet and then ten more with a sword he snatched from a dead officer.
He was wounded six times before he eventually collapsed. But fortunately he was rescued and subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for his valour.
Another Indian who received the medal for his bravery at Ypres was Mir Dast, a jemadar (second lieutenant), who used his turban dipped in chlorine to avoid poisoning in one of the first German gas attacks on April 26, 1915.
With no British commanders left, he led the remains of his regiment into holding their position while risking his life by personally carrying eight wounded British officers to safety amid heavy fire.
It was bravery like this that allowed the British Expeditionary Force to hold on to ports such as Calais and Dunkirk and later bring in reinforcements.
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The Indians bought time for Britain to begin recruiting its New Army of volunteers, which numbered two million men before conscription was introduced in 1916.
Yet, despite the Indian soldiers’ obvious gallantry, a myth developed that they were cowards because of the disproportionate number of gunshot wounds to their hands.
Yet Doherty and Tom Donovan, who co-authored The Indian Corps On The Western Front: A Handbook And Battlefield Guide, uncovered a secret investigation by army medic Colonel Bruce Seaton that found that of 1000 suspicious cases they studied, only six were actually self-inflicted wounds.
It transpired that the unusual way in which Indians held their rifles – shielding themselves from the sun – was to blame for the large number of hand injuries.
It also didn’t help that they were issued with unfamiliar Lee Enfield 303s when they arrived in Europe.
“The evidence shows they were no more cowardly than their British counterparts,” added Doherty.
Just like their British counterparts, they had to face death on a daily basis and live in squalid conditions in the frequently muddy trenches.
Some Indians, however, were conflicted about serving their frequently despised colonial masters in a seemingly pointless war between European empires.
Nevertheless, Doherty, believes the vast majority were highly professional men who were proud to serve their king.
“As far as we are aware there was only one mass desertion of Indian troops when 29 men left their posts and went over to the German lines on March 3, 1915," he said.
“However, 100 other men in this company remained loyal. One of the deserters was Mir Mast who was the brother of Mir Dast who won the Victoria Cross.
“The Germans did try to encourage the Indians to mutiny but there is very little evidence that they achieved any success.”
The Germans also had a policy of treating Indian soldiers very well because they hoped it would inspire them to foment rebellion when they returned home.
Doherty, who was asked to write his book by the United Service Institution of India, also claims that British senior officers – despite refusing to let Indians command anything greater than a platoon – also did their best to be welcoming.
In Britain, postcards lauding their bravery were sold, such as one with a tall, bearded Indian soldier confronting a smaller, moustachioed German and bearing the caption “Outwhiskered!”
Indeed, both Indian soldiers and British members of the public appeared equally enamoured of each other.
“This place is very picturesque, and the Indians are liked very much here,” wrote one soldier staying in Brighton’s Kitchener Hospital in November 1915.
“The girls of this place are notorious and very fond of accosting Indians and fooling with them.
“They are ready for any purpose, and in truth they are no better than the girls of Adda Bazar.”
Ordinary British Tommies also often had enormous respect for their Indian comrades in arms.
William Linton Andrews, writing in his memoir Haunting Years: Memoirs of a War Territorial, recalls that, when his battalion halted, "Indians who were resting near, seeing our men hungry, gave them dates, and started to cook rough cakes for them.
"Few of the Indians had any words of English except swear words, and none of the Black Watch had more than about six words of Hindustani. But there was no need for phrases to express the Indians’ joy in helping us and ours in the kind thought of our Indian comrades."
Yet, beyond such written reminiscences, the memory of India’s role in the Great War is also etched into fields across Belgium and France.
“The landscape over which the Indians fought in 1914-15 has changed very little over the last 100 years,” says Doherty.
“We even found detritus left over from the battles including an improvised grenade developed by an Indian Corps officer and known as a ‘Battye Bomb’ with its fuse still intact.”
Morning news break – December 24