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Indian Soldiers Made Far More Contribution To World War 1 Than Their Own Independence Movement

By Shubhankar Thapliyal

Naik Darwan Singh Negi, 39th Garhwal Rifles, was given the Victoria Cross for valor against all odds by King George V for his actions in France. His citation published in the London Gazette of 7th December 1914 reads as below:

“For great gallantry on the night of the 23rd–24th November, near Festubert, France, when the regiment was engaged in retaking and clearing the enemy out of our trenches, and, although wounded in two places in the head, and also in the arm, being one of the first to push around each successive traverse, in the face of severe fire from bombs and rifles at the closest range.”

This is the story faced by 1.2 million Indian soldiers, subjects of King-Emperor George V who served in the Great War, today known as World War 1, for the crown and also for the independence of the Country.

The story of Naik Darwan Singh Negi is one of them.

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The Great War encompassed with its theatres of operations from Europe to Asia and Africa. But most of us knew the Great War to be a European War with the sole participation of European troops.

Little is known of India’s contribution to the War- a War that was to ‘End all Wars’.

Indian Army during World War 1
King George V inspecting Indian troops at Le Cateau

Weeks after it was declared, India entered the war with the first of its forces entering France after being hurriedly organized and sent to protect the French.

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The Support and the Opposition

So where did the support for the war in India come from?

That’s a question very difficult to contemplate, seeing it answers. But the answer was quite simple.

The Indian National Congress (INC) and many other political parties and groups, and its importance towards having home rule towards dominion status.

Indian Army during World War 1
Gas Mask Drill, Western Front

Also, Indian troops were able to fight only because of a declaration by the British Government, the Montagu Declaration. In 1917, the Montagu Declaration was a vaguely put up self-rule reality in India.

After returning to India, Mahatma Gandhi asked the people to join the War with the aim that corresponded to that of the INC.

The opposition? Yes, there was opposition as well.

Indian Army during World War 1
A woman pins flowers on to the tunic of one of the Indian soldiers, marching In Paris

There were revolutionaries such as Jatindranath Mukherjee (leader of the Yugantar Party) with the Berlin Committee supported by German Intelligence which wanted to reduce the support of Indians during the war.

There were also groups in the USA like the Ghadar Party in California who were printing a newspaper for the small but rapidly growing Sikh Diaspora.But they were failing in their objectives by 1917.

The Indian Fight

Now with the support of its people, the Army fought in different Expeditionary forces organized during the war.

Most of these men came from the Punjab Province (today’s Punjab and Haryana State in India and Punjab Province in Pakistan).

They were divided into Expeditionary Forces. Expeditionary Force A, served in France and fought battles at Ypres and Neuve Chapelle in the Western Front.

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Indian Army during World War 1
Men of the 113th Regiment (Jats) firing hand grenades in a front line trench

Expeditionary Forces B and C were raised and fought in East Africa, prominently at the battle of Tanga. Expeditionary forces D fought in Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq and Iran) where many of them were captured by the Ottomans at the Siege of Kut.

Expeditionary Force E fought in the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, in the battle of Megiddo. Expeditionary force F fought in the Suez Offensive, while Expeditionary Force G fought in the famed Gallipoli Campaign.

Indian Army during World War 1
Indian cavalryman hands rations to starving Christian girls

The Losses of The Brave Soldiers

Yes, there indeed were losses in battles. Our brave men sacrificed a lot to protect the UK valiantly. The total losses recorded were 62,000 dead and another 67,000 wounded in action.

Though less compared to their British counterparts, their actions impressed armies worldwide seeing their rigorous discipline and fighting spirit throughout.

These men have been commemorated in memorials worldwide including the Chattri memorial in the royal pavilion at Brighton (United Kingdom) and the Neuve-Chappele Memorial in France.

Indian Army during World War 1
A group of unidentified Indian gunners at White’s Valley, Gallipoli

Fourteen Victoria Crosses were won by the Indian Army, most of them in the in the Western Front. Many other awards were also given out to these men for their exemplary bravery.

A hall known as the Indian Memorial Hall was built by the Royal Indian Engineers in the Sandhurst Military Academy, UK to commemorate their campaigns throughout the world on its stained glasses till World War II.

Indian Army during World War 1
Wounded Indian Soldier on Western Front

The Traumatic Aftermath

The aftermath was harrowing. When the troops returned in 1919, Britain was reluctant on its promises.

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Protests erupted in Punjab province from where a large number of young men enlisted to fight the War. The response was simply heartbreaking.

The massacre at Jallianwala Bagh happened. As a result of the Rowlatt Acts, many leaders were sent to the Andaman Islands to serve in the infamous Cellular Jail in Port Blair (also known as the Kala Pani Prison).

Indian Army during World War 1
Indian & Sikh Soldiers World War I, Royal Pavilion, Brighton, UK

The Vernacular Act was put into being and Congress started the Non-cooperation movement.

Many of the men suffered from shell shock or today’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which comes through their records and their personal letters as well.

Untold History

The Last Year of the Commemoration looms around as the End of the Centenary of the Great War comes to an end.

Today, whenever I pass through India Gate, I wonder what those years could have been to live with heroes like Naik Darwan Singh Negi hailing from my state of Uttarakhand withstanding rigorous opposition.

When one part of our country was busy fighting, Indians were still struggling in Britain with Mathematical geniuses like Srinivasa Ramanujan carving out a niche for himself.

Indian Army during World War 1
Familiarizing with the population, Western Front

Though what later was done was wrong, I can only end with one thing.

History might have forgotten the role of these men but we must strive to remember that their sacrifices were never in vain to see India independent.

Image Credits: Google Images

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