Lord Parekh: The contribution of India to World War One was colossal

Lord Bhikhu Parekh spoke about the contribution of Indian soldiers to the Great War at Asia House

Lord Parekh speaks at Asia House about the contribution of India to the Great War

Lord Parekh: The contribution of India to World War One was colossal

04 June 2014

By Naomi Canton

As the world marks the centenary of the First World War this year, one should not forget the the rarely mentioned but colossal contribution made by India, a leading British-Indian professor said.

Lord Bhikhu Parekh, a life peer in the House of Lords, political theorist and an author, with a special interest in multiculturalism, said: “When World War One started in Europe in 1914, Britain was in no position to fight on her own and so drew upon countries of the Commonwealth for military support.

“British India contributed most generously and its contribution was greater than the rest of the Commonwealth put together.”

There were 1.5 million Indian volunteers or active soldiers that took part in World War One, out of which 50,000 died, 65,000 were badly wounded and 10,000 reported missing, India-born Parekh added, speaking at the Closing Night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival.

The Indians won 13,000 medals including 12 Victoria Crosses.

Two hundred army nurses were killed, of which 98 were from British India. India also supplied 170,000 animals and equipment for military warfare, including 550m bullets, 1m shells and 146,000 rifles, as well as 3.7m tonnes of supplies, including wheat and rice.

All of this, including the salaries of the Indian soldiers, was paid for by the Indian taxpayer and British India raised an approximate £2 billion loan (at today’s rate).

These Indian soldiers fought in all the major battles of the First World War. Approximately 136,000 Indians fought on the Western Front, 650,000 fought in Mesopotamia and 144,000 in Egypt.

“Britain sent the British Expeditionary Force to France and this was no match for the Germans and so Britain immediately turned to India for help. The Indians came in fairly large numbers,” he said.

They brought valuable skills that the British military forces did not have  – such as patrolling in a form that is suited to trench warfare – having been involved in skirmishes in the Himalayas.

But in the first few weeks they lost nearly 50 per cent of their soldiers.

“Many of them were not not trained or properly equipped when they came here,” he said, speaking at Asia House in London.

Parekh said the British had deliberately kept the Indians one generation behind with weaponry after the Indian Rebellion of 1857. “The result was heavy casualties among the Indian soldiers when they took on the Germans,” he said.

After losing their officers in the first round, new officers were brought in to lead them who had no knowledge of any Indian languages and so no clear instructions were given to them.

“They were not prepared for the cold climate and food either,” he said.

German propaganda made charges that Indian and African soldiers were involved in brutality in the war, such as cutting off fingers, heads and hands from victims as “trophies.”

But Parekh said: “It was investigated at the time and subsequently, but there was no truth in it except that a very small percentage of Africans brought with them this practice of taking heads of the enemy with them but no Indian soldiers were involved.”

There was another allegation that some Indian soldiers had deliberately shot themselves in order to be out of action. “This did happen to a very small percentage in the early years. This was not because they lacked courage, but because they felt they had not been properly treated and trained, or they had been overlooked for promotion,” he said.

Parekh said he did not have figures on exactly how many Indians deserted, but he believed the number to be extremely small. “Most who deserted were Pathans (the Pashtun diaspora) who knew they had nothing to fear as their homeland was outside the British jurisdiction,” he added.

The wounded Indian soldiers were looked after in Brighton Pavilion which, at the time, was turned into a military hospital, as were other British buildings. “What was striking was that even in these hospitals, religious and caste rules were observed.  High caste soldiers were looked after by the high caste cooks.  No female white nurses were allowed to look after the wounded Indian and African soldiers,” he said.

“They did not want the Indian soldiers to get into the habit of thinking that white women were available to them in the UK, in case it had similar consequences in British India,” he added.

But the Indian soldiers were generally well looked after in these hospitals. They wrote rather movingly to their families about how well looked after they were, he said. They said in those letters that they got equal treatment from the British, even though that had not been the case in India.

But according to Parekh, one complaint they made was that they had to be chaperoned wherever they went, as the colonial government was afraid they might disappear into British society, get to know British people too closely or form liaisons with British women.

Lord  Parekh speaking to an enthralled audience at the Closing Night of the Asia House Bagri Foundation Literature Festival

Lord Bhikhu Parekh speaking to an enthralled audience at Asia House

However, since it was not a conscript army, who were the 1.5m Indians that fought? And what motivated them to join the British Army, their colonial rulers?

Approximately 80 per cent were Muslim and Sikhs and 20 per cent Hindus, Parekh said.

According to Parekh, the majority of the Indian soldiers or half a million hailed from what is now known as the Punjab region; 281,000 came from present-day Uttar Pradesh; 71,000 from the region in West India now known as Maharashtra; 93,000 from present-day Tamil Nadu; 42,000 from the area in the East now known as Bihar, and so on.

There were several reasons why they volunteered, he explained.

Firstly it brought money. Many of them were farmers from the Punjab and Uttar Pradesh (known as Jats) and so fighting in the war provided a lucrative source of income for them.

Secondly, fighting in a war elevated them to the caste of Kshatriya (warrior caste). “In a caste-ridden society your social status rises if you are a soldier. It brings you and your family certain prestige to have fought for the Empire and to have gone to Europe and it enhances your caste and social status for future generations,” he said.

“Many of them were already used to going abroad as part of colonial expeditions,” he pointed out.

Thirdly, there was an enormous sense of loyalty to the King, rather than to the Empire.

Fourthly, they wanted to prove to the Europeans that when it came to fighting or dying they were in no way inferior to their rulers.

But what struck Parekh the most was that even Gandhi supported World War One and in 1916-17 even went about recruiting soldiers for it.

Parekh gave four reasons for this. Firstly, Gandhi thought that if Indians had fought for the British Raj it would facilitate India’s independence because it would make it more legitimate for Indians to ask for it. Secondly, his view was that Indians had enjoyed the benefits of the Empire and so they owed it to the British to reciprocate. Thirdly, the Great War was fought in the name of freedom. So Gandhi thought that freedom-seeking Indians should support a side committed to freedom. Fourthly, Gandhi thought the War would train Indians in the art of defending themselves, develop their courage and make them fit for Satyagraha (the fight for truth, which was a main tenet of Gandhi’s Indian Independence Movement) as he believed a truly non-violent people had to have courage to be prepared to kill and die.

The experiences of these soldiers fighting on the Western Front were reflected in letters they wrote to their families. Dr David Omissi published a book containing some of them,  Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldier’s Letters, 1914-18 (1999).

Parekh said many of them could not write, as they were very illiterate and so they used to dictate these letters. Then the person taking the dictation added his own bits to the letter and the military censors added stuff too.

But the soldiers knew all this, so they invented their own coded language.

One letter said, “there is too great an expenditure on black and red pepper.” “’Red’ meant the British and ‘black’ the Indians,” Parekh explained. “In those days Europeans were often referred to as ‘reds.’”

The meaning was that ordinary soldiers were being sacrificed. “If they wanted to say Indians are the first to be killed, they wrote, ‘Black pepper is used up first and quickly there is an increasing shortage of black pepper’ – meaning more Indians being killed and used as cannon fodder,” Parekh said.

“Their aim was to outsmart the censors,” he explained.

In the letters they also commented favourably on the French spirit of equality, the treatment of women and French houses. A lot of them had sexual liaisons with French women and started passing on certain ways of doing things to their wives back home, he revealed.

Parekh continued: “One Punjabi soldier wrote, ‘The ladies here are very nice and they bestow their favours upon us freely and most generously. They don’t do this thing the way we do it in India.’” In this way, he said, sexual techniques were quietly passed from France to India and from India to France.

But it was not all one-sided as the War also contributed to the success of the Indian Freedom Struggle. Since hundreds of thousands of Indian soldiers had tasted life in a free society, they thought to themselves, ‘Why should we be a nation of slaves, why can’t India be free?’ Parekh said.

They had seen prosperity and affluence in Europe and compared it to the depressed conditions in British India and wondered why India was so poor, he said.  The result was increased demand for freedom. “It helped prove they were just as brave and just as clever as the Europeans and therefore the old racist idea that Indians were somehow inferior almost disappeared and they developed a profound sense of their own dignity,” Parekh said.

Despite all this, in many history books, the “colossal” contribution of Indian soldiers is merely a “marginal footnote,” he pointed out. Yet 1.5 m took part and 50,000 died. “These are not small numbers,” Parekh said.

The commemoration of this sacrifice had been neglected in India as well.  “You don’t see monuments in India commemorating the contribution of Indian soldiers to World War One.  India Gate in Delhi was originally created as a monument for the First World War and then it became a symbol for all wars. No post-Independence government has thought it necessary to commemorate the Indian contribution to World War One,” Parekh said.  He said he did not think they were viewed as traitors in India as what they did had been supported by the Father of the Nation.

He blames it partly on Indian historians “having no interest in military history” and also on the Indian public viewing the soldiers that served as being motivated by money (rather than being conscripted) and a view that, since they did not die for India, there was no reason to collectively remember them.

“I think we should press both the British and Indian Government to recognise the contribution of Indian soldiers and the War’s contribution to India,” he concluded, adding it would help cement multicultural relations in the UK.

“I think it makes British people realise what they owe to Indians. Their history was not enacted just by them.  If you go back in history you see Indians, Arabs and other races all playing an important role; throughout Britain’s history they are as much the architects of British history, a part of British history as the British themselves.”

He continued: “It is important for Indians in the UK to realise our history did not begin in the 1950s. Indians have been present in the UK in some form or another for several hundred years. It’s good for Indians in the UK to realise that they are part of Britain’s history and Britain’s history is ours –  it helps bond a society and form shared memories of mutual gratitude.”

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