The Forgotten Soldiers of the Great War: What Do You Know About the Indian Army?

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We all know about the brutality of the World Wars, it’s taught to us throughout our school years. We know of the treaties and pacts devised between the countries that inevitably fell apart. We know how the war was between the Central powers and the Allies.  But what do we know about the contribution of the Indian army?

As an avid historian I’ve always been interested in the World Wars so when I was told about the story of my great grandfather who fought in World War One, needless to say, I was intrigued. But then it struck me: why hadn’t I been taught about the Indian contribution? Was it because by ignoring it, we wouldn’t reveal the racism and brutality of the ‘good’ side?  

 © Getty
Indian soldiers around the fire © Getty

A little bit of background knowledge

The First World War has become one of the most defining conflicts of our era.  It was the war that was intended to stop all wars, but like almost all attempts to end war, it was in vain. Millions of people lost their lives, soldiers and civilians alike.  It was without a doubt a catastrophic failure. Thanks to countless movies and documentaries, both historical and contemporary, we are all too aware of the contribution of Britain, France, and America. What these movies and documentaries tend to forget is that one and a half million people volunteered from India to fight alongside the Allied powers.  

Racial categorization

Unaccustomed to the wet, muddy weather of Europe, the Indian soldiers were ill-prepared for what lay ahead; for some it was the first time they had seen or even heard aircrafts and machine guns.  The Indian soldiers did not fight in a separate war with separate intentions rather they fought alongside British units for the same cause.  However, fighting for the same side did not mean the Indian soldier was treated in the same way as the European soldier.  Previously they were not allowed to fight against another white race (e.g the Boer War in South Africa) because the belief was that if a coloured man were allowed to fight against a European there could be no guarantee that he would not raise up arms against his white master.  Racial categorisation in military policy resulted in Indians being allowed to fight in Europe in the first place.  In the military, this was the belief that some races were more ‘warlike’ than others.  For the British Army, races from the North Indian provinces were more ‘warlike’ than other parts of India.  

How were they treated?

The Allied forces attempted to address many factors in order to recruit Indian soldiers.  They made special efforts to ensure that battalions with predominantly Muslim soldiers had a space for them to pray and provided them with ‘Islamic books’.  Other techniques included regular visits from King George to the Brighton Pavilion which had been turned into a hospital for Indian soldiers, in the style of the Taj Mahal and a separate kitchen prepared halal meals for the Muslim soldiers.  

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However, the suspicion and inequality in terms of treatment of the Indian soldiers was much more subtle.  White women were not allowed to treat Indian soldiers for fear of sexual relationships taking place, consequently harming the reputation of the white woman.  Additionally, Indian soldiers were chaperoned at every moment, their outings carefully planned.  Many felt like prisoners.  Not all hospitals were as idyllic as the Brighton Pavilion.  The Kitchener Military Hospital, also in Brighton, was a converted workhouse where the conditions were horrific.  The walls were topped with barbed wire and there were patrols by the military.  Although they were all fighting for the same side, the Indian soldiers were still discriminated against.  The army could not or would not see past the colour of their skin.  

Some might argue that the Indian soldiers had complete religious freedom during the war, that they had separate burial grounds, Muslim soldiers were allowed to participate in Ramadan and observe their daily prayers.  For the Indian soldiers, this freedom was not unconditional.  Regardless of their faith were treated with suspicion.  There were voices of dissent raising concerns as to why a coloured man should fight a ‘white man’s war’.  What they failed to see was that this was not simply a war for the white man’s freedom but it was for their freedom from the white man.  This in conjunction with the promise of self-rule invigorated many soldiers to fight towards independence.   

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So yes, the sacrifices of the Indian Army was no less significant than that of any other though it perhaps indicates the brevity of man’s memory in recognising the role played by those with a greater level of melanin.   Without the Indian Army, there most likely would not have been an Allied victory.  The impact of the Indian Army on the Allied victory cannot be undermined and it is time that it was recognised and assimilated into modern history books.  The limited mentions at commemorations dwindle even further with the passage of time.  Their unjust treatment whitewashed and ignored adds an extra flavour of injustice at the hands of their oppressive rulers.  Our forefathers surely did not die having lived and been subjected to horrific subhuman standards of treatment only to be forgotten and pushed to the back of human memory, their worth and value being denied then and now.

Written by Fatimah Saleem

Fatimah Saleem is an English Literature student who loves all things sci-fi and fantasy. She’s passionate about history, feminism, and poetry.