Thursday, March 03, 2016

WW1: Indians, War Bonds and Alien Surroundings

Yes, even the Indians were encouraged to buy war bonds for the Allies. The imagery of Indians fighting for the Crown is appropriate as thousands of Indians were used to help the Allies even on the Western Front. Recruiting troops from the Empire is a fact many dodge in discussions of WW1 but it truly made it a world war. Roughly 75,000 Indian troops died in WW1.

Indians in France
The Indians wrote letters home to explain the nearly magical world of France. "Our people have many lice in their clothes, and they bite terribly. They are worse than a rifle bullet. But there are no mosquitoes or other creatures which bite mankind, and no snakes or scorpions at all.“ In letters to their families, Indian soldiers fighting on the Western Front often compared France to home.  Sometimes they conveyed wonderment of their "exotic" surroundings. ‘The King came down here last week & shook hands with all the Indians,’ wrote a wounded soldier at Brighton Pavilion in London, ‘and asked each one about his wounds & sufferings & gave consolation to each. To-day I saw a museum in which all the living fishes of the world were kept in boxes of water, & a magnificent palace which cost millions of pounds."  They seemed to enjoy the French countryside as well: ‘What beautiful cities, pleasant gardens, rivers, streams, houses, shops, roads, carriages, cows, horses, fowls, ducks. Whatever one sees is different from our country. What manners, what conduct, what discipline, etiquette and energy.”
Other times they were blunt and tried to express the terror of modern warfare. “Poisonous gases, bombs, machine guns which fire 700 bullets per minute, large and small cannon throwing cannon balls 30 Bengali maunds in weight, Zeppelins, large and small flying machines which throw bombs from the air … liquid fire that causes the body to ignite."  Indian soldiers, some illiterate, used allusions to the great classics or agricultural themes to convey what was difficult to express to loved ones at home. ‘As a man climbs a plum tree and shakes down the plums [so that] they fall and lie in heaps, so are men here fallen …”. That reads like poetry.
Most of the Indians in France and Belgium were Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs. At the start of the war, the government of British India planned only to deploy its soldiers to defend its own borders. The heavy losses suffered by the BEF in August '14 forced London to draw reinforcements from its Indian Army. A corps of Indian soldiers arrived in time to fight in the 1st Battle of Ypres in the fall of 14. The Indians performed well, (Brits believed the Punjabis were a natural “martial race”) but they lacked for some modern weapons and winter clothing. Like the Europeans, they spent a rough winter that year, stuck in harsh and cold conditions with th added stress that they were completely foreign to them. 
In '15 the Indian Corps fought at Neuve-Chapelle, Festubert, and Loos. Their effectiveness dropped sharply by the end of the year. Empires add complexity and a problem was that many British officers who had come over with them from India had died, and their replacements could not speak the same language as the troops. The Army removed the Indian infantry from the Western Front and redeployed them to the Middle East front, leaving only the Indian cavalry in France, where it remained to the end of the war.  The withdrawal began in November and finished the next month. The Indians fought many battles against Turks in the Middle East and served the Empire well.


Anonymous said...

I can't see something on the British/India connection without thinking about the Flashman novels:

Anonymous said...

The Indians mentioned the King very offently in the letters, they respect the 'big man'.

Toddy Cat said...

Thanks for this, being from the Indian subcontinent and plunging into WWI have to be an almost surreal experience. In retrospect, no wonder India started agitating for independence immediately after 1918, after being exposed to that madness.