No country for dead men: World War I and India’s collective amnesia

No country for dead men: World War I and India’s collective amnesia

World War I ended a hundred years ago. The four-year global conflict ended on November 11, 2018 after more than 10 million soldiers died – exactly 74,187 of these were Indians. (1) Thrown into a meat grinder by Europe’s barbaric leaders such as Winston Churchill, they died for nothing. But here’s the difference. While the rest of the world unfailingly honours its war dead every year, India continues to ignore its brave soldiers who fell in alien lands far from home.

The collective amnesia is striking because India’s contribution to the Allied victory in the war was vital. The war mobilisation in the subcontinent in terms of men and material was several orders of magnitude greater than the contributions made by other nations. And yet it rarely gets a mention – home or away.

India recruited over 1.4 million men and sent more than 1.3 million of them overseas to fight for the British Empire between 1914 and 1918, saving Britain and her allies from an ignominious defeat, says a report by the Times of India. (2)

According to the report, “When Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914 it had only about 150,000 combat-ready troops. It could commit only a little over 80,000 troops to the Western Front in the initial days of the war. In comparison, France had an army of 1,290,000 while Germany had an even bigger army of 1,900,000. The only professional standing army that Britain could bank upon in that crisis was the Indian Army. Britain would use this imperial reserve to the fullest throughout the war, and Indian troops would become the first fighting non-white colonial soldiers in Europe ever.”

Of the over 1.3 million Indian troops, 700,000 were pitted against the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

The great divide

The arrival of the Indian Army in Europe was fraught with several constraints. Britain was reluctant to ship large numbers of Indian soldiers overseas because the colonial government knew it was sitting on dynamite. For nearly 200 years Britain had employed Indian soldiers to expand the empire. It was the Indian Army that ensured the safety of British lives in a country that was forever rebellious. “The moment Britain gets into trouble elsewhere, India, in her present temper, would burst into a blaze of rebellion,” wrote Scottish critic William Archer.

The main reason for the distrust was that just 57 years before the outbreak of World War I, Indian soldiers of the British East India Company had revolted on a nationwide scale, sparking India’s First War of Independence. The British were able to cling on to the second richest country in the world only by their fingernails.

The horrendous bloodletting of the 1857 War had indelibly left a scar on the collective British psyche, with even a humanist like Charles Dickens calling for the annihilation of Indians. The Indian Army was therefore, considered a double-edged sword – it had to be wielded carefully for the preservation and expansion of the British Empire.

The British, therefore, constantly tweaked the composition of the Indian Army, in step with the shifting alliances with Indian kingdoms and religious groups. In fact as early as 1843 British educationist Thomas Macaulay had advised Britain to choose Muslims over Hindu “idolaters”. This was because Hinduism seemed like a strange religion to colonial soldiers and administrators, many of who were evangelists too, in their eyes Islam was a sister faith with ancient connections to Christianity.

“The duty of our Government is, as I said, to take no part in the disputes between Mahometans and idolaters,” Macaulay said in a speech in the British parliament. “But, if our Government does take a part, there cannot be a doubt that Mahometanism is entitled to the preference.” (3)

The Indian Army at the time of the 1957 War was overwhelmingly Hindu. Once the territories lost by the British were re-conquered, the colonial government adopted a policy of chipping away at the Hindu component of the army.

When World War I started the Indian Army was starkly unrepresentative of India. The country was nearly 80 per cent Hindu but Muslims formed around two-thirds of the army, with soldiers recruited largely from Punjab and Baluchistan in present-day Pakistan. The British preferred Muslims from these provinces because Punjabi Muslims and Balochs had offered the least resistance to British colonial rule.

The outbreak of the war presented the British with a major conundrum – they were apprehensive of despatching tens of thousands of Muslim soldiers to fight against Turkey, which was the home of the Islamic Caliphate, which Indian Muslims held in high esteem. In order not to lose the loyalty of Muslims, the British moved the army units with Muslim troops to France, leaving the Hindus (including Gurkhas) and some Sikhs to fight in Gallipoli, Italy.

Non-volunteer army

Although the Indian Muslims troops were not comfortable fighting Turkey and some did revolt, British fears about a mass rebellion proved to be baseless. Congress leader Mohandas K. Gandhi had played such a brilliant role in dousing Indian anger against the colonial government that even those who were preparing for a final showdown with the British security forces became influenced by his peacenik overtures.

During World War I the self-styled apostle of non-violence and peace urged Indians to enlist as combatants in the British Army. He in fact set up recruitment camps to enlist Indians. For his efforts he was awarded the Kaiser-i-Hind (Caesar of India), British India’s highest civilian award.

According to UK-based author Vedica Kant, Gandhi was different from other leaders. “Like others who demanded or expected concessions from the British in return for support to the war, Gandhi, right from the beginning, gave unconditional support. Gandhi was also instrumental in expanding the recruiting bases of the Indian Army to Gujarat and other places: places that didn’t have the so-called martial races as identified by the British. By 1918, the empire was in dire need of men and they had to look to Gujarat, Bengal, Madras etc for recruiting.” (4)

Much earlier, Gandhi had written: “Should the British be thrown out of India? Can it be done, even if we wish to do so? To these two questions we can reply that we stand to lose by ending British rule and that, even if we want, India is not in a position to end it.” (5)

The masses were won over by the half-naked man pretending to be fighting the largest empire of the day, when in reality he was most likely collaborating with it.

Gandhi’s sales pitch aside, there was another reason why Indians volunteered in such massive numbers to join the army. That was poverty. Industry and agriculture had been almost entirely destroyed under colonial rule. The country – that had invented calculus before Isaac Newton and the ‘Pythagoras’ theorem before Pythagoras – was now reduced to a nation of “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. In this backdrop, for an illiterate peasant the army assured a steady monthly income.

Plus, there was coercion. Professor Yadav from the Haryana Academy of History and Culture has discovered instances where local leaders “stopped the water of those who were not readily coming forward to join the army and rewarded people who were joining”. Brutal methods such as “stripping people naked and making them stand before their women folk” were also used. “People were kept in thorny bushes for hours and hours, and unless they said yes, I’m ready for enlistment they were not let out”. (6)

Despite the brutality of the Raj, India came to the empire’s defence. The UK’s History Learning site says: “When war was declared on August 4, 1914, India rallied to the cause. Offers of financial and military help were made from all over the country. Hugely wealthy princes offered great sums of money. Despite the pre-war fears of unrest, Britain, in fact, could take many troops and most of her military equipment out of India as fears of unrest subsided. Indian troops were ready for battle before most other troops in the dominions.” (7)

The Indian soldiers won 13,000 medals for gallantry. But “such was the cost of the war, that India’s economy was pushed to near bankruptcy”. (7)

The Indian support given to Britain’s cause surprised the establishment in Britain. The Times wrote: “The Indian empire has overwhelmed the British nation by the completeness and unanimity of its enthusiastic aid.”

Blanking out the Great War

The chief reason for the collective amnesia about the Indian contribution is that India itself does not care to remember the conflict. Because these were mercenary Indian soldiers who had signed up for the Raj, there was never any interest in the war that was fought a continent away.

Based on monitoring of letters written by Indian soldiers to their families back home, “Indian soldiers were less likely to remark that they were fighting for ‘India’ than for the king”. (8) The fact that these soldiers were not fighting for India but for the Raj is one of the reasons World War I has never really touched a chord in India despite the ultimate sacrifice by over 74,000 men.

Hardly any Indian, except the most deracinated Macaulayite would have willingly fought for the British. It’s a bit like boxing world champion Mohammad Ali refusing to be drafted in the US Army during the Vietnam War, saying: “No Vietcong ever called me nigger.” Indeed, why would a black man fight for America where he was a treated worse than an animal.

Nearly all Indian leaders, except Gandhi, unanimously said Britain must first treat Indian soldiers as equal, starting with equal pay for equal rank. Also, Indian military officers who were expected to die for the Raj were not allowed to use the swimming pools used by British officers stationed in India. These demands were shot down.

The other quid pro quo insisted upon by Indian political leaders was that Britain should pack up its bags after the war. The colonial government offered some vague promises including dominion status that Britain had granted Canada. Of course, after the war, Britain backtracked on these assurances.

At any rate, European conflicts were too distant and rarely bothered the Indian masses. Even during World War II (during which two million Indian soldiers fought for the British) the interest of the Indian masses as well as the political leadership was limited to rejoicing at the setbacks received by the British Army against Adolf Hitler’s Germany. In fact, despite Hitler’s contempt for Indians, many Indians supported the Nazi leader and collaborated with the Fuhrer simply because he was the enemy’s enemy.

The reason why India’s contribution has been overlooked overseas is that “as an erstwhile colony India’s contribution was taken for granted and with no independent political resonance to back it up,” says author and independent researcher Pradeep Kanthan. (9)

In France, for instance, 78 per cent believe India stayed neutral in the conflict and didn’t send any troops. The reality is that over 140,000 Indian soldiers fought to defend France and thousands died while doing so.

Another reason for India’s cavalier attitude towards World War I is that in the Indian consciousness these conflicts were hardly as cataclysmic as the wars fought by Indians in India. As Kanthan says, the Indian Army in its history from 1757 to 1914 had on many occasions suffered heavier casualties where whole battalions were wiped out. Plus, over the centuries Hindus had fought life-or-death battles against Islamic invaders from Arabia, Afghanistan, Central Asia and Iran. And that’s not counting the terrible wars fought against the British.

Don’t abandon your fallen

Kemal Ataturk, who led Turkey to victory against the British during the war, wrote: “Those heroes that shed their blood, and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore, rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.”

This is a sentiment the Indian leadership needs to evoke within India. Currently, the army is treated like an expendable commodity. When a soldier dies fighting Islamic terrorists in Kashmir, the media runs headlines such as “Major killed in Kashmir”. (10) No names, no mention of their heroics, families blanked out. In contrast when the terrorist Burhan Wani was killed, the same media described him as a “schoolmaster’s son”. In fact, the Indian Express changed its Facebook cover photo to Wani’s dead body. (11) This is the pathetic depth to which Indian pride has fallen due to decades of indoctrination by the Nehru-Gandhi fat cats and their slaves in the media.

India’s participation in World War I should no longer be viewed as a shameful thing but needs to be remembered as a great tragedy that consumed Indian lives. Those 74,187 men fought bravely despite fighting to protect a barbaric and genocidal empire. Their sacrifices seem greater when you consider that Britain couldn’t protect its own empire or its subjects without Indian help. Today, the only reminder of that war is the hideous India Gate memorial in New Delhi; few know its significance.

Today, in India there is a growing sense of India’s “re-rise”. Memories of how Gandhi emasculated the Indian freedom movement are giving way to new pride in achievements such as the missions to the moon and Mars. But as India grows powerful, it must come to terms with its past. If Turkey can embrace its enemies, India should have no hesitation in offering a grand tribute to its own sons.


  1. BBC,
  2. Times of India,
  3. “The Gates of Somnauth”, Columbia University,
  5. B.R. Nanda, Gandhi: Pan-Islamism, Imperialism and Nationalism in India, Chapter 1, Page 2
  6. DNA,
  7. History Learning Site,
  8. BBC,
  9. Free Perception,
  10. Hindustan Times,
  11. News Bytes,

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Rakesh Krishnan Simha

Rakesh is a globally cited defence analyst. His articles have been quoted extensively by national and international defence journals and in books on diplomacy, counter-terrorism, warfare, and development of the global south.