Indian Army contributed a large number of soldiers to the British and helped them win the war. British promised self-rule to India at the end of the war. They failed to keep their promise, had they kept that pledge, the sacrifices of India’s First World War soldiers might have been seen as a contribution to India’s freedom in 1919.
World War I officially began on July 28, 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and lasted until 1918.
During World War I, the Central Powers made up of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire fought against the Allied Powers which consisted of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and the United States.
Being a British colony, the Indian Army contributed a large number of soldiers to the European, Mediterranean and the Middle East conflicts of war in World War I.
The Indian Army fought against the German Empire in East Africa and also on the Western Front.
More than 13 lakh Indian soldiers served during World War I fighting for the Britishers. They served in places as diverse as France and Belgium, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Gallipoli, Palestine, and Sinai.
As many as 74,187 of the Indian soldiers who served British in World War I lost their lives.
Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army once said ” Britain couldn’t have come through the wars if they hadn’t had the Indian Army.”
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They were heroes, some recognised but mostly unsung. The Indian Army played vital roles during the war.
India dispatched 7 expeditionary forces overseas during the war. Out of the 13 lakh soldiers who fought for Britishers, as many as 69,214 returned home wounded.
Indian soldiers who died in WW I gave their “todays” for someone else’s “yesterdays.”
Their stories and their heroism have long been omitted from popular histories of the war.
The Victoria Cross is the highest award for gallantry that a British and Commonwealth serviceman can achieve.
A total of 11 Victoria Crosses were won by Indian soldiers. Khudadad Khan became the first Indian to be awarded a Victoria Cross. He was a machine gunner with the 129th Baluchi Regiment.
Others are Mir Dast, Shahamad Khan, Lala, Darwan Negi, Gabbar Negi, Karanbahadur Rana, Badlu Singh, Chatta Singh, Gobind Singh and Kulbir Thapa who won Victoria Cross for their role in World War I.
As high as 100 million British Pounds (present-day Rs 838 crore) was gifted by India to Britain to fund their war anticipating dominion status and home rule in return.
When World War I ended in 1919 and Britain won with the help of Indian soldiers, India was denied its promised reward. Instead of self-government, the Britishers imposed the Rowlatt Act, by silencing and censoring the press, detaining political activists without trial, and arresting without a warrant any individuals suspected of treason against the Empire.
The horrific incident of Jallianwala Bagh massacre of April 1919 followed when General Reginald Dyer ordered his troops to fire at 15,000 unarmed and innocent men, women and children.
Apart from soldiers and money, India provided Britishers with 1.7 lakh animals, mostly horses.
The New York Times in 1918 wrote “The world must pay India in whatever India wants, for without Indian products, there would be greater difficulty in winning the war.”
An estimated 12 lakh horses and mules in total were used by Britain during World War I. It is believed, the animals India provided were the finest and this proved to be the game-changer during the war.
As much as 37 lakh tonnes of supplies and jute for sandbags were sourced by the British from India. India supplied all sorts of material for the war, including clothing, weaponry including tanks, armored cars, guns etc.
The British raised men and money from India, as well as large supplies of food, cash, and ammunition, collected by British taxation policies. In return, the British promised to award self-rule to India at the end of the war.
Perhaps, had they kept that pledge, the sacrifices of India’s First World War soldiers might have been seen as a contribution to India’s freedom in 1919 only.
In 1931, British commemorated the war by constructing the arch known as India Gate.
India Gate is a popular monument, visited by thousands daily who have no idea that it commemorates the Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for British in World War I. India Gate was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and is at New Delhi’s Raj Path.