House of Lords Debate on 18th December 2013 tabled by Lord Sheikh asking Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to commemorate the role of armed forces and other personnel from the Indian sub-continent in the First World War.
My Lords, I am pleased that this important subject was called for debate today. The centenary of the First World War is almost upon us. This war saw conflict and suffering on an unprecedented scale. The four war years serve as both a reminder and a commemoration of the struggles and the sacrifice of so many people across the world. I hope that time will encourage us all to honour and appreciate the lasting impact these events have had and will continue to have for generations to come.
In March this year I spoke in a debate on the centenary of the war in your Lordships’ House. I specifically focused on the contribution of Indian forces then and I want to expand on those points today. The significant part they played is not widely acknowledged and the sacrifice made by the Indians and the suffering they endured need to be fully appreciated. I hope today’s debate will serve to inform others and help address the situation.
This matter holds a special significance to me; I trace my family heritage back to India. That is where my father originally lived before moving to Uganda in the 1920s. I feel a deep connection with the many stories documented by Indian soldiers throughout the conflict. On the outbreak of the First World War all opposition to the British Government ceased, and the feelings of Indians at large were well summed up by the Honourable Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, a former president of the Indian National Congress. He assured the viceroy and the governor-general that,
“India would ensure the sacrifice of men and money in order that the British armies shall triumph”.
India raised the world’s largest volunteer army, with a total of 1.5 million people, during the First World War. Indians from all over the world, from such remote countries as Australia and Argentina, came forward to serve the Empire in its hour of need. More than 1 million of these personnel were sent overseas and 140,000 were engaged in active service on the western front. This marked the first time that Indian soldiers had ever fought on European ground.
They were originally called on to help when the British forces were suffering heavy causalities, which reinforces just how historically important their role was. The great Mahatma Gandhi was instrumental in making the case for Indian assistance. On 13 August 1914, he and 50 other activists signed an important circular, which stated the decision,
“for the sake of the Motherland and the Empire to place our services unconditionally, during this crisis, at the disposal of the Authorities”.
The seven Indian expeditionary forces provided crucial support and fought directly alongside British Forces in Europe. For example, at the battle of Neuve Chapelle they provided half the attacking force. A British general described them as a magnificent body who performed the most useful and valuable service. The expeditionary forces also saw action in east Africa, Mesopotamia, Sinai, the Suez, Gallipoli and Palestine. The Royal Indian Marine also served alongside the Royal Navy in a number of functions. Some ships served as gunboats and others as coastal minesweepers. Their merchant services in transport and supply were also crucial to the war effort. More than 74,000 Indian troops were killed or declared missing in action during the First World War, a number that is testament to the level of sacrifice and loyalty shown by the Indians in supporting the Allied Forces.
Participants from the Indian subcontinent were recognised for their bravery and valour in combat during the First World War with more than 9,200 decorations, including 12 Victoria Cross medals. Sepoy Khudadad Khan was the first native-born Indian to win the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in the face of overwhelming numbers in Belgium. He served in the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis regiment. Similarly, the courage of Naik Darwan Singh Negi of the 1st Battalion of the 39th Garhwal Rifles was recognised in 1914. He was one of the very few soldiers to have the great honour of being personally presented with the Victoria Cross on the battlefield in France by King George V. A notable example of the spirit and pride of the Indian subcontinent soldiers is that of a platoon of Sikhs, who in 1914 died fighting in Belgium to the last man, who shot himself with his last cartridge rather than surrender to the enemy. The soldier believed in the concept of chardi kala, which gave him the strength to be courageous and not to surrender.
The participation of the Indian subcontinent was not confined to the battlefield alone. Doctors and students from the Indian Medical Service provided care and rehabilitation to the wounded and many Indian military hospitals were set up across the UK, perhaps the most famous of which was the Royal Pavilion Hospital in Brighton. This housed more than 600 wounded soldiers from the western front. As shocking as these facts and figures are, we must also remember the personal and social hardship that was felt by Indian citizens and families not directly involved in the conflict. Much of the essence of the war is captured in writings from the time, and India contributed in this respect, too. One of the greatest poets during those years was an Indian called Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore wrote in a letter on 18 November 1915 that the war was fought,
“for the cause of liberty”.
Speaking in 1921, upon the placing of the foundation stone of the All-India War Memorial, Lord Chelmsford, the viceroy of India, remarked that the,
“immortal story of the endurance and valour of the sons of India is a legacy which their sons and their sons’ sons will treasure above all the wealth the world can offer”.
This memorial, completed in 1931, remains a testament to the sacred memory of the Indian soldiers who fell in different parts of the world. There are indeed numerous similar memorials in existence across the world to commemorate those soldiers who gave their lives during the First World War. A site called the Chattri exists on the South Downs, at Patcham near Brighton. It is associated with 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers whose remains were cremated at that spot. A memorial service is held there every year. There is also a Muslim burial ground on Horsell Common in Woking, where 17 Indian soldiers were originally buried. Further burials took place after the Second World War. Renovation works are currently taking place there in preparation for next year’s anniversary. In Neuve Chapelle in France, there is a memorial that has been erected to honour the memory of the Indian soldiers who died fighting in Europe. In addition, I know that some years ago the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, led a successful campaign to erect a memorial on Constitution Hill to soldiers from India and other regions of the British Empire who served in the two world wars.
The commitment of these brave men to the war effort often emerged from a strong sense of personal duty to the Empire. Many letters written by Indian soldiers at that time reveal the honour they felt in fighting for their king. It was this loyalty and dedication that endeared many British troops to them. Indeed, alongside the military assistance they provided, there was the opportunity for social interaction between our different cultures.
I know that the Government have been proactive in developing a substantial programme of tributes and events, including last month’s announcement that a series of lectures will be held to commemorate the contribution of Commonwealth countries to the war effort. I shall be obliged if my noble friend the Minister can explain to your Lordships’ House what plans have been formulated to honour the contribution by the people of India during the First World War. I am looking forward to sharing in the commemoration and honouring their memories.