Indians struggle in foreign lands in World War I


New Delhi: As the centenary of World War 1 is being observed, a new book traces the journey of Indian soldiers deployed in Europe, their struggles, and disillusionment with a foreign land, fighting without even adequate warm clothes and sufficient ammunition.

The book, ‘For King and Another Country’ (Bloomsbury, Rs 419), by London-based journalist and writer Shrabani Basu, traces the accounts of the soldiers from France from letters written to their families, and also carries the tales of those who were left behind.

“Our only knowledge about the First World War is through the British accounts. It was the time the story was told from an Indian perspective,” well-known author and politician Shashi Tharoor said at a function to release the book late Thursday evening.

Among the many stories retold by the author is that of Gabbar Singh Negi, a Victoria Cross winner from Chamba in Himachal Pradesh, who died in the Neuve Chapelle battle in France

“He was 21 years-old when he was martyred. back home, his wife Saturi Devi was just 14. Saturi Devi did not marry again, she wore the Victoria Cross pinned to her sari all her life,” Basu said, adding: “She would go to collect woods with the Victoria Cross pinned to her sari, and every one would salute her.”

Another touching account is that of Sukha, a lower-caste cleaner who joined the troops and fell ill after reaching France.

“He was ill so he was sent to a hospital in England, where he died of pneumonia. When he died, the Hindus refused to cremate him in their cremation place, and the Muslims refused to bury him in their cemetery. The Vicar of the local Church decided to bury him, and his grave had the biggest gravestone,” said the author.

The author also spoke of how poorly equipped Indian soldiers were on their arrival in France, even though they received a warm welcome with loud cries of ‘Vivent Les Hindous’ at Marseilles in the south of France.

“Indians did not have warm clothes, they wrapped themselves in table cloths, arriving in France in October. Their coats came only in December. They were also low on ammunition,” Basu said.

Another interesting account by the author was how the British were uncomfortable in allowing women to come in contact with Indian soldiers.

“The British would not let the British nurses treat Indian soldiers. They were scared that lonely women, with their husbands gone to war, may get involved in affairs with the Indian soldiers,” said Basu.

It was, however, different with the French.

“Indians noticed that the French treated them better… One of the Indian soldiers married a French woman. He must have been worried how to break the news to his family, so he wrote to his father that the king forced him to marry the woman,” Basu said.

Other accounts from the book tell how one soldier felt it was not a war but a “Mahabharata”, another one wrote home asking his kin not to sign up for the war.

A Gurkha soldier committed suicide, an Afghan Pathan, sick in a hospital, longed for a flute to play.

The Indian Army during World War I contributed a large number of divisions and independent brigades to the European, Mediterranean, and the Middle East theaters. Over one million Indian troops served overseas, of whom 62,000 died and another 67,000 were wounded. In total, at least, 74,187 Indian soldiers died during the war, as per estimates.

In 1914, the Indian Army was one of the two largest volunteer armies in the world with a total strength of 240,000 men.