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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.


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Tanks: 100 Years of Evolution, Book By Richard Ogorkiewicz

A chapter on development of strategic use of tanks

Tanks: 100 Years of Evolution, Book By Richard Ogorkiewicz
Tanks: 100 Years of Evolution, Book By Richard Ogorkiewicz, Pixabay

Their looming profile and bristling armaments make them the most easily identifiable piece of military hardware. But tanks, which represent a watershed in the age-old military technology contest between offensive and defensive capacities and mobile and static weaponry, are at their best only when their key attributes are in sync.

Their entire story, which dates from much before they first trundled on to the battlefield in World War I — as this book shows — hinges on the development and interplay of these attributes: Mobility, protection, firepower and communication.

Experts, however, differ on these attributes’ relative importance. As an anecdote goes, a tank officer recalled that, in his training, there were three modules: Driving, where they were told that immobile tanks were of no use; radio, where they were told that lack of communication made tanks useless; and gunnery, where they learnt that without firepower, tanks were essentially a 50-tonne portable radio.

But as Richard Ogorkiewicz recounts here, the development, modification and testing of these attributes not only underlines the evolution of tanks but also of human ingenuity and technology — and stubbornness to change.

Concentrating on mobility, firepower and protection, he presents a “comprehensive account of the worldwide evolution and employment of tanks from their inception to the present day”.

And while this is a story that Ogorkiewicz is well qualified to tell, as one of the foremost civilian experts on tanks, he adds a number of interesting nuggets. Say, the role of major car-makers — Rolls-Royce, Fiat, Daimler, Renault, etc., in the evolution of armoured military vehicles, and unexpected countries with roles in tanks’ history.

heavy war armour vehicle: Tank
heavy war armour vehicle: Tank, Pixabay

Also a long-time independent member of several scientific advisory committees of the British Defence Ministry, the author notes that while tanks’ military importance and general interest have led to a number of books on them (including three authoritative works by him): “There is much more to be said about them, not only because of the more recent developments or because of tanks’ worldwide proliferation but also because of the misconceptions about their origins and other developments.”

He kicks off on this mission by revisiting conventional history of self-propelled, armoured military vehicles, whose origins, we learn, go back further than we thought to the year of Napoleon’s birth (1769) — though this particular venture by a French military engineer got nowhere, nor did the brief revival of interest in the mid-19th century.

Ogorkiewicz shows how the course only began via development of armoured cars in various European armies in the early 20th century — with Italy taking an early lead here.

He then charts the development, the false starts and piecemeal attempts that marked tanks in World War I, before going on to how they faced another problem post-war, when even the victors (save France) reduced the inventories while traditionalist high commands disparaged their contribution or ruled out their independent use.

Recounting how tanks made a comeback courtesy some visionary and dedicated British military theorists — along with the mistakes the country’s military leadership made and their consequences in the next World War — he takes up developments in this field in other major powers: France, the US, Italy, the Soviet Union and Germany, as well as in Poland, Sweden and Japan.

A chapter on development of strategic use of tanks offers a thoughtful prelude to an armoured battle view of the Second World War.

Military tank
Military tank, Pixabay

Ogorkiewicz then deals with the changed battlefield after the Second World War, and how tanks survived the onslaught of hand-held — and then more sophisticated — anti-tank weapons. Apart from the five dominant tank powers — the US, the Soviet Union, Britain, France and Germany — he also takes a look at other countries which tried, including Switzerland, Israel and Argentina.

Asian countries, especially China, Pakistan and India, get their own section, in which he makes an incisive summary of Indian armoured forces’ developments, shortcomings and achievements, before offering his assessment of the future and some technical appendices.

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Though not a book for the casual reader due to its wealth of technical detail, it gives an expansive look not only at tanks, but the transforming paradigms of war-fighting, which changed from soldiers walking or riding to find and engage the enemy to long-ranging, combined-arms operations. Military buffs, this is for you. (IANS)