How India helped shape World War 1

You won't see any films about it or hear many stories but India made a massive contributions during WWI. As Britain marks 100 years since the end of the Great War, more is being revealed about the men and women from across the globe who have remained in the shadows.

Over 4 million non-European soldiers served in allied forces between 1914 to 1918, 1.3 million of them from India. Yet India's contribution is largely forgotten in the face of British losses that linger in the collective psyche of Remembrance.


The first Indian divisions landed in Marseilles on 26th September 1914. A little over a year later, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle would prove to be their most costly engagement in terms of casualties.

For the Germans their first encounters with Indian infantry caught them by surprise. Viewed with disdain and more often judged by the colour of their skin, they soon dispelled any stereotypes as they proved formidable in hand-to-hand trench warfare.

By Armistice Day, soldiers from the sub-continent had been awarded 12 Victoria Crosses, six of which were awarded for feats of bravery on the Western Front.

World War One Centenary Timeline

One such award was chronicled in the The Manchester Guardian in 1915, which reported how, Khudadad Khan of the 129th Duke of Connaught's Own Baluchis single-handedly stopped an attack during the battle of Ypres. Khan's was just one of 1000 Indian soldiers that halted the German advance that day.

It was the junior soldiers in the trenches that often suffered the highest attrition rates. As the BBC reported many came from small villages and struggled to comprehend the slaughter they witnessed. One solider wrote home: "The shells are pouring like rain in the monsoon". "The corpses cover the country, like sheaves of harvested corn", another described.

After they returned to India almost nothing was written of their suffering. A handful of letters kept in the British Library reveals their experiences and are no-less powerful in their resonance as the writings of Wilfred Own or Vera Brittain.

Indian soldiers injured during the fights, attending show organized by Red Cross ladies, Indian troops in England, UK, World War I, photo by Trampus, L'Illustrazione Italiana, Year XLII, No 12, March 21, 1915

While the contribution of Indian soldiers is better documented during the Second Word War, you'll be hard-pressed to find memorials in India or Britain honouring their sacrifice during the Great War. For Indian nationalists during the inter-war years, their service was seen through the bitter lens of empire, racism and repression - often they were deliberately written out of India's history.

As Britain prepares to mark the centenary since the end of the First World War and say its final goodbye to the those who perished; we are only now reappraising the role of millions who came to Europe to fight and die.

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