‘Sacrifice of Indian soldiers of the Empire was never recognised by national leadership’
Field-Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-inChief of the Indian Army from 1942, is said to have remarked that the British “couldn’t have come through both wars (World War I and II) if they hadn’t had the Indian Army”.
Barely a month after the First World War began in July 1914, the British Expeditionary Force to France and Belgium at Mons found itself heavily undermanned and incapable of holding against the German onslaught. That is when an Indian Expeditionary Force from the Indian Army was mustered to reinforce it in France, and it reached in August. Unused to battle under European conditions including trench warfare, the force suffered massive casualties before it was pulled out of battle to recoup and recuperate.
The Indian Corps was sent back into battle at the beginning of 1915, and took part in the battle of Neuve-Chapelle on 10-12 March 1915. But though it conquered some terrain against fierce German resistance, it was forced to withdraw due to insufficient artillery backup.
By November 1918, the Indian Army contained 5,48,311 men, considered the Imperial Strategic Reserve. It was regularly called upon to deal with incursions and raids on the North-West Frontier and to provide garrison forces for the British Empire in Egypt, Singapore and China.
Over a million Indian troops participated overseas while the overall strength touched almost 1.4 million. 72,000 soldiers were killed in action and more than 67000 severely injured. 11 Victoria Crosses were won for gallantry.
The All India War Memorial, now known as India Gate, was constructed in 1931 to commemorate the sacrifice by soldiers of the Indian Army during the First World War. It has 82,000 names of Indian and some British soldiers who died fighting for the Empire as part of the Indian Army.
A similar memorial for those who sacrificed their lives in the Second World War has never been constructed; it perhaps would have, if the British had stayed beyond 1947.
Somehow the sacrifice of soldiers of the British Indian Empire never came to be recognised by India’s rulers after Independence in 1947, on the premise that their sacrifice was for the sustenance of the British Empire and not for the Independence of India. What the post-Independence national leadership did not realise is that it inherited a disci- plined, battle-hardened and deeply loyal Indian Army. The process of military professionalisation commenced during the First World War and culminated during the Second World War by when an Indian cadre of Army officers had been nurtured.
Along with the Indian Civil Service, the Indian Army was an institution which helped usherin stability right at the beginning of the birth of the new nation. It remained apolitical in the British tradition and continued to follow many of the practices of the British Army. It is, however, to the credit of the national leadership that even as it understood little about the military profession, it allowed the Indian Army to remain grounded in tradition and never insisted on a complete makeover.
Where the national leadership failed is in the recognition of those who died fighting for the British Empire in World War II and consequently those who died fighting independent India’s wars. A military memorial and museum is now being finally constructed in Delhi with names enshrined of all those who made the supreme sacrifice for the nation. Better late than never.