Forgotten heroes of the first world war

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Over 4 million non-white non-European men were deployed into European and American armies between 1914 and 1918, providing frontline and auxiliary aid on and beyond the Western Front.

Indian cavalry after their charge, Somme, France, First World War, 14 July 1916, (c1920). (The Swarthmore Press Ltd, London, c1920). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images) Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

“They came to the ships’ sides and looked to land – a brown host,” read an article along with two pictures published by the Manchester Guardian in October 1914. “We made out turbans and dark faces … divested of tunic, in grey shirt and khaki trousers with legs a-dangle down the quay wall, and besides them ‘Les Hindous’ squatting cross-legged in the attitude of idols, happy in the sun.”

Indian troops encamped in France, 8 October 1914 Photograph: The Guardian

Over the course of the war, over a million Indian soldiers would be sent overseas to fight. Reception was undoubtedly positive during the war, given the advantages of extra forces for Britain. The King, and Emperor of India, George V, sent a message to greet them on their arrival: “I look to all my Indian soldiers to uphold the British Raj against an aggressive and relentless enemy. I know with what readiness my brave and loyal Indian soldiers prepared to fulfil this sacred trust in the field of battle, shoulder to shoulder with their comrades from all parts of my Empire.”

One particularly interesting letter to the newspaper a month later recognised their participation, urging readers not to forget the Indian soldier’s personal tastes: “The Indian native soldier would greatly value sugar candy (if possible the Indian Misri), candied cocoanut, aveca nut (Supari) cut in thin slices, cinnamon, and cloves. These things are all highly appreciated by the various Indian races.”

Comforts for the Indian troops, 21 September 1914 Photograph: Mena Sultan/The Guardian

The combative qualities of the Indian troops certainly took the German army by surprise. In a letter home published by archaeology best, a German soldier wrote: “Today for the first time we had to fight against the Indians, and the Devil knows those brown rascals are not to be underrated. At first we spoke with contempt of the Indians. Today we learned to look at them in a different light … With buttends, bayonets, swords and daggers we fought each other, and we had bitter hard work.”

By Armistice day, soldiers from the subcontinent had won 11 Victoria Crosses. The Guardian reported the first two on 27 January 1915: Sepoy Khudadad Khan, one of the regimental machine gun section of the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis who single-handedly stopped a German attack during the battle of Ypres, and Naik Darwan Singh Negi, from the First Battalion 39th Garhwalis, who was the first of his regiment to help retake British trenches near Festubert, despite being wounded twice in the head.

India was not the only nation from which troops were recruited to aid war efforts. Somewhat less discussed is the African side of the story, despite a large loss of human life and major consequences for the future of the African continent. At one point, the paper put the number of natives for carrier work alone at 200,000 at that particular time, and acknowledged the ‘terrible death rate’ among those in East Africa. The primary responsibility of carriers was to carry supplies such as food and ammunition for soldiers on the front line. One young carrier, Nwoso, spoke of his recruitment and experience:

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