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South Asian Soldiers During World War I: A Neglected History

World War I was a defining global conflict between the Allied Powers and the Central Powers lasting between 1914 to 1918, the ramifications of which we still face today. Often argued as the proximate cause to World War I, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo would lead to one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, as World War I cost approximately 40 million military and civilian casualties.

While much has been documented about the First World War, stories have often focused on the perspectives of European Powers. World War I, however, was a truly global conflict. Experiences and contributions of South Asian soldiers have often been overlooked and devalued in narratives that tend to highlight the bravery, conditions and experiences of their European counterparts.

Over 1 million South Asian men served in the Indian Army during World War I. Their letters home were often censored by the British Army, contributing to the lack of available evidence of their experiences. This formed part of a wider censorship programme in which colonial authorities attempted to portray a more humane side of their treatment of colonial subjects during the war effort.

The Royal Pavilion in Brighton during World War I
The Royal Pavilion in Brighton during World War I

The image above shows the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, which was turned into a hospital for South Asian soldiers. Overseen by a British doctor, the patients seems to be well cared-for in hygienic and comfortable surroundings. However a closer look at the image reveals a different scenario.

The Royal Pavilion in Brighton during World War I
Notice the minders watching over the photograph

A discerning eye will notice the presence of two British military minders, ensuring the scene is captured in the right way. Their presence insinuates a staged photograph, used to placate critics of British treatment of South Asian soldiers during this period. A staged photograph, however, can do little to alter historical reality. Below is an image showing typical British Army rations side by side with typical Indian Army rations.

Typical British Army rations alongside Indian Army rations during World War I
There is a clear difference between typical British Army rations and typical Indian Army rations

Despite South Asian soldiers offering their lives for the war effort, the difference in rations shows how much British authorities valued their contributions. While British soldiers were given 34oz of meat, Indian soldiers were given only 4oz. British soldiers received 18oz of bread, 12oz of biscuits and 3oz of cheese whereas Indian soldiers received only 2oz of potatoes, 4oz of lentils and 2oz of clarified butter. The difference in treatment was evident.

The Gallipoli campaign from 19th February 1915 to 9th January 1916 is brought to mind annually with Anzac Day, which commemorates Australian and New Zealand military casualties and veterans. While much has been written about the heroics of Australian and New Zealand servicemen, little recognition has been given to South Asian servicemen who were alongside them throughout the campaign. Indian troops in Gallipoli exhibited courage, comradeship and camaraderie with Anzacs but their service is rarely mentioned.

South Asian labourers at Gallipoli
South Asian labourers at Gallipoli

16,000 troops of the Indian Army served in Gallipoli. Labourers put their lives at risk under enemy fire as they supplied medicine, ammunition, food and water to troops on the front line. They were in as much danger as those from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, France and Russia, but weren’t considered for awards and recognition.

In 2017, The Nehru Centre in London held the exhibition Far from the Western Front, displaying previously unseen images, digital media, and individual experiences to present World War I through the eyes of South Asian soldiers and non-combatants. One display invited patrons to consider what must have been going through the mind of a South Asian solider:

  • You know that Turkey has entered the war. Are Britain’s enemies also yours?
  • You think about the way British Officers address you, like you are less of a man than they are. You think about how you are paid less than them and have a uniform that cannot be kept in as good a state as theirs. Is that any reason for them to treat you so badly?
  • You are a soldier who will face the fire of the enemy, side by side with your fellow sepoys, while the officers can hang back and let you take the brunt of the battle. How can that be fair?
A South Asian solider during World War I
Over a million South Asian men served during World War I but their contributions have often been neglected in favour of their European counterparts.

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