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Friday, March 1, 2019

Indian freedom struggle history ! ~ Indian soldiers in France in 1914 !!


Midnight of 15th Aug 1947, India obtained freedom – Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of the Nation (India in fact became a dominion, a Constitutional Monarchy ! with George VI as Emperor of India).  The kind British handed over the reign to Indians – MK Gandhi and Indian National Congress got us freedom without drop of blood and loss of lives !  - the Indian History that we read in schools – millions have been taught this for decades that we have failed to honour many of our martyrs – sad, we do not even know there existed those great men who sacrificed their lives fighting for our freedom.

Thousands of miles away lies Neuve-Chapelle is a commune in the Pas-de-Calais department in the Hauts-de-France region of France. It was the site of a First World War battle in 1915. For sure, students of Indian history have never read of this or of the  Battle of La Bassée,  fought by German  in northern France in October 1914, during reciprocal attempts by the contending armies to envelop the northern flank of their opponent, which has been called the Race to the Sea.  .. .. .. and would you not be surprised to know that Indians fought these wars, far away from their motherland in gruelling weather unknown to them, for unknown cause and died, perhaps without any communication to their kith and kin .. .. how sad !

In the Battle of La Bassée,  German reinforcements arrived and regained the initiative, until the arrival of the Lahore Division, part of the Indian Corps. The British repulsed German attacks until early November, after which both sides concentrated their resources on the First Battle of Ypres. In 1914 Indian Expeditionary Force A was sent to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fighting in France. In France it formed the Indian Cavalry Corps.  In France, these formations were simply known as 'Lahore' and 'Meerut' Divisions, to distinguish them from the 3rd and 7th British divisions. Despatch from India was delayed by the activities of the German raiders Emden and Königsberg operating in the Indian Ocean, and by the slow speed of the transport vessels. Lahore Division began landing at Marseilles on 26 September 1914, but there were further delays while the troops were re-armed with the latest pattern rifle, and the supply train could be improvised, using tradesmens' vans procured locally. The corps finally got into action at the Battles of La Bassée, 1st Messines and Armentières in October–November 1914.Sadly, all those soldiers who fought for the British would ever remain to be unnamed soldiers .. .. and worser still, the lost lives would remain unaccounted and not recorded in history !

On 13 Aug 1915, General Sir John Nixon, commanding Indian Expeditionary Force D in Mesopotamia, requested one of the Indian infantry divisions in France as reinforcements for his advance on Baghdad. Coincidentally, on the same day, the Secretary of State for India, Austen Chamberlain, told the Viceroy of India that he was anxious for the Indian infantry to be withdrawn from France before they had to endure another winter. The system for supplying drafts had broken down and the Indian battalions were becoming very weak after the heavy casualties they had suffered. Although the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, objected to their withdrawal from the Western Front, orders were issued on 31 Oct for the two divisions of Indian Corps (3rd (Lahore) and 7th (Meerut) Division) to embark at Marseilles for Mesopotamia. Indian Corps was relieved in the front line on 6 Nov by XI Corps and the two divisions were due at Basra in December, but their departure from Marseilles was delayed because of fear of submarine attack.. .. the casualties were very high ! ~ perhaps not many of them could return and reunite with their families in India – the Q is – for whom did they die ?, whether they could decide anything on their fate ? and did the Nation care for them ?

Though the two World Wars virtually had every Nation fighting, it had a minimal (read as nil) impact on India directly, yet history has it that the soldiers from India fought in every major theatre of operations during World War One. Letters home from Indian soldiers on the Western Front offer extraordinary insights into their feelings about the conflict and their impressions of European culture – again, they too were severely censored.

An article in BBC on the reports of military censorship reveal much about Indian soldiers' experiences on the Western Front. From late 1914, a team of censors monitored the Indian soldiers' correspondence, with the chief censor producing a weekly report that commented on its contents. Appended to the reports were excerpts from about 100 letters, translated into English, each one giving the name, rank, and religion of the soldier concerned. The censorship reports, with their translated excerpts, have survived, although most of the letters themselves have now been lost. The soldiers probably did not write all their letters themselves. Most Indian soldiers were illiterate, since the Indian Army recruited overwhelmingly in rural parts of the country. Instead, the troops might have asked scribes, such as the company clerk, to write their letters for them and to read out the letters they had received ~ and back home, their kith & kin, if and when receiving such letters, would have had to rely on the educated few to read and translate ! – pathetic, it sounds.

The reports that  soldiers quickly worked out that their letters were being monitored, and in response they occasionally resorted to coded language. For example, one man wrote home that 'the black pepper is very pungent, but only a little remains' - meaning that the Indian troops ('the black pepper') were fighting very fiercely, but had suffered heavy losses, and implying that enlistment was therefore unwise. The censor deciphered most of these codes fairly easily, although some of the more subtle ones, including veiled incitements to murder, may have eluded him. These letters suggest that people who were not themselves literate could still use writing in strategic ways.

A moot Q is :  what could have been the motivation for these men to fight for their colonial occupationists for whom they had no regard ? What motivated men to fight in a war thousands of miles from home, in a cause that was not theirs ? British historians often describe these soldiers as mercenaries ! – yet they were not professional killers, nor marauding invaders like the Islamic forces of yesteryears who invaded India and other parts of the globe.  According to one report the pay for an Indian infantryman was a modest 11 rupees a month, but the additional income would have been useful to a hard-pressed peasant family. .. .. so those rural men had been nakedly exploited for a pittance, sent to unknown places, in extreme cruel weather, made to fight for their colonial masters.  These foot-soldiers fought the battle-front, while those directed them were decorated with medals, promotions, money and regards ..  ~ while one can expect everything of this kind from the cruel British, why did the Indian National Congress, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, spoke nothing on them.

In our history books we read : British were kind and treated their subjects well; the Allied forces won World wars; Gandhi & Nehru got us freedom; freedom was granted by the British / Nation got freedom without spillage of blood .. .. .. and not a word on the countless martyrs, the soldiers, the freedom fighters who lost their life, family and everything for the Nation.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
4th Feb 2019.


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