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100th anniversary of end of World War-I: Participation of Indian soldiers helped build army's leadership capabilities

Editor's note: The month of November 2018 marks 100 years since the end of World War-I, fought between 1914 and 1918. The commemoration of Indian soldiers who fought for the British empire during World War-I remains a fiercely contested topic. In this article, the author argues that the participation of Indian soldiers during the war contributed in a significant way to building the army as an institution, and that the sufferings that the soldiers went through were the same as those of soldiers from other countries. For a contrary opinion, read this article.

Growing up in a military family in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, we were surrounded by tales of service life, and regimental memorabilia that adorned the walls by the dozen. Conversations always had some army element as an integral part. But none was repeated more often than the brave saga of late Major Dalpat Singh, MC, and his extraordinary feat of 23 September 1918.

Commanding a Jodhpur Lancers squadron, he led the last great cavalry charge in Haifa, Palestine. His sacrifice is recorded in posterity, and the day is marked annually across Rajasthan, by civilians, besides his successor regiment, 61 Cavalry. That is in Bharat.

Which is in stark contrast to an inane debate amongst the English speaking types in India.

In a country that has no concept of national service, which doesn’t have a prevailing military ethos in its cultural mainstream, and hasn’t yet made a national war museum, a debate about honouring its brave soldiers who fought in World War-I can certainly be expected. Not many in the large crowds that throng Rajpath during Republic Day Parade know that “India Gate” around which the contingents march, is actually a memorial for Indian soldiers who fell during the First Great War. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some are questioning the joint Indo-British centenary WW-1 commemoration.

Indian soldiers in France during World War-I. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Indian soldiers in France during World War-I. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

As a defence correspondent for The Indian Express in 1995, I spoke to the then PRO Ministry of Defence about military commemorations. The fiftieth anniversary of WW-2 and the thirtieth of 1965 War were falling barely weeks apart. When I asked about MoD’s plans to mark the anniversaries, the curt reply was that the MoD ‘is not in the business of promoting militarism’. Read dispassionately, the reply was an apt reflection of government attitudes towards its military, their story, and their contribution to nation-building.

Indian troops had, in fact, been sent out of the country for expeditionary operations to South Africa and China before the massive mobilisation during WW-1. The Indian Army had many mid-wives during its early days, from the native princely rulers, to the East India Company, and then finally the lasting contribution of the imperial authorities. Each contributed to develop this institution into what it stands for today, and its enduring national integration message that continues to stand firm. By the time WW-1 broke upon the colonised country, a reasonably professional army existed to contribute its due share to the war effort.

Indians of a particular type get prickly about native troops who went to either of the two world wars. Over a period of time, various labels have been used, rather indiscriminately, in describing those who participated in the war efforts. The most often used, and merciless, is of course to call all of them “mercenaries.” This is as unkind as it is ignorant of the uniform. In villages and small towns of Bharat, the attraction of wearing the uniform supersedes all other options. It is as apparent today as it was a hundred years ago. The only change being that the current socio-economic elite has ceased to join the armed forces, thus contributing to this inane debate.

More than a million-and-a-half trained to wear the uniform of various regiments during WW-1. The Indian Army and their brethren from the princely states fought alongside other nations from the Euphrates in Mesopotamia to the Atlantic coast of Europe. They suffered the same miseries as any Essex lads, Scots or Irishmen under German shelling. Seeing the same level of combat stress across skin colours was to have far reaching socio-psycho-political ramifications for all those who came from across India.

This aspect requires greater study than a mere article can hope to accomplish. But the telling, and instant contribution, was on the issue of Indians and the question of leadership. Indians comprised almost half the commissioned officers of each unit in combat, a breakthrough that was to have a lasting impact on institution building and native responsibilities. Indians handling responsibilities across the spectrum of governance was the greatest asset the country had when it became independent in 1947. The turmoil of partition, integration of princely states, and the first Kashmir War were handled only because there were some Indians trained in leadership, civilian and military. The birthplace of challenging leadership of the Indian Army was in boggy Somme or dusty Kut, WW-1.

Postscript

During WW 2, the Indian Army was the largest known volunteer service the world had ever seen. And that milestone has yet not been crossed, and unlikely to be so in the future. They fought with great elan across a large part of the globe against the two threats of Nazism and Japanese militarism. Yet India is likely to have the same inane debate come 2045.

(The author is Editor, Defence & Security Alert, and was a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, 2004-2009)


Updated Date: Nov 09, 2018 18:37 PM

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