WW1 anniversary is strong reminder of Indian-European defence ties
As Europe marked the 100th anniversary of the start of world war one (WW1), India's ambassador to the EU and Benelux countries Manjeev Singh Puri has highlighted the historic role of Indian soldiers.
Speaking at an event held in Brussels in October, to recognise the involvement of Indian soldiers in WW1, Puri said, "The contribution made a hundred years ago, when 130,000 Indian troops served on the western front in Europe […] was a determination to help the allies in their hour of need."
For the ambassador, however, the commemoration also represented an important reminder of "our defence cooperation with Europe and the EU, which continues today".
Puri cited the current EU lead in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia as a successful example of current European security cooperation, where Indian battleships are part of the EU-Navfor force. "This partnership with the EU has resulted in a huge decline in piracy off the coast of Somalia."
The diplomat also highlighted how Indian soldiers regularly worked with Belgian and other European soldiers as part of UN peacekeeping operations. For Puri, "this has been of great pride for us, and an honour to contribute towards the global world order."
As recognition of India's contribution in WW1, Puri pointed out that it was the only colony of the British empire to be "invited to be one of the founding members of the League of Nations in 1920" - the predecessor of the current UN, of which in 1945 India was also a founding member.
"Of one million plus [Indian] men who served in WW1 from 1914-1918, 60,000 were killed in battle"
Puri said this reflects "a continuum of what happened a hundred years ago where India played its part, of which I am very proud, and still continues to contribute today as a leading player in a multilateral system of global governance."
India's involvement in WW1 was not only vital but also immense. According to the commonwealth war graves commission, out of the one million plus men who served in WW1 from 1914-1918, 60,000 were killed in battle.
Indians fought across the globe, from the trenches in western Europe, to Palestine, Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), Russia and as far as China. Over 9200 military awards were earned, including 11 Victoria Crosses (VCs), the highest recognition for bravery given by the British army.
In addition, thousands of men from all over the Indian sub-continent came to work in Europe behind the battle front, as vitally needed labourers, to maintain the provision of supplies and equipment.
According to Indian military historian Rana Chhina, who also spoke at the event, one of the key reasons so many Indians volunteered was that by proving their loyalty, and showing their bravery in battle, Britain would be pressurised to "feel a moral obligation to give India dominion status, similar to Australia and Canada."
Even leading Indian freedom fighter and pacifist Mahatma Ghandi, at the start of the war encouraged men to enlist and to offer their help to Britain, "in her time of need".
Dominiek Dendooven, curator of the In Flanders Museum in northern Belgium, told guests that almost from the beginning of the war in October 1914 Indian soldiers played a crucial role in saving the allies from early defeat, by repelling attacking German soldiers in the first battle of Ypres.
In April 1915, Indian troops along with French African soldiers again saved the day, when they were rushed in to defend the line in Ypres, when allied forces retreated due to poison gas attacks launched by Germany. Dendooven pointed out that along with Indian soldiers, troops from 60 other non-European countries served and died on the western front.
"[Centenary events] should not glorify war but instead condemn it" - Rana Chhina
However, despite their motivation, bravery and strong military prowess nothing could have prepared the Indian soldier for the carnage and horrors of industrialised trench warfare in Europe.
Brigadier Jodha of the Indian army, whose grandfather Thakur Aman Singh Jodha fought in WW1 serving with the Jodhpur Lancers, admitted his grandfather found "the conditions in the trenches truly terrible, absolutely terrible."
Jodha added, "The regiment was lucky because they had a little bit of a special privilege." As cavalry soldiers, although they did their fair share of fighting in the trenches, they were saved from some of the bloodiest battles. It was only when the regiment were redeployed to Palestine in 1918, that they were able to use their horses in military action. Though Indian soldiers fought in Ypres, they served mostly in France in Neuve Chappelle.
However Chinna felt that, despite India's massive contribution in WW1, since the end of the war "it had now slipped into anonymity […] with most historical accounts of the war ignorant of this enormous contribution" or it was a "mere historical footnote".
Dendooven wanted more European historians to recognise the crucial role soldiers from India and the former European colonies played "as a debt of honour […] to those who came over to fight and die in Europe". As such, for him the centenary commemorations should be inclusive and not "merely national, or European but truly global," in their recognition.
Also Dendooven said recognising the role of non-white troops, in particular Muslim soldiers, was useful in counteracting the propaganda of terrorist Islamic groups who recruited young Muslim people who did not feel they had any attachment to Europe.
The Belgian felt it was vital to educate students on the bravery and contribution of soldiers such as the first Indian and Muslim to be awarded the VC, Khudadad Khan, to develop "a common shared history, and identity".
But Chinna stressed that as a historian he wanted to not only highlight the sacrifice of those who fell in battle, but also "the futility of war and the value of everlasting peace", adding that the centenary events "should not glorify war but instead condemn it".
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