By Anne Bostanci

30 October 2014 - 14:09

'Almost 1.5 million Muslim, Sikh and Hindu men volunteered in the Indian Expeditionary Force, which saw fighting on the Western Front, in East Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Gallipoli'. Photo of members of a Waziri Khasadar, India 1917-19 courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
'Almost 1.5 million Muslim, Sikh and Hindu men volunteered in the Indian Expeditionary Force.' Photo of members of a Waziri Khasadar, India, 1917-19 ©

Imperial War Museum.

The First World War had lasting consequences that extended far beyond Europe. It set in motion forces that developed into India’s independence movement. Anne Bostanci, co-author of the British Council report, Remember the World as well as the War, ponders a promising emerging shift in the UK’s discussions about the First World War.

The UK’s history must include the stories of people from the former British Empire

The UK has a particular responsibility to construct an inclusive history of the experience of the First World War. It was a truly global conflict, and involved many Commonwealth countries that made huge sacrifices vital to Britain’s war effort.

However, as the British Council’s recent international survey — carried out in Egypt, France, Germany, India, Russia, Turkey and the UK — showed, the UK public has only a limited understanding of the extent and significance of the role of Commonwealth countries in the First World War, and is therefore some way away from recognising them appropriately.

Take the example of India

India made a huge contribution to Britain’s war effort. It sent staggering numbers of volunteers to fight and die on behalf of the allied forces. Almost 1.5 million Muslim, Sikh and Hindu men from regions such as the Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Bihar volunteered in the Indian Expeditionary Force, which saw fighting on the Western Front, in East Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Gallipoli. Volunteering offered a chance to break through the caste system, because becoming a soldier paid well and meant becoming part of the ‘warrior’ caste, which gave high status. However, of these men, around 50,000 died, 65,000 were wounded, and 10,000 were reported missing, while 98 Indian army nurses were killed. The country also supplied 170,000 animals, 3,7 million tonnes of supplies, jute for sandbags, and a large loan (the equivalent of about £2 billion today) to the British government.

But do the UK and India remember India’s role?

While the UK is one of the top ten unprompted associations with the First World War held by Indian survey respondents, India was not mentioned a single time as a top-of-mind association with the First World War among the 1,215 UK survey respondents. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that twice as many respondents in India compared to the UK feel that their country’s role in the First World War is — to this day — often misrepresented and misunderstood in global history (almost one quarter of Indian respondents indicated this).

At the same time, around three quarters of respondents in India as well as in the UK felt that their country is still affected by the consequences of the First World War.

Were Britain and India on the same side or fighting each other?

Looking for reasons why the First World War still looms large amongst people in India, it becomes clear that that period of history is inextricably bound up with the history of the independence movement. And this can sometimes cause confusion.

For instance, only just over half (51 per cent) of Indian survey respondents knew that Britain and India were fighting alongside each other in the First World War. Over one quarter (27 per cent) believed they were enemies.

And while 63 per cent of UK survey respondents correctly identified that India fought alongside Britain, a full third (33 per cent) thought that India was fighting against Britain.

The First World War and the independence movement in India

This is despite the fact that India was heavily involved in the First World War as a key contributor to the allied forces and at that time an important part of the British Empire.

Having made huge sacrifices and demonstrated military valour equal to that of European soldiers, Indians widely expected a transition to self-government. These expectations were shared by nationalist leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (the founder of Pakistan), but were dashed by the extension of martial law at the end of the conflict.

Following this period, Gandhi launched his first India-wide campaign of civil disobedience against British authority in February 1919. It was not driven by anti-Western or anti-British sentiment per se, but by the pursuit of self-determination. It took a looming Second World War, and the resistance against risking more Indian lives for little tangible return, before nationalist efforts redoubled under the auspices of the Quit India Movement. But the origins of Indian independence can be traced back to the events of the First World War.

The UK’s nascent interest in India’s role in the First World War

Since February this year, when we published our report, Remember the World as well as the War, we have argued that the UK can only gain from developing a global understanding of what was a global conflict with global consequences, and from understanding specific countries’ experiences, such as India’s.

Other organisations and individuals are now echoing this message. In the recent TV series, The World’s War, the BBC’s David Olusoga reveals the experiences of the ‘Forgotten Soldiers of Empire’ — with explicit reference to soldiers from India.

The London School of Economics and Political Science has opened out some of its thinking about India’s role in the First World War to an increasingly interested public. TheIndia at LSE blog contains a growing number of articles from different perspectives.

And for those interested in original documents rather than commentary, the National Archives have made the 171 First World War diaries of the Indian Infantry units deployed to the Western Front available to download via the First World War 100 portal.

The relevance of India’s role for the UK

There’s a growing interest in writing that offers a deeper understanding of the First World War, and what it means for countries such as India, which are historically associated with the UK. The fact that these resources are now more easily available to the public can only be a positive trend.

As Lord Bhikhu Parekh, speaking at Asia House on 20 May 2014, summarised: ‘It makes British people realise what they owe to Indians. Their history was not enacted just by them. If you go back in history, you see Indians, Arabs and other[s] all playing an important role. Throughout Britain’s history, they are as much the architects of British history as the British themselves.’

Conversely, he pointed out that ‘it is important for Indians in the UK to realise our history did not begin in the 1950s. Indians have been present in the UK in some form or another for several hundred years. It’s good for Indians in the UK to realise that they are part of Britain’s history — it helps bond a society and form shared memories of mutual gratitude.’

The British Council and the BBC are running a series of public events and radio broadcasts on the global impact and legacy of World War One.

debate will take place in Delhi on 1 November 2014, which will also be broadcast on the BBC World Service.

Read the British Council’s report, Remember the World as well as the War.

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