New Delhi: What did it really mean to be an Indian soldier of the World War of 1914-18?”
It could be said that it was a life of honour, duty and valour with the British providing the curries, clothing and medical care respectful of the Hindu, Muslim and Sikh religions, while the Indian ranks stoically suffered the rain and mud, cruelly catapulted by the fates into a war far from home that was never their own yet winning their fair share of Victoria Crosses, says a new book.
In “The Indian Empire At War: From Jihad to Victory, The Untold Story of the Indian Army in the First World War”, British historian George Morton-Jack re-traces the Indian soldiers’ footsteps across the continents, their dangerous missions as secret agents, their discoveries of foreign cultures and their heart-breaking ordeals as prisoners of war.
He also explores how they came home with fresh hopes for their families and their country, playing their part in the story of Indian Independence.
According to Morton-Jack, the Indian soldiers were “seasoned professionals and cold-blooded killers, more travelled, politically aware and militarily skilled than they have been given credit for”.
The Indian Army of 1914-18 was uniquely multicultural, combining such a variety of humankind into a single brotherhood-in-arms that it was really a modern wonder of the world, says the book, published by Hachette.
The majority of the Indian recruits – some 1.28 million or 85 per cent – came from British India’s provinces, above all Punjab. The other 15 per cent were immigrants to British India, slightly over half of whom, or around 1115,000 recruits, came from the princely states.
“Its officers and men were a breathtaking array worshipping more gods and speaking more languages than any other army on the planet. They were a mix of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and pagans, and they spoke not just Hindustani, the army’s official vernacular blending Hindi and Urdu, but also their separate home languages,” the book says.
In having such stunning diversity, the Indian Army reflected the society that produced it.
“It came not from the country we know as India but from a much bigger, sprawling imperial society with double its total surface area. On a map of the world of 2018, the Indian Army’s Indian and British recruits’ homelands are in 10 nation states including India,” Morton-Jack writes.