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Britain Owes a Debt to the Indian Soldiers of WW1

Separated from their loved ones and used as cannon fodder by the British, World War 1 was a paralysing experience for many Indians. But it was also a war counterbalanced by genuine expressions of loyalty and prayers for Britain’s victory.

19 November, 2021

Forward scouts of the 9th Hodson’s Horse, an Indian cavalry regiment, pause to consult a map, near Vraignes, France, April 1917 / Ernest Brooks / Imperial War Museums

This article is part of Project Empire, an editorial series designed to explore the history of the British Empire. See the full collection here »

Marching in the town centre of Orléans in October 1914, Indian soldiers were struck by a statue of Joan of Arc. They stood to attention near the statue and turned their faced towards it. Later, a soldier tried to buy postcards of the Maid of Orléans in the local shops, but they could not find any. He wrote to his family: “I could not find any more pictures of the woman who stands clad in armour with her glance turned up towards heaven…four hundred years ago that woman gained some notable victories against the English. However, she was caught and the English burnt her alive.” The soldier noted perceptively that it was probably the reason why there were no pictures of the Joan of Arc for sale at the moment, as both the British and French did not want to be reminded of past conflicts at this time of unity. Some of the soldiers commented that Joan reminded them of Rani of Jhansi, the Indian queen and a leading figure of the Indian Rebellion of 1857. They may have been illiterate, with no knowledge of foreign lands and their history, but the Indians were quick learners and quick to make common connections.

The Indians had landed in Marseilles in September 1914, and were slowly getting used to the foreign landscape. They were surprised to see that the French spoke a different language and that even the English did not understand them. “No one has any clue to the language of this place,” a Sikh soldier wrote to his uncle in Jullunder. “Even the British soldiers do not understand it.” It was in Orléans they saw their first fighter plane. They watched in wonder as the wooden and steel structure flew over them, the propellers whirring in the air, and the pilot clearly visible in the cockpit. The wonders of “Vilayat” (a foreign land) lay before them. Or so they thought.

Mobilised within days of Britain declaring war against Germany, the soldiers had travelled from remote villages in Punjab, the North West Frontier Province and the Eastern Himalayas to join their first western war. The Indian Munity of 1857 had led to a major restructuring of the Indian Army. Lord Roberts, the commander of the Indian Army, had always shown a preference for recruiting the so-called “martial races” of India: the Sikhs, Pathans, Gurkhas, Garhwalis and the men from Rajasthan and the North West Frontier. They would be the first boots on the ground from Britain’s empire. They would fight for the honour of their villages and for the remote figure of “Jarj Parcham” (George V). 

Initially, the mood was one of adventure as they prepared to fight soldier to soldier with their English officers. All too often they would hear the cheery tone of their comrades, saying the war would be over by Christmas. Most of them had never seen the sea, let alone sail the choppy waters for battle. For Hindus, it was forbidden to cross the “Kala Pani” (Dark Waters) for fear of losing their caste. And yet, for the first time, they were ready to take this step. Many were sea-sick after the journey, but they walked proudly down from the ships to cheering crowds shouting “Les Hindoues”.

They had not been prepared for the cold. Transported out of India, wearing only their regular cotton khaki drill, they shivered in the sharp autumn chill. As they sat huddled around their campfires, the soldiers wrapped themselves in anything they could find — eiderdowns, tablecloths, and even cast-off curtains. Their greatcoats would not arrive until well into December.

The Indian soldiers had a natural intelligence and curiosity. Soon they were getting a grasp of  the cultural differences with the West. They were billeted with French families in villages and small towns. French civilians opened their doors to these soldiers who had come thousands of miles to fight for them. Locals gathered round to watch as the Sikhs combed their long hair and cooked chapattis and curries on open fires. The Indians, too, observed the French with interest. They admired the hard-working French women who worked in the farms and offices as most young men had left for the frontline. They noted the fact that the children went to school and that the women could read and write. One soldier wrote back to his family that he now had a French “mother.” They watched how the French dealt with their colonial soldiers from their African colonies and compared it with how the British treated the Indians. “The Indians have acquired a liking for the French people,” wryly noted Sir Walter Lawrence, chief commissioner for hospitals for Indian soldiers. “The French have made more of them and treated them as more equals than we do.”

Indian soldiers march outside Pavilion, unknown date. Many Indian soldiers were treated in the The Pavillion hospital during WW1, which opened as Brighton’s first Indian hospital.

The realisation that education and science was the way of out poverty was beginning to dawn on the Indians. A Punjabi soldier wrote to his brother in India, praising the French: “First, unity, second, knowledge or ability; third, obedience to orders, fourth, absence of jealousy with regard to women, fifth, the cleanliness of everything, in house, in person, in clothes, in dress.” Even as they prepared for battle, the Indians were on a learning curve.

Within weeks of landing, they were heading for the frontline. The Indian soldiers found that they were at a clear disadvantage. They had been trained to use the Lee Enfield Mark II guns, but were now supplied with Mark III guns for European warfare. There was barely any time to train in the new weapons. They were thrown in at the deep end. With no time to get accustomed to the trenches, they found themselves in the First Battle of Ypres defending the British line, experiencing their first artillery warfare. They were used to hand to hand combat in the North West Frontier, a clash of steel and swords. Never before had they seen men being blown to bits and buried under collapsing trenches. 

In the early days of the war, the British suppliers were woefully inadequate. There was not enough barbed wire, not enough ammunition and not enough troops. Even the trenches were shallow and soon filled up with water and mud. German bombs rained down on them, and their companies were split up; they were under commanders they did not know and whose language they did not follow. Yet they held on.

By November, it was snowing. Still without greatcoats, they braved their first winter in the cold, muddy trenches. “In the trench the snow rises from the feed to the neck, and the feed and hands are frost-bitten,” wrote a soldier. “It rains and snows day and night.” Another lamented: “The whole world is being scarified and there is no cession. It is not a war but a Mahabharat.”

As the war drew on without end, the soldiers wrote letters home about the horrors of war: “No one who has ever seen the war will forget it to their last day,” wrote a Pathan soldier. “Just like a turnip is cut into pieces, so a man is blown to bits by the explosion of a shell. All those who came with me have ceased to exist.”

The large collection of letters from the censors’ office reveals the strong emotions the soldiers felt as they faced the endless shelling and mortar fire. A wounded Garhwali soldier wrote to his friend in India: “As when the leaves fall off a tree and not a space is left bare on the ground, so the earth is covered with dead men and there is no place to put one’s foot…the whole world is being finished. We have been constantly fighting for six months, but we have not even seen the sun; day and night the rain has fallen; and the country is so cold that I cannot describe it.”

In April 1915, they faced the German gas attack in Ypres, tying their turbans over their faces to protect themselves. The soldiers were told to urinate on their turbans and cover their faces. Over eight-thousand lost their lives on the Western Front, blown apart by shell fire, buried alive in soggy collapsing trenches or choked by gas. Nearly five thousand were never found.

The Indians knew that their letters were being censored. They started using code language to avoid detection, referring to Indian soldiers as “black pepper” and English soldiers as “red pepper.” The censor board saw through this ploy. Lying in the archives in the British Library are letters from Indian soldiers that say: “The black pepper which has come from India has all been used up, and to carry on with I will (i.e. they will) now send for more men, otherwise there would be very little red pepper remaining, because the black is hard and there is plenty of it.” Another letter written by a Pathan soldier urges his friend: “When you write say that so many walnuts have fallen from the tree, and we shall understand.”

By the first winter of the war, the censors noted that the Indian soldiers were feeling low: “I am inclined to think that depression is spreading at the hospitals partly because the men who have recovered are now being sent back to the front.”

To many soldiers, the brutal war in Europe was inexplicable. They could not understand why white men were fighting white men. Most thought it was a war between three Emperors. All they knew was that they had to defend the King Emperor at all costs. They fought with honour for their regiment and the Jangi Laat, their commandant. They knew that if they returned as heroes with military honours, they would have done their village proud.

When Darwan Singh Negi of the Garhwal Regiment was awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery in December 1914, King George asked him to name his wish. Negi did not ask for money or land. He asked that a school be built in his village of Karnaprayag in Garhwal, so the local children could be educated. Negi, illiterate himself, knew what the next generation needed. The school — which was named the War Memorial School — still stands today.

The presence of the King, who personally presented the medals of honour to the soldiers and visited the Indian troops in hospital, boosted their morale and renewed their loyalty to the Crown.

Indian soldiers at Brighton Pavilion during ww1

Twelve Sikh soldiers posing outside the Royal Pavilion, 1915 / Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove.

Wounded Indian at Brockenhurst, 1914.

Wounded Indian at Brockenhurst, 1914.

Indian soldiers at Pavilion Hospital

Indian soldiers at Pavilion Hospital / Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove

Convalescent Indian soldiers in a ward in the Royal Pavilion, Brighton. Photograph, 1914/1918 / Wellcome Collection

When some of the injured soldiers were taken to England for treatment and housed in the Brighton Pavilion with its exotic interiors, the Indians believed that the King himself had given them his palace to live in. A Sikh soldier from 59th Rifles wrote to his friend in India: “Our hospital is in the place where the King used to have his throne. Every man is washed once in hot water. The King has given a strict order that no trouble be given to any black man in hospital. Men in hospital are tended like flowers and the King and Queen sometimes come to visit them.”

A letter written in January 1915 from a Subadar Major of the 6th Jats to a friend in India echoed similar sentiments: “Everything is such as one would not see even in a dream. One should regard it as fairyland…there is no other place like this in the world…A motor car comes to take us out. The King and Queen talked with us for a long time. I have never been so happy in my life as I am here.”

Though the soldiers were looked after well, there was a line drawn in the sand by their colonial masters. English nurses were not allowed to care for the Indian soldiers; their role was to remain supervisory. It led to protests from the Indians who said they were good enough to fight, but not good enough to be treated by English nurses. Nor could English ladies visit them. The English did not want any liaisons between lonely English ladies and the Indian soldiers. The Kitchener Hospital in Brighton was surrounded by high walls and barbed wire fences. The Indians were taken for walks under close supervision leading to protests and even a shoot-out at the hospital. One soldier referred to it as the “Kitchener Jail.”

As the war dragged on, the soldiers grew weary. There was despair that only those who had lost an arm and a leg had any hope of returning back home. A Gurkha soldier committed suicide at the Kitchener Hospital. “For God’s sake, Don’t Come, Don’t come to this war in Europe. Tell my brother, for God’s sake not to enlist,” wrote a soldier.

However, despite the harsh conditions and the loss of their comrades, most remained firmly loyal to the King Emperor and were not afraid of death. “It is the duty of young men to fight as lions in the field of battle,” wrote a young Pathan to his friend. “It is of no consequence — to die is one’s duty.” Another letter written by a wounded Dogra soldier from the hospital in Brighton echoed the sentiment: “We must be true to our salt and he who is faithful will win paradise for his parents as well as for himself.”

When they returned to India after over four years, medals of honour pinned on their uniforms, battered by what they had seen and experienced, they were changed men. Along with a sense of pride, there was a new awareness. The soldiers knew what it was like to live in a free land.

Barely five months after the end of the war, General Dyer fired on unarmed civilians in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, killing hundreds. Instead of gratitude for the role played by Indian soldiers — a majority of whom were from the Punjab — the British administration turned its guns on them. The relentless brutality united the nation in grief and anger and led to a rising tide of protests against British rule. The bullets fired by General Dyer would ignite the fight for freedom. It was the beginning of the end of the British empire in India. Twenty-eight years later, India would be independent. 


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