Over a million South Asian men served in the Indian Army during the First World War. These soldiers came from modern-day Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burma (Myanmar), India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. In 1914, Bangladesh ,Burma, India, and Pakistan were all called India. As well as troops, India contributed 170,000 animals (including horses, camels and mules), 3.7 tonnes of supplies and stores (including military hardware, cotton and grains), and by 1918-1919 its total net military expenditure amounted to £121.5 million.
Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus all fought during the War and saw active service as infantrymen, cavalrymen and in non-combatant roles. South Asian men served in France, Belgium, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and East Africa. Troops of the Indian Army made up half the attacking force at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in 1915.
Most South Asian soldiers did not read or write, so letters were usually written by scribes and then read aloud. The British Army had a team of censors that monitored letters being sent home but the soldiers quickly worked this out and resorted to coded language. Most codes were deciphered fairly easily however some more subtle ones would have eluded the censors. The chief censor produced a weekly report commenting on the contents of the letters.
Sarojini Naidu - 1879–1949
Sarojini Naidu was a distinguished poet and spent much of her life campaigning for Indian independence. She was known as ‘the Nightingale of India’ and was the first Indian woman to be president of the National Congress. The Gift of India reflects Sarojini’s love for her country and reminds us of the sacrifices made during the First World War.
The British Indian Army tried to recruit from areas where they believed men were better suited to war. They preferred men from hilly, colder regions such as the Gurkhas, Punjabi Sikhs and Muslims, and Rajputs from what is now Northern India. They called people from these regions the ‘martial races’.
Men who the British did not view as ‘martial races’, served in non-combatant roles. They ensured food, water, and medical supplies arrived to the front line, and faced danger and death just like the fighting soldiers. About 600,000 South Asians served as non-combatants. These included the Supply and Transport Corps, the Bengal Ambulance Corps, and the Pioneer units.
The Gift of India
Is there ought you need that my hands withhold,
Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold?
Lo! I have flung to the East and the West
Priceless treasures torn from my breast,
And yielded the sons of my stricken womb
To the drum-beats of the duty, the sabers of doom.
Gathered like pearls in their alien graves
Silent they sleep by the Persian waves,
Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands,
They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands,
they are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance
On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France
Can ye measure the grief of the tears I weep
Or compass the woe of the watch I keep?
Or the pride that thrills thro' my heart's despair
And the hope that comforts the anguish of prayer?
And the far sad glorious vision I see
Of the torn red banners of victory?
when the terror and the tumult of hate shall cease
And life be refashioned on anvils of peace,
And your love shall offer memorial thanks
To the comrades who fought on the dauntless ranks,
And you honour the deeds of the dauntless ones,
Remember the blood of my martyred sons!