13.11 2018

As World War One commenced, close to 1.5 million soldiers from undivided India took part in it and around 74,000 soldiers lost their lives. This was the largest group from the British Commonwealth and the contribution of the Indian forces would be recognised through the 13,000 gallantry awards, including the first Victoria Cross in 1914. In all, the Indian forces got 11 Victoria Crosses and the troops saw action in the European, Mediterranean, Mesopotamian, North African and East African theatres of war. What stands out is that a diverse group from different faith and parts of India fought shoulder to shoulder with their British counterpart and the Allied forces. Apart from soldiers, India also provided animals, mostly horses and money and supplies were also raised here for the war.

The Indian soldiers experienced some of the worst trench fighting and stopped the German advance in 1914 at Ypres, Belgium and in Neuve Chappelle in France where over 4000 died. The British Indian army troops would face action in Gallipoli where 1,000 of them died and they fought the Ottoman Empire in Mesopotamia. In 1927, the Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial was unveiled remembering the Indian contribution to WWI. The British Government in India in 1931 commemorated the war by constructing the arch known as India Gate which was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. Many Indians are unaware that India Gate commemorates the soldiers who fell in World War I. Since 1971, the Amar Jawan Jyoti, or the Flame of the Immortal Soldier and Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which is also located at India Gate, also serves as the War Memorial where prior to the Republic Day Parade, the President, the Prime Minister and three Defence Chiefs pay homage to the fallen soldier.

While there have been war memorials built by the British to commemorate the Indian contribution to WWI, India has been lax in remembering its own people. Even during the independence movement and subsequently as well, India did not account for the sacrifices made by Indian soldiers in the British cause as they were seen as helping the imperial power. The contribution of Indian soldiers had been lost and it is being refreshed, recounted and remembered on the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the end of World war One.

The First World War came to an end with the signing of the Armistice on the 11th day of the 11th month (November) at the 11th hour of 1918. Since then, 11th November has been observed as Armistice or Remembrance Day in the US and Europe and the red poppy flower has been used since 1921 to commemorate the contribution of the military personnel who have died in war and recognise that peace was achieved due to a large sacrifice. Britain recognised the Indian contribution on this special 100th anniversary with Prime Minister Theresa May wearing a Khadi poppy. On this occasion, Lions of the Great War monument was unveiled in Smethwick, West Midlands and the 10-foot high bronze figure of a Sikh soldier is the UK's first statue of a World War soldier from South Asia.

India also reached out to recognise the contribution of thousands of Indian soldiers who fought valiantly and sacrificed their lives during the World War I. Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu on Saturday, 10 November inaugurated the first India-built war memorial in northern France - Villers Guislain . In a tweet he said. “It’s a great tribute to several thousands of Indian soldiers whose gallantry and dedication have earned worldwide recognition.”

At the Kohima War Cemetery in Nagaland, it reads, "When you go home, tell them of us and say/ For your tomorrow, we gave our today". Those are powerful words and a country should never forget the valour and courage of its own brave soldiers irrespective of where and when they fought and laid down their lives.