1 April 2019
Akrita Reyar

Medals and Bullets: The forgotten Indian soldiers of World War I

World War 1 was not India’s war. Yet British India contributed the highest number of men. As thousands of combatants headed to Europe for the first time, what were their experiences, their stories…

Indian soldiers with their guns at the World War I | Pic Credit: Akrita Reyar

What is in the past is also in the present; forms change but the reality doesn’t. War never has victors; irrespective of who claims to win, in all truism everyone loses. Men are consumed, or impaired; those families whose fates are intrinsically tied lose meaning or a future. Territories are claimed but not without the stain of blood; we may not hear those sounds, but there are always cries of agonies humming all around – the shriek of a falling legionnaire, a tortured sob rising from a bosom that yearns for a home thousands of miles away.
Does it matter which side lost more soldiers; stories on all sides reel about fragmented lives. Sometimes about pathos and pain, others about indomitable spirit and matchless heroism.

It was this gamut of emotions that presented itself to Angeli Sowani as she flipped through the pages of David Omissi’s ‘Indian Voices of the Great War’. The book contained letters of Indian soldiers during World War I and though these combatants were unlettered, their dispatches were not just literary pieces, but nearly “poetic”.

Inspired, she researched the subject and has now come out with an exhibition called ‘Medals and Bullets’ on display till March 24 at the Jehangir Art Gallery in Mumbai. The retrospective is a combination of rare old letters, archive posters, paintings inspired by them and old black and white photographs being displayed on a visual screen with melancholic music in the backdrop.

The impact of an event on a certain time frame can be measured by how deeply it gets entrenched into the prevailing ethos. WWI stamped itself all over the lives of Indians, particularly in some regions like Punjab where limericks about the war were constructed and sung.

One Punjabi folk song reads:

“May you never be enlisted
You who have left me crying
May you never be enlisted
You who leaves me at my parent’s house.
Write my name amongst widows
You who is off to Basra.”

World War I created widows, those who lost husbands and those who lived lives of widows, though their spouses still breathed on another hemisphere waging a battle that had little to do with the interests of India.

WWI was not India’s war, but the Colonial Masters enlisted 10 lakh regulars from India. Some joined out of naiveté, with the concept of namak and izzat deep-rooted in their hearts, some took it as a job prospect; others prided themselves with the fact that they would represent their White rulers, some joined because others in their village or their friends were applying.

For all of Rs 11 as monthly salary, they put their lives at stake, sacrificing all that they had to fight for the interests of another country. Initially, the adventure of exploring another land might have fascinated them. They had travelled beyond their villages for the first time. With amazement, they described the new countries, their people and the beautiful women, particularly the French who very easily bestowed favours upon them.

Soon enough many realised their folly and wrote letters back home advising others not to join. Wrote Havaldar Abdul Rahman to Naik Rajwali Khan of Balochistan: “For God’s sake don’t come, don’t come, don’t come to this war in Europe. Cannons, machine guns, rifles are going day and night, just like the rains in the month of Sawan. Those who have escaped so far are like the few grains left uncooked in a pot.”

A wounded Garhwali wrote to his elder brother, “…There are aeroplanes which move about dropping bombs and causing great havoc. They are like the great bird of Vishnu in the sky…..My dear brother, great damage has been caused to India. Nearly two hundred thousand men have been killed.”

It was a life of extreme hardship, earth-splitting canons were being fired all around; and then they encountered the deadly gas. Many did not know what was transpiring but their eyes, skin were burning – they experimented by putting urine on cloth and covering their faces to protect themselves from getting scorched. Some survived, many succumbed.

Amidst such traumatic circumstances, special bonds developed and rare friendships flowered. There was camaraderie and valour; the first Victoria Cross was won by an Indian.

One such braveheart Subedar Bahadur Mir Dast VC wrote, “The men who came from our regiment have done very well and will do so again. I want your congratulations. I have got the Victoria Crosses. The Victoria Cross is a very fine thing, but this gas gives me no rest. It has done for me.”

Finally, as the war ended, besides the thousands who perished, 9,200 gallantry awards were also won, and 11 Victoria Joins.

What was the final outcome, one wonders? Angeli Sowani who is herself half British and half Indian says, “I think there was a disappointment. Indians and particularly the soldiers felt that they did not get their due.” She also agrees that the disillusionment might have become one of the many stimuli that added to the energy of the Independence movement. The biggest irony she feels is the fact that it was Sikhs who perhaps participated in the largest numbers to wage a war on behalf of the Queen, and it was the Sikhs who became a target of the Empire as General Dyer ordered the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, very soon after the war ended.

Rabindranath Tagore who returned his honour of knighthood wrote poignantly, capturing the mood of the Indians: “The West comes to us, not with imagination and sympathy that create and unite, but with a shock of passion – passion for power and wealth – passion that is mere force, which has in it the principle of separation, of conflict.”

Essentially it is the problem of discord that metamorphoses but continues to exist in perpetuity. At the exhibition, Angeli Sowani was visited by a mother of a Kargil hero. She too had lost her son to war, albeit another one; but she deeply empathised with all those who must have lost their sons, brothers and husbands.

“I wish this would come to an end,” was her only hope and prayer as she left Sowani moved and transfixed.

The biggest folly then is that we ignore history at our own peril. And let it repeat itself, obliterating us and ravaging our souls, generation after generation.

All photos have been taken by Akrita Reyar.