BANGALORE: There were about one million Indian soldiers who served in the First World War as a part of the British army. Of them, about 60,000 died and 9,000 were decorated for their valour. Yet, they remain unsung heroes, their sacrifices are not acknowledged in the post-colonial world. Their struggles and stories don’t find a place in history. The book Indian Voices of the Great War (Penguin India) aims to recount the stories of these forgotten heroes by opening a window onto the tremendous role that India played in Britain’s win in the Great War.
The 300-odd page book, edited by eminent historian David Omissi, is a collection of correspondence between Indian soldiers in Europe and their families and friends in the subcontinent, between the years 1914 and 1919. The letters, written in various Indian languages but translated for the purposes of the book, are powerful reminders of the different battles, raids and large-scale attacks upon the German lines and the weather conditions in various theatres of war.
Through the various letters we find out how some soldiers detested the war, likening the scale of it to the Mahabharata and the battle of Karbala. On the other hand, the manner in which some of the Indians resigned themselves to the inevitability of death, how stoically they reported stories of horror and carnage not wishing to cause distress to their families and friends, is moving. These letters also reveal the soldiers’ unflinching loyalty to the King and how the Rajputs, Pathans and others fought not for mercenary motives but to preserve their izzat. Importance was also placed on receiving decorations — especially of the Victoria Cross.
But their letters also prominently dwell on things other than the war. Several interesting stories about their day-to-day life in the faraway land stand out in this aspect: a soldier recalling his encounter with a friendly child who didn’t shy away from talking to him, another narrating to his father how ‘pleasant and beautiful’ the country of France was, how the fruits there were tastier than what you got in India, are wonderful reminders of ordinary things in face of the looming war. One soldier, towards the fag end of the war, expressed the benefits of educating a girl child, saying, “The advancement of India lies in the hands of the women; until they act, India can never awake from her hare’s dream.”
Talking about the book, a friend recently remarked, “This book will teach us more about the First World War than our textbooks did.” And this is not an exaggerated claim. The book is a unique and compelling account of the Great War by those who experienced it first hand.