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1914 – 1918
Indian Troops in Europe
by Santanu Das
Hardcover; 149 pp
 Published by Mapin Publishing Pvt Ltd., 2015
₹1850 / £24 / $39

Indian Troops in Europe by Santanu Das is a pictorial record of the lives of Indian troops on the western front between 1914 and 1918. It fills a void that had existed so far – that of limited literature on the contribution of Indian soldiers on the western front. The role of Indian troops had generally been neglected so far. This book presents, through photographs, a full picture of the Indian experience, from trench warfare to preparing chapatis at railway stations.

The year 2014 marked the centenary of the start of the First World war. This commemorative volume pays tribute to remember and honour the 138,608 Indians – including 1,923 officers, 87,412 other ranks and 49,273 non-combatants – who served in Europe between August 1914 and December 1919.

As Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, Lord Hardinge, the Viceroy of India, announced that India too was at war, without consulting Indian political leaders. Yet, within India the response from the native princes and the political elite was enthusiastic. Both the Indian National Congress and the All India Muslim League supported the war effort.

Bombay and Karachi were the two cities where soldiers from all over the country grouped to be sent to different theatres of war. On 26 September 1914, ships carrying the first of the Indian troops set sail for Marseilles – 24,000 men from two infantry divisions – renamed Lahore and Meerut – forming the Indian Corps. “Given how ill-equipped they were in comparison to German firepower and the little training they were given, The Indian Corps did a remarkable job. Lt Gen James Willcocks, under whose command they fought, reported to Buckingham Palace that the ‘marvel was how much the Indian troops have done and how willingly’. Evelyn Howell, the head censor of the Indian Mail, remarked how the Indian troops “suffered so much and complained so little.”

Of all the colonies in the British, French and German empires of the time, British India contributed the highest number of men – both combatants and non-combatants. Over a million served overseas during this period. Between 60,000 and 70,000 of these valiant men were killed. They won 9,200 gallantry awards, including eleven Victoria Crosses.

There is very little in the form of memoirs or war diaries of the sepoys, as most were illiterate or semi-literate. In the absence of written text, it is photographs that have captured a record of their lives in Europe - in trenches, fields, farms, billets, cities, railway-stations, hospitals, and prisoners-of-camps.

The book is embellished with over 100 such photographs, and interesting anecdotes, and is a very stimulating addition to First World War literature. It should especially appeal to enthusiasts of the First World War – and more importantly to all Indians to honour their countrymen who fought a war – that was not theirs.

About the author

Santanu Das, educated in Calcutta and Cambridge, is Reader in English at King’s College, London. He is the author of prize-winning Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature.


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