Over the past four years, in particular, London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM) has mounted a series of exhibitions underlining the extraordinary contribution by the man (and woman) power from across the empire to the global British war effort in World War I. As the IMW points out, ‘a total of nearly 8,586,000 men were raised for military and naval service. 20% of volunteers were from Africa, the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean, with the vast majority coming from India.’

This was replicated, of course, in World War II, belying Churchill’s famous, but misleading phrase of ‘Britain standing alone in 1940’, a myth which continues to find echoes in contemporary popular discourse and the tabloid press. In the lead up to Armistice Day on 11 November, senior research fellows at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies will reflect on the place and memorialisation of the Great War in specific areas of the modern Commonwealth, by those volunteers.

In this first post, Dr Balasubramanyam Chandramohan recalls how India’s enthusiasm to fight alongside the Allied forces soon turned to disappointment and in turn led to the rise of identity politics.

In India, the start of World War 1 generated ‘almost universal loyalty’. There was a great wave of enthusiasm, commitment and mobilisation of taxes, and voluntary donations by individuals and the rulers of princely states. People, money and materials were mobilised: 1,200,000 men (800,000 of whom were combatants), £100 million outright and £20–30 million annually, (The Oxford History of Modern India 1740-1947) not only to defend India, but also to fight alongside the Allied forces across different fronts overseas.

More important, the political leaders, including Mahatma Gandhi, were also supportive of the battle. They hoped that, once Britain won the war, as a reward for their loyalty and support Indians would get a bigger say in the running of the country and a greater level of self-rule. There was no conscription, but a large number of people joined the army to fight.

However, as it progressed, disappointment at the perceived lack of sufficient progress on self-rule, war-time economic changes, social and cultural changes caused by the churning of the war, and political mobilisation of different strata of society (and the government’s strategies to manage them), led to the rise of identity politics of religion/caste/language-region during and after the war. There were expressions of dissatisfaction, not always within the law (see pp 111–45 of David Arnold’s ‘Looting, Grain Riots and Government Policy in South India 1918’).

The war resulted in constitutional and governance arrangements that accommodated, but also contributed to, the articulation of nationalist and sub-nationalist identity politics. This eventually led to the emergence of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Within India, these arrangements contributed to linguistic reorganisation of states and constitutional provision for ring-fenced political representation, as well as the social and political advancement of marginalised castes and tribal populations.

Now largely forgotten, close to 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in World War 1, and more than 74,000 of them lost their lives. The memorials in India dedicated to the troops who lost their lives during the conflict include:

  • Delhi (The Delhi Memorial — India Gate)
  • Delhi (Teen Murti Memorial)
  • Kolkota (Calcutta): Bhowanipore Memorial, Cenotaph Memorial, Memorial to the 49th Bengal Regiment, Lascar Memorial
  • Chennai (Madras): Victory Memorial (‘Constructed by a committee of prominent and influential citizens of Madras’)
  • Mumbai: The Bombay (1914-1918) Memorial (for sailors from India, Aden and East Africa)
  • Pune (Poona): Kirkee War Memorial.

There are also memorials outside India in Europe, Africa and the Middle East that underline the diverse theatres of war in which troops from India fought. Although they were built to honour the World War 1 soldiers, they also served to remember the participants in later wars during and after the colonial period, a trend that can be noted in monuments in other countries too.

War memorials reflect not only the chronology of events but also the nature of warfare. They also embody contemporary concerns of later periods and inclusivity in terms of social divisions such as gender and region, recognising heroism on the battlefields as well as that of the home front.

Memorials, ceremonies and memorabilia also serve to symbolise changing relationships of combatants and their descendants to past historical events and personalities. For example, the Making a New World exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum narrates the story of the war in a manner that captures the experiences and views of a broad range of people, including that of Kaiser Wilhelm II who in July 1914 said: If we are going to shed our blood, England must at least lose India.

Post-colonial India’s memorialisation of World War 1 has varied between acceptance of the memorials (that included allowing the Commonwealth Graves Commission to maintain some War Memorials that honoured the fighters of the First World War) and finding new uses for memorials and memories.

The India Gate memorial, for example, provides the venue and backdrop for celebrating the sacrifice of the war dead, but also for demonstrating the military prowess of contemporary India during the Republic Day celebrations. The Teen Murti Memorial Chowk (Square) in New Delhi that celebrates the victory of three cavalry regiments from India in the battle for Haifa was renamed Teen Murti Haifa Chowk in 2018 reflecting, symbolically, India’s changing international relations with Israel.

The Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) and the United Service Institution of India have jointly undertaken the India and the Great War Centenary Commemoration Project. Begun in 2013, it aims to, among other goals, ‘use the centenary commemoration of the Great War as a medium to emphasise the sterling contribution made by the Indian Army towards the establishment of world peace’.

Memorialisation is about selective remembering. But as documented in David Olusoga’s ‘The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire’, that frequently includes selective amnesia. It has been argued that, for a variety of reasons, India and its soldiers’ contributions have not received their due recognition. See for example, Shashi Tharoor’s BBC News article and  ‘Indian soldiers’ valour during World War I has been overlooked; will it now be recognised?’ by Aditya Iyer in Firstpost. However, they also acknowledge that the authors Mulk Raj Anand, Rabindranath Tagore, and Sarojini Naidu deal with the war in their literary works.

Perhaps the most enduring of India’s contributions to World War 1 is cultural. It was a poem by Tagore, which greatly appealed to Wilfred Owen, arguably the best-known British poet of World War 1.

In his BBC article Shashi Tharoor, wrote ‘Indian literature touched the war experience in one tragic tale. When the great British poet Wilfred Owen (author of the greatest anti-war poem in the English language, Dulce et Decorum Est) was to return to the front to give his life in the futile First World War, he recited Tagore’s Parting Words to his mother as his last goodbye. When he was so tragically and pointlessly, killed, Owen’s mother found Tagore’s poem copied out in her son’s hand in his diary:

When I go from hence
Let this be my parting word,
that what I have seen is unsurpassable.
I have tasted of the hidden honey of this lotus
that expands on the ocean of light,
and thus am I blessed
— let this be my parting word.
In this playhouse of infinite forms
I have had my play
and here have I caught sight of him that is formless.
My whole body and my limbs
have thrilled with his touch who is beyond touch;
and if the end comes here, let it come
– let this be my parting word.

Dr Balasubramanyam ChandramohanDr Balasubramanyam Chandramohan (left) has taught at universities in the UK, Europe, Africa and Asia. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and of the Higher Education Academy.


Also in this ‘Armistice’ series:
South Africa in World War One
Used, abused and forgotten? The First World War’s Caribbean heroes
Adrift in the UK: colonial veterans at the close of the Great War
The ugly truth of Africa’s forgotten war dead