Screening of The Forgotten Army

Ambassador Ziegler hosts the screening of The Forgotten Army, a documentary by Delhi-based journalist Mandakini Gahlot.

New Delhi, 13 November 2018

In 2018, as the world commemorates the centenary of the Armistice of the First World War in November, H.E. Mr Alexandre Ziegler, Ambassador of France to India, hosted the screening of The Forgotten Army, a documentary by Delhi-based journalist Mandakini Gahlot, which explores India’s historic participation in the Great War, and the consequences of that participation on tuesday, 13th November 2018, at the Embassy of France.

Over a 100 years ago, nearly 1.5 million men from across India were recruited to fight in the greatest war humanity had ever witnessed. They were professional soldiers from undivided Punjab, engineers from Bengal, and labourers from the Northeast. They fought in every major theatre of the war in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and nearly 75,000 amongst them lost their lives. But, today, few remember them or their sacrifice – it’s almost as if they have been forgotten in the mists of time.

Indian politicians at the time unanimously supported the war. Mahatama Gandhi, who had returned to India from South Africa, supported the war effort mid-way through the conflict, and encouraged Indians to sign up in large numbers. The hope was that as a result of their sacrifice, Britain would look favourably upon India’s demand for home rule or dominion status. When that did not happen, the men who should have been seen as heroes were swiftly forgotten.

But, the story goes well beyond just those who travelled to the theatres of the war; it goes beyond combat troops to the very heart of India, whose borders and conflicts were changed forever as a result of the First World War. It was the first time that Punjabis, Rajputs, Tamils and others from Hindustan became aware of their shared Indian identity.

Led by military historian Rana Chhina of the United Service Institution of India, the film takes us from rural Punjab, where descendants recall stories of ancestors long gone, to the battlefields of France and Belgium, where Indians made exceptional sacrifices, to the hallowed halls of universities in England, where historians look for the lost Indian voices of the war.

Punctuating Rana Chhina’s quest are diverse voices, like India’s former Minister of State for External Affairs, Shashi Tharoor, curator of the In Flanders Fields Museum in Belgium, Dr Dominiek Dendooven, English military historian Tony McClenaghan, and Professor of English Literature at King’s College, London, Dr Santanu Das. Thanks to the support of the French military archive, ECPAD, the film brings to life the stories of the Indian soldiers through rare photographs and videos.

Finally, the film features the story of Lieutenant Harnam Singh, possibly the only complete written account by an Indian soldier who participated in the war. His memoir will be published in 2019, but extracts from it bring his story to a mass audience through this film.

Address of H.E. Alexandre Ziegler, Ambassador of France to India

Dear Mandakini,

Dear Squadron Leader Chhina,

Dear Friends,

It’s a privilege for me to host the premier of a documentary that comes at a significant time in history and that will, I am sure, touch you all.

At the outset, I would like to salute the work of military historian, Squadron Leader Rana Chhina, who has honoured us with his presence this evening.

The roots of this documentary can be traced back to the painstaking research conducted by Squadron Leader Chhina, whose own grandfather served in the War in East Africa, which first inspired him to start studying the subject as a young helicopter pilot in the Indian Air Force. At the head of the Centre for Armed Forces historical research, he greatly helped revive interest in India’s role in WWI, embarking as early as 2014 in four-year project on the crucial contribution of Indian soldiers to the Great war.

It was, in fact, Squadron Leader Chhina who found the diary of Lieutenant Harnam Singh, a soldier who served in France and Belgium, before heading to the Eastern Front. His story, which is a major part of this film, is brought to life through the sketches of artist Marie Astrid Montagnier.

As for you, Mandakini, that you are the filmmaker is not mere coincidence either. You, too, have personal links to the broader story being narrated. Your great-grandfather, Risaldar Major Hari Singh was one of over 1.3 million Indian men who served in the First World War as part of the British Indian Army and the French Army. In the Great War, more than 74 000 Indian soldiers lost their lives and we bow to them for their sacrifice.

In this year marking the centenary of the Armistice of World War I, we all pay tribute to these valiant men who came from all parts of India to fight for our freedom.

A couple of days ago, Vice-President, Shri Venkaiah Naidu was in France to participate in the commemoration and to the Paris Peace Forum. On this occasion, he inaugurated the Indian Armed Forces Memorial in the town of Villers-Guillain. May I add that this memorial was conceived and designed under Squadron Leader Chhina’s supervision. He and his team worked closely with the Mayor of Villers Guislain, with the architect, and the Indian sculptors for nearly two years to get it ready in time for unveiling just two days ago.

I was myself last weekend in Puducherry at our only Indo-French memorial India, to remember and honour those who sacrificed their lives for France.

This film thus comes at a time replete with history and memory. I warmly commend the work of Julien Dufau, Clément Gargoullaud, yours, of course, Mandakini, and that of your producer, Thomas Ellis, who helped this remarkable film see the light of day, and which I had the opportunity to watch in a sneak preview.

Your work, this work of keeping memory alive, is crucial. It is our way out of barbarism. Today, we are not celebrating a victory, but only peace. And we have to remember that peace is fragile and that the assaults of nationalism, of lethal ideology, that destroyed so many lives during the 20th century are not only part of our history.

Three years ago to this very day, Paris was attacked by terrorists. 137 people died, and more than 400 people were injured. My thoughts go out to the victims, their family and friends, whom we continue to remember today.

And now for the film that we have been waiting for - "India: The Forgotten Army”. Squadron Leader Chhina and Mandakini will take your questions on the documentary after the screening, and a reception will follow thereafter.

Thank you.

Last modified on 13/12/2018

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