WW1 Centenary - Tribute to Indian soldiers
The human faces behind the heroes: France’s tribute to Indian soldiers in WWI
A hundred years ago, almost down to the day, in late October 1914, two Indian infantry divisions - the Third (Lahore) and the Seventh (Meerut) – reached the Western Front in northeast France and Belgium to fight alongside French and British soldiers. On 28th October, fierce battles broke out in Neuve Chapelle with heavy losses. By the end of that year, around 28,500 Indian soldiers, enlisted in the British Army as part of the Indian Corps, came to fight on French and Belgian soils. They faced the severe winter of 1914-1915, then the brutality of war once again in Neuve Chapelle (March), Ypres (April), Festubert (May), and Loos (September). In all, from 1914 to 1918, around 90,000 combat and non-combat men fought for the freedom of France and Belgium, serving under the Indian Army and the Imperial Service Troops. Of them, 8500 died and 50,000 were injured. Numerous soldiers hailing from former French trading posts – now in present-day Puducherry – also fought in France. The names of those who died on the battlefield are engraved on war memorials in these former trading posts, and this military tradition is being carried forward in the French armed forces.
France will never forget the suffering and the heroism of these men. In 1927, Marshal Ferdinand Foch, Commander of Allied Forces in World War I, paid them a rich tribute: “Return to your homes, in your distant lands bathed in the light of the East, and proclaim out loud how your patriots spattered the cold northern lands of France and Flanders with their blood, how they liberated them from the clutches of the determined enemy, thanks to their quick-wittedness. Go and tell all of India that we must look upon their graves with the devotion that all our dead deserve. We shall cherish, above all, the memory of the examples they set. They hewed the path for us, it is they who took the first steps towards the final victory.”
On 11th November 2014 at the international memorial in Notre Dame de Lorette, President François Hollande will pay a solemn tribute to the 6,00,000 foreign soldiers who fell in World War I. Their remembrance remains deeply rooted in the memory of the French people, who recall the violence of the aggression and the magnitude of the sacrifice made to counter it.
During these commemorative events of the First World War Centenary, honouring the memory of these Indian soldiers will not be only about remembering their engagement. They will not be only a litany of battles, nor only a roll call of the dead. The commemorations will also be about gathering narratives so that, behind the valorous soldier, appears also the lives of these men who left their lands and their families behind to fight: Punjabis – who accounted for almost half the force – Pathans, Rajputs, Garhwalis, Gurkhas and many others. They will also be the re-reading of letters written by these soldiers; they will also be the collection of objects that bear witness to their passage to France.
These men lived through a period of not only extreme violence but also the sudden encounter of two worlds: India’s small landowners and a France whose countryside was ravaged by enemy fire, where women and children had to shoulder the tasks of the men who had left for the warfront. Apart from the sojourns in France by maharajas and political exiles during the Belle Epoque, the glorious period when peace and prosperity reigned and the arts flourished – which the War abruptly brought to an end – this was the first time that Indians came to live in such great numbers alongside the French, who, according to all accounts, extended them a warm welcome.
In 2015, we wish to continue this work of preserving memory and of respect by translating into English French works on Indian soldiers in France and by gathering objects and accounts of their lives for the major exhibition being organised by Roli Books. We are also delighted to support the Paris-based Indian filmmaker Vijay Singh, who is shooting a remarkable documentary on the lives of Indian soldiers in France, the brotherhood of arms created with French soldiers, and the close ties forged with the French civilian population.
Similar to those on the joint fight of French soldiers and Indian princes against the British in the 18th and 19th centuries, this work on Indian soldiers and World War I is important for the French and the Indian peoples to gain greater knowledge about each other. This part of shared history is a source of pride and mutual respect.