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Indian Army's Role in World War I Is Not Without Significance

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters.

Indian soldiers in Mesopotamia in 1918

Indian soldiers in Mesopotamia in 1918

Indian cavalry in WWI

Indian cavalry in WWI


The first world war looks like a distant dream but it was a reality. In this war, the British Indian army made a very significant contribution to the Allied war effort.Sadly the effort of the Indian army and contribution has not been given the importance that it should have been given. An example is a celebration on 11 November 2018 marking 100 years of the end of the war and Allied victory.

During the last celebration, London was lit up to commemorate the event. In this entire celebration, the significant role of the British Indian Army was not highlighted. No Indian troops were called for a parade or other ceremonies. Many may not be aware that more than 1.5 million Indian soldiers of the British Indian Army fought against the German Empire in France and Italy where they made a meaningful contribution. Their major effort was in Mesopotamia and the Middle East where more than 800,000 Indian soldiers faced the Turkish Army. In a series of battles, the British Indian Army under the command of General Allenby broke the back of the Ottoman empire.

No ceremonies

The role of the Indian Army then called the British Indian Army in World War 1 is very significant. Unfortunately in India, nobody seems to be remembering the great contribution made by these soldiers. The Indian government and the Indian Army did not hold a single function to commemorate the role of the Indian Army in breaking the back of the Ottoman Empire as well as their contribution to the battles in France.

The Indian Army has all along claimed that it is the successor of the British Indian Army and traces its lineage to the days of the Raj. The articles of war 1893 enacted by the British form the basis of modern Indian military law enshrined in the Indian army act 1950. At the same time despite laying allegiance to a glorious past the same Indian army at the moment is loathed to remember the soldiers who fought for the British in World War 1.

A Mercenary army but...

There is no doubt that the British Indian Army was mercenary but at that time the British were the paramount rulers in India and they incorporated the Indian Army in their battle against Kaiser William II and the Central Powers. Photographs of the battles are available and writings of the British officers can be read, which paint a picture of the glory of the British Indian army in battles in Mesopotamia and France.

It is one of the tragedies of history that on the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War 1, the Indian Army has failed to acknowledge the glorious battles fought by its own soldiers in a foreign land that ensured victory for the allies.

Indian military engineers in Mesopatamia

Indian military engineers in Mesopatamia

Sikh troops on the march carry the Guru Granth

Sikh troops on the march carry the Guru Granth

Apathy of Nehru

It will not be out of place to enumerate some of the important campaigns in which the Indian army took part during World War I.The Indian army fought in the Middle East, Mesopotamia, and France.

Battles in Europe

The Indian infantry And cavalry play a significant part in the battles in Europe. Thousands of Indian soldiers died fighting the Germans and their graves are scattered all over France. The Indian army fought with distinction at the battles of Somme and Neuve Chapelle. At Ypres in particular Indian casualties were exceptionally high compounded by the shock of German chlorine gas in April 1915.Along with the casualties over 80,000 but taken as POWs.

Defeating the Ottoman Empire

The Indian forces had the greatest impact in West Asia with 60% of all allied troops being Indian. In battles against the Ottoman Empire, the brunt of the fighting was done by the Indian Army. Columns of engineers and foot soldiers worked hard in Mesopotamia to break the back of the Turkish Army.

The Ottoman Empire lasted for over 800 years. It was only after World War 1 and the contribution of the British Indian Army that the Ottoman empire collapsed.

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The apathy of Nehru and the Congress Party

The role of the British Indian army cannot be minimized. Yet it is hardly highlighted mainly because of the apathy of the Congress party led by Gandhi and Nehru. These men tried their best to minimize the contribution of the Indian Army in battles in the First World War. Nehru the undisputed leader at that time ultimately paid a heavy price for this policy. This policy boomeranged badly when China defeated India in the 1962 war.

The apathy of the Indian leadership to the deeds of the soldiers who died in France and Mesopotamia can be gauged from the fact that for seven decades no Indian political leader or prime minister ever visited the cemeteries housing the dead Indian soldiers. Neither did the Indian army organize any celebration for the dead in battles in France and Mesopotamia. This was broken by Narendra Modi who visited the graves of Indian soldiers buried in France in a solemn ceremony.

Facts and figures

This apathy is difficult to understand. India provided 1,73,000 horses, mules and camels for the war and recruited 14,40,437 men, sending 13,81,050 for service overseas, of whom 74,187 officers and men were killed and another 70,000 wounded. Of the killed, 13,516 names are inscribed on the India Gate Memorial in New Delhi, completed in 1933. This is only because at that time India was under Imperial rule.

India made a financial contribution of £100 million towards the overall war effort. India’s contribution was never fully acknowledged by Imperial Britain. Independent India remains indifferent to this legacy and almost downright ignoring this contribution. In fact, the Indian army denies this legacy on pressure from the Government which was mostly the Congress party government.

A woman pining flowers on Indian soldier in France

A woman pining flowers on Indian soldier in France

Last word

No awareness of the deeds of the soldier

There are not many in India who are not aware that the destruction of the Ottoman Empire in the battles during World War I is mainly because of the role of the British Indian army. The Indian Army's role in destroying an Empire that lasted for almost 1000 years cannot be wished away.

The last mail in the coffin of the Ottoman Empire was hammered by the British Indian Army, notably by the Punjabi Sikhs and Musalmans. It's a matter of great sadness that such a great event has been totally ignored in India by the government and worse by the army. The army at least should have held some functions to honor, what was one of the most momentous events in world history, namely the destruction of the Ottoman Empire.

The British also failed to acknowledge that the breakup of the Ottoman Empire was basically the handiwork of the British Indian Army.

Heritage of Indian army

The Indian Army is claiming a heritage of 250 years. If one claims such a heritage it obviously means you remember the battles of those 250 years. You cannot say that we remember the golden age but do not honor the men who fought in the battles. There is no doubt that the British Indian army at that time was a paid army for war but then one should accept the fact that the British were the rulers of India and the army had to be loyal to the ruler.

The British Indian Army now known as the Indian Army is one and the same thing. In fact, it is a seamless organization.

cross section of Indian soldier in WWI

cross section of Indian soldier in WWI

Sikh veterans of WWI

Sikh veterans of WWI

A perceptible change?

All is not bad however and there are some in England and the west who do recognize the contribution of the Indian army in the war against the Central powers, notably the Ottoman empire. Recently a statue of a Sikh soldier in complete battle regalia was unveiled and to the loud cries of Sikhs, the statute was installed. It was a tribute to the Indian soldier. The present Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his last visit to France made it a point to honor the graves of the Indians who had died in battle there. This is a refreshing change from past practices.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 31, 2020:

Thanks Tom, I was not aware that Dr Dast is the grandson of?Mir Dast the winner of the VC. Sadly he is in jail in Pakistan for helping give the location of Osama Bin Laden. This shows the fanatical mind of the government which Trump recognised.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 31, 2020:

Thanks Tom, Mir Dast won the VC at Ypres. He died in 1945.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 31, 2020:

Thank you Tom, you have literally raised so many points that do justice I will have to write a book. jallianwala incident is a sad reminder of the barbarity of the Raj. There was some coercion to join in Punjab which was the main recruiting Adena. Many rich farmers and mahrajas trucked poor farmers to join the army. Why even Gandhi in South Africa in the Boer war acted as a recruitment agent for the British. All said and done the Indian army won the war for the Allies. My point is they must be given recognition.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 27, 2019:

Thank you friend for commenting and bringing out points that add value.

Col Shamsher Singh on December 26, 2019:

This is one of the finest articles I have read about the lack of recognition by the Indian government of the performance and glory of the Army during World War I. Indian Army soldiers were transported from the heat of the subcontinent to the cold climate of Europe. It took them a little time to adjust but in the battles in France, it has been acknowledged by the chroniclers; the Army fought exceedingly well. Graves of many of the Indian soldiers who died in France is a living testimony to the battles fought. In one of the cemeteries, Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to acknowledge and honor when he laid a wreath there.

As far as the Middle East campaign is concerned it was entirely an Indian Army affair. The battles in modern Israel and Gaza as well as northern Iraq and the victory there was possible only with the troops of the Indian Army. I agree the army was a mercenary army but then what is wrong with it? After all armies in the world are mercenary there are no unpaid soldiers anywhere. I thank you, sir, for an excellent article on the subject and I do wonder whether the readers in the West will understand the gloriousness of the Indian Army in helping the Allies win World War I. It could not have been possible without the British Indian Army's contribution at all

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on December 05, 2018:

Thank you, Lawrence, for setting the record straight. I am glad you appreciate the role of the Indian army in WWI

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on December 04, 2018:


In the city where I live we have a permanent monument to the troops who fought at Gallipoli.

There are the flags of the nations who fought alongside the New Zealanders at Gallipoli, and the Indian flag flies proudly alongside the New Zealand, Australian, French and the Union Jack.

Kiwis have a way of remembering that everyone gave an equal share and deserves to be honoured for it.

Also, even today, in 2018 the soldiers of the most feared Regiment in the British Army (still the most feared fighting force around) are all from the subcontinent.

Sad that they don't get the same respect at home that they deserve.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on November 10, 2018:

Thank you for your comment

JD on November 09, 2018:

One of the finest article written on the role of the Indian army in WWI. Sadly this is barely acknowledged in the West and worse the "Dhoti" government of the Congress party ignored it totally. But I fail to understand why the Indian army failed to honor so significant an event. What is the ax it has to grind.?

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