The Memory of Indians in Flanders Fields

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British and Indian officers of the 57th [Wilde's] Rifles [Estaires La Bassée Road, France]. 6 August 1915
It was at school in Goa that we first read John McCrae’s1 popular war poem, In Flanders Fields. Much as the history teacher emphasized its historical contexts, the English miss to drove home the literary devices within its poetic verse. While the recitation of the poem did convey a certain sense of melancholy for soldiers who were long dead and yet wished to keep their memory alive; for us kids — and as I now recollect — these events felt so unrelated to us at that time, that its meanings were romanticised for places far away. However, over time one realises how these very meanings change, as well as convey different attitudes to different peoples.
The Grootebeek British Cemetery in West Flanders houses seven graves of Indian soldiers.
The Grootebeek British Cemetery in West Flanders houses seven graves of Indian soldiers.
Last weekend, I joined our university research unit on South Asia for a fieldtrip to Flanders Fields, one of the major battlefields on the Western Front of the First World War. What was of particular interest during this fieldtrip was to trace some of the memorials commemorating the lives of Indian soldiers — here implying South Asian soldiers from the Indian subcontinent during the British Raj. Tracing these memorials did not stem so much from an imagined or collective identity that we shared as South Asians, but more from investigating the representations of these memories. Elizabeth Buettner has examined on how colonial-era European cemeteries in India, that while being in dilapidated conditions, embody a sense of British Raj nostalgia within British public memory and culture. However, as Indian attitudes toward the heritage of the colonial-era British Raj change over time, British engagement with its own imperial history and heritage portend an uncertain future for these sites of memory. As Buettner further notes,
As such, European funerary architecture and cemeteries demand to be viewed as sites of struggle over which the meanings and value of South Asia’s colonial legacy for different parties are contemplated or contested — or, alternatively, forgotten altogether, retaining “no meaning at all.”2
While colonial cemeteries in India remain sites of struggle over their embodied meanings, gravestones of the colonised within the coloniser’s own territory entrench their struggle for memory and meaning.
First line transport of a Gurkhas Battalion in Flanders (near Le Sart, France). 24 July 1915
First line transport of a Gurkhas Battalion in Flanders (near Le Sart, France). 24 July 1915
During the First World War, the British Empire, which formed a part of the Allied Forces, mobilised around 8.7 million soldiers.3 The Indian Army itself recruited 1.4 million troops4 through seven expeditionary forces5 which fought along with the British Expeditionary Force.  The Indian Expeditionary Force A (IEFA) that fought on the Western Front in Flanders and France consisted of 85,000 combatant and 26,000 non-combatant troops.6 Of the 60,000 Indian casualties,7 almost 9000 of them had died in Belgium and France.8 Walking through the Grootebeek British Cemetery, the Bedford House Cemetery, the Tyne Cot Cemetery9 & Memorial and later winding our way to the Menin Gate in Ypres (Ieper, in Dutch) for the Last Post, one is gradually made to come to terms with the sheer loss of life during the Great War. What was meant to be a European war soon grew into a global war involving empire and colony10 that is estimated to have claimed the lives of 8.5 million troops and a further 13 million civilians.11
War veterans and visitors honour the memory of soldiers killed in the First World War at the Menin Gate in Ypers (Ieper).
War veterans and visitors honour the memory of soldiers killed in the First World War at the Menin Gate in Ypers (Ieper).
Talking about numbers, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) that commemorates the lives of 1.7 million Commonwealth forces12 of the First and Second World Wars lists 18,790 records of Indian troops during the First World War.13 Among these, Belgium houses 467 Indian memorials14 while France likewise honours 8,028 Indian troops.15 If one takes into account CWGC’s own statistics above, there appear to be about 500 missing Indian troops. Walking through these three cemeteries itself, there appear to be quite a number of unidentified graves belonging to “A SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR / KNOWN UNTO GOD”, apart from “AN INDIAN SOLDIER OF THE GREAT WAR”. That soldiers with their own personal histories and motivations of joining a faraway war for the coloniser should be obviated from memory, is only one form of forgetting. The meanings that this expedition would have helped valorise their lives as brave soldiers are now lost within a collective forgetting in the form of the unknown soldier. The cessation of their own personal histories that would have otherwise brought meaning to their lives have been transmuted — they sought memory by fighting, but in fact now lie forgotten, or even, erased from memory. If memory has at all to be recovered, it is as an unknown.
The Bedford House Cemetery houses eight Indian graves some of which remain unidentified.
The Bedford House Cemetery houses eight Indian graves some of which remain unidentified.
But among the memorialised Indian gravestones and memorials,16 there is more to be read in their Indian imaginaries as race, ethnicity, class and caste informed the nature of its memorialisation. While the officers of the British Expeditionary Force were drawn from upper-class families within British society; their peers within the Indian Expeditionary Force while also being British were drawn from modest middle-class families of English clergymen, small businessmen or minor landlords, and were in turn disparaged by the former as their social inferiors. Similarly, soldiers within the Indian Army were recruited from a selected group of castes and ethnicities whom the British classified as ‘martial races’.17 The French conscription of its forces from the colonies also drew from similar distinctions of its peoples: races guerrières and races non-guerrières.18 While these martial races were largely drawn from peasant classes who wished to escape their own social conditions, even if it meant for a subsistence pay of Rs. 11 per month, their social relations during and after the war were inscribed by colonialism and racism. While colonial soldiers were denied promotions within army ranks, they were subject to racist stereotypes such as being savage or at best lacking in qualities of their European masters.19 Such attitudes continued in the post-war period as colonial soldiers were hardly the subject of celebration. While individuals like Sepoy Khudadad Khan, Naik Darwan Singh Negi, Rifleman Gobar Singh Negi, Jemadar Mir Dast, Rifleman Kulbir Thapa and Lance Dafadar Gobind Singh were honoured with a Victoria Cross for their bravery on the Western Front, it wasn’t until 1927 that individual soldiers with no graves were commemorated at the Neuve-Chapelle Memorial in France.20 Far less commemorated still, are the role of the non-combatants who assisted the war efforts in the field.
The trench notebook of Jemadar Mir Mast, 1914-1915
The trench notebook of Jemadar Mir Mast, 1914-1915
While India having contributed the largest number of troops for the British war efforts, war writings by Indian troops are very scarce say as compared to those penned by a British Tommy. One of the reasons for this lacuna was that many of the Indian troops were semi-literate. Some notable exceptions are a trench notebook by Jemadar Mir Mast21 and a couple of letters like the one by Ram Sing to his father Subadar Madhun Sing.22 While the trench notebook contains Urdu and English words in translation apart from a trench map and a few notes, the letters were recorded and written in English while being censored by British officials. Thus as letters by Indian troops were being sanitised by officials and recorded in English rather than being written in their own native languages, they contained little space for free expression. This is in contrast to letters written by British soldiers who did not always have to pass through such channels. Compare, for example, the letter of J B Priestly23 to that of Ram Sing and how the former was afforded the liberty to write from his affections. Therefore as war memories and writings by Indian troops were mediated through colonial censorship, they also implicate a colonial silence on the voice of the colonised and consequently on how his memory and meaning be represented.
A post in the trenches held by Dogras, and an Indian Cavalry machine gun section (near Fauquissart, France) 9 August 1915
A post in the trenches held by Dogras, and an Indian Cavalry machine gun section (near Fauquissart, France) 9 August 1915
True, the contribution of the Indian soldiers has been celebrated in some European war accounts especially for their role in the battle of Neuve Chapelle and the Second Battle of Ypers — in spite of being ill-equipped with warm clothing, outdated arms and lack of technical training for trench warfare. But that writing on Indian soldiers has also come with much criticism, sometimes rightly deserved, but otherwise also accompanied by colonial stereotyping as also being deemed as failures.24 Hence while memory and meaning of the Indian troops during the First World War need to be recovered through their colonial pasts, one might well seek to memorialise them from our present. Apart from their valour, they need to be seen as actors who were instrumental within a larger historical narrative of twentieth-century India that displaced its colonial pasts and emerge as a new republic.
A memorial in honour of the Gorkha soldiers at the Menin Gate in Ypers (Ieper).
A memorial in honour of the Gorkha soldiers at the Menin Gate in Ypers (Ieper).
Recovering the memory and meaning of Indian soldiers in the First World War could then also well begin by a reading of Sarojini Naidu’s The Gift of India.
Is there ought you need that my hands withhold, Rich gifts of raiment or grain or gold? Lo! I have flung to the East and West Priceless treasures torn from my breast, And yielded the sons of my stricken womb To the drum-beats of duty, the sabres of doom. Gathered like pearls in their alien graves Silent they sleep by the Persian waves, Scattered like shells on Egyptian sands, They lie with pale brows and brave, broken hands, They are strewn like blossoms mown down by chance On the blood-brown meadows of Flanders and France. Can ye measure the grief of the tears I weep Or compass the woe of the watch I keep? Or the pride that thrills thro’ my heart’s despair And the hope that comforts the anguish of prayer? And the far sad glorious vision I see Of the torn red banners of Victory? When the terror and tumult of hate shall cease And life be refashioned on anvils of peace, And your love shall offer memorial thanks To the comrades who fought in your dauntless ranks, And you honour the deeds of the deathless ones, Remember the blood of my martyred sons!

  1. Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae was a Canadian army physician and poet who served as a doctor during World War I in the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium. He penned this poem following the death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. 
  2. Elizabeth Buettner, “Cemeteries, Public Memory and Raj Nostalgia in Postcolonial Britain and India”, History and Memory, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring/Summer 2006), pp. 5-42. 
  3. While army statistics differ widely, almost half the army that fought for the British Empire was recruited from its colonies: India, Canada, Australian and Tasmania, New Zealand, South Africa, the West Indies, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and other dominions. 
  4. Rana Chhina, Last Post: Indian War Memorials Around the World, (New Delhi: Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research / United Service Institution of India, 2014), p. 6. 
  5. The seven Indian Expeditionary Forces included the IEF A (to Europe), IEF B (to British East Africa), IEF C (to Zanzibar and Uganda in east Africa), IEF D (to Mesopotamia), IEF E (to Egypt), IEF F (to Egypt). 
  6. George Morton-Jack, The Indian Army on the Western Front India’s Expeditionary Force to France and Belgium in the First World War, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), p. 1. 
  7. Rana Chhina, Last Post: Indian War Memorials Around the World, p. 16. 
  8. Commonwealth War Graves Commission, India and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, ( (accessed 29 June 2019). 
  9. The Tyne Cot Cemetery and Memorial is the largest Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery in the world and houses the remains of more than 11,900 servicemen of the British Empire who are commemorated here. More than 8,370 burials remain unidentified. However, among those identified, there are no Indians within this cemetery. 
  10. Hew Strachan, “The First World War as a global war”, First World War Studies, 1:1 (2010), pp. 3-14. 
  11. John Graham Royde-Smith, Dennis E. Showalter, “World War I”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, (accessed 29 June 2019). 
  12. Commonwealth War Graves Commission, (accessed and updated on 26 July 2019) The CWGC database reveals 1,741,705 records for the First World War (1,075,056) and the Second World War (666,649). These include troops who served with the United Kingdom (1285468), Indian (160955), Canadian (110389), Australian (102985), New Zealand (29991), South African (23362), German (16985), Polish (4403), Dutch (3839), Belgian (671), Russian (671), Italian (640), Greek (391), Norwegian (244), Bulgarian (225), Czechoslovakian (199), American (117), Austrian (106), Arab World (20), Romanian (20), Portuguese (15), Hungarian (6), Finnish (2), Brazilian (1) armies. 
  13. Commonwealth War Graves Commission, (accessed 29 June 2019). 
  14. Commonwealth War Graves Commission, (accessed 29 June 2019). 
  15. Commonwealth War Graves Commission, (accessed 29 June 2019). 
  16. To begin with, one has to note that while several of the dead were cremated as per Sikh or Hindu religious rites — and thus have no graves — Muslims and others tended to be buried. Sikhs and Hindus are honoured on the memorial walls. 
  17. These included Muslim-dominated Pathan tribes – Afridis, Orakzais, Mahsuds, Waziris, Khattaks and Yusufzais – from the North-West Frontier Province; the Hazaras from central Afghanistan and now settled in Baluchistan; Punjabi Muslims like the Gakkhar and other northern Punjabi clans. From among the Hindus were Dogras of Kangra and Jats of Rohtak, both Punjabi, and Garhwalis from the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. The Sikhs included Jats and Muzbees of the Gujranwala and Lyallpur districts of central Punjab. There were also Magars, Gurungs and other Gurkha tribesmen from Nepal. (George Morton-Jack, pg. 3). 
  18. George Morton-Jack, pp. 1-27. 
  19. Santanu Das (ed), Race, Empire and First World War Writing, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 1-32. 
  20. Rana Chhina, pp. 5, 16-27. 
  21. Mir Mast, “Jemadar Mir Mast’s Diary,” 1914-1915, Cultural Exchange in a Time of Global Conflict, (accessed 29 June 2019). 
  22. Ram Sing, “Excerpt from letter from Ram Sing to his father Subadar Madhun Sing,” May 1915, World War One, British Library, (accessed 29 June 2019). 
  23. J B Priestly, “Letter from J B Priestley from the trenches, 1916,” Priestley’s Great War letters home, 1 January 1916, J.B. Priestley Archive, Special Collections, University of Bradford, (accessed 29 June 2019). 
  24. George Morton-Jack, pp. 9-19, 299-305. 

Rinald D'Souza

Rinald D'Souza is a historian of religion and society in modern South Asia. He specialises on twentieth-century Christianity and the history of the Jesuits in India. He is presently pursuing a PhD in history at the Department of History at KU Leuven, Belgium. His current research explores the self-fashioning of Adivasi Jesuits through the missionary periodical press. Read more.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Billy Lee .

    In Flanders fields the poppies blow
    Between the crosses, row on row,
    That mark our place; and in the sky
    The larks, still bravely singing, fly
    Scarce heard amid the guns below.
    We are the Dead. Short days ago
    We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
    Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
    In Flanders fields.
    Take up our quarrel with the foe:
    To you from failing hands we throw
    The torch; be yours to hold it high.
    If ye break faith with us who die
    We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
    In Flanders fields.

    One of the most poignant reminders of World War I is the moving poem, ‘In Flanders Fields’, written by John McCrae, a Canadian army doctor, following the death of his close friend and compatriot Lieutenant Alexis Helmer. Helmer was killed on 2 May 1915 when a shell exploded during the second German gas attack. In the absence of a chaplain, McCrae conducted the funeral service for his friend himself. Grief and the trauma of war inspired his poem.
    Billy Lee .

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