The Indian and Gurkha Contribution

In October 1914 a contingent of 20,00 soldiers arrived in France from the Indian subcontinent to fight for England. There is an irony in the willingness of these men to serve: They were fighting for freedom and yet they came from a country that itself was not free and independent.

The soldiers came mostly from the well trained Lahore and Meerut infantry divisions and from the Gurkha troops. They were fed into some of the heaviest fighting around Ypres and by early November were decimated by heavy losses – up to 50% wounded or dead in some cases. The fighting in the mud and cold or Europe came as a shock to the men used to fighting in Colonial wars. “ This is not war, this is the end of the world” wrote one man.

By November 1018 another 827,000 Indian soldiers had enlisted. They were heavily involved in action at Gallipoli, Mesopotamia and the Western Front. According to official figures 64,449 were killed.


Indian troops prepared for mustard gas attack

The early participation of the Indian troops is still subject to debate by military historians: some claim that 65% of wounds in the first weeks was self -inflicted, others state that this is inaccurate and, in fact, their number of court martial convictions for malingering was a fraction of that of British troops.

These soldiers were victims of racism – both casual and institutional. Although the Raj’ respected the fighting powers of the Indians, they were not allowed to become officers. To be an officer you had to be ‘pure British’ with no indian ancestry - and even then you were looked down upon by the British officers of the home army.

They enlisted and fought for many reasons. – For the money in some cases; because they believed that if they fought for the Raj they could more easily gain independence later; because they were forced to by local officials who had a quota to fill; to end the cycle of reincarnation and death and go straight to paradise; a sense of loyalty to King George V himself; and a strong desire to bring honour to their caste. One Sikh wrote home 'It is quite impossible that I should return alive. [But] don't be grieved at my death, because I shall die arms in hand, wearing the warrior's clothes. This is the most happy death that anyone can die'.

Return to Main Page