Remembering the World Wars
Updated: May 8, 2021
The wars, in hindsight, have often been seen through rose-tinted glasses and biased perspectives. The atrocities are forgotten or used, as suits the agendas of whoever looks back into the past to justify the present. At the same time, soldiers and armies lose their individuality to become homogenised groups of singular ethnicity and shared ideologies.
Over 1 million soldiers from the Indian Subcontinent, a mix of Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims, and more, fought in WWI and around 2.5 million in WWII. Obviously, this was before the partition so the contributions didn’t come from a singular nation or peoples but it was a major one nonetheless. And one that often gets left out of the history books. There have been a few times when it does come back into current news and discussion only to have the story reduced to just that; the million Indian soldiers bravely doing their duty for the sake of Mother Britain.
(Images from the IWM online collection)
The whole story, of course, is much more complicated than that. It’s the story of soldiers whose country was no longer their own, who had to go fight strangers of another land for their colonial rulers. At the same time, the people who didn’t join the army would work to help provide supplies for the war effort whilst receiving nothing in return. It not hard to understand why some of the people of the Indian Subcontinent were then convinced to rebel against their erstwhile rulers and join the side of the Axis. After all, the enemy of your enemy could be your friend, even if some parts of their ideologies have to be ignored. In other cases there were those who felt pride in their place as soldiers. In this light, it may be understandable why there are not as many World War dedications in the South Asian nations, as many may still these wars as colonial wars. To some, these wars that young Indian men and some women were essentially forced to take part on behalf of their oppressors. Whether they truly believed in the cause or not, it their bravery cannot be denied and in many cases, their prowess and good training have been documented in firsthand accounts.
Units of Indian soldiers fought all over the world, not only on the European stage but also in the Middle East and Africa. Many had low positions in the army e.g. Mule Company. And this was especially true in WW1, where it was almost impossible for any to hold positions of ranks comparable to their European counterparts. This had begun to change in WW2 where their efforts became more vital on all war fronts. It was on their own soil, however, that arguably one of their greatest martial achievements of WWII occurred. The Battles of Kohima and Imphal (now located in modern-day India) in 1944, although largely overlooked by the West in favour of European battles, has never been forgotten by the Japanese who see it as their greatest defeat.
In the end, when compared to their western counterparts, there was not much to remember their brave sacrifice. Whether in modern Pakistan or in Europe. It is only in the past decade where there has seemed to be a resurgence of interest in this area of history and an acknowledgment to the large part played by all the colonial soldiers and peoples in the times of the two World Wars. There are a small number of cemeteries around Pakistan occupied solely by the war dead. Some are for foreign soldiers and given the name ‘gora qabristan’ or white (persons) graveyard. Examples include the Karachi and Rawalpindi War Cemeteries managed by CWGC (Commonwealth War Graves Commission). The village of Dulmial has its own reminder of the war, a twelve-pounder British cannon mounted on a plinth given in recognition of the extraordinary contribution to the war effort by the village specifically. The man responsible for this was Captain Gulam Mohammad Malik, a career soldier, who chose to have the efforts of Dulmial’s soldiers commemorated, eschewing offers of money and other rewards. As well as this, the village has its own historian and small museum aimed at gathering stories and remembering Dulmial’s past. In 2018-2020 various statues and plaques have been placed in the UK to remind people of this commitment. As well as act as a reminder to those who would prefer to homogenise and sanitise history to fit their narrative.
It is vitally important that history, especially which of the 20th century, moves away from the Western-centric point of view to one that fairly represents all sides. In 2019, the film 1917 was released and in it, I saw some of the first Indian faces I have ever seen depicted in Western War films. I was glad about this but it is never enough. I can only hope that the efforts of those bringing the stories of these soldiers do not go to waste. And that in the future we have a richer understanding of their experience. There is such a wealth of stories that can still be unearthed and I look forward to them being told but this must be done sooner rather than later before they are lost forever.
N.B In April 2021 a UK inquiry found that 'pervasive racism' played a part in the failure to commemorate the Black and Asian Commonwealth war dead.
Sources and Extra Reading:
Basu, S., Bhattacharya, S., & Keys, R. (1999). The Second World War and South Asia: An Introduction.
BBC News. 2020. Has India's Contribution To WW2 Been Ignored?. [online] Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-33105898> [Accessed 2 November 2020].
Ceesay, A., 2017. Reclaiming Remembrance: 'I Thought It Was A White Event'. [online] BBC News. Available at: <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-41917784> [Accessed 2 November 2020].
Nam.ac.uk. 2019. Battles Of Imphal And Kohima | National Army Museum. [online] Available at: <https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/battle-imphal> [Accessed 2 November 2020].
Noble, M., 2014. The Dulmial Gun – The Centre For Hidden Histories: Community, Commemoration And The First World War. [online] Hiddenhistorieswwi.ac.uk. Available at: <http://hiddenhistorieswwi.ac.uk/uncategorized/2014/09/the-dulmial-gun/> [Accessed 2 November 2020].
Pacific Atrocities Education. 2020. India’S Involvement In World War II. [online] Available at: <https://www.pacificatrocities.org/blog/indias-involvement-in-world-war-ii?gclid=CjwKCAiA-f78BRBbEiwATKRRBKjmaLv7edq3pcv1cSprEik_ocygprSjPs_dH-QXwkciNBaZE7XT9xoCHQgQAvD_BwE> [Accessed 2 November 2020].