Both Remembrance Sunday or Armistice Day honour soldiers who fought and died for Great Britain. Many people know that the poppy, a national symbol of sacrifice and hope, and of its origin in literature.
Few people know of an epitaph on an Indian soldier’s grave in Kohima War Cemetery, which reads, “When you go home, tell of us and say/For your tomorrow, we gave our today”. It is difficult to find any literature, fiction or nonfiction, famous or otherwise, about the heroism of Indian soldiers in British conflict.
This is indicative of a larger issue; sacrifices made by colonial soldiers from India have historically gone unrecognised on Remembrance Day. As a result, many modern British citizens feel as though they cannot fully connect with the holiday, despite having grand and great-grandparents who fought in World War I and II.
In World War I, 1.3 million Indian soldiers fought on behalf of the British–the largest force from the empire. They were sent across Europe, the Mediterranean, and North and East Africa.
Soldiers from the Indian subcontinent faced the trenches and the German offensive long before other British soldiers did. Many regiments were also not provided with adequate weapons, armour, or instruction.
Sikh soldiers, despite being only 1% of the Indian population at the start of World War I, made up 20% of the British Indian Army. After being essential in battles such as Gallipoli, Neuve Chapelle and Ypres, history books promptly forgot their contribution and sacrifice.
However, in 2015, the National Memorial Arboretum unveiled the nation’s first Sikh memorial for the 130,000 soldiers who fought in World War I. In 2018, a statue memorialising Sikh soldiers was unveiled in Smethwick, only for it to be vandalised one week later.
Of the 1.3 million Indian soldiers who fought, 400,000 were Muslim. Despite this, there are many Britons who deny the brave contributions that Muslim soldiers made to the war effort. Many of these same Britons accuse Muslims of hating poppies, and not believing in British values. Ignorance to the contributions of Muslim soldiers also creates a sense of alienation from the memorials—one poll from 2015 reported that only 22% of the UK population knew that Muslims fought in World War I.
“Before I knew how much Indians contributed growing up I thought it was very much a white war,” said Dr. Irfan Malik, whose ancestors fought in World War I.
Despite a lack of nationwide knowledge about Indian soldiers’ sacrifices, Dr. Malik is hopeful about the future. He teaches in schools and at other organisations to highlight contributions made by Indian soldiers to the British war efforts. By spreading information about the past, he has hope for the future.
“I think it reduces hate between communities and helps community cohesion.” Said Dr. Malik. “If soldiers of different faiths could fight side by side 100 years ago, why can’t we get on as community groups now?”
Photo by Belinda Fewings on Unsplash.