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Soldiers from the subcontinent and the World War

It must seem odd that I am writing about the role of a country in war, which started 29 years before its conception and even stranger that it fought on the side of the Imperial power that ruled over it. However, as we approach Remembrance Day it is important to note that the subcontinent has a great story to tell when it comes to World War 1.

When Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, sparking the Great War, Pakistan didn’t exist, neither did Bangladesh and nor Sri Lanka. All these countries belonged to an entity commonly known as British India. When the dominoes of disaster began to fall in Sarajevo, the ripples would be felt vividly in the foothills of the Himalayas, the banks of the Indus and even the administrative offices of Delhi.

The assassins of the Archduke were Yugoslav nationalists and of course India had belonged to Britain for many decades by this point. The Indian Independence movement was slowly building momentum and the War provided an unforeseen obstacle to its progress. Britain would hardly divert its attention from fighting the Kaiser to assuage the concerns of Indians at this time of crisis, and the Indians were astute to this. Hence a decision was made by the political class of India to aid its ruler in its efforts in the War in the hope that the reward at the end would be the prize of Home Rule.

First World War

The Indian force, on the advent of War, significantly outnumbered the British army. It stood at 1.3 million soldiers, who were swiftly deployed to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. In fact, there is a strong argument to say that the resources of British India were very much key to the eventual success of Britain and her allies. Food was sent to the front line from the very Nawabs the British had so successfully manipulated to their own advantage in the preceding decades. My grandmother even tells me tales of her aunts knitting sweaters that eventually found their way to the battlefields of France where so many Indians perished.

First World War
Regarding Pakistan, the achievements of Pakistani provincial military regiments are just one of many successes in their notable history of combat. There are many accounts that praise the contributions of the Punjab, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces. Soldiers who served from these regions displayed an exceptional sense of duty, vigour and resolve when it came to battle according to British contemporaries. To my mind, it is hard to fathom the sheer weight of the sacrifice of the soldiers of India. A teenager born in an isolated village of Punjab who had never seen the sea would be sent across oceans to fight in an alien place with an unfamiliar climate and almost inevitable consequences which included no contact with their families. Nevertheless, these Pakistani provinces constituted 80% of India’s army and were generating 70,000 recruits a year by 1916. 74, 000 Indians paid the ultimate price in the War, 13,000 medals were granted to them and many more were deserved.

So did the Indians get the reward for their immense sacrifice? No. The British returned in an unyielding fashion and gave only token confessions. This attitude paved the way for Independence as the relationship between Britain and those whom it ruled soured from being amicably allied to scorn. History would repeat itself in 1939 but this time India’s main political parties were divided. The Muslim League cooperated with Britain’s struggle against Hitler’s tyranny while Congress demanded Independence first. Nevertheless, India’s army was the largest all-volunteer force ever assembled and sure enough it fought valiantly for King and Country once again. In the aftermath, Britain’s option to be stubborn was taken away. Crippling debts finally granted Pakistan and India the sought after prize of freedom.

First World War

Since India stopped fighting the battles of others’, it has found ample reason to fight amongst itself. Pakistan and India have been plagued with a relationship punctuated with hostility and suspicion. The two nations have been to war 4 times and have inflicted wounds upon those with whom they once fought side by side. This sad tale continues as no sign of diplomatic friendship emerges.
So this remembrance day I would ask all those readers to remember fondly those who have died in the name of a just cause, but also ponder over the lives that have been ended for no good reason and perhaps taint their opinions of war with the thought of the individual sacrifice which is at stake. We must remember the heroes of the past in order to shape a world where there is no need for heroes anymore.

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