India played a significant part in World War One. However, India’s part in the war is frequently overlooked as a result of the horrors experienced in trench warfare and by Europe’s tendency to home in on battles such as those fought at the Somme and Verdun, which many assume only Europeans fought in.

When was broke out in 1914, India was in a state of growing political unrest. The Indian National Congress had gone from being a group that simply discussed issues to a body that was pushing for more self-government. Before the war started, the Germans had spent a great deal of time and energy trying to stir up an anti-British movement in India. Many shared the view that if Britain got involved in a crisis somewhere in the world, Indian separatists would use this as an opportunity to advance their cause.

“The moment Britain gets into trouble elsewhere, India, in her present temper, would burst into a blaze of rebellion.” William Archer (author)

These fears were unfounded. When war was declared on August 4th, India rallied to the cause. Those with influence within India believed that the cause of Indian independence would best be served by helping out Britain in whatever capacity India could – including the Indian National Congress. Offers of financial and military help were made from all over the country. Hugely wealthy princes offered great sums of money, and even areas outside of British India offered help – Nepal offered help and in total sent 100,000 Gurkhas and the Dalai Lama in Tibet offered 1000 of his troops to the cause. Despite the pre-war fears of unrest, Britain, in fact, could take many troops and most of her military equipment out of India as fears of unrest subsided. Indian troops were ready for battle before most other troops in the dominions.

Indian troops were on the Western Front by the winter of 1914 and fought at the first Battle of Ypres. By the end of 1915, they had sustained many casualties. Along with the casualties from sickness, the decision was taken to withdraw the Indian Corps from front line duty at the end of 1915.

In total, 800,000 Indian troops fought in all the theatres of the war with 1½ million volunteering to fight. They fought in most theatres of war including Gallipoli and North and East Africa. In all 47,746 were classed as killed or missing with 65,000 wounded.

The Indian Corps won 13,000 medals for gallantry including 12 Victoria Crosses. Khudadad Khan won the Corps first Victoria Cross.

Such was the cost of the war, that India’s economy was pushed to near bankruptcy.

The Indian support given to Britain’s cause surprised the establishment in Britain. ‘The Times’ wrote:

“The Indian empire has overwhelmed the British nation by the completeness and unanimity of its enthusiastic aid.”

For its endeavours, India expected to be rewarded with a major move towards independence or at the least self-government. When it became obvious that this was not going to happen, the mood in India became more militant. During the last phases of the war Mahatma Gandhi said:

“Seek ye first the recruiting office, and everything will be added unto you.”

The British government’s post-war attitude quickly alienated Gandhi and was a great stimulus for his independence movement.

In 1919, the Government of India Act was introduced.

  • This introduced a national parliament with two houses for India.
  • About 5 million of the wealthiest Indians were given the right to vote (a very small percentage of the total population)
  • Within the provincial governments, ministers of education, health and   public works could now be Indian nationals
  • The act planned for a commission to be held in 1929, to see if India  was ready for more concessions/reforms.

However, the British controlled all central government and within the provincial governments, the British kept control of the key posts of tax and law and order.

Many in India felt that they had been badly let down by the British government for their part played in World War One. However, despite this feeling of being let down, India was to play a significant part in World War Two.

Related Posts

  • In 1900, India was part of the British Empire; but by the end of 1947, India had achieved independence. For most of the Nineteenth Century,…
  • The Dominions played a major part in World War One. Once Great Britain had declared war on Germany on August 4th 1914, not only was…