Skip to main content

This year marks the start of remembrance for World War I and the Swadhinata Trust are pleased to be able to post this writing by Emma Bonne.

Remembering The Heroes: The Indian and Bengali Soldiers of  WWI and WWII

August this year marked the anniversary of the WWI, one of the bloodiest conflicts in history. By its end, the war had claimed the lives of over 9 million soldiers, from countries all over the world, leaving a staggering 21 million wounded. Skimming over the history books, and remembering back to history classes in school, we tend to find the main focus of the War lies on the exploits of German and British battles, stories, and soldiers. Perhaps this is in part due to the sheer scale of the conflict. There were over 30 countries involved, from Haiti, Costa Rica, Nepal, Romania, to British India, which at the time consisted of India, Bangladesh, Burma, and Pakistan. Many from these countries gave their lives, and it is the exploits of the Indian and Bengali soldiers in particular, and their contribution to the war effort, that often remains hidden in the pages of history, and the same can be said for WWII.

Indian and Bengali Forces in the Wars

The Indian forces in WWI were the largest volunteer forces in the world. By 1918, the number of troops consisted of well over 500,000 men. Overall, India forces, including Bengalis, contributed over 1 million soldiers to the conflict during it’s course. This figure can be put into perspective when we consider that the British force, consisting of soldiers from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales at the time numbered in the region of 5 million. Indian troops were unquestionably played a major role in the fighting, mainly engaged with the Ottoman Empire in the Northern Fronts, and in the then named Mesopotamia region. Additionally, many Indians, and Bengalis in particular, served aboard the war ships, and merchant vessels fundamental to keeping the supply lines of British forces flowing. The war however, presented many troops with a unique challenge. The Ottoman Empire was a devout Muslim authority, and for those Bengali and Indian troops fighting on the Mesopotamian front, choosing between their loyalty to Islam, or the then King of England was extremely trying, and apart from select few sources of information, little is known about the general feelings and experiences of the troops in this theatre.

By the start of WWII, the Indian Army in general was not only much smaller in size, but a much more battle hardened and experienced force. After the end of the first world war, many servicemen, including Bengalis, settled in Britain, and began forming communities. Despite their efforts in the War however, there were racial tensions initially, and little to no support for sailors and soldiers who had served as part of a British Indian force. Despite this, Bengali settlers began to slowly flourish, creating supportive communities that became crucial for new arrivals. At the beginning of WWII, the British Navy had over 50,000 Indian sailors serving on both merchant and military vessels. Once again, Indian and Bengali troops were also to play a large role in the conflict, especially in the African fronts, and against the Japanese. Indian forces were comprised of infantry, armour, airborne and artillery divisions, with the Indian artillery regiment receiving the title of ’Royal Indian Artillery’ in 1945 for service. There were also fledging special forces, the ‘Chindits’. By the end of the Second World War, there were around 2.5 million Indian and Bengali troops in service.

After the Conflicts

As mentioned, many former servicemen settled in Britain following WWI, with many more migrating after naval service during and after WWII. However, life was not to prove easy for these war weary settlers. Despite over 4000 Indian servicemen receiving decorations for their service, and 38 receiving the Victoria or George Cross, in general their efforts and services would remain clouded in history as far as the majority of British Citizens were concerned. As well as facing financial, possible racial, and injury related difficulties, many surviving soldiers are likely to have suffered from severe mental trauma. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for example, was not recognized at the time, as well as the other mental stresses that are placed on servicemen during conflict. We know today of course, that the horrors of war can severely impact the behaviour and mental well being of soldiers, and is the ugly reality, and consequence of war regardless of when, who, and how it is fought. For surviving Bengali and Indian troops in the mid 1940s, this was something that was either not recognized, or an issue that the community itself would address. Today of course, we are better able to recognise, diagnose, and offer the right kind of support for those suffering with these kind of mental issues and related difficulties.

A Fundamental Contribution

One thing is clear, and that is the contributions and bravery that Indian and Bengali soldiers and servicemen gave during the largest and most deadly conflicts in history. There is no doubt that without their involvement in both conflicts, victory would have been more elusive. During this years memorial of the First World War, it is important to remember these brave heroes, often overlooked in general accounts – what they sacrificed ultimately led to the Britain we know today, and the formation of many initial Bengali and Indian communities that continue to form an integral part of the country as a whole.

Lascar Memorial in Calcutta

Lascar War Memorial in the memory of the lndian seamen (Lascars) who had died at sea serving on merchant ships during WW1 unveiled in Feb 06, 1924.

Leave a Reply