In the shadow of the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, a unique crowd met to forward the discussion about how to remember the Indian soldiers of WW1 and WW2. “Indian” because this event commemorated all brothers in arms even though regiments were institutionalised by race. International historians, academics, archivists, military and museum officials joined together to network the opportunities for sharing the contribution of 1.4 million Indian soldiers, with 74,000 fatalities, who fought on the Western Front, Gallipoli, East Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Palestine. The venue was relevant as from 1914 to 1916 the Royal Pavilion was the hospital for Indian soldiers wounded on the battlefields of the Western Front. By the end of 1914 the Indian Army made up almost a third of the British Expeditionary Force.
Keynote speaker, Sir Hew Strachan (professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews, serving on the Strategic Advisory Panel of the Chief of the Defence Staff and on the UK Defence Academy Advisory Board, Trustee of the Imperial War Museum, a Commonwealth War Graves Commissioner, and a number of other distinguished positions), confirmed that in general there is a lack of scholarly work on the Indian Army’s role in WW1. He offered two narratives, the first being the 1920’s imperialist narrative of “India rallied wonderfully to the cause”, which, he suggested, was in need of remediation and the second narrative being the failures of the Commanding Officers — was the Indian Army the scapegoat for their inadequacies? Sir Hew explained there were no adequate answers to the methods used for recruitment, training, equipping and interaction of the five Indian Expeditionary Forces. He outlined the strategic roles of the Indian Army before 1914. Their primary role was to hold British India under subjection. The question was also whether they would be capable of fighting opponents overseas.
Various themes arose. Promotion was sometimes based on limited food supplies as some Indians refused to eat horsemeat. Were Indians fighting because it was their profession or as civilians for an annuity? The French recruitment practice in Pondicherry was suspected of being more stick than carrot. One importance was highlighted in that the French who observed the Indian Expeditionary Force noted that the Indian Cavalry was impressive.
During the symposium, experts and practitioners analysed every aspect of the Great War and India’s role. How Indians were not informed or prepared, the effect on local communities left behind especially the women who had to take over the farming, the emotional recordings in their mother tongues from prisoners of war in Germany, the trauma of war and the resorting to self-harming or desertion and the subsequent court martials, the lack of records and evidence, the social (not culinary) transcendence of caste and faith during mealtimes, the Masood tribal soldiers and the Gurkha regiments who fought alongside but were not under British rule and the paucity of current creative cultural representations.
The conclusion was that an economic bridge and multi strand communication strategy is needed between France, Belgium, UK and India to further integration and public engagement, particularly with the next generation. In the long term the aim is to also include Commonwealth soldiers. The symposium was sponsored and organised by the Golden Tours Foundation, a registered charity committed to projects related to integration, heritage and education. The symposium was co-hosted by the United Services Institution of India, Brighton and Hove Museums and Imperial War Museum, London.