Bengalis were not considered to be a martial race. Yet no less than three World War I memorials – the Bengalee War Memorial, Cenotaph and Lascar War Memorial were set up in this city though it was no more the capital of British India. The memorials are ample evidence contradicting the British propaganda against a community which was rebellious against foreign rule. The truth is that the people have forgotten about the role of those from the colonies who fought the ‘Great War’ at foreign shores and won it for the British. In fact, what had started as a mere skirmish in the Balkans turned into a European war and later engulfed many more nations, spreading to the war theatres of Mesopotamia and Persia. India made a huge contribution to the allied war effort, and of the 1.5 million who fought for the British Empire, 90000 never made it home. About £115 million was paid from the Indian exchequer. Contrary to British propaganda about the Bengalis being timid and faint hearted, many Bengali men enlisted themselves in this war and many of them were decorated as well. On the occasion of the Centenary of the World War I (1914-1918) it is time to remember those brave souls who tried to wipe out the blot of slavery from the brows of Mother India.
Today India somehow, no longer considers these wars fought at foreign shores as its own. Perhaps, the fact that she was just a colony, is humiliating. But at the eve of war, it was very different. It was thought before self-rule, India should prepare for defence. One can gauge the popular mood from this address delivered by Sarojini Naidu at the Madras Providential Conference.
“Let young Indians, who are ready to die for India and to wipe from brow the brand of slavery, rush to join the standing army or, to be more correct, India’s citizen army composed of cultured young men, of young men’s traditions and ideals, men who burnt with the shame of slavery in their hearts will prove a true redeemer of Indian people,” she had said. Thus imperial war service became a way of salvaging national prestige.
Initially, the men fought on the Western Front in Flanders. The majority went on to fight in Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and Palestine against the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Others fought in the Gallipoli campaign, in Africa and even in China. The Indian army at this time was drawn mainly from the middle peasantry, recruited from the north and north-west parts of the country partly on account of the “martial races” theory of the British which suggested that some races or castes were inherently more warlike than others. Most Indian soldiers in British Indian Army were Punjabi, Muslims, Sikhs, Marathas and so on. Earlier, Bengalis were excluded from the ‘fighting arms’ of British Indian Army. The Bengalis were dubbed as “terrorists” because of the armed revolutionaries who opposed the Imperial rule.
Yet Bengal responded positively to the war effort, in the form of an ambulance corps, a signal company and an infantry regiment – the 49th Bengalees. This unique regiment, which was composed entirely of Bengalis, recruited young men from both the major communities of Bengal and also scions of Bhadralok families. Apparently, Subhas Chandra Bose had volunteered as well but was rejected for his poor eyesight. Unlike other regiments of that era, recruitment was not based along religion, caste and creed and instead an overall Bengali identity pervaded. However, racism prevailed since they were outranked by all British and white colonial officers even if they were junior in service.
The most well-known among the recruits were Subedar Major Shalindranath Basu who had been awarded Indian Distinguished Service Medal and was the secretary of Mohun Bagan Football Club when they lifted the IFA Challenge Shield. Among the other noteworthy names, there was a lawyer from Calcutta High Court as well as the Nawab of Dacca. None of them had any experience of war and this was the first time they witnessed action.
Meanwhile, the mismanaged Mesopotamia campaign of the British had led to the infamous siege of Kut-al-Amara and the British forces surrendered before the Turks. The conflict and the siege saw many Indian troops dying in large numbers. There were also instances when Indian soldiers refused to fight against the Turks but rebellions were suppressed.
As British forces engineered a turn- around, reinforcement was needed to guard the overstretched lines of communication; the 49 Bengalees undergoing training were ordered to mobilise and transported to Mesopotamia. They were mostly put on garrison duty. However, the tiring conditions and inadequate medical help saw many dying of sickness. Although there was harmony among Muslims and Hindus, there were problems among the Brahmins and Kayasthas in the Bengalee regiment. In an embarrassing situation three of the superiors were shot at by a naik and a sepoy, apparently due to personal jealousies.
The Bengalee War Memorial which stands at College Square is a tribute to those of the Bengalee Regiment who died during World War I. In front of its entrance opposite Mahabodhi Society, the narrow structure with Islamic arches and marble pedestal has a touch of elegance and charm about it. However, much of the time it is obscured by posters of whichever organisation is observing a protest at College Square or by clothes hung for drying. Inscribed on this worthy memorial are the words: “In memory of members of The 49th Bengalee Regiment who died in the Great War, 1914-1918, To the Glory of God, King and Country.” The names, ranks (sepoy, subedar, lance naik), regiment number, date of death and districts from which they came are listed at the pedestal. The districts are Midnapore, Mymensinh, Murshidabad, Nadia, Calcutta, Jessore, Burdwan, Pabna, Chittagong, Khulna, Barisal, Faridpore, Pabna, 24-Parganas and Tripura (Tipperah). Many of these soldiers were Muslims. For instance, Kazi Nazrul Islam, one of Bengal’s most prolific and powerful poets had enlisted himself in the British Indian Army when he was only 18 years of age in 1917.
Attached to the 49th Bengalee Regiment, Nazrul was posted to the cantonment in Karachi. Though he did not see active fighting, but as a soldier he did surprisingly well rising from the post of corporal to havaldar or sergeant, and serving as quartermaster for his battalion. But Nazrul’s accomplishment in war was not limited to the honing of his martial prowess. While in Karachi, he used the opportunity to both read and write; the prose piece, Baunduler Atmakahini (The Autobiography of a Vagabond) was published in May 1919 and the poem Mukti (Freedom) in July of the same year. His experiences of life as a soldier inspired him to write a novel which began to be serialised in Moslem Bharat from mid-April 1920. Seven years later, Bandhon Hara (Unfettered) appeared as a book. The epistolary novel not only provides a fascinating glimpse of army life — but also of Hindu-Muslim viewpoints, and an insight into the growing number of Muslim women who could read and write. The story moves from a man torn between his love for two women to accounts of war in Mesopotamia.
It may be pointed out that the Indian soldiers were not allowed to rise as commissioned officers. The bar on Indian soldiers was a deterrent for many educated Bengali youths who instead of joining army preferred the independence provided by legal practice. But they found ways to serve during war through the medical service. One such youth was Captain Kalyan Kumar Mukherjee (IMS) who was awarded Military Cross, posthumously. Captain Mukherjee, a member of the Indian Medical Service, was appointed a military doctor to Indian Expeditionary Force D. He was in Mesopotamia from his arrival at Basra on 9 April, 1915, till his death from high fever in 1917 and was posthumously awarded the Military Cross. After his death, his eighty year old grandmother wrote his biography Kalyan Pradeep, extracting his war letters in full.
Another written account of the scale of devastation of war was provided by Sisirprasad Sarbadhikary, a medical orderly held as Prisoner of War who wrote Abhi Le Baghdad or On to Baghdad. He had volunteered to join the ambulance corps. His book was based on his secret Mesopotamia diary, written in captivity, which was torn into individual pages and hidden in his boots during the horrific march from Samarra to the Prisoners of War camp in Ras-el-Ain in July 1916. Later, the contents of the faded pages were copied into a new diary which was hidden underground and retrieved at Ras-el-Ain. His documentation reveal the prevalent racism among white officers holding Indians in disdain and realisation that the condition of victorious Turkish soldiers were no better than the Indian prisoners of war they held. Both Dr Mukherjee and Sarbadhikary were from Kolkata.
From Chandannagar, a French trading post, some 26 Bengalis volunteered to fight for France. While France did not have the dominance the British enjoyed over the Indian subcontinent but these men began the long sea voyage from Pondicherry to France, temporarily attached to the 17th company of France’s 11th Colonial Infantry Regiment. Unlike the British their officer, Lieutenant Gillet, reported: “They are all in good health. And since their arrival at Pondicherry I could not but praise them for their exemplary service. They are all good young soldiers and I have never had a complaint to make about them. Without exaggeration, they are the ‘champions’ of my detachment.” On arrival at Toulon in southern France, the men were posted to a 75mm artillery battery and finally arrived at Verdun on the Western Front in July 1917. In a conflict that claimed so many lives the only fatility – Manoranjan Das – died of illness during service, while the rest survived active duty at Verdun, in the Argonne forest and at Saint-Mihiel. All these Bengali soldiers got commemorative WWI medals and one of them got the highly prestigious Croix de Guerre for outstanding performance in the army.
It was India’s contribution in the First World War that so impressed the Imperial power that the Montagu Chelmsford reforms were announced already in 1917 even before the war ended. Despite the tragedy at Jalianwala Bagh in April 1919, the Bill to implement the reforms was passed in Parliament in June 1919. Indeed one can confidently say that it was the soldiers who won the first tranche of self-government for India.