On 100th anniversary of end of WWI, remembering the role of Indian soldiers

Dehradun: On the outskirts of Dehradun, off the road which leads to Mussoorie, lies a small plaque dating to the British era. The plaque, situated outside the post office in Rajpur bazaar, declares that “from this town, 78 men went to the Great War.” The plaque has three dots in place of the number of those who gave up their lives. Most of the men did not return and were presumed dead.
As the world observes today the 100th anniversary of the end of one of the most horrific wars in modern history (which raged from July 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918), the plaque at Rajpur is a silent reminder of the role played by Indiansoldiersin the ‘Great War.’ It is estimated that around 1.3 million soldiers from India fought some of the fiercest battles of the war in Europe, Mediterranean and Africa as part of the British Army. Around 74,000 of them, including an estimated 175 soldiers from Dehradun, never returned.

Historians and Army veterans say that the Indian soldiers’ contribution to the war was “significant in tipping several battles in favour of the British.” “The Indian soldiers stopped the German offensive at Yepres in 1914 and successfully defended the Suez Canal while they were posted in Egypt,” said a retired Army official who served in the Gorkha Regiment.

In fact, the Gorkha Regiment as well as Garhwal Rifles (known as 39th Garhwal Rifles back then) played a pivotal role during the war. According to Doon-based anthropologist and historian Lokesh Ohri, two battalions of the Garhwal Rifles and around 90,000 Gorkhas participated in the war. “The soldiers of the Garhwal Rifles left India in August 1914 for France as part of the ‘Indian Expeditionary Force.’ There were two battalions but they were later amalgamated after the battle of Neuve Chapelle where they suffered 430 casualties, including the death of 14 officers,” Ohri said.
He added that “while the soldiers of Garhwal Rifles were the first to carry out night raids on the Kaiser’s forces, the Germans feared the Gorkhas the most.” “Even if the battle was a lost one, the Gorkhas would fight till the last man standing. They were also part of an attack on Singapore because they were trusted implicitly by their British commanders,” Ohri said.
Incidentally, crown prince William, son of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the German emperor, wrote in his reminiscences about the “fearless fighting skills of the Gorkhas.” “The Gorkhas are small but extraordinarily wiry and tough little people who fear neither the hell nor the devil,” William wrote.
For their heroism in the face of adversity, the Garhwal Rifles won six battle honours and two Victoria crosses (the highest military award for gallantry at that time). The first Victoria Cross went to Naik Darwan Singh Negi and the second, posthumously to Rifleman Gabar Singh Negi.