Four million soldiers of the Indian army fought overseas during the World War I and II. Every sixth British soldier was an Indian. The British Indian army was much larger than the ones put together by other Commonwealth nations. The Gorkha and Sikh regiments were particularly renowned, for their valour on the battlefield. While the contribution of Indian troops to the World Wars remains relegated to limited memory; meticulous effort has been made, predominantly by the United Kingdom and France, to remember and commemorate the fallen soldiers.
Tiger Rajan, who hailed from Madras
The British Indian army was a voluntary force, said Air Marshal S Varthaman, who delivered a talk on How Europe remembers Indian soldiers of the World Wars , for Colours of Glory Foundation, which creates public awareness on India’s military heritage. “During the World War I, the Indian troops halted at Neuve Chapelle in Northern France, which saw the greatest battle. In three days, 3,500 Indian soldiers perished fighting against the Germans. After the end of the World War I, the Indian War Memorial was built at Neuve Chapelle in 1927. This memorial commemorates 4,700 Indian soldiers and labourers, who were killed on the Western Front and have no marked graves,” said the former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Eastern Air Command, Indian Air Force.
At Ypres in Belgium, another battleground, the Menin Gate houses an Indian Forces memorial. Air Marshal Varthaman recounted, “Here, our soldiers’ names are inscribed. Next to this is the Gorkha memorial for the courage shown by these fearless fighters. At Menin Gate, the Last Post , a bugle call sounded at the end of day, is played at 8 pm every night. Ever since its inception in 1927, the Last Post was sounded every single day to this date, except for a brief period when Germany invaded Belgium during World War II. On Armistice Day observed on November 11, special ceremonies are here at Menin Gate. I met Hans Vermeesch, a musician, who goes around Begium during this period every year, playing Rabindra sangeet commemorating the bravery of our Indian soldiers. I have travelled with him and it was quite touching.”
Neuve Chapelle Indian Memorial in Northern France
A former Air Attaché at the Indian Embassy in Paris, Air Marshal Varthaman travelled extensively in France, Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg. This also led him to discover some interesting stories of Indians, who contributed to the British victory. “I had a chance to see the house of Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian who turned spy for the British. During the war, she joined the French resistance movement under cover and updated the movement of the German army to the British, until she was captured and tortured, before being set to the Dachau Concentration Camp. On Armistice Day, a soldier visits her residence and places a wreath unfailingly each year,” said the diplomat.
Air Marshal Varthaman also came across stories that were lost in the ravages of time. He narrated the story of Tiger Rajan, who hailed from Madras. “I came across the story of Tiger Rajan rather unexpectedly. A group of former Typhoon pilots were searching for him. Tiger Rajan, whose name was Sayanapuram Duraiswamy Thyagarajan, was studying in the UK. When World War II broke out, he enlisted and flew the Typhoon aircraft in the 263 squadron. He was shot down behind enemy lines and crashed in the village of La Lande. During my visit there, I met the old man, who had seen him crash and buried him in the local church,” recalled the defence personnel.
Noor Inayat Khan, an Indian who turned spy for British
The initiative to remember the soldiers’ contribution, said Air Marshal S Varthaman, started immediately after World War I, when Britain realised that millions had died.
“The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) was set up in 1919 and one of its members was the renowned poet, Rudyard Kipling.
The CWGC ensures that 1.7 million people who died in the two world wars will never be forgotten. They care for cemeteries and memorials at 23,000 locations, spread over 2,000 acres in 154 countries. Since the forces of undivided India played a significant part in these wars, the 1,60,000 soldiers who died fighting, are buried in 50 countries,” he said. The CWGC, which works in partnership with the respective governments, also manages the Madras Cemetery. “All the graves are of standard sizes throughout the world, with the name of the soldier, religion and unit details inscribed. Before the Indian independence, the CWGC managed the India Gate, which was known as All India War Memorial, featuring the names of hundreds of our soldiers. Now, this comes under the Ministry of Defence. The CWGC also manages the Delhi War Cemetery, Kirkee War Cemetery in Pune and the Kohima War Cemetery in Nagaland, with its famous memorial dedicated to soldiers of the 2nd Division, who halted the Japanese advance, forcing their retreat during World War II. The Kohima Memorial has this unforgettable inscription: When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today,” concluded Air Marshal Varthaman.
Tiger Rajan sits on the top of the Typhoon aircraft that was shot down behind enemy lines during World War II (Photo courtesy: Aircrew Remembered)