In 2021, when my daughter was studying the First World War in her final year of primary school, every week I asked her if she had learned about the contribution of soldiers from the British empire. The answer was always no – though she did have two lessons on animals that died in the conflict, including thousands of camels on the fronts in the Middle East and Africa. At that point, I asked her teacher when they would be talking about the role of soldiers from the colonies.
There were no plans to do so, he replied. In fact, there was just one more lesson left: an overview of the term’s work. But he said he would make time to talk about it.
When my daughter came home after that class, she was eager to tell me that more than a million Indian soldiers fought in the war. Her teacher also said that in future he would include a separate lesson on the role of Indian soldiers. It was great news, of course – but I wished that I hadn’t had to ask.
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Our collective memory of the First World War is slowly changing, particularly since the centenary of the armistice. Crucially, whereas Dominion accounts previously focused on the stories of people from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa, we now increasingly remember the contribution of Indian soldiers.
South Asian diasporic families don’t always know about their own links to the First World War. The main recruiting ground was the Punjab region, to which many British south Asians have connections. In the past few months, families with Punjabi heritage have been able to search some of the archives of the Lahore Museum, thanks to a groundbreaking collaboration between the UK Punjab Heritage Association and the University of Greenwich, which is digitising thousands of files.These contain village-by-village data on the war service of recruits, as well as information on family background, rank and regiment. Diasporic Punjabis have already made connections: the Labour MP Tanmanjeet Dhesi, for instance, found files revealing that his great-grandfather had served in Iraq and was wounded in action, losing a leg.
Our collective memory of the First World War is slowly changing, particularly since the centenary of the armistice
Commemoration of the war takes many forms, including school teaching, memorial services and physical tributes. The West Midlands town of Smethwick features a statue representing the Indian soldiers who fought in the conflict, of which there were more than 1.3 million. And last year, plans were announced for a statue of Hardit Singh Malik in Southampton. The first Indian to fly as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) – precursor to the RAF – Malik became known as the “Flying Sikh”, wearing a specially designed helmet that fitted over his turban. Malik joined 28 Squadron under the Canadian major Billy Barker, and in 1916 these men and two other volunteers were surrounded by enemy planes. Malik was hit in the leg before shooting down the pilot who had shot him. Pursued by three German aircraft, his plane was hit by some 400 bullets. “It was the greatest luck,” he wrote, 65 years later. “I thought I was going to be killed.” Two bullets remained in his leg for the rest of his life.
Stephen Barker’s The Flying Sikh, published in May, explores Malik’s remarkable tale. The book argues that his story is, in many ways, atypical of the Indian experience of the war: though born in India, Malik enlisted in Britain while studying at the University of Oxford. Yet Barker contends that Malik remains an important symbol of both the Indian war contribution and the complex relationship between India and its colonial ruler. “Malik maintained his integrity as a proud Indian,” the author told me. “He put up with discriminatory practices, and cheered on moves for home rule as well as serving in the RFC.”
Stories of the contributions of Indian soldiers are now rightly gaining greater prominence in our collective memory. Hopefully no other parent will need to ask when their children will learn of the more than 1.3 million Indian men who fought in the First World War.
This article was first published in the July 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine