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We shouldn’t celebrate the fact that Indian soldiers were sent to fight for Britain in the First World War—but remember them as victims of colonialism and imperialism, writes Isabel Ringrose
The release of over 320,000 First World War documents lifts the lid on another detail of the British Empire’s shameful history.
Soldiers from the Punjab region of India were bullied into fighting, and then forgotten.
Hidden stories of colonial soldiers don’t show a proud loyalty to king and mother country. They reveal truths of how Britain, trapped and corralled colonised people to fight on its behalf, while all the while treating them with contempt.
Racism ran through the veins of the army, which treated black colonial soldiers as even more expendable than white working class ones.
Every November, politicians push the poppy to promote a tale of collective love and national pride for Britain and its imperial past. The reality is that the poor and the colonised did the fighting and dying on behalf of the rich.
European powers fought to expand their empires around the world, crashing into each other and pushing the war onto a global scale. The extent of the conflict pushed them to recruit soldiers from the lands they had colonised.
This was one of the first visible signs that the British Empire was under strain.
When Britain began to run out of working class men to send to war, its rulers were torn over whether to recruit soldiers from its colonies.
British officers didn’t like the idea of black soldiers killing white men—even if those white men were their enemy. Behind this prejudice was a fear that their subjects would one day turn the guns on them.
But the demands of the war were too strong, and Britain recruited a huge number of soldiers from across Africa, the Caribbean, India and China.
If they weren’t sent to fight, men were forced to unload and move supplies, carry out manual labour, dig trenches and clear the battlefields.
Racial categorisation assumed the sinister form of “martial races”. Colonial subjects were divided into “warlike” and “non‑warlike” races.
Britain declared some “races”—including people from Nepal and north Indian provinces, such as Punjab—as more “manly” than others and focussed its recruitment on them. The Indian army—the largest in the empire—sent a million soldiers to fight, and 140,000 were transported to Europe in September 1914.
This was the only section of colonial forces that actually fought in Europe.
The Indian army was already organised to recruit by identifying “loyal” soldiers based on castes, religions and ethnicity. “Race” was used to identify groups with supposedly common physical characteristics—such as being “racially brave”.
Britain had already used Indian soldiers of higher castes—who were not corralled to fight by economic pressures—to put down uprisings in India. But as the First World War went on, it had to recruit men from lower social classes.
Around 700,000 fought against Germany’s allies in the Ottoman Empire—mainly against other non-white troops.
By the end of the war, nearly 10 percent of Indian soldiers were missing, some 70,000 had been killed and 80,000 badly wounded.
Britain did the same to colonised people from throughout its Empire. Across the British army, regiments were segregated, and black soldiers were led by white officers.
“Uncivilised” black people were seen as naturally built for war. White leaders saw black soldiers as perfect for menial tasks, minimising the dangers they would face.
Some 150,000 Chinese soldiers carried ammunition and collected dead or injured soldiers from the front. The North China Herald, aimed at colonialists, said of Chinese recruits, “Whatever their age may be they are none of them older than ten years in character.
“Very amenable, easily managed with kindness and firmness and loyal to the core. A dog is the same.”
Thousands of Chinese soldiers were killed by shelling, landmines and poor treatment—despite being told their jobs weren’t hazardous. They were forced to live in squalor, crammed into camps surrounded by barbed wire.
Britain used African soldiers to fight German forces—made up of other Africans—and protect British interests in east Africa.
Between them, both sides conscripted around 2 million people as porters and soldiers, forcing them to carry equipment where there were no roads. One in five of those conscripts died—a higher death rate than on the Western Front.
Some 20,000 more South Africans were shipped over to Europe as labourers.
The French army in particular treated its African soldiers as “cannon fodder,” pushing them into battles with little to no chance of survival.
Troops of the West Indies Regiment cleaning their rifles on the Albert – Amiens road, September 1916. (Pic: Brooks, Ernest (Lieutenant) © IWM (Q 1201))
Prime minister Georges Clemenceau said in February 1918, “I would prefer ten blacks are killed rather than one Frenchman.”
The East Africa campaign saw more than 125,000 troops deployed. In Kenya at least 45,000 men died—about one in eight of the male population.
Volunteers also came from the Caribbean. Britain at first decided it didn’t need their service—but then had to set up the British West Indies Regiment. This was only deemed worthy only of manual—but still dangerous—tasks.
These included digging trenches and communication lines, transporting weapons, building roads, acting as stretcher bearers and loading trains and ships.
Often soldiers from the Caribbean had to work within range of German artillery, and died under shell fire.
Battalions were sent to Egypt and Palestine to again perform tasks such as guarding prisoners. Nearly 700,000 were also sent to Mesopotamia to fight Turkish soldiers.
Caribbean soldiers suffered from malaria, exposure and lack of food and clothing. In March 1916 a ship transporting men from Jamaica to Canada diverted into a blizzard to avoid German warships.
Over 600 men suffered frostbite with 106 needing amputations and five dying. While 185 Caribbean people died in action during the war, 1,071 died from sickness.
Racism was stark—in 1918 Caribbean soldiers were denied a pay rise given to other soldiers. By the end of the war regiments mutinied after humiliation and racist treatment from white officers.
In Taranto, southern Italy, in December 1918, the ninth battalion attacked their officers in a mutiny that lasted four days.
Of these forgotten colonial soldiers, many did not volunteer simply to die for love of Britain.
Some believed volunteering was a way to improve their standing and rights at home, or to further independence causes, encouraged by the leaders of national liberation movements.
Nationalist leaders thought that encouraging people to join the war would prove loyalty and skill that Britain would reward. They were wrong.
The South African Native National Congress—later to become the African National Congress—presented a memorandum after the war to Britain’s King George V of Britain.
It cited the African contribution to the war, and recalled the claim that the war had been fought for national determination and to liberate oppressed people.
The British Colonial Office replied that Britain could not interfere in the internal affairs of South Africa—and the appeal never became part of peace talks.
That’s the truth of the role of colonial soldiers. Britain used them for some of the war’s most deadly and backbreaking work, then spurned them.
We should remember those who died—not to celebrate the unity of the British Empire, but to expose its brutality.
We should also remember that the heroes were the people who refused to fight, and those who revolted to bring the war to an end.
The experience of war raised expectations for people trapped in colonies, especially when brought together on such a scale.
Opposition, resistance and rebellion were frequent. There were strikes against Britain from the first day of the war until after it ended.
Calls for independence saw uprisings against colonial authorities. The British government sent warships to Honduras and Jamaica to suppress riots. And the inspiration of the Russian Revolution was to lead to far greater resistance.
Conscription, forced labour, high prices, tax increases and commandeering food exacerbated existing tensions, especially throughout Africa.
In Ireland in 1916, republicans and socialists rebelled against British rule and proclaimed an independent republic.
But the racist imperial powers remained aloof. They invited no African leaders to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. And they asked no African or Caribbean troops to march in the victory parade in London in July 1919.
The war’s victors carved up the spoils between themselves. That victory came at an unimaginable cost to ordinary people across the world.