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Tuesday, Oct 26, 2021
Outlook.com

Teja Singh In Flanders Fields

A photobook recalls, at many levels, the Great War’s impact on Indian soldiers, but treads lightly on the fighting

Teja Singh In Flanders Fields
Teja Singh In Flanders Fields
outlookindia.com
-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

A hundred years on, it’s open season on First World War histories. Each combatant nation is giving its battle honours a des­erved airing. Australia and New Zealand look back proudly at Gallipoli, the Canadians at Vimy Ridge, and the Americans at Meuse-Argonne. Moreover, the war is owned by the Tommies, Fritzes and Poilus. In India and the First World War, Vedica Kant points out India’s stupendous contributions, including one-and-a-half million participants and over 70,000 casualties. How then can we account for the pall of silence surrounding the Indian experience in the war?

The Great War was an imp­erial war, and the Ind­ian efforts retain a whiff of mercenariness. Secondly, the Western Front—where Ind­­­ians had had a brief show—is the mar­­­quee front in war historiography. The Indian effort has thus been relega­ted to footnotes. Finally, most British-officered sepoys were illiterate, exp­laining the lack of first-person acco­unts—the raw material of history. The Indian experience has to be reconstruc­ted from thousands of letters written (and dictated) by soldiers. Kant, with an app­roach that focuses on colonialism, ‘sepoy-sahib’ ties and fissures therein, and its impact back home, steps in to redress the disbalance of memory.

The Indian regiments that started disembarking in France in September 1914 were fed into the opening maw of trench warfare, with the force-multipliers of heavy artillery and sub-zero temperatu­res. The badly clothed and badly equi­pped Ind­ian troops earned their battle honours soon, especially at Neuve Chapelle (March 1915), and suffered from acute kriegschmerz. Kant focuses her lens else­where. This was the first time a considerable body of Indians had visited a western country, and this led them...

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