The Forgotten Indian Soldiers of World War Two

I had the privilege of visiting my country of origin during the mid-year break. Until this year India was one of those far off reflections of a past that, in retrospect, seems somewhat embarrassing and even slightly humorous. Yet something told me that this trip was going to be a little more revelatory than I imagined.  It then came with the news that my grandfather of 94 had passed away.

My mother and I had spent less than a week in New Delhi when we flew out to meet my father in Southern Maharashtra, my family’s state of origin and my grandad’s final resting place. I wasn’t particularly close to my grandfather, he visited off and on when I was in Delhi, but generally the stories about his experiences preceded the actual man.

He had been an officer in the army his entire career and had fought several wars. What was most revealing though was his experience in the Second World War. We had all heard about it before, North Africa in 1941-1942 and then Burma in 1943 until the end in 1945. My grandfather enlisted in an army that had been unpopular with the Indian people for a century prior. He signed up for a war which didn’t (at the time) directly affect the British Raj’s survival, against an enemy he didn’t really know or hate. Yet he did so, along with 2.5 million other Indians.

India’s freedom struggle is well documented. Gandhi is a cliché that will be evoked in pieces of rhetoric and the power of non-violence will be the topic of history and political science for years to come. Yet India fielded an all volunteer army that was sent to far flung corners of the world ranging from the Horn of Africa to Singapore and Hong Kong. My Grandad was deployed to Egypt and took part in the Second Alamein Campaign, Churchill’s ‘end of the beginning’, in late 1942. Far from home these colonial soldiers fought the advancing Axis and contributed to the stemming of Rommel and his Afrika Corps.

The Burma front of World War II is not as well documented when compared to the Normandy Invasion or the Island Hopping campaigns in the Pacific. To this day General Slim’s XIV army is popularly known as the ‘Forgotten Army’ and the campaign is overall a forgotten tract of history. Yet men from the Commonwealth, America and Japan fought and died in conditions that cannot be fathomed in modern terms. Yellow fever, mosquitoes and constant rain, apart from bullets and artillery shells, were the day to day hazards of combat in Burma. Yet this is where the story abruptly stops. According to the history that I had learnt the Burma front was all but over by 1944. However, the Indian units (including my grandfather’s) went on to liberate Indochina and Malaya. My grandfather’s story ends less typically than this; he was pulled out of direct combat in 1944. This question lingered in the back of my mind for several days after we returned to Delhi. Then it struck me.

Combat stress or shellshock was an occurrence well noted in the wake of both World Wars, but remedies were hard to come by. The stories of a valiant combatant fighting for something that was slowly slipping into history, is definitely romantic. But this war stress, not to mention general fatigue after 4 years of combat, must have cracked grandfather, like it did so many others. It certainly showed. Whatever I remember of my grandad was not the subject of typical warm and fuzzy stories. He was grim, bitter and angered very easily.

It is challenging for one to come to terms with one’s own weakness. Perhaps at some visceral level, with all those stories and medals we forgot that my grandfather was essentially a human who, like all, possessed weaknesses and flaws. It must have been excruciating suffering from combat stress, particularly in a nation that didn’t have any warmth or respect for returning combatants. While Aussies, Kiwis, Americans and Englishmen returned home to parades and the antebellum, Indian soldiers were sometimes berated, beaten and abused by their fellow countrymen for serving “under the Raj’s colours”.

To this day India does not have a memorial to the 2.5 million that served overseas and the 87,000 that never made it home. For those that did it was usually a return to rural life, for others it was an opportunity to elevate oneself, for my grandfather the uniform remained on. Many of the Indian soldiers that served in World War II went on to serve in the Indian and Pakistani armies. In an ironic and tragic twist of history former comrades in arms would have to face each other as adversaries as the First Kashmir War broke out in 1947. They say it is a mark of wisdom to acknowledge fear and for all the clinical analyses that exist in today’s war history we tend to forget that it was men and women, with their fears and anxieties, that fought these wars.Perhaps that is how all recounts of war should end, not with a flurry of dispassion and objectivity but rather with a simple reminder that all glories are but a series of sparks and that legends are fleeting.