The Proudest Day: India's Long Road to Independence

By Anthony Read; David Fisher | Go to book overview
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8
'A Spontaneous Loyalty'

When Lord Hardinge informed the Indians that they were at war in August 1914, both the Germans and the British were surprised by their response. The Germans had confidently expected that trouble in India as in Ireland, where they were supplying the rebels with arms would seriously weaken the British war effort. The British had every reason to be nervous: it seemed a perfect opportunity for the nationalist movement to reassert itself after three years of quiet. Instead, as the American writer Fred B. Fisher witnessed: 'India rose to the support of the Allies with a spontaneous loyalty which stirred even the British pulse in those early days of the war, when glowing messages of support flooded into London from every comer of the Empire.' 1

Within weeks, 290,000 fully trained and equipped troops, 210,000 of them Indian, were on their way to France and Egypt, leaving only 15,000 British soldiers to guard the whole of India. The first Indian Expeditionary Force, 28,500 Indians and 16,000 British troops, reached the western front in Flanders just in time to hold the line against the furious German assault at the first Battle of Ypres. During the month-long battle, they suffered 7,000 casualties and gained the first Indian VC, awarded posthumously to Sepoy Khudabad of the Duke of Connaught's Own Baluchis.

All told during the war 1,440,437 Indians volunteered for service even Bengalis and other groups who had been banned from the army since 1857 flocked to the colours when the restrictions were removed. They joined up for various reasons - honour, money, adventure, duress from landlords or village headmen but none were conscripts. And they acquitted themselves well, winning more than their share of decorations for bravery, but unfortunately losing 62,056 in battle. 2

India provided more than just soldiers, of course. As Fred B. Fisher put it: 'Her industries leaped into unprecedented activity, to supply khaki, tents, blankets,

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