Sepoy Ishar Singh
One and a half million volunteers from India came forward and of these, 140,000 troops saw active service on the Western Front. These troops immediately bolstered the defences of the Western Front and were a pivotal and essential part of the war effort. They fought in every major operation on the front. Examples of their contribution can be seen at various battles: The Indian Corps provided half the attacking force at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, and the Lahore Division was thrown into the counter-attack at the Second Battle of Ypres in April of the same year.
Elsewhere, nearly 700,000 Indian troops then served in the Middle East, fighting with great distinction against the Turks in the Mesopotamian campaign. At the disastrous and badly-prepared Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey, which incurred a huge loss of life to Allied troops; Indian, Gurkha, Australian and New Zealand troops fought side by side.
The Indian Corps won 13,000 medals for gallantry including 12 Victoria Crosses. Khudadad Khan won the Corp’s first Victoria Cross.Please click here to view our WW1 Commonwealth Contribution Presentation
Brief overview of the Mesopotamia campaign
After the discovery of oil in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) in 1908, the British were keen to have access to oil fields which was to fuel the Royal Navy, the largest and most powerful navy of its time.
Mesopotamia was part of the Ottoman Empire, and so, after Turkey joined the war in October 1914 on the side of the German Empire, Britain immediately sent forces to Iraq to secure key positions and drive the Ottomans out of Iraq for good.
Nearly 700,000 Indian troops took part in the Mesopotamia campaigns. British and Indian troops were deployed on the Persian Gulf so as to safeguard government oil interests in Abadan. They initially made significant advances against the Turks but received a major setback at the Battle of Ctephison where they had to beat a risky retreat to Kut al-Amara, a key stronghold of the Anglo-Indian army, in the most adverse of conditions. The Ottomans, encouraged by recent military victories, went on to besiege Kut successfully, which ended in the capture of 11,800 British and Indian troops, who were forced to undergo a brutal march to Aleppo in Syria.
Only 4,250 of them survived the journey.
After this humiliation at the hands of the Ottomans, lessons were learnt, and with an increasing number of Indian soldiers arriving in Mesopotamia, the Anglo-Indian army succeeded in capturing Baghdad in 1917 and by the following year had reached as far north as Mosul.
The Mesopotamia Campaign is an over-looked part of the history of WW1, with most attention understandably focused on the sub-human conditions of Trench Warfare. Yet, conditions for the troops in Mesopotamia were likewise truly abominable: extremes of temperature, regular cases of flooding, and diseases from vermin, flies and mosquitos which rapidly spread through the troops all contributed the high casualties in the campaign. The unexpected and underestimated fierceness of the Ottoman army and the appalling medical and logistical arrangements only made matters worse.
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The National Archives
WW1 The Ottoman History- click to hear a brilliant podcast which discusses the Indian army in Mesopotamia and those who became POWs
Indian Soldiers on the Western Front
The Indian Corps landed in France 6 weeks after war had been declared and were involved in their first military operation a month later, briefly capturing the town of Neuve Chapelle, before a strong German counter attack drove them out again.
Less than a month later, the Indian Corps was once again embroiled in fierce fighting, after the German army had breached the Indian Corps' Trenches in Festubert. The battle, which saw hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches, incurred heavy losses and the loss of several Indian trenches. The Trenches were recaptured the following day after an "at all costs" order from Command.
The following year, the Indian troops were to experience the savagery of chemical warfare in a particularly gruelling offensive in Langemarck, near Ypres.
A joint British-Indian counter-attack was launched against the Germans, which went horrible wrong. During the first day of the operation, the troops crossed into No Man's Land and were mown down by heavy artillery and machine gun fire. The following morning saw 15,000 British and Indian troops stream over the Trench lines but they were, once again, out-gunned by the powerful German artillery. The Indian troops in the centre of the offensive hid in shell holes, at which point, the Germans released toxic gasses onto the battlefield.
It was at around this point that Indian morale hit an all-time low. This was due to the heavy losses sustained in the corps and by the deaths of many Indian officers, who were often replaced with officers who did not speak the Indian soldiers' language. The Indian soldiers were not properly equipped for the cold and hellish conditions of the Western Front and were certainly not used to the temperatures coming from the warm Indian subcontinent. Because of low morale, the Indian Corps was withdrawn and moved to other theatres of war, notably to fight in the Mesopotamia Campaign.
Despite the equally extreme conditions of Mesopotamia, the Indian troops were better suited to fighting in the extreme heat than the extreme cold.
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East African Campaign
Germany's plan had largely failed by 1916 after the arrival of Indian Expeditionary Forces whose presence meant that no more Allied manpower was needed in the region. Seen at the time as a side-show to the war in Europe, the East African Campaign nevertheless conflicted heavy losses to Allied troops, with the majority of deaths caused by disease.
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Over one thousand Indian soldiers died in the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey. They fought alongside French, British, Gurkha and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand) Forces. This campaign was to become an example of the horrors of modern warfare, such was the brutality of the battle.
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Indian troops took part in the Palestine and Sinai Campaigns which were a series of battles for control over the Suez Canal between the British Empire and the Ottoman Empire, supported by Germany. Many Indian garrison troops were stationed at the Suez Canal to provide protection to this important trade route. Click here for more information
Of course, not all Indian volunteers were sent to fight overseas. Many were garrisoned in the North West Frontier to guard India's border with Afghanistan, whilst others were involved in internal affairs and training duties.
Australia and New Zealand contributed greatly to the Allied cause, sending over what was a significant proportion of its population. The Australian and New Zealand armies incurred a high casualty rate due the theatres of war they were assigned to. Both armies fought in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, which is commemorated every year in Australia and New Zealand on ANZAC day.
They also fought on the Western Front and in Palestine and Egypt. 330,000 Australians saw active duty, of which over 60,000 died and 137,000 were injured. 100,471 New Zealanders fought in the war, with over 18,000 killed and more than 40,000 wounded.
The West Indies
The West Indies contributed sugar, rum, oil, lime, cotton, rice, clothing, logwood, and nine aeroplanes. A total of 11 ambulances and adequate funds for their maintenance were donated, and approximately two million pounds sterling was given to the British Government and charities. These donations were made in spite of severe hardships caused by major increases in the cost of living throughout the region that occurred with the proclamation of war. On top of this 15,000 soldiers from the West Indies Regiment saw action in France, Palestine, Egypt and Italy during the First World War. 2,500 of them were killed or wounded. Men from the West Indies won 81 medals for bravery, whilst 49 were mentioned in dispatches.
55,000 men from Africa fought for the British during World War 1 and hundreds of thousands of others carried out the vital roles of carriers or auxiliaries. Contributing African countries included Nigeria, the Gambia, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Nyasaland (now Malawi), Kenya and the Gold Coast (now Ghana). It is estimated that 10,000 Africans were killed. African troops were awarded 166 decorations for bravery.
During the war, Britain and France were able to harness the economic resources not only of their own vast colonial empires, such as India and Indochina, but also of the United States. This ability gave them a great advantage. The Central Powers were cut off from their pre -war markets and sources of food and raw materials. Although Germany gained access to the vast economic resources of the western part of the former Russian Empire in the spring of 1918, it was too late in the war to affect the outcome.
Find out more:
Overview of Australian involvement in WW1 on the Australian War Memorial website: Click here for more information
Gallipoli and the Anzac:s: Click here for more information
History of New Zealand Forces in WW1: Click here for more information