Armistice Day: Centenary - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:37 pm on 5th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Rana Lord Rana Crossbench 7:37 pm, 5th November 2018

My Lords, I also convey my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Ashton, for today’s debate.

Visiting our ancestral village in early childhood, I came to know that nearly every house had one or two male members in the army. Sadly, some of them never returned. It is a hilly area of Punjab with very small land holdings, and the only occupation was joining the army. They were professional soldiers and took pride in their profession. Many were recognised for their outstanding service and bravery.

When the Empire went to war with Germany in August 1914, its only fully trained and battle-worthy reserves immediately available to deploy in support of the British Expeditionary Force were the regular soldiers of the Indian Army. In addition to them, the military authorities were also able to withdraw almost all the regular British battalions from India for service in Europe. Only nine regular British battalions were retained in the country to keep a watch on the perennially problematic North-West Frontier and Afghanistan, whose intentions could be altered by a change in ruler—as was to happen, but not until 1919.

The British Expeditionary Force that crossed over to France in August 1914 was initially fewer than 90,000, which, with their French allies, faced the German spear-head of 320,000 strong. In all, Germany had an attacking force of about 1.5 million. All sides suffered severely in the bitter fighting that followed. By the end of the battle of Ypres in November, the effect of the fighting may be judged by the fact that the 7th Division, which had entered Belgium on 6 October almost 18,000 strong, had by 5 November been reduced to less than one-third of its inventory. It was this hard reality that made the resources of the Indian Army so vital. When it landed in Europe, not only was the Indian Army not well equipped, it was also unfamiliar with the terrain, the climate of northern Europe and trench warfare. It is remarkable how it coped.

The Indian Army had some 14,000 infantry and 1,700 cavalry. The Germans had launched 12 and a half divisions into what was to become the First Battle of Ypres. Its purpose was to capture the channel ports that were basic to the British war effort and the very security of the British mainland. It was a battle like no other. By the end, the BEF had virtually ceased to exist, losing some 50,000 men. The troops of the Indian Corps replaced 32,000 men of the BEF’s II Corps. The fighting that followed was marked by acts of individual bravery of the highest honour.

In the course of the war, 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Indian and Nepalese soldiers, as well as countless other bravery awards. One example from 1914 is Darwan Singh Negi, a non-commissioned officer of the 1st Battalion, 39th Garhwal Rifles, who was awarded the Victoria Cross. The desperate nature of the fighting may be judged by the fact that in the same action the battalion earned 16 other medals. By the battle’s end, the corps had lost some 2,000 men, who were killed and missing, and 4,000 were wounded. At enormous sacrifice, the hard-pressed forces of the Indian Army and their comrades of the BEF had thwarted what the German high command had hoped would be a decisive victory. Without the sacrifice of the Indian soldiers, the outcome of these battles in 1914 could have been different. Neither formation would ever fully recover from the ordeal.

In the course of 1915, the British Army, which by July had grown into 21 divisions, was engaged in a series of bitter but inconclusive battles. By October l915, the corps’ casualty list of killed, missing, and wounded amounted to over 21,000. Of the 47th Sikhs, only 28 men and no officers remained. Indian soldiers fought on various fronts: Mesopotamia, Gallipoli and Haifa.

In 1916, the Middle East had become the Indian Army’s principal theatre of operations. Given the scale of their losses at the Somme in 1916, Passchendaele in 1917, and in the great German offensive of spring 1918, the British had little enough to spare for the war in the Middle East. The campaign that took Baghdad on 11 March 1917 and then advanced to Mosul and Kirkuk would not have been feasible without Indian troops. So, too, Sir Edmund Allenby’s victorious advance in Palestine and Syria in 1918 depended in large part on the 54 infantry battalions and the 13 cavalry squadrons shipped from India to replace British troops that had to be sent to the Western Front.

By the war’s end, some 1.5 million had volunteered for the Indian Army; over 74,000 of them were not to return from service. We have not even touched on the material side of India’s contribution to the Empire’s war efforts. That contribution was truly remarkable. As the noble Lord, Lord Gadhia, already mentioned, Mahatma Gandhi, the great leader of India’s freedom struggle, who was in London in August 1914, set about organising an Indian ambulance corps. The rulers of princely states were generous in their support. Ganga Singh, Maharaja of Bikaner, and Bhupinder Singh, Maharaja of Patiala, both sailed for Europe. The latter raised 17,000 men from his state, visited a number of fighting fronts and, by the war’s end, was an honorary major-general.

Now that we are commemorating the centenary of the Armistice, we should also remember the unsurpassed sacrifice to the war effort from the Indian sub-continent, in both the First World War and the Second World War. The monthly salary of an Indian soldier was just 15 rupees—about one guinea. They left their homes and travelled to all parts of Europe, the Middle East and Africa to fight for the Empire for very little. The total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I and World War II is estimated to be 100 million. Think seriously: it is a horrendous number of people, affecting many more families.

What have we learned from this most deadly chapter in human history? Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and other preachers of peace have come and gone. We are still living in a very dangerous world where there are too many trigger-happy Governments and individuals, ready to fight rather than sit down together to talk and listen. Commemorating Armistice Day and remembering the millions who died in these wars, we should work together to build a peaceful world.