The white crosses scattered across the battlefields of the First World War have become a poignant and harrowing symbol of the war that was meant to end them all. Popularised by John McCrae’s beautiful poem, they serve as a reminder of the brave sacrifice of a lost generation in what is now considered to be a foolish, wasteful war. However, hidden amongst these crosses and often forgotten in our popular culture are the graves of non-Christians. These soldiers were enlisted from both Britain and its empire and are often overlooked when remembering the brave sacrifices made during the First World War.
The First World War was an exhibition in imperial slaughter, and as such, Britain enlisted the forces from the countries it ruled over at the time. India, Australia, New Zealand and troops from the West Indies all supplied armies for the battles the British army found itself engaged in. To modern eyes, it seems grossly unfair that a country colonised by another should sacrifice its citizens to its occupiers. To me, this is why the sacrifice of troops from the commonwealth should be remembered all the more. Nearly 50,000 Indian soldiers alone died from the 1 million enlisted from the subcontinent.
The First World War was one advocated by white and male imperialists, dragging countries and people into the throes of the conflict whether they liked it or not. Young men in Britain and the Empire alike were sold a lie of honour and servitude, one which would see the adult male population decimated in many countries around the world.
When the first Indian troops arrived to assist British forces in September 1914, it was said that they had arrived “in the nick of time” and their services were applauded. This pattern continued throughout the four years of the war, with Gurkha, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu soldiers battling alongside their Christian counterparts. They made the same brave sacrifices and in a lot of cases were treated with the respect and dignity they deserved. Injured soldiers from the British Empire were often nursed in Brighton, and the pavilion was turned into a convalescent hospital. However, even though their bravery and sacrifice was often applauded, Indian soldiers were often treated very unfairly, closely monitored and chaperoned everywhere. To be restricted when their white counterparts were not treated in such a harsh manner is disgraceful.
This terrible colonial attitude still lasts today, to a certain extent. I remember seeing little or nothing about the commonwealth armies in my history textbook at school, and although the graves of Muslim and Jewish soldiers are in public view on the European battlefields, their input into the war is often brushed over in history lessons and in popular culture. Some welcome steps are being taken in order to better represent soldiers of different races and faiths in the First World War. In the recent film adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse, an Indian Sikh commander was represented alongside white British allies, and a few years ago, there was a TV drama focused on Walter Tull. Tull was a British man of Caribbean descent who became and infantry officer on the Western Front. These are good steps, but I’m sure there are many people in Britain who would love to see that the sacrifice made by non-white and non-Christian soldiers honoured equally in our remembrance.