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First World War and India's Contribution

The First World War had begun with the declaration of the war against Germany by England on 4th August, 1914. The preparations of the war had begun long back with German alliance with Austria, Franco Russian alliance, British French entente and British Russian treaty that would help them curve out spheres of influence in Persia. The Germans, who were were denied any lebensraum by the worldwide colonies already established by Britain, France and Holland, resented it and aspired to become dominant by building a powerful army and navy. Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece had initially allied against Turkey but after driving out Turkey Serbia battled against Bulgaria and Austro-Hungarian Empire supported Bulgaria. Thus when Franz Ferdinand, the Arch Duke of Austria and the Heir Apparent, was murdered in Serbia, Austria declared war against Serbia and was soon joined by Germany. Russia and France came to the support of Serbia, while Britain remained neutral. However when Belgium was overrun by Germany to get a faster passage to France, Britain declared war on Germany and her allies and British India was by default pulled into the war effort. Indians had no voice in the matter despite the widespread suffering that the war would bring on them in the form of a stunted economy that had already been bled to the last drop through systematic plundering and organized looting of her resources by the Imperial mercantile Britain. Even Indian politicians through utter naivete or in absence of a better judgement supported the British war effort and even encouraged Indians to join the volunteer corps as soldiers, the foremost among such blatantly misjudging politicians was Mr. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who was earlier supported the British Government in South Africa in the Boer war. Indian politicians expected some rewards in the form of better reforms and perhaps self governance at the end of the war but as we shall see, their hopes were dashed. The common man and woman in India had even less to eat during the war and because of high prices could not afford clothes. There are heart wrenching tales of women committing suicide being unable to protect their modesty in absence of garments. At the outbreak of the war there were about 230,000 serving Indian army men. About 1.2 million men were recruited during the war largely through terror and violence. Writes Dr. R. C Majumdar, "Indian troops were mercilessly sacrificed at the altar of the British interest from the very beginning."  They were used as cannon fodders against the advancing German army in Ypres in 1914. When the Germans had broken past the British barriers in Flanders and were rapidly advancing towards Paris, an ill equipped Indian army was flung across to check on their advancement and fought gallantly to achieve the aim, but very few of them were left. Naturally Britain cheered to obtain such a victory with so less British lives lost. Writes Dr. Majumdar, "Verily, England fought to the last Indian."

In September 1914, a division of British Indian Army was sent to Africa and expedition which was managed by the India office, resulted in a disastrous failure. The campaign in Mesopotemia, that had resulted in a crushing defeat at the hands of the Turks, was managed by the British India Office under Government of India. The expedition was so hopelessly mismanaged that in 1916, finally, the war office in England under Lloyd George took over. Lloyd George in his report had reflected on the "mismanagement, stupidity, criminal neglect, and amazing incompetence of the military authorities responsible for the expedition and the horrible and unnecessary suffering of the gallant men who were sent to failure and defeat through the blunders of those in charge."

In his History of Freedom Movement of India, Dr. R.C Majumdar points out that India's supply in men, money and material was so large that the Viceroy, Lord Hardinge declared in the House of Commons and repeated in his autobiography, that India had been bled white by the War Office. Altogether during the war 1.1 mn Indians were recruited and 1.2 mn were sent overseas, of whom about 100,000 had become casualties. India had to bear the heavy expense of maintaining this army. India represented by her British masters also gifted Britain one hundred million pound sterling for conducting her Imperial war. This amount exceeded the annual revenue of the Government of India and increased her national debt by thirty percent. The total war expenditure of the Government of India, upto 31st March, 1918, was about pound 128 mn Sterling  (Dr. R.C Majumdar, History of Freedom Movement of India Vol 2). The princely states contributed another pound 2.1 mn in cash. Many Indians were recruited for the war effort by force. A quota of war loans and recruits was fixed for each district of Punjab and the officers who failed to achieve that target were subjected to severe punishment. All these were the handiwork of the notorious Michael O'Dwyer , the chief perpetrator of Jalianwalabagh massacre, in Punjab.

It is to be noted that during the war the allied forces and their leaders, esp. Britain and America, had declared that their fight was for liberty. "No people must be forced under sovereignty under which it does not wish to live" was the tall statement of American President Woodrow Wilson. Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Britain after winning the war had declared that the wishes of the inhabitants must be the supreme consideration in the re settlement of the German colonies. The English and American diplomats repeatedly stressed that they were "waging war to make the world safe for democracy." Of course all these frothy sentiments and noble intentions were forgotten after the war. Indian politicians had thought that Britain would be willing to give the right of self determination or Dominion Status to India as a reward for the loyalty. But sadly they did not understand the extent of European hypocrisy and lie. India got her reward, in the form of blood bath and mayhem as later events would testify.

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