Soldiers Of The Empire


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Santanu Das tells the story of how one and a half million Indian men - nearly 900,000 soldiers and 600,000 non-combatants -were recruited from the villages and towns of British India to serve the Empire in the First World War.

When India joined the War on August 4th 1914, the powerful native princes and politicians of all sides pledged their support. Colonial administrators and local chieftains toured villages to recruit from the so-called "martial races", particularly from the Punjab. Financial incentives were promised and medals were issued to successful recruiters. Singers and poets were hired to entice anyone of fighting age.

Santanu travels to India to meet the grandsons and great grandsons of soldiers who fought on the western front, Mesopotamia and elsewhere. One speaks with immense pride of his family's help to the Empire in its hour of need; another tells of his sadness at the thought of young men who had only ever handled a sickle, being used as cannon fodder, thousands of miles from home.

In 1917 when the pool of available manpower was drying up, the British stepped up the recruiting drive. Santanu hears tales of coercion, including allegations of water supplies being diverted and even of the kidnapping of wives of men of fighting age.

Of all the colonies in the British, French and German empires, the Indian subcontinent contributed the highest number of men. This is the story of how they were recruited to travel across the Kalopani, the "dark waters", to take part in the world's first industrial war.

Produced by Philippa Goodrich

A Juniper production for BBC Radio 4.

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On 22 October 1914, a Flemish priest from a village near Ypres recorded in his diary that Indian troops had been arriving throughout the hours of darkness in London double decker buses. The First Battle of Ypres had just begun and the Indian soldiers were being moved up to the front line.

Santanu Das tells the story of the Indian Army on the Western Front, from disembarkation in Marseilles where the troops were greeted by excited crowds, to the grim reality of the trenches. Ill-equipped and inadequately trained for industrial combat, they nonetheless resolutely held one third of the British frontline between October and December 1914.

Santanu speaks to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of officers and men. Some of these descendants have re-discovered diaries and detailed accounts of the war which chronicle their ancestors' encounters with local people and describe the mutual curiosity between the Indian soldiers and the French and Flemish villagers.

Back in India, the families waited for news from the front which was sometimes very slow to come back. The grandson of one Indian sowar (cavalryman) didn't discover how his grandfather had died until 40 years after the end of the First World War, when he heard from an old comrade how he had died from his wounds after saving the life of a British officer at the Battle of Cambrai.

The journey ends at the memorial at Neuve Chapelle in France, where Indian soldiers and non-combatants who have no known grave are commemorated. The war service of the Indians who served on the Western Front has disappeared from the public gaze to some extent, but as Santanu discovers, their experiences are still talked about and remembered by their families, despite the passing of a hundred years.

Produced by Philippa Goodrich

A Juniper TV production for BBC Radio 4.