Let us cast our minds back to imagine we are in the midst of the First World War. Fighting is worldwide on the Western Front, in East Africa, Mesopotamia and Gallipoli (now modern-day Syria and Iraq). Of the 75 million men who are fighting in the war, over 1.5million of these were from Indian Army. More than 74,000 sacrificed their lives.
In 1914 when Britain declared war on Germany, it’s Empire spanned the globe and included dominions such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and India. When the call to war came all of these countries and continents answered the call sending men and animals to the front lines.
The British Council recently conducted a survey in Egypt, France, Germany, India, Russia Turkey and the UK, and they state on their website that it “shows, the UK public has only a limited understanding of the extent and significance of the role of commonwealth countries in the First World War.” This includes the over 1.5million Indians who volunteered to fight for the empire.
In British history there can be a tendency to assume that the first world war was European, fought by European troops and that it was European troops who lost their lives, but the reality is that a vast number of men who made up the allied army came from across the empire and the world. The Indian Army consisted of men of a number of different faiths and nationalities and overall over 13,000 medals and 12 Victoria Crosses were won by their troops during and immediately after the war.
The website ww1muslimsoldiers.org.uk tells the story of the over 400,000 Muslim men who fought in the British Indian Army. Their website states that “in total, the Indian Army sent around 1.5 million men and 173,000 animals from Indian ports to nearly all theatres of war across Europe, Africa and Asia. One in every six soldiers of the British Empire was from the Indian subcontinent.”
The Sikh troops made up around 22% of the number of men that the Indian Army sent to the front line at the beginning of the war, despite only 2% of the population of India being Sikh. Often referred to as the Black Lions during the war and since dubbed the Lions of the Great War, they were allowed to use traditional Sikh weapons such as chakrams and talwar swords and took their duties as soldiers as a likening to martyrdom. By the end of the war 100,000 Sikhs had volunteered for the army.
BUT, why does this matter? Shantha Roe who is the artistic director of Annapurna Dance has developed a performance to tell this war story in this the final centenary year of WW1. She explains the importance of the project:
'It is because of the sacrifice made by these volunteer soldiers I am here now in Britain. The picture of multicultural Britain and why and how it has evolved into becoming one -becomes very clear if one knows this precious shared history. The project has evolved since then I have changed the title to “Soldiers of the Empire”. I am very much looking forward to bringing it to Settle Stories in July.
Here at Settle Stories, we believe storytelling can be the best form of history lesson. We believe that the story of the 74,000 Muslims, Sikhs & Gurkhas who sacrificed their lives is a story that needs to be told and shared. This is why on Saturday the 14th July we’re inviting Shantha and Annapurna Indian Dance to present ‘Soldiers of the Empire’, in this the final centenary year of WW1.
Annapurna Indian Dance pays homage to the forgotten soldiers from undivided India, who fought for Britain during WW1. Their vision is to achieve harmony and understanding between people of different cultures through Indian Dance. They are storytellers, musicians, puppeteers, percussionists, composers and choreographers who come together to create vibrant dance projects which engage all ages.
This spellbinding performance for Settle Stories on 14th July, told through storytelling, music and dance is a shared history which stretches from Europe to the Indian sub-continent and which touches upon race, religion, empire and culture, with strong bearings on the present.
Discover the legacy of their contribution as their story is brought to life.
Blog written by Charlotte Furness