‘India forgot its soldiers, world remembers them with pride’

Of the 4,271 Commonwealth servicemen buried at the Cassino War Cemetery, 431 were Indian soldiers; (left) Colonel (retd) Vijay Y Gidh. express
Om Bhagawate Namaha - the otherwise common line in India looked extraordinarily unusual when Colonel (retd) Vijay Y Gidh discovered it in the hamlet of Forli - three-hour drive from the Italian town of Bologna. But, having gone hunting for battlefields in Italy, where Indian troops fought bravely in WW-II, Gidh was yet to witness more surprises. For when he was about to sign the visitors book of Forli Indian Army War Cemetery, the retired veteran of 14 Punjab (Nabha Akal) Battalion of the Indian Army discovered nine graves of soldiers, who belonged to his battalion, but never found a mention in the history books or coffee table books of 14 Punjab (Nabha Akal).

Gidh, who returned recently from the trip, attended the 257th raising day of his battalion on October 24 at Ramgarh cantonment in Jharkhand, where he narrated his experiences and took up the inclusion of the nine brave names in the history books of the battalion.

"I commanded my unit before retiring, but never came across these names in the list of our 52 martyrs, who laid down their lives in Italy, as maintained by the unit. The total tally now stands at 61. My son, who has been the adjutant of the unit, too was surprised at how the contribution of the soldiers were belittled. We returned to Venice and found out that we had forgotten the brave hearts," Gidh said, as he admitted to have tallied 50 of the names in the list with the headstones of graves in Forli. The battalion, which was then a part of 20 Indian Infantry Brigade, fought under the 10th Indian Division in the fourth battle of the Italian Campaign and was under the larger Eight British Army of legendary Field Marshal Montgomery.

The Italian campaign was an affair to remember. I came across Indian names, some even as common as Jadhav, Gurdayal Singh, Zamir Khan, besides others, said Gidh. "The fact that these names belonged to Indian soldiers was a matter of pride," he added. In yet another Italian city, the tinsel town of Cassino, which is one hour and 40 minute drive from Rome, witnessed a fierce battle during 1943-44. Gidh came across two of the 52 names. The long winding road overlooking the horizon is where the Indian troops bravely fought the dominating Germans, facing rain and the ever pouring shells from hill top. The monastery on the hill top still bears witness to the fight put up by brave Indians of the fourth and eighth Indian Divisions in February-March, 1944.

"Of the 4,271 Commonwealth servicemen buried at the Cassino War Cemetery, the largest WW-II cemetery in Italy, 431 were Indian soldiers. The cemetery's two structures - Cassino Memorial and the original Register Box - are in Indian style," he said. Recently, the Sikh community in Italy inaugurated a bronze monument at the main entrance of the Forli Cemetery, dedicated to the Sikh soldiers, who lost their lives during the two World Wars. "It is strange how we, Indians, forget our soldiers, when the world remembers them with pride," Gidh said.

The Italian Campaign

"In this fierce campaign, nearly 50,000 Indian soldiers, most in their 20s, drawn from some of the finest regiments of the Indian Army fought for the freedom of Italy during WW-II. They were in the thick of action on many fronts, including the fight for Monte Cassino, battle for Sangro River and Liri Valley," said Colonel (retd) Vijay Y Gidh. The Indian troops won six of the 20 Victoria crosses awarded to Allied Forces in Italy. But, this glory came at a cost. As many as 23,722 Indian soldiers were injured, while 5782 soldiers lost their lives, he added. They were buried in cemeteries across Italy, including Arezzo, Cassino, Sangro, Forli and Rimini.

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