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Putting WWI India Office records online shows how memory can be recovered in the digital age
Penny Brook and Florian Stadtler
The story of the British Indian army during World War I and its immense contribution to Britain's war effort remains little known in Britain and India. While several historians have worked hard on highlighting their contributions — for example Rozina Visram, who pieced together the story of Indian soldiers on the front and in Britain in Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History, and David Omissi, who highlighted the experience of Indian soldiers in his edited collection of censored mails — digital media opens up new opportunities for the wider public across the world to engage with Indian soldiers' experiences. Stationed at the trenches on the western front in northern France and Belgium, in Mesopotamia, East Africa and Gallipoli, including non-combatants, the War Office in Britain records that some 1.5 million men from pre-Partition India were involved in World War I.
In the immediate aftermath, much was done to ensure their contribution would be commemorated. For instance, General Sir James Willcocks, who commanded the Indian troops in France, wrote a book and poetry to record their contribution for posterity. Numerous monuments, such as inscriptions on the Menin Gates of the Belgian town of Ypres, and the Indian soldiers cemetery at Neuve Chapelle, France, are lasting testaments to their memory. One of the central memorials for Indian soldiers, built by Edwin Lutyens, is India Gate in New Delhi. In Britain, yearly commemorations take place at the Chattri memorial on the South Downs in southern England, erected on the place where Sikh and Hindu soldiers who had died in hospitals on Britain's southern coast would be cremated. Muslim soldiers would be buried near the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking at a special burial ground.