Indians in Ypres during World War I (Flanders - Belgium)

Let me give you a rough outline of how a million (almost 1.3 million) Indian soldiers ended up in Ypres (Ieper) during World War I

1. The heir to Austria's throne, Archduke Ferdinand, was killed by Serbians in 1914
2. Austria wages war on Serbia.
3. Germany supports Austria (because they were relatives and had several marriages between the families).
4. Serbia befriends Russia and France (here on called Allies). Belgium stays neutral.
5. Germany, now sandwiched between France and Russia, requests Belgium to allow its its soldiers to be placed in it at French border. Belgium rejects and German occupation of Belgium begins bit by bit. 
6. 95% of Belgium is under German occupation and they advance towards Ypres.
7. Scared of German advancement, Britain joins Allies.
8. INDIA is a colony of Britain already. Indian soldiers are the first to be dropped in the war zone to fight on behalf of Britain, even before British soldiers were brought in. The location of war, of German advancement, at this point is YPRES!!!

So..... because Serbian nationalists, killed a royal Austrian, Indian soldiers died in Belgium, thanks to Britain....... Not 1 or 2 Indians but a whole 74,187 Indian soldiers died in WWI........ Can you wrap your mind around that?????!!!!!!!! 
Today the town is still a sombre aftermath of the war! I'll be writing more about what Ypres Salient is, the phases of war that happened here and the various countries that took part in it, and what Iron Harvest is, in the next post. For now, to just give an idea, this entire region is filled with several graves and cemeteries and memorials for the millions of people who died fighting in the Great War.


Here is more to understand - of the soldiers who died, some were actually identified, some could only be identified as a soldier who belonged to so & so country & battalion with the help of their uniform and the place where the body was found, some bodies couldn't be identified at all! The number 74,187 was derived by negating the number of soldiers who returned back home. Of these, not everyone was identified.

Indian soldiers were primarily Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims. The funeral rites of Hindus & Sikhs is cremation while Muslims is burial. So most of the identified Hindu and Sikh soldiers were cremated according to their rites & customs. The identified Muslim soldiers have their dedicated graves. Soldiers who were only identified as Indians (with the help of their uniform etc), also have graves that mentions 'An Indian Soldier of the Great War'.
Soldiers were always buried in the cemetery closest to the place where their body was found. I visited the Bedford House Cemetery and it has a corner dedicated for the Indian soldiers and here were 20 burials of which 1 was Hindu, 6 were Muslims and 13 were unidentified. 

There are a few more cemeteries too where identified Indians have been buried. Ofcourse, many of the thousands of burials of the completely unidentified soldiers, mentioned as 'A Soldier of the Great War Known unto God' could be Indians. I still don't know how many, in numbers, were identified and cremated. The missing soldiers have their name inscribed on the Menin Gate Memorial within the city and one of the sides of one of the pillar is dedicated to Indians apart from a few other mentions too. 
These Indian soldiers were sent to the war, by the British, when India was under British Raj (colonial India) after a promise to the Indians that after the war, India would attain Swaraj (independence)! However, the promise was broken and it was after WWII, that we got our independence in 1947. Letters from these soldiers to their homes were really painful indicating how cold it was (unlike Indian weather) and how shells dropped from sky like monsoon rain!!!




Indians weren't in power to give something to the soldiers or their families and the British broke their promise and these soldiers have been forgotten. When I started to dig into it, there is so much to know! The worst part is, I did not even study about this in school. While history in our school books deal with Indian Independence struggle, this part of forgotten history, has been left forgotten. I don't know if the current syllabus includes this....
If you're an old reader of this blog, you may remember my post on Conolly's Plot which was almost destroyed of its teak trees to make guns for the war. Situation would have been similar in the other colonies in Africa, Australia, NZ etc as well. I wonder if British school history books deal with how much they've been helped by people world over... 
Being an Indian in Belgium, I'm honestly ashamed that I didn't know already, that more than a million Indians came to Belgium during the First World War and in course of the war, 70000+ Indians lost their lives in this region!!!! I did not know about any of this when I decided to visit Ypres... I knew it an important World War I site which, today is filled with several graves of soldiers. What I didn't know was its humongous Indian connection which made a regular trip, a very emotional one!

P.S: A special thanks to my guides in the city Mr. Lucas of Salient Tours and Mr Rudi Dewitte for the information & for taking the extra efforts to inform & take me to the graves of Indian soldiers!

To Stay:
Hotels & B&Bs at all price points are available in Ypres City Centre. 

To Get There:
To Ypres (Ieper) from Brussels: 130km (Direct trains are unavailable. Change of train at Gent has to be done. The whole journey takes 2-2:30hrs)
To Bedford House Cemetery from Ieper: 4.3km
Menin Gate is located in the centre of the city.
On Google Maps: Bedford House Cemetery, Menin Gate Memorial

My complete Ypres travelogue: coming soon.

P.S: I was invited by Ieper Tourism to experience the city for review purposes, however the opinions are my own and this post does not to advertise the product/service.

Bhushavali N

An ardent traveler by passion. I am a wanderlust.. Read more about me here.

10 comments:

  1. Hi Bhusha,

    Thanks for info.Britan couldn't have survived if they hadn't had the Indian army at their aid in both world wars

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  2. This is such a poignant story. The contribution, sacrifice and valour of Indian soldiers in world wars has often been ignored because most writers are from west. I am glad you wrote about this. I am also sharing this on social media. This place again proves why war is so futile. It is so unfortunate that these soldiers perished in a country away from theirs.

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  3. I had no idea so many Indian soldiers lost their lives in Belgium...so sad. Thanks for sharing this tragic story.

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  4. I was not familiar with Ypres. I can’t imagine what the families of those not identified must have felt like. I didn’t realize that so many Indians fought in WWI in Belgium. A million is a big number.

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  5. What an insightful post. Frankly speaking, I had not read much about the Indian involvement in the war in Europe. This is truly an eye opener.

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  6. It is good that you live in Belgium, and have known the great historical chapter which not many people know. We should be proud of Indian soldiers and it is great to see their names in foreign soil. It is very sad to know that even our promise was broken though many Indian men sacrificed their life.

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  7. Not many people know how much Indians sacrificed their lives in the world wars. A fitting tribute in Belgium

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  8. Such a poignant story and one that would have brought up many emotions no doubt, when you discovered about this history. There is so much that our ancestors have gone through that we often have no idea about. And as a child, you don't really understand the importance of it all - as you get older, you wish you had learnt more when you were younger. Very informative post.

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  9. This is quite heart rending. I wasn't aware of this part of our history. So many Indian soldiers suffered in World War I in Ypres and many of them weren't even identified. It's a shame that these heroes are forgotten in Indian History. I can understand the emotional connection you must have felt while visiting these graves. I felt the same connection while reading the post.

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  10. OMG! That's awful. This is a piece of history that I had no idea about but I really feel sorry for all those 74,187 lives lost. War stories indeed make me really sad. I just pray that we won't have to deal with another war in our lifetime.

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