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

MEMORIAL TOURISM IN BELGIUM FOR INDIANS

INDIAN INVOLVEMENT IN FIRST WORLD WAR
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?????!!!!!!!! 

Graves of Indian Soldiers of First World War - Bedford Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium


Graves of Indian Soldiers of First World War - Bedford Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium

Graves of Indian Soldiers of First World War - Bedford Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium

DARK TOURISM IN BELGIUM - YPRES (IEPER)
Today the town is still 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.

IDENTIFICATION OF MARTYRED SOLDIERS OF FIRST WORLD 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 OF FIRST WORLD WAR IN YPRES, BELGIUM
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 there were 20 burials of which 1 was Hindu, 6 were Muslims and 13 were unidentified. 

Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium

Indian Soldiers of First World War in Belgium Menin Gate Memorial Ypres

Graves of Indian Soldiers of First World War - Bedford Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium

There are a few more cemeteries too where identified Indians have been buried. Of course, 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 412 identified/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. 

Where is Bedford House Cemetery in Ypres (Ieper) - On Google Maps: Bedford House Cemetery
How to reach Bedford House Cemetery from Ieper: 3.2km (40 mins walk) from Ypres/Ieper Railway Station
More information about the Indian Soldiers buried in Bedford House Cemetery - via Commonwealth War Graves

Where is Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres (Ieper) - On Google Maps: Menin Gate Memorial
How to reach Menin Gate Memorial: 1.2km (14 mins walk) from Ypres/Ieper Railway Station
More information about the Indian Soldiers inscribed on Menin Gate - via Commonwealth War Graves

WHY DID INDIAN SOLDIERS PARTICIPATE IN FIRST WORLD WAR?
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 the sky like monsoon rain!!!

LEST WE FORGET - FORGOTTEN INDIAN SOLDIERS OF FIRST WORLD WAR
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 deals with the 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 looted of its teak trees to make guns for the war. The 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 the world over... 

Akka - Bedford Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium
Akka - Sepoy in 129th Duke of Connaught's Own Baluchis Regiment - Martyred between 26 April 1915

Kishn Singh - Bedford Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium
Kishn Singh - Sepoy in 21st Punjabis Regiment - Martyred on 27 April 1915

Hashmat Ali - Bedford Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium
Hashmat Ali - Sepoy in 84th Punjabis Regiment - Martyred on 25 April 1915

Fazl Dad - Bedford Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium
Fazl Dad - Sepoy in 57th Wilde's Rifles (Frontier Force) Regiment - Martyred on 29 October 1914

Mehr Khan - Bedford Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium
Mehr Khan - Sepoy in 57th Wilde's Rifles (Frontier Force) Regiment - Martyred between 28 Oct - 01 Nov 1914

Khan Muhammad - Bedford Cemetery, Ypres, Belgium
Khan Muhammad - Jemadar in 57th Wilde's Rifles (Frontier Force) Regiment - Martyred between 19 October 1914


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 in Ypres!

OTHER PLACES TO VISIT & THINGS TO DO IN YPRES

YPRES (IEPER) HOTELS
Hotels & B&Bs at all price points are available in Ypres City Centre. 

HOW TO REACH IEPER (YPRES) FROM BRUSSELS
To Ypres (Ieper) from Brussels: 130km 
There are no direct trains from Brussels to Ypres / Ieper. Take a train till Gent and then change to another train from Gent to Ypres/Ieper. The whole journey takes 2-2:30hrs including transit time.
To visit each & every cemetery, a private tour by car can be arranged with Salient Tours mentioned above. Otherwise, rent a bike and visit all the cemeteries. Here's the list of all bike rentals in Ypres (Ieper).
The map below has layers of a 60km cycling route and 10km walking route to visit & pay respects to as many war graves of Indian Soldiers buried in the cemeteries in & around Ypres. Click on the side menu inside the embedded map and choose cycling or walking. 

Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium

MAP OF ALL WORLD WAR CEMETERIES IN BELGIUM WITH GRAVES OF INDIAN SOLDIERS


HOW TO SEARCH FOR GRAVES OF INDIAN SOLDIERS IN YOUR COUNTRY?
Since India was a part of British Empire during both the World Wars, martyred Indian soldiers have been buried in the Commonwealth War Graves along with soldiers from Britain, Canada, Australia, Africa etc who too fought in the World War representing the British Empire (Commonwealth countries). There is a dedicated website called Commonwealth War Graves that gives all information about all the war graves in all the countries with all the available information. It is possible to search for Indian soldiers who are buried across the world, on this site. If you're are NRI or tourist in a foreign country and would like to pay your respects to the martyred Indian soldiers, it is possible to search the cemeteries where they're buried.
Go to 'Find War Dead' -> Fill 'Indian' in 'Served With' box -> click on 'Country (commemorated in)' in the 'Additional Fields' and fill the country that you're searching for. Then click 'Search'. You have the list. To make it easier to visit the cemeteries, choose 'Commemorated at' in the 'Sort by' box. Now it is sorted in the alphabetical order of the cemeteries (& memorials). Go visit the cemeteries one by one and pay your respect to the forgotten fallen Indian warriors of World Wars.
Here's the list of the graves of Indian Soldiers buried in Belgium from this site, that I used to map the cemeteries in the above map.
When you visit a cemetery, near the entrance, in a small box is the 'Cemetery Register' which gives all information about the soldiers buried in that particular cemetery as well as the map of that cemetery. Refer it to find the graves of Indian Soldiers. Place the register back in its box.
Here's a thing to keep in mind when using this list. The British commanders of Indian soldiers are also listed as Indians because this isn't nationality (the nation of India didn't exist then as well) but are the regiments under which they served. The British officers, lieutenants, captains, majors who served in the Indian regiments are also listed as Indians. So some soldiers in the list of Indian Soldiers would be actually British! Also, under British India, came not only modern India but also modern Pakistan and Bangladesh. So the list comprises of soldiers from today's India, Nepal, Pakistan & Bangladesh. If you're an Indian or Pakistani reading this, I'm sure we can put aside our differences, for the sake of these forgotten soldiers... Even today, as humans, we are much alike, who feel that we are different because of our political situations. 

Indian Soldier of WWI in Ypres, Belgium Indian Soldier of WWI in Ypres, Belgium
 
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 advertise the product/service.

Bhushavali

An ardent traveler by passion. Being an ex - Art History Teacher, my area of interest especially lies in Nature and Heritage. Visited 78 UNESCO World Heritage sites as of Sept 2020. I've been listed among the Top 7 Women Travel Bloggers of India, Top 50 in UK. I have been interviewed in a couple of TV Shows, Radio Channels and Events as well. Read more about me and read the testimonials of different brands

13 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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  11. I have no words to say but full respect and prayers for all the fallen soldiers. They are true heroes.

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  12. It's sad that these soldiers have not had the respect they deserved. Just been watching a news item about it on BBC News. I hadn't realised that Ghandi had supported their involvement on condition that India would get independence.
    Dr Irfin Malik a GP in Nottingham has been researching this lack of awareness of Asian involvement in the war & how his family has been affected by it. He had felt that it had nothing to do with the immigrants living in the UK as his family never talked about it. He is now using his knowledge of the real story to cross the divide & show that they have a shared history with this war. A really great chap.

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    1. Hi Winifred, yes, this is the view I wanted to know. Neither, the present day British nor Indian people are aware of this! Its amazing what Dr.Irfan Malik is doing. Let me go read about him! Thanks for taking time to leave this insightful comment!

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