Laying the ghosts of war to rest (updated)

Indian soldiers in WWI were remembered at a reopened German graveyard today:

Until recently there was nothing to identify the quiet, leafy spot where Jafarullah Mohammad and Mata Din Singh were buried. The two servicemen were among thousands of Indian volunteers who fought for Britain in the first world war, and were captured at sea or on the western front.

For more than 80 years the German graveyard where Mohammad, Singh and 204 other Indian volunteers are buried was forgotten. But today the war cemetery in Wünsdorf, in a forest 40km south of Berlin, is to be officially reopened… Diplomats from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh will attend today’s rededication ceremony…

The restoration is a recognition of the role played by troops from undivided India, who fought in the bloody battles of Ypres, Neuve Chapelle and Loos. Many died. Others ended up interned in German prisoner of war camps. “Very few people are aware of the role Indian troops played in both world wars,” Peter Francis of the Commonwealth Graves Commission said. “In some Indian units the casualty rate was 80%. In three days’ fighting in Neuve Chapelle in 1915, for instance, some 4,200 Indian soldiers perished…” [Link]

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p>Fewer still care to remember those who fought in the second great war on the other side, to evict the British. The ally in that cause was… inconvenient:

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p>Update: Earlier this week, Tehran honored these soldiers as well (thanks, O’Ya and GGK):

About 3,500 Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British in Iran have been commemorated in an official ceremony in Tehran… Buglers were flown in from India to play the Last Post for the thousands of forgotten soldiers who died here. Wreaths were laid in a Commonwealth war cemetery, although only 10 Indian soldiers have gravestones here. The rest were buried or cremated where they fell on the battlefield, though their names are recorded on stone plaques…

For the tiny Indian community in Iran it was a surprise to find so many of their countrymen had died here. MH Sawhney’s father fought for the British in Basra in the First World War and then settled in Iran as a businessman. [Link]

Related post: Axis’ allies

37 thoughts on “Laying the ghosts of war to rest (updated)

  1. Some thousands of Indian soldiers perished in Iran as well during WWII. They found the graves a few days back and the Indian Embassy organized a memorial service. Since nobody ever knew about these men, the Indian embassy is actually going to track down their extended family. Courtesy BBC TV.

  2. Inconvenient is the best you could come up with?

    My thoughts exactly. Now I’m the first to point out to the world that many / most choices boil down to the lesser of 2 evils. But it’s a pretty effin’ terrible lapse of judgement to consider the Brits worse than the Nazi’s.

  3. Some thousands of Indian soldiers perished in Iran as well during WWII. They found the graves a few days back and the Indian Embassy organized a memorial service. Since nobody ever knew about these men, the Indian embassy is actually going to track down their extended family. Courtesy BBC TV

    Here’s the link http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/4382602.stm

  4. I can always count on tone-deaf literalists to comment here. My faith in the Mutiny is restored!

  5. But it’s a pretty effin’ terrible lapse of judgement to consider the Brits worse than the Nazi’s

    In many respects they were the same. What about the aerial bombing in punjab? WTF was the sign outside the bombay yatch club? The place was shelled by Indians Sailors who were part of British Indian Navy(they werent part of azad hind force)

  6. Vinod, while I agree that the moral equivalence argument is simplistic, what we DO know is that the British colonial government brutally ruled India for close to 200 years – and this was the basis of the choice that the Bose nationalists made. They didn’t have the perspective that we have today. In any case, even Bose quickly wizened up during his stay in Berlin and finally broke his alliance with the Nazis. Historically speaking it was a tentative alliance at best.

  7. viond,

    i have always admired gandhi as well as bose as well as ambedkar – even though they all stood for same thing but with very different modus operandi.

    without 20/20 hindsight, these brave soldier were fighting for the independence of their country – not for any axis hegemony. at every possible ocasion on history discussion with my friends here, i also point out the role of colonial (indians, new zealanders, australians, algerians) sacrifice on behalf of allied in world wars. i always tell people to read gulehri’s “usne hkha tha” – if they can read hindi.

    before you cast a shadow on the soldiers above discussed in the post – you will have cast shadow on the brain power that ran NASA from 40s-60s – von Braun and the Alabama rocket scientists – they all were the elite of the elite german war machinery. almost all of the post WW II – NATO brain power were German Generals who were spared Nuremberg trials. There was huge power play between Germans ruling elite (the ones who a degree or two separated from Hitler) and Americans to ward off Soviets.

    CIA close pals in cold war were south american german nazi expats. what is your opinion on their judgment?

    before you cast doubt on the judgement of person (who probably were poor farmers most of their life) and had been colonized for 200 years, you will have to cast doubts on hell of lot of powerful, richer people.

  8. Kush – interesting point, especially in light of social theorist Herbert Marcuse’s argument that the political totalitarianism of the War period was sublimated into a technological totalitarianism post-War.

  9. i always tell people to read gulehri’s “usne hkha tha” – if they can read hindi.

    It was made into a movie starring sunil dutt. Its available in large desi movie places in US. Its one of the better screen adaptation that i’ve seen in Hindi Cinema.

  10. guys, i forgot that the current pope, Pope Benedict XVI was a Hitler youth – Do you send a petition of protest when he was installed?

    Maybe, for powerful people, we find excuses like he required by law to join and he was not an enthusiastic member. Others, we condemn them……….

  11. PS– if I remember correctly there are many Indian graves in Iraq as well, where the Brits used primarily Indian troops to crush the post WWI rebellion there (I might add that in the course of putting down that rebellion the Brits acquired the dubious distinction of being the first polity to use chemical weapons in the Middle East).

    Vinod: I think it’s somewhat superficial to assume that the average Joe soldier in the INA/Azad Hind fauj was thinking about the relative merits of Allies vs. Axis. The average soldier in the relevant units probably: (i) pissed at the Brits and wanted India free; and (ii) whatever his views it was probably better fighting in the INA than languishing in Axis POW camps and jails, no? That is, it’s one thing to criticize BOSE for the tactical choices he made (though one should never forget Bose’s staunch anti-communal stance), but I would draw a distinction between him and the soldiers who were in the British army, were captured and then given the choice of staying as prisoners loyal to a colonial power OR fighting for a free India.

    Random aside: A female member of the INA– Laxmi Sahgal– was the runner-up in the Presidential election when APJ Abdul Kalam won. She appears to have led a rather interesting life (although the linked piece is the very essence of hagiography), and I’d love to read an autobiography or biography…

  12. But it’s a pretty effin’ terrible lapse of judgement to consider the Brits worse than the Nazi’s.

    An interesting alternate history short story that explores what could have happened to Gandhi, Nehru and the Indian freedom struggle had the Nazis been in charge of India is explored in The Last Article by Harry Turtledove.

  13. Hey Guys,

    Some interesting historial things to keep in mind before anyone takes a moral high ground. Gehlen Org Major General Reinhard Gehlen Operation PaperClip Werner Von Braun**

    An excerpt from CIA-Nazi marriage in cold war [link].

    “Honest and idealist … enjoys good food and wine … unprejudiced mind …”

    That’s how a 1952 Central Intelligence Agency assessment described Nazi ideologue Emil Augsburg, an officer at the infamous Wannsee Institute, the SS think tank involved in planning the Final Solution. Augsburg’s SS unit performed “special duties,” a euphemism for exterminating Jews and other “undesirables” during the Second World War.

    “The real winners of the Cold War were Nazi war criminals, many of whom were able to escape justice because the East and West became so rapidly focused after the war on challenging each other,” says Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations and America’s chief Nazi hunter. Rosenbaum serves on a Clinton-appointed Interagency Working Group committee of U.S. scholars, public officials, and former intelligence officers who helped prepare the CIA records for declassification.

    Many Nazi criminals “received light punishment, no punishment at all, or received compensation because Western spy agencies considered them useful assets in the Cold War,” the IWG team stated after releasing 18,000 pages of redacted CIA material

    *PS: I am not presenting wild, ideological opeds, these are historical facts. These are to be kept in mind before the name of a farmer/ soldier from Punjab is tarnished. One rule for everyone. Don’t foget the Pope.

    ** Personally, I think he was a genius

  14. But it’s a pretty effin’ terrible lapse of judgement to consider the Brits worse than the Nazi’s.
    An interesting alternate history short story that explores what could have happened to Gandhi, Nehru and the Indian freedom struggle had the Nazis been in charge of India is explored in The Last Article by Harry Turtledove.

    WTF is your point ?

    Is it that we should ignore/belittle INA and their contributions or to pass judgements on their actions because they were not on the same side with your benevolent masters?

    Where was the brit moral superiority in bombing of civilians? This was done in their own territory(using weapons of mass destruction on their own subjects guess who is being charged with such a fucking lapse of judgement recently ) What about evacuating the whites in malaya ignoring malays and indians when it was clear that the japanese would take over, leaving those indians who were loyal behind. Siam(Thailand for those geographicaly challanged) managed to keep itself intact as a nation during the messy times. Their siding with the axis was not a lapse of judgement, Neither was indonesian juggling used to kick the dutch out. The nazis may have been brutal in europe but they were not in india and the brits were the brutal one in not only india. The only lack of judgement here’s done by those who are ignorant of facts and want to judge other’s morality in an imagined good vs evil world. -JAI HIND

  15. Wow, learning a lot. I was aware of Turtledove’s argument – though not from Turtledove, which goes I think to the (relative) responsiveness of British public opinion to Gandhi’s mission. That public response ultimately forced the British government’s hand. Who would want to bet on German or even French public opinion operating similarly at that time, or even now?

    None of this should distract from the unprovoked insult of 200 years of colonial rule. And the Hobson’s choice Indians may have felt between England and Nazi Germany could initially be excused on the basis of the enemy of my enemy. US policy, with China vs. Russia, Iraq vs. Iran in the 80′s and elsewhere, has employed this.

    But I wouldn’t use the argument that because the Nazis weren’t brutal in India…. How long, after an Axis victory, would that have lasted?

  16. WTF is your point ? Is it that we should ignore/belittle INA and their contributions or to pass judgements on their actions because they were not on the same side with your benevolent masters?

    Perhaps you need to calm down a little and not trip over the flag you have wrapped yourself in your patriotic fervor.

    Nobody is criticizing the soldiers for their service and sacrifice. The question raised is what would/could have possibly happened to India if the Nazis had taken over, given their record in Europe. Are you so blinkered in your view can you cannot fathom the concept that that old adage “the road to hell is littered with good intentions” ? The British were no saints by any stretch of the imagination, but in comparison to the Nazis, most people feel they were the less of two evils.

  17. Vikram maha gyani ji

    Nobody is criticizing the soldiers for their service and sacrifice.

    WTF was the whole “lapse of judgement” issue here…. accolade?,understanding of history.

    The question raised is what would/could have possibly happened to India if the Nazis had taken over, given their record in Europe. .

    I had answered that question via example If you want to enterain Turddoves arguement then you have to know that the Germany Japan Axis could NOT have taken over India without the assistance to INA and even more populus support at that stage in the game. This is what indonesians did and guess what it worked.

    Most of the posters here were aware of the complexity of the questions these soldiers faced and many others have posted a complex answer not a trite kiddie crap thats bleatead “nazis evil british good”.

  18. For some inexplicable reason, desi conservatives have a special place in their hearts for British colonialism. From Dinesh Souza’s insane nostalgia for the Raj to making facile comparisons between the Nazis and the British, there seems to be a trend. Leave it to a desi conservative to bring up Auschwitz on someone mentioning Jalianwala! I wonder when the Poles bitch about the Nazi occupation, do the conservative Poles remind them that things would have been much worse if Genghis Khan hordes were occupying Poland in place of the Nazis.

  19. Um, yes, an exaggeration, but it was a key factor. Also Britain’s essential bankruptcy following the war and the sudden shift toward a labor government.

  20. Ok, so apparently I failed some sort of comprehension test here. I read the last sentence as it was ‘inconvenient’ that some wanted to work with the Nazi powers, so that they could eventually evict the British. I give up. I will stay out of all WWII discussions, here and elsewhere. On a SM churchill thread, I learn that churchill was as bad as hitler. On a neo-neocon blog thread, I learn that gandhi was as bad as hitler. And now, I learn, because I cannot read, I am as bad as hitler (joke, joke, anyone seen the beautiful atrocities post about how, in the future, everyone will be hitler for 15 minutes?)

    I am going back to my ways from the old days, when I only commented on Manish’s pretty writing,poetry and prose. Can I blame the fact that I still haven’t got my reading glasses yet?

  21. Vikram maha gyani ji

    No more or less of a gyani than you my friend…

    WTF was the whole “lapse of judgement” issue here…. accolade?,understanding of history.

    Not sure why you are attributing this quote to me. If you check back in the thread, this statement wasn’t made by me.

    Germany Japan Axis could NOT have taken over India without the assistance to INA and even more populus support at that stage in the game. This is what indonesians did and guess what it worked.

    You know this for an absolute fact ? To compare the Dutch to the German military machine in WW II is quite a stretch. Germany overran the Netherlands in days. Read your history. So to compare what the Indonesians did with reference to all already defeated Dutch colonial powers is hardly a valid comparison. The German occupying forces would have been quite a different beast to contend with.

    And isn’t the dissection of all possible outcomes of an action a good idea for the people involved in making the decision ? To assume that the Nazis and the Japanese would have been completely altruistic in their motives for helping the INA is naive. They would have wanted their pound(s) of flesh eventually.

    Anyway I can see that this debate is going nowhere with you. Have a nice day.

  22. MD – Do you think that it was any worse for the INA to work with the Nazis during WWII than for the US to work with the USSR during WWII? As I recall, Stalin was already a pretty big mass murder at that point, yet we had no problem working with him …

  23. Ennis: Oh, lord, how do I get myself into these things. I guess I expected, woman-like, for you to all get my drift without me spelling it out (now, all the feminists can hate me, too). No, Stalin was a monster. And yes, the US, for our own interests worked with the monster. What I am getting at is that in the past, on SM threads, one or the other side excuses one act and condemns the same act in another actor. Oh dear. Let me put it this way. Like, people say, isn’t it a crime that the US works with Pakistan, or other dictators? That is what I was getting at. And now, I really do give up.

    PS: Ennis, why hasn’t there been a Boston SM meet-up? I tried e-mailing some of the Boston bloggers I know, but they are all stealth, undercover types and don’t seem interested in blowing their cover. Anyone else? :)

  24. WTF was the whole “lapse of judgement” issue here…. accolade?,understanding of history.
    Not sure why you are attributing this quote to me. If you check back in the thread, this statement wasn’t made by me.

    Agree that it wasnt u but u’r providing the arguements to further vinod-at-large‘s point, which has been to imply that these peasent soldiers were damnable for switching alliances.

    You know this for an absolute fact ? To compare the Dutch to the German military machine in WW II is quite a stretch. Germany overran the Netherlands in days. Read your history. So to compare what the Indonesians did with reference to all already defeated Dutch colonial powers is hardly a valid comparison. The German occupying forces would have been quite a different beast to contend with.

    ??? you ought to read real history first , for indonesian history read sukarno’s autobiography. The dutch were playing the brit part in indonesian context and japanese worked with indonesian nationalists. The japs were not in it for altruistic reason but indonesians were able to kick the dutch out. The INA’s goal was that, And in indias context there wouldnt have been a german occupying force.

  25. For some inexplicable reason, desi conservatives have a special place in their hearts for British colonialism.From Dinesh Souza’s insane nostalgia for the Raj to making facile comparisons between the Nazis and the British, there seems to be a trend.

    I dont know if its a conservatives only. You can see similar assinine comments coming out of liberals,liberterians,etc. Its smugness of sort, where you can judge others choices(which were often made from a position of weakness) in an imaginary moralistic framework which no one including themselves never followed.

  26. Ignore post 29

    For some inexplicable reason, desi conservatives have a special place in their hearts for British colonialism.From Dinesh Souza’s insane nostalgia for the Raj to making facile comparisons between the Nazis and the British, there seems to be a trend.

    I dont know if its a conservatives only. You can see similar assinine comments coming out of liberals,liberterians,etc. Its smugness of sort, where you can judge others choices(which were often made from a position of weakness) in an imaginary moralistic framework which no one including themselves ever followed.

  27. I wonder when the Poles bitch about the Nazi occupation, do the conservative Poles remind them that things would have been much worse if Genghis Khan hordes were occupying Poland in place of the Nazis.

    from what i recall over 10% of non-jewish poles were killed under the nazi rule (including jews, that would be 90% of 10% of the population, so almost doubling the body count). i am willing to bet that the hordes of ogedei (genghis khan’s grandson) would have been less destructive than that.

    i found the term ‘inconvenient’ a bit off to describe the nazis, but i don’t think manish was throwing that out in a dismissive manner. but, yes, there were nations like finland who allied with the nazis against the soviets for existential reasons just like we allied with the soviets against the nazis to a lesser extent for similar motives. my impression is that the indian analogy (i.e., INA alliance with the axis) is not apropos because independence was a matter of time, and the british were not an existential threat to south asian survival.

    i think whether you currently an american citizen, or indian citizen, or whatever, also matters. the saliency of the history of the “old country” is to some extent in proportion to your attachment to said country. irish americans were not necessarily happy to fight on the side of the british in world war i, but they were americans first and irish second. by world war ii, ireland was independent and the irish were more settled in america so this wasn’t even a concern.

  28. “because independence was a matter of time, and the british were not an existential threat to south asian survival.”

    Razib: whether independence was a matter of time is a separate question to whether it SEEMED like that to Indians at the time. In 1939, there was no indication whatsoever that Britain planned to let go, and once Churchill took office he made it very clear in his public statements that he had not become PM to “preside over the liquidation” of the British Empire. I do not disagree that the Nazis represent the worst of all possible worlds, but remember that even as late as 1944 most people in the Allied countries had no idea about the extermination camps (reports emanating from Europe about these were often disbelieved as Jewish propaganda by many in the US and UK governments), so to expect the average soldier who has been given a choice between staying a PoW in Axis camps or fighting for the liberation of India to appreciate the distinction is a bit much.

  29. UM,

    i’m not proposing that nazis-were-worst-than-communists, etc. etc. type of arguments. i don’t care what the people at the time thought really, and do not begrudge the soldiers the choices they made. i am curious though as to the reactions i have seen repeatedly on this weblog by indians and indian americans in reference to the british colonial period, and the analogies and comparisons that get made.

  30. While some 2.5 million Indians fought the war for British rulers, a few thousand men and women joined the Germany-Japan-Italy (Aix Powers) alliance, under Subhash Chandra Bose, hoping to overthrow the British rulers from India… Though the war was not India’s, Indians were among the most heroic, borne out by the fact that they won over 4,000 gallantry awards, among them almost 20 Victoria Crosses. Over 36,000 Indians were killed. Official estimates put the wounded at 64,000.

    [Link]

  31. Man, I got goosebumps looking at the picture of the Free India legion. What a kick Ass group of people. Thats DEFIANCE !!! GO MUTINY ….

    One point about the British… They are the only people who ruled (mostly ruthlessly) over peoples all across the world, committing untold horrors and still manage to claim moral superiority. !!! (Or convince some people of their moral superiority) Thats got to be the best PR job yet.

  32. Good day too all of you. My grandfather died in WWII 1943 in Burma. my father never saw his dad and my grandfather died not seeing his son. There is a memorial and cemetry for indian shaheeds in burma. visit this british war site to see names of your beloved in roll of Honours i was so moved to find my grandfathers name there.

    http://www.britain-at-war.org.uk/Roll_of_Honour/Cemeteries/Rangoon_Memorial/A/html/ad.htm

    this is one war hindu muslim sikh fought together against the japanese as one body. what japanese did to indian prisoners of war is hardly mentioned by the west. our soliders were also tortured and if you go through the above website you will see many who died in captivity and also died working on rail lines in far east. It breaks my heart when i think of our brave sher soldiers who were dragged into this war because of indias colonial masters and so many who never returned and whos graves still lie unrecovered in the cold steep mountains and terrains of burma.

    koi vichrya naal milaa daywaay