• Saturday, August 02, 2014

History

1914-1918 COLONIALISM AND ITS SOLDIERS

Syed Badrul Ahsan
Group of Moroccan Spahis leaving Saint-Remy-de-Provence (near Marseilles) for Arles. Provence, South of France, April 1917. © ECPAD
Group of Moroccan Spahis leaving Saint-Remy-de-Provence (near Marseilles) for Arles. Provence, South of France, April 1917. © ECPAD

A hundred years ago, in August 1914, a war that was to change life and perspectives across the world exploded on civilization in unparalleled ferocity. History informs us that the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort set off the conflagration, a series of human brutality that would not end till four years later. It was a war that would transform the nature of war. Soldiers would die by the thousands in the trenches and in open fields and through disintegrating cities.
The war would come to be known as the First World War, though one is not quite sure that it was a whole world that was involved in the prosecution of the conflict. But, yes, it was a war that affected every region across the globe and in various ways left societies everywhere affected in no small measure. One of the more positive aspects of that war was the impetus for freedom it gave the people of Ireland. Men like Eamonn de Valera ventured out to demand that the Irish be given freedom or that they seize liberty by force of arms. The Easter Rising of 1916 came to pass; and the moment of valour and martyrdom was never to be so profoundly registered in the human spirit as through William Butler Yeats' poem we have known as Easter 1916.
When the First World War got underway, it was colonialism that buttressed the power of those who colonized nations from the far reaches of Asia to the farthest corners of Africa. It was a period in time, as the photographic exhibition and the international conference organized last week by Alliance Francaise de Dhaka put it, when war was a truth directly linked to the colonialism practised by nations in the West. Such colonialism was put to intensive and creditable use, on the part of the colonizing powers, in the course of the war. The reason was simple: every war needs soldiers willing to kill and maim soldiers on the other side of the battlefield. For the nations of Europe, for France, Germany, Britain, those soldiers, apart from their native patriots ready and willing to die for their countries, the call of battle necessitated, therefore, a recruitment of fighting men from the populace of the lands they had under their control.

French colonial troupes in the Great War. © ECPAD
French colonial troupes in the Great War. © ECPAD

Observe the figures, those that speak of Indians who fought in defence of the British Empire in the four years between 1914 and 1918. The British authorities mobilized altogether 1.5 million men from India. As many as 90,000 of these Indians would die in what was turning out to be an increasingly appalling conflict. You tend to wonder how many of these dead soldiers were sent back home to their families. And you know the answer: not many, if at all any corpses were dispatched home in those days of difficult communications and hard terrain. Altogether 150,000 Indian soldiers found themselves fighting in Europe in 1914. And other Indians, by far a much bigger chunk of what the colonial power would call native soldiers, would wage war against the Ottoman Empire on the Mesopotamian front. History records that Indian soldiers were also engaged in battles in East Africa.
Olivier Litvine, director of the AfD and the man behind the commemoration here of that long-ago war, would have you know that no fewer than 650,000 colonial troops were engaged in the battlefields of Europe during the war. And yet, says Litvine, there are not many who recall the sacrifices of the colonial soldiers. That, you could say, is again part of human nature. We tend to remember the sacrifices of our own soldiers. That soldier on the other side is the enemy, almost non-human, even non-existent. That is when that small matter of memory against forgetting comes up once again. And memory tells you that it was Indians, and people from other nations around the world as well, who sacrificed their lives in that experience in brutality. Count among those non-Indian soldiers the 30,000 Irishmen who died fighting for Britain in Europe. These dead were part of a 200,000-strong force of Irish soldiers London recruited to fight for its survival as a kingdom. Ironically, Ireland itself was drifting into ever-widening political and armed conflict. The fratricide that would keep the Irish, especially in the northern region of it, in its grip for decades had its roots in those early years. As Irish young men went off to battle to fight for Britain in 1914, Ireland was beginning to come apart at the centre.
And then there were the Askaris, or more appropriately Africans (Askaris is Swahili for soldier) who fought for Germany during the war. And the French? They had their own brands of colonial soldiers to wage war in their name in two armies, L'armee d'Afrique and L'armee coloniale.
History winds along new and increasingly tortuous pathways. Last week, as Philip Orr, Samuel Berthet and other visiting as well as local scholars sifted through the details of the First World War, it was the hideous nature of war that came alive once again. There is nothing called a beautiful war. There is only sudden death, only burnt cropland, only charred homes.
(War and Colonies 1914-1918, a photographic exhibition, was inaugurated by Alliance Francaise de Dhaka on 24 February. It was followed by War and Colonies 1914-1918: the International Conference, at the Senate Hall, University of Dhaka, on 25-26 February).
The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.

Published: 12:00 am Friday, February 28, 2014

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