Remembering the Bengalis who fought for France in WWI
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While the British Empire called around one and a half million Indians to the colours during World War I, Paris, which had its own colonial enclaves in India, also recruited Indian volunteers to fight for France.
And while France fielded hundreds of thousands of colonial troops from North Africa to Indochina, the Alliance Française in Dhaka, the capital of the modern state of Bangladesh, is determined that France’s tiny Indian contribution is not forgotten.
In the eastern Indian city of Chandannagar, which was a French trading post from 1673 until just after Indian independence in 1948, some 26 Bengalis volunteered to fight for France.
Keeping that memory alive is an uphill struggle, according to the Alliance Française’s Olivier Litvine, who has organised a two-day conference in Dhaka, beginning Tuesday, on the Bengali contribution to a very foreign war.
“There is always the risk of collective amnesia in former colonies which provided troops for their imperial masters,” he told FRANCE 24. “From their point of view, psychologically, the fact that they were colonies is somewhat of a humiliation. People prefer to look to the future.”
But India nevertheless made a huge contribution to the allied war effort, and of the 1.5 million who fought for the British Empire, 90,000 never made it home.
“From the beginning of the war they fought on the Western Front in Flanders, and from 1915 the majority went on to fight in Iraq, the Arabian peninsula and Palestine [against the Turkish Ottoman Empire], said Litvine.
“Others fought in the Gallipoli campaign, in Africa and even in China.”
While France did not have the dominance the British enjoyed on the Indian subcontinent, its five small enclaves - Pondicherry, Chandannagar, Karaikal, Yanaon and Mahe - made their own small contribution.
India ‘indebted to France’
France launched its Asian recruitment drive in late 1915, and while the majority of this manpower came from”Indochina” (now Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos), there was a special message for the smaller Indian territories.
“India is indebted to France in many ways,” wrote Alfred Martineau, then governor of French India. “It is now the duty of each Indian to stand up for France during this period of adversity…France will never forget those who came to her in this difficult time. France will treat them like her own children. Join the French army.”
In Chandannagar around 30 men responded to the call to fight on the other side of the world.
By Spring 1916, 26 of these men were selected as fit to fight and in mid April a farewell ceremony was held and they began the long sea voyage from Pondicherry to France, temporarily attached to the 17th company of France’s 11th Colonial Infantry Regiment.
Their officer, Lieutenant Gillet, reported: “They are all in good health. And since their arriveal at Pondicherry I could not but praise them for their exemplary service. They are all good young soldiers and I have never had a complaint to make about them. Without exaggeration, they are the ‘champions’ of my detachment.”
On arrival at Toulon in southern France, the men were posted to a 75mm artillery battery and finally arrived at Verdun on the Western Front in July 1917.
They were a relatively lucky lot of soldiers in a conflict that claimed so many lives. Their only fatility - Manoranjan Das - died of illness during his service, while the rest survived active duty at Verdun, in the Argonne forest and at Saint-Mihiel.
“All these Bengali soldiers got commemorative WWI medals and one of them got the [highly prestigious] Croix de Guerre for outstanding performance in the army,” said Lieutenant Colonel Muhammed Latful Haq, an artillery officer in the Bangladeshi army who has taken a particular personal interest in these men’s stories.
For nearly 100 years, their involvement in France’s bloodiest conflict has remained relatively forgotten. Until now.
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