On August 2, 1919, crowds of onlookers in London cheered for an about-1800 strong Indian Peace Contingent. Indian soldiers and officers marched through the streets to mark the Allied victory. They were to meet the King and receive honours from him. This was, by far, the most ostentatious acknowledgement of India’s contributions to the Great War.
On the morning of August 02, the soldiers and officers of the contingent travelled via trains to London from Hampton Court, where they were encamped. They were to remain in the Indian Contingent Camp till the middle of September. On August 02, their march had begun at 01 – 45 PM from the Waterloo Station. Carrying their banners, resplendent in their khakis and regimental colours, Sikhs, Gurkhas, Baluchis, Pathans and Garhwalis marched through York Road, Westminster Bridge Road, Parliament Street, Whitehall, under the Admiralty Arch and through Mall to Buckingham Palace. On the steps of his palace, clad in his military uniform, His Majesty King George V had received his Indian soldiers.
The Indian Peace Contingent consisted of a British detachment (11 officers and 270 men), an Indian Army detachment (27 British officers, 465 Indian officers and 985 Indian other ranks) and 34 Imperial Service troops of the Indian Native States. They had been sent to England to participate in the Peace celebrations following the signing of the Treaty of Versailles (June 28, 1919).
At the Buckingham Palace, His Majesty praised the Indian soldiers for supporting the British Empire during the terrible days of the Great War. In response to the King’s call for support, India had enthusiastically mobilised 1.5 million men between 1914 and 1918. Among them, upwards of a million combatants and non-combatants served overseas in France and Mesopotamia. More than 70,000 Indian men perished fighting for the King and Country. To respect those who lost their lives in the war, the Indian Peace Contingent was ordered to look right as they passed the Cenotaph on Whitehall.
Notwithstanding strong winds on the Buckingham Palace grounds, the troops could hear the King speak under a clear, warm sky:
“I heartily thank all my Indian Soldiers for their loyal devotion to me and to my Empire, and for their sufferings cheerfully borne in the various campaigns in which they have served in the lands and climates so different to their own. At times their hearts must have been sad at the long separation from their homes; but they have fought and died bravely. They have rivalled the deeds of their ancestors: they have established new and glorious traditions which they can hand on to their children forever.”
One is surprised by the ease with which the British Empire immersed the Indian soldiers into the jubilant mood of peace celebrations. As he spoke from the palace grounds, the King must have known that all was not well where the Indian troops had come from. The enthusiasm of Indians to support the Empire at the beginning of the war had been transformed into widespread disappointment after the war. The Indians were disenchanted by the high handed policing tactics to contain anti-imperial feelings. Police harassments under the guise of Defence of India Act (passed in March, 1915 to control anti imperial movements) had become part of everyday experience. Bitter racial feelings erupted into the ugliest incident of all – the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre on April 13, 1919, when General Reginald Dyer ordered troops to open fire on a peaceful gathering in Amritsar. India would never be the same again. Now, even the staunchest supporters of the British Empire in India were seriously doubting themselves.
Imagine an Indian soldier in the peace contingent marching on order, officially still proud, but cut up from the inside with bitter experiences from his homeland. The strong winds in London on August 02 might’ve made him contemplate the splendid imperial architecture of London that hid the bitter reality.
After the speech, the King presented medals and later inspected his Indian troops. Everyone was served tea in the palace grounds. Film footage of the Indian Peace Contingent shows Gurkhas smoking on the grassy lawns adjacent to the palace, Garhwalis strolling through the food stalls. Soldiers look awe-struck at a film camera. They stand still and smile at the camera quiet unsure of their expressions. Looking at them now, one can sense the pressure of being part of an imperial show – always on alert, always scared of the racial hierarchy.
It was a cold and wet day when the Indian Peace Contingent had disembarked in Southampton on July 23, 1919. They were late by four days for the victory parade of July 19, 1919. Severe monsoons in India and inclement weather during the voyage had delayed their arrival. Their officers complained of inadequate arrangements on board two ships HT Sicilia and BIMS Hardinge that had set sail from Bombay in late June.
Actually, the entire peace contingent had been hurriedly arranged by the British Government in India. When communication reached that a contingent had to be sent for the peace celebrations, the government was struggling knee deep in managing political unrest and the Afghan war in the North West. The immediate country-wide mobilisation for representatives from the regiments did not leave any room for drills and practices. Hence, most of the drill sessions had to be done on board during the troops’ passage to England. Then came the bad weather that played spoilsport. But the celebratory mood saved the day. A special victory parade was arranged for the Indian Peace Contingent on August 02.
The Empire did indulge the contingent. Soldiers and their officers were to stay in Hampton Court for two months and were to enjoy English cultural life in Summer and Autumn. They were taken to military shows, entertained by musicians and sent to watch a film, which they could hardly understand. Throughout their stay, officers were visited by their friends and family. Since soldiers had no relatives living in London, they preferred to stay indoors.
In late August and early September, buses took the officers and soldiers to London for shopping. Their stay ended with a contingent sports day on September 10, 1919.
There were minor breaches of discipline in the contingent. During the voyage, the officers discovered that several privates were helping themselves to alcohol without permission. There was also an incident of theft of brandy. A certain Fateh Muhammad Beg was punished for not saluting his British superiors properly. The worst happened during the voyage back. Few days after the contingent was paid allowances, an Indian officer complained of theft of Rs 880. On September 23, a surprise search recovered the money from a sepoy. Two days later he was court-martialled and sentenced to one year in prison.
Singh, Monbahadur. Sainik Bangali. 1939.
Indian Peace Contingent Report on the Tour to England. National Archives of India
George V Reviews Indian Troops. British Pathe. Available on Youtube.