This is an important week in history. The First World War broke out on this day exactly a hundred years ago (1914). It lasted more than 4 years and was, up to that point in the story of mankind, the most horrific human conflict. Up to 9,000,000 soldiers, together with 20,000,000 civilians perished in a meaningless war that had no real winners. The roots of an even bigger war, the Second World War (1939-45) were contained in the unfinished agenda of the First World War.
India was not an interested party in the conflict. We were not an independent country and stood to gain nothing by participating in what was for all purposes an European war based on European geopolitics. But the British, who ruled over us, tricked us into believing that if we gave support in the form of men and material, then after the war we would be given independence. Our national leaders believed in the British assurance and agreed to support the British war effort. They exhorted Indians to join the British-controlled Indian Army.
More than 1.5 million Indian soldiers fought in the First World War. Our contingent was the largest outside that mobilised by the parties to the conflict, namely Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Turkey, Austria-Hungary, Italy, etc. Within weeks of the declaration of war, Indian soldiers arrived in France and fought honorably.
The Indian soldiers fought in the western front in Europe. They were taken to the jungles of east Africa, the deserts of Iraq and north Africa, the jungles of east Asia and the mountains of Italy. Wherever they went, the Indians fought fearlessly and there was not even one instance of an Indian desertion. The European generals could not suppress their admiration for the bravery of the Indian soldiers. More than 8 Indians were awarded the Victoria Cross–the highest military honour.
More Indians died in the First World War than in all the wars fought in the post-Independence period. It is estimated that about 74,000 Indians died and 69,000 were wounded. The British government felt morally indebted to the Indian troops and constructed many memorials to their contribution all over the world. India Gate in New Delhi is one of them.
As a doctor, I feel specially drawn to the history of the First World War. The Indian Medical Service deployed hundreds of doctors in every theatre of the war: France and Flanders, Egypt, Gallipoli, Aden, East Africa, Mesopotamia, Persia, the Black Sea, India, Burma, Hong Kong, Singapore, Turkey, etc.
The Indian Medical Service, which was disbanded after Independence, was one of the oldest doctors’ bodies in the world. It was founded in 1615 by the East India Company (much before it established its colony in this country) and comprised only British medicos who were mobilised for treating employees of the Company in India. After 1857, it attracted the best Indian medical graduates and constituted a service as prestigious as the Indian Civil Service, the precursor of the Indian Administrative Service.
The Indian Medical Service had civilian as well as military sub-services. Those Indians who joined it became the first full officers of the Indian Army.
Doctors and paramedics of the Indian Medical Service had an extraordinary role cut out for them. They had to perform the wartime function of treating wounded soldiers — operating on them to remove shrapnel and bullets, repair broken limbs, treat victims of gas attacks, etc — but also keeping the troops healthy in environments that were totally at variance to their native lands.
The Indian Medical Service was under the command of Colonel (later Brigadier-General) WW Pike, CMG, DSO, RAMC.
The work of the medical branch of the service is not one which comes very prominently into the limelight. Its chief reward is found in the admiration and gratitude of the troops over whose health and general well-being the medical officers keep careful watch over.
It was expected that pulmonary affections, such as pneumonia and bronchitis, would be common, but these, as well as malaria and dysentery, were rare, while gastric diseases due to changes of food and water were almost unknown.
Influenza and trench fever occurred among the Indians in much the same proportion as among the British. The Indians, it is recorded, were more prone to “trench feet” than the European soldiers. Remarkably, they were not affected by many of the conditions that afflicted European armies. They were practically free of the infamous disease that attacked European soldiers living in the trenches. It was called Albuminuria or the proliferation of albumin in urine — a kidney condition).
Sanitation has been defined as the art of practically applying the laws of hygiene to individual environments. Conservancy is that branch of sanitation which deals with the disposal of waste products. Now, as hygiene is the science of health maintenance, it was obvious that the sanitation of an army in the field was a vital factor in military efficiency. Therefore the Indian Medical Service’s contribution in the First World War cannot be overstated.
While reading the history of the Indian Medical Service, my heart swelled up with pride. I think the contribution of these medicos must be recognized. Over the next four years the First World War will recalled in numerous events all over the world. I hope to organise one in memory of the brave and selfless doctors of the Indian Medical Service.