The Indian stories behind the World Wars

The Indian stories behind the World Wars

It has been a long time coming but some of the lesser-known sacrifices of Indians during the two World Wars is finally being documented and digitised for posterity. The remarkable story of an airman who overcame prejudice to become one of only a handful of Indian fighter pilots in the First World War is among the many war-time stories to be documented in a new digital archive recently released by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC). Lieutenant Shri Krishna Chanda Welinkar is one of thousands of moving stories from the war preserved in family correspondence and lying buried for decades.

Western Front

Welinkar, who hailed from Bombay in colonial India, eventually became a pilot and went missing while on patrol over the skies above the Western Front in June 1918. His family would have to wait nearly three years before they finally knew for certain that he had died, and his grave was located Rouvroy, Belgium. It was later moved to a cemetery in France with the words: “To the Honoured Memory of One of the Empire's Bravest Sons”

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Welinkar was one of 1.3 million Indians who answered the call to fight for the British Empire in the First World War. Nearly 74,000 of these men would never see their homeland again and are remembered in cemeteries and memorials throughout the world, including France, Belgium, the Middle East and Africa. With 2.5 million men, the Indian Army of the Second World War was the largest volunteer Army in history. As the world marked the 75th anniversary of VE Day on May 8, the stories of the estimated 87,000 Indian martyrs who fought as part of the British Army also came to life once again.

Wall of Remembrance

The CWGC's Wall of Remembrance digital campaign is calling on the public to take part in an act of virtual remembrance this year, given the coronavirus pandemic lockdown, and honour the martyrs of the World Wars. Among them is also Noor Inayat Khan, the first Indian-origin female spy to cross enemy lines for the British. The war heroine, who was the daughter of the Sufi saint Hazrat Inayat Khan and a descendent of the 18th century Mysore ruler Tipu Sultan, was an agent for Britain's Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the war when she was captured and killed by the Nazis in 1944 at just 30 years of age. She has gone down in history as the first female radio operator to be sent to Nazi-occupied France, armed with a false passport and a pistol. Her story is also made more accessible digitally, through the “Noor Inayat-Khan: A Woman of Conspicuous Courage” interactive exhibition by the Commonwealth War Graves Foundation (CWGF). The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) commemorates the 1.7 million Commonwealth servicemen and women who died during the two World Wars. It also holds and updates an extensive and accessible records archive, while operating over 23,000 locations in more than 150 countries and territories.

by Nadia Hatink

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