The forgotten legacy of Indian soldier’s pre Independence

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Most of India’s pre-independence years are remembered for our brave freedom fighters, courageous movement leaders, exceptional athletes, and great tragedies. Yet, nobody seems to remember the heroes on the battlefield. Though, soldiers today receive appreciation and recognition, the ones from the past are forgotten in the pages of history. Despite India being represented as British India and include British soldiers as well, this doesn’t mean that one soldier is less than another. And today we will try to shed some light on the forgotten legacy of these soldiers.

Among all the wars fought pre-Independence, a largely Indian victory in World War II is mostly forgotten in India. That includes the Battle of Kohima and Imphal war. These wars are even regarded as the ‘Greatest battle of Britain’ despite hundred of Indian soldiers fighting alongside.

The Battle of Kohima and Imphal War

Soldiers dying by dozens, then hundreds, and then thousands in far off battlefields few yards away from the asphalt tennis court are listed from a war fought more than 75 years ago. Day by day Japanese troops were moving closer only to be defeated by the British-Indian soldiers. For almost three months the battle lasted in three breaks and several soldiers from both sides lost their lives. The battle of Kohima and Imphal war was considered one of the bloodiest battles fought during World War II, yet no remembrance of the same has ever been experienced in India. Indian and British army lost 17,857 men dead, missing, or wounded. Perhaps because the Indian army pre-independence was considered subjects of the British Empire, they didn’t receive the same appreciation from the citizens of India. But that doesn’t diminish the bravery of the deceased soldiers.

It was this decisive Japanese defeat in northeast India that became the springboard for the Fourteenth Army’s subsequent re-conquest of Burma. Codenamed U-Go, Japanese Troops planned to invade India in the hope to rebel against the British IV Corps and also to overthrow India’s British raj. If the Japanese could hold a strong foot in India they would be able to weaken the British Empire. The only misjudged strategy of the plan was the courage of British-Indian soldiers.

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 On 15th March 1944, Japanese troops crossed the Chindwin River and northwest India. But because of lack of transportation half of their heavy ammunition was left behind. And they carried on with three weeks supply of food and enough ammunition. A key route ran from the British supply base at Dimapur through Kohima up on a ridge in the Naga Hills and down to Imphal in a small encircled plain in Manipur and from there into Burma. This was the spot the first war took place on. The Indian troops were the 50th Indian Parachute Brigade under Brigadier Maxwell Hope-Thompson, at Sangshak. Here the battle between both the countries lasted for six days. The Japanese army was out of food and drinking water and was on verge of moving back, but few more Japanese troops came to the rescue and the team moved forward. The 50th Parachute Brigade lost 600 men, while the Japanese had suffered over 400 casualties.

The main body of the division went to Imphal, the 161st Indian Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Dermot Warren and with 24th Mountain Artillery Regiment, the Indian Artillery attached went down to Dimapur. Because Kohima was considered a roadblock, the Indian Regiment thought the Japanese troop would attack from Dimapur. But because of some captured Japanese soldiers, they came to know that the original attack spot will be Kohima. At the beginning of this three-month-long battle, the Japanese troops were much stronger than the British Indian army, yet in the latter half, the counteroffensive attack from British India proved to be a turning point in the battle. The repeated setbacks, counterattacks, lack of food, inappropriate climate conditions, and the number of causalities had also affected the battle.

Because the Japanese were short of supplies, they decided to retreat. This was the most decisive factor of the war. By this time, the troops were starving and thus Japanese commander notified Fifteenth Army HQ that he would withdraw on 1 June. He finally abandoned the hill and retreated back on 31st May. Almost 4,064 soldiers died from the British Indian forces whereas 5,764 Japanese casualties took place in the Battle of Kohima. Only 20,000 of the 85,000 Japanese who had come to invade India survived the battle. And overall 17,857 British and Indian troops were killed. Many of the 31st Division soldiers died of disease or starvation and some took their own lives.

The War Cemetery in Kohima

The War Cemetery in Kohima of 1,420 Allied war dead lies on the slopes of Garrison Hill in Nagaland. The poignant epitaph on the entrance of the Cemetery reads “When you go home, tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today”. At the highest point in the cemetery stands the KOHIMA CREMATION MEMORIAL commemorating 917 Hindu and Sikh soldiers whose remains were cremated there. 

The battle of Kohima and Imphal war is long forgotten in India. Though the war has a huge prominence in British history, the bravery, courage, and valor of the Indian soldiers have been lost in the pages of Indian history. It’s time that we overcome the British-led atrocities and praises even those who lost their lives under their command. Because on the battlefield no person is Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Japanese, British or Indian- they are all soldiers.

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