Where are the dark skins?

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Contributions of colonial soldiers of the British and their allies have been largely neglected by fiction writers, film makers and even documentaries.   

Writing about Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk, British writer Sunny Singh has made a very pertinent comment. It’s an all-white British army (BEA or the British Expeditionary Force) against an all-white German army. There’s no trace of the Royal Indian Army Services Corp companies, who were responsible for transporting supplies over areas where the BEA’s wheeled transport could not go. In other words, they did the coolie work, but you don’t see any of them in the film.  

The French army too, had large numbers of soldiers from its colonies. Moroccans, Algerians, Tunisians and others were present at Dunkirk. They were among the last to be evacuated, facing greater danger of death or capture as the Nazis were more likely to deal with them summarily. But, apart from a few non-white faces seen in the crowd scenes, the narrative leaves them out altogether.  

While Nolan may have had no intention of deliberately omitting the ‘colonial’ part of this story, it is true that WW II histories give the impression that it was entirely a white man’s war (except in Asia and the Pacific).   

Even documentaries and written histories of the conflict have omitted the contribution made by Indian and other colonial soldiers on the Allied side. There are German propaganda photos of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel inspecting Indian soldiers of the ‘Free India’ army in France, but their role seems to have been forgotten entirely.  

The British India Army, formed in 1895, existed till 1947 and served in 16 wars and campaigns including both World Wars. These include the Second Opium War (China), the British Expedition to Abyssinia (Ethiopia), and the Boxer Rebellion (China).   

The BEA numbered 1,750,000 during World War I and 2,500,000 in World War II. It was the largest volunteer army in history. Considering that the total German forces for the invasion of Russia numbered only 3.8 million personnel (including Romanian, Spanish and Italian allies), this is a considerable number.  

Sri Lankans too, served in British armies in Egypt and Italy, as Wimal Weerasinghe’s excellent and forgotten account of his time with the British Eighth Army reveals. While he served in a second-line company, his account suggests that some Sri Lankan soldiers actually experienced combat in Italy.  

It was recently discovered by this writer that several batches of Sri Lankans served as fighter pilots for the Royal Air Force (RAF) starting from the Battle of Britain. But the only foreign pilots mentioned in all British histories of WWII of air warfare this writer has come across are the Poles.  

As for the BEA, it saw considerable action during WWI. Indian soldiers carried out the war’s first trench raid during Nov. 9-10, 1914. They fought in the first battle of Ypres and one Indian soldier won the Victoria Cross, the British army’s highest award for bravery.  The BEA took part in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle and the bitter Gallipoli campaign, the failed Allied bid to invade Turkey. They fought in the Sinai and Palestine, and took part in the siege of Kut in Mesopotamia (Iraq). Altogether, the BIA lost 47,746 soldiers (dead, or missing in action) and suffered 65,126 wounded. Indian soldiers were awarded 13,000 medals including 12 Victoria Crosses.  

During WWII, the BEA included two armoured and one airborne division. It saw considerable action in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and took part in both battles of El Alamein, the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran, and the Italian campaign, including the bitter battle for the German stronghold of Monte Cassino.   

Against the Japanese, Indian soldiers fought in Singapore, Malaya and Burma, including the Battle of Imphal.  

About 87,000 Indian soldiers were killed in WWII and 30 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Indians. The Germans and the Japanese too, managed to convince many captured Indians to join their forces. These Indian units were known as the Tiger Legion and Indian National Army. Led by Subhas Chandra Bose, the latter had 40,000 soldiers.  

But the contributions of these and other colonial soldiers of the British and their allies have been largely neglected by fiction writers, film makers and even documentaries. It’s a glaring omission. But the fault can be traced to the Indian side, too, as neither Indian fiction nor Indian cinema have tackled this significant history with the care it deserves.     

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