On the evening of September 22, 1914, over a hundred artillery shells made in Germany rained on Chennai. Fired by an Imperial German Navy cruiser a mile offshore in the Bay of Bengal, they fell onto Burmah Oil facilities and merchant seamen in the port, and onto the High Court, the National Bank of India and other buildings in the city. The shells inflicted India’s first casualties of the First World War: the global conflict had arrived shockingly on the home front.

As the British Empire’s Asian giant in colonial chains, India had been dragged by London that August into the Allies’ world war on Germany. Come November, India was also set against the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Some 315 million people on the Indian home front would experience the war up to 1918 in myriad ways. But together they experienced one great effect of the war on Indian society: the connection of India with the wider world more than ever before.

Wartime city life

If you walked the streets of a big Indian city between 1914 and 1918, reminders of the global war were ever-present. Cinemas from Mumbai to Kolkata showed British documentary and propaganda war films, such as The Battle of the Somme (1916). Meanwhile the imperial government plastered street-side buildings with colourful posters advertising its public offer of war bonds to finance the British war effort, a typical poster showing paper money transforming into machine gun bullets fired by a Sikh.

In Kolkata the war bonds offer was reinforced in June 1918 by a thirty-feet long “War Tank” – not a real one, but a replica British Army western front tank, made of sheet-iron, a wooden frame and electric lights, and carried on a motor lorry chassis. The War Tank drove about the city centre and suburbs accompanied by a marketing team on foot, handing out leaflets in Bengali and Hindi which bore the tank’s image and proclaimed the bonds as a safe bet: yields were government-guaranteed.

Then, every day of the war on city street corners, the sales of local and India-wide newspapers spread domestic war news. The press carried stories on the maharajahs from Kashmir to Mysuru who from 1914 poured their cash into British war coffers, for instance to purchase motor ambulances and hospital ships for wounded troops on the German and Turkish fronts. There were also newspaper appeals for Indian war charities, such as in 1915-16 for the Punjab Aeroplane Fund. This raised enough money from Punjabi bankers, students, artisans and other donors to buy fifty-one armoured aeroplanes, all named individually after local towns, districts and rivers, as Amritsar, Gujranwala, Sutlej and so on.

The Indian newspapers also reported the twists and turns of wartime politics, from international news of the Allies’ cause such as the United States’ 1917 entry into the conflict in the name of democracy against German militarism, to domestic developments in the Indian nationalist politicians’ freedom struggle.

Mahatma Gandhi included, the Indian politicians generally supported the British war effort in the hope of extensive post-war constitutional reform in return, expected to grant Indians democratic rights equal with Australians and the British Empire’s other white peoples. The Indian politicians’ strongest public statements in support of the war came in April 1918 at a special Delhi War Conference with the British. Here they tabled a widely publicised resolution to commit themselves fully to escalating India’s war effort – “I tender my support to it with all my heart,” said Gandhi.

At the time, much of India’s mobilisation on the home front was in the factories. For Indian industrialists, business boomed with government contracts to supply the Allied armies abroad. One of the biggest government contractors was Tata Steel. At its foundries at Sakchi (now Jamshedpur) in British India’s province of Bihar and Orissa, Hindu and Muslim workers sweated around the clock to produce military hardware for British use on overseas fronts – in total three million tons of steel, often converted into weaponry such as artillery shells to fire at the Germans and Turks in East Africa and Palestine, and 1,500 miles of railway track to stretch across the foreign fields of Iraq.

On the railways of India itself, troops trains were a common sight throughout the war, carrying a million Indian Army servicemen to their ocean transport ships for foreign duty – mainly illiterate Indian recruits from the villages of northern India’s plains, hills and jungles and their Himalayan environs. As the trains steamed into the major seaports, some city dwellers unfamiliar with the recruits’ home communities were at a loss to tell who they were, in Mumbai mistaking riflemen from Nepal as Japanese.

In the villages

The villages the Indian troops came from were the home front’s bedrock. A minority of the Indian recruits left them for the army under coercion by local recruiters in British pay and bitterly resented.

Yet most of the army recruits from the villages were volunteers seeking British pay themselves, and were from Punjab above all. They entered military service primarily as young men out to help their peasant farming families survive the rural economy with its food shortages, plagues and wartime inflation. Service was also a means of easing the family’s tax burden under the exploitative colonial state – if a village provided dozens or even hundreds of recruits, the British reward was a collective tax cut.

The war’s grand total of 1.5 million Indian servicemen all of course served on the home front at one time or another. As they did so they were by no means politically passive. The ranks of several Indian regiments contained active dissenters and freedom fighters. From 1914 hundreds of Muslim troops in India deserted, the British suspected in sympathy with the Ottoman enemy they did not want to fight as Islamic brothers.

Clusters of Hindu and Sikh troops on home service then sided with violent revolutionary causes, and those caught doing so by the British were imprisoned or executed. One instance of 1915 involved Sikhs of the 23rd Cavalry who had joined the Punjabi Ghadar movement. They were caught red-handed when they bungled a multiple British officer assassination; they packed their home-made bombs too loosely on a regimental move, setting them off prematurely at a railway station and accidentally wounding five of their own.

Back in the recruits’ villages, news filtered in from the battlefields overseas of sons, husbands, fathers and brothers killed by the Germans and Turks. Words can barely express the grief and anger felt by village families at lives lost for the British. Something of their utter despair has been handed down in painful Punjabi folk songs. “Without you I feel lonely here”, one song cries, “I shed tears, come and speak to me; All birds, all smiles have vanished...Graves devour our flesh and blood.”

India should be free”

By 1919, the majority of the Indian troops had returned home, bringing back from the foreign fronts their wounded bodies and minds; their souvenirs from German helmets of the Somme to African rhino horns and Turkish flags; and their war stories of sights of the oceans, Paris, and the great mosques of Istanbul, Jerusalem and Mecca.

Yet they also returned with a brighter national future in their hearts. On overseas duty they had absorbed a strong measure of the Allies’ democratic ideals, developing their largely embryonic pre-war senses of modern nationhood. “I felt that Indians should also enjoy freedom like the people of other countries”, said one Punjabi veteran, Narain Singh, having fought in West Asia. “When we were in France we felt that the French people were so lucky and enjoying their freedom”, commented another Punjabi, Mitt Singh. “So we also felt that India should be free, this war showed us the right path.”

For Gandhi and the wartime Indian politicians, 1919 was a year of British betrayal in India: the constitutional reforms they had bargained for since 1914 were not realised. Yet as national leaders, their war on the home front had accelerated and heightened their calls for self-government, laying the foundation for India’s freedom from colonial rule within thirty years.

George Morton-Jack is the author of The Indian Empire at War: From Jihad to Victory, the Untold Story of the Indian Army in the First World War, Hachette India.