Indian army memorial JohannesburgRecent commemorations of the dead of the First World War have made a point of recalling the contribution of Commonwealth troops.

Their High Commissioners in London lay wreaths at the Cenotaph every year.

Over one million Indian troops served overseas during World War One, of whom 62,000 died and another 67,000 were wounded.

They are now remembered, but who recalls the sacrifice of the Indians who served in South Africa?


Johannesburg Memorial

The contribution of thousands of Indians to the South African or Anglo-Boer war is often forgotten.

Yet overlooking Johannesburg is a memorial to the nearly 18,000 Indians who served.

The War Memorial, standing on Observatory Ridge takes the form of an obelisk of sandstone cut from the hill on which it stands. It stands above the valley in which their ‘remount camp’ was situated.

The tablet on the monument’s east side bears the inscription:

“To the memory of British Officers, Natives NCOs and Men, Veterinary Assistants, Nalbands [farriers], and Followers of the Indian Army, who died in South Africa, 1899-1902”.

The Indian contribution

Indian troops SA

A paper by Eric Itzkin, Deputy Director, Culture and Heritage at the Department of Community Development in the City of Johannesburg, provides useful details of their service.

“Faced by highly mobile Boer commandos on ponies, the later British campaigns under Lord Roberts were forced to rely increasingly  on  cavalry  and  especially  on  mounted  infantry.  Syces (grooms for horses), nalbands (farriers) and other Indian support staff at the Remount  Depots  helped  keep  the  cavalry  going,  much  as  repair  and  servicing facilities might do for mechanised divisions today.

The garrisons in India contributed 17 950 British NCOS and men together with 584 officers (or a total of 18 534), not counting the large numbers of Native auxiliaries who were deployed to assist them in South Africa. Despite reluctance to use Natives of India at the beginning of the campaign, by the end of the War large numbers of these troops had been deployed in all theatres of the conflict, in Natal, the Orange Free State, and above all the Transvaal.

Indian auxiliaries  were  employed  as  hospital  staff,  horse  trainers,  transport  drivers, cooks, water  carriers  and  laundrymen,  and  in  other  non-combatant  roles.    Though reluctant to bring in  Native  troops  as  combatants,  the  War  Office  made  repeated requests for veterinary, health and equestrian establishments, leading to several Native contingents being dispatched to South Africa. The breaking in and training of  horses  was  among the  main  functions  of  the Indian  auxiliaries,  second  only  to  stretcher-bearing.

After the close of the South African War/Anglo-Boer War, at least a few of the IndianArmy   soldiers   remained   in   South   Africa,   becoming   absorbed   into   the   Indian community  and,  more  broadly,  into  the  continuing  stream  of  South  African history.”

Gandhi’s Ambulance Corps

They were not the only Indians who served in the war. Gandhi also recruited members of the South African Indian community to serve in an ambulance corps, dealing with the British wounded.

Gandhi with Indian Ambulance Corps

Gandhi with the stretcher-bearers of the Indian Ambulance Corps during the Boer War, South-Africa.

Standing: H. Kitchen, L. Panday, R. Panday, J. Royeppen, R.K. Khan, L. Gabriel, M.K. Kotharee, E. Peters, D. Vinden, V. Madanjit.

Middle Row: W. Jonathan, V. Lawrence, M.H. Nazar, Dr. L.P. Booth, M.K. Gandhi, P.K. Naidoo, M. Royeppen.

Front Row: S. Shadrach, “Professor” Dhundee, S.D. Moddley, A. David, A.A. Gandhi.

As Eric Itzkin  explains: “Gandhi’s Ambulance Corps was, however, disbanded early in the  War  –  at  the  end  of  February  1900  –  when  the  British  were  able  to  take  the offensive with large  reinforcements  and  relieve  the  siege  of  Ladysmith.  The Natal Indian Ambulance Corps numbering 1 100 men served for only two months, whereas the  Indian  Army  auxiliaries  were  far  greater  in  number  and  many  served  throughout  the War.”

Some remained in South Africa after the war, becoming integrated into the Indian community.

Kipling’s tale

Rudyard Kipling wrote a good deal about the Boer war. In early 1898, the Kiplings travelled to South Africa for their winter holiday, thus beginning an annual tradition which (excepting the following year) was to last until 1908. They stayed in “The Woolsack”, a house on Cecil Rhodes‘ estate at Groote Schuur (and now a student residence for the University of Cape Town); it was within walking distance of Rhodes’ mansion – today the Cape Town home of the South African President. Kipling was not a distant observer of the fighting: he travelled up to the front to see conditions for himself.

Among the stories he told was the tale of a Sikh soldier fighting in the Boer war. These details are provided by the Kipling society and you can read the full story here.


First published in the Windsor Magazine, December 1901 and Collier’s Weekly 7 December the same year. Collected in Traffics and Discoveries in 1904.

The story

This is another story of the Second Boer War seen through the eyes of a Sikh soldier, in which Kipling uses the device of the ‘imperfectly-informed narrator’ who reports what he sees and hears without always fully understanding it, although the reader does.

Umr Singh is an elderly Sikh, probably a very senior non-commisioned officer, who had served in many campaigns in India with distinction, and had come to South Africa with his much loved Captain, ‘Kurban Sahib’, Captain Corbyn. Corbyn had come, on ‘sick leave’ from his cavalry regiment, for the chance of seeing some fighting against the Boers. He had joined up with a troop of volunteer Australians, fine horsemen and skilful soldiers, fighting on the veldt. Behind the lines there were many Boer farms, whose people had secured a certificate of neutrality from the naive British authorities, but who were often in close touch with the Boer commandoes.

They are near a farm, which has been signalling to the Boer riflemen, and are treacherously fired on. Corbyn is mortally wounded, and Umr Singh and a fellow soldier, a Pathan, swear revenge. They enter the farm, where some wounded Boer soldiers have taken refuge, and prepare to hang those responsible for the shooting; but they are held back by their memory of Corbyn’s insistence that this is a ‘Sahibs’ War’, for white men. They hand over their prisoners to the Australians, who raze the place to the ground. Umr Simgh is on his way back to the Punjab, in sadness.