When the British joined the war in August 1914, its army, including the reserves and territorial army, numbered approximately 700,000 men. In comparison, the French Army had 1,650,000 men and the German Army 1,850,000. But the core of the army, and those ready to go to France in August, were just 150,000 men known as the British Expeditionary Force.

The government began a recruitment campaign to encourage men to volunteer to fight in the army, the navy and the new air force. By September 1914, 750,000 men had volunteered but it would take time to train these men and to prepare their equipment.

Undivided India was unique in the British Empire because it had its own standing army sometimes called the Indian Expeditionary Force. It was nearly 250,000 men strong and the vast resources of India meant it was well supplied and ready to fight as necessary in August 1914.

The first Indian soldiers left as soon as war was declared making the long journey by sea to France. They landed in Marseilles on 30 September 1914.

Many soldiers were Sikh and many from the Punjab. Punjabi soldiers from all backgrounds contributed as much as 50% of the Indian army in 1914. As the war dragged on and the British encouraged more Indians to sign up, recruitment often focused on the loyal Punjab.

Exact Indian records from 100 years ago are rare; many records written on paper simply did not survive. Other records were destroyed or thrown away, particularly after Partition when India and Pakistan formed new, separate countries. Furthermore, since illiteracy was quite high in 1914, some records were simply never registered.

First World War statistics:

  • Up to 1.5 million (1,500,000) Indians served in the First World War. Between 68,000 – 75,000 were killed and a similar number wounded.
  • Around 683,000 men from the Punjab served in the war, including soldiers, labour corps and medics. An estimated 125,000 were Sikhs.
  • Although accounting for less than 1% of the population of British India at the time, Sikhs made up nearly 20% of the British Indian Army at the outbreak of hostilities.
  • One in every seven Sikh men in the Punjab went to war.
  • Sepoy Khudadad Khan, a Punjabi Muslim from Jhelum District, was the first Indian to be awarded the Victoria Cross medal for bravery.
  • An estimated 12,000 – 13,000 medals were awarded to Indian servicemen for bravery.