UPSC Mains 2019: The impact of World War I on India

World War I


Topic: The impact of World War I on India

Topic in Syllabus : GS Paper 1 : Indian History

World War I



First World War (World War I) is considered as one of the largest wars in history. The world’s great powers assembled in two opposing alliances: the Allies (British Empire, France and the Russian Empire) versus the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary). WWI lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918.



  • World War 1 began on July 28, 1914. The conflict lasted four years, three months and 14 days, ending on November 11, 1918.
  • The war began because of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. He was heir to throne of Austria-Hungary and his death was the immediate cause of WW1.
  • There were two sides in the war. The Triple Ententes (also known as The Allies) were Britain, France, Ireland and Russia. The Central Powers were Germany and Austria-Hungary.
  • Italy originally sided with the Central Powers. They were part of a Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary but they did not enter the way because their alliance was supposed to be defensive, but Germany and Austria-Hungary had took the offensive and declared war.
  • Later, Italy joined WW1 on the side of the Triple Entente. They declared war on Austria-Hungary in May, 1915 and Germany in August, 1916.
  • World War 1 has many different names. It was called The Great War, the World War, the War to End all Wars, World War 1, WW1, the War of the Nations and more.
  • America joined World War I on April 6, 1917. This was because a German submarine had sunk a British passenger ship, Lusitania that killed 1,195 passengers. 128 of those were American citizens and the people were outraged — putting pressure on the U.S. government to declare war. The President, Woodrow Wilson, wanted a peaceful end but the Germans announced that they would sink any ship that approached Britain. This was when President Wilson entered the war to help restore peace to Europe.
  • Over 8 million soldiers died in World War 1, and another 21 million injured. A staggering 65 million soldiers were mobilized during the war.
  • Chemical weapons were first used in WW1. Using poison gas was considered a war crime, but tear gas wasn’t considered to be a conflict by the troops. The Germans were the first to use lethal gases when they used a chlorine gas attack. Later they also developed and used the most effective gas of the First World War — mustard gas. The British were shocked at the German use of poison gas, but developed their own gas warfare to retaliate.
  • The U.S. were only in combat for 7 months. During this time, around 116,000 soldiers were killed and 204,000 were injured.
  • In 1918 the German citizens began striking and demonstrating against the war. The people were starving and the economy was collapsing because British navy boats were blocking all the German ports. This led to the people protesting to try and end the war.
  • German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II stepped down on November 9, 1918. The leaders of both sides of the war met at Compiegne, France and the peace armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
  • WW1 officially ended on June 28, 1919. This was exactly five years since the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. The armistice on November 11, 1918 ended the fighting, but it took another six months to negotiate peace before the Treaty of Versailles could be prepared.
  • The Treaty of Versailles had a lot of requirements. Germany had to accept full responsibility for causing World War I. Also, they had to surrender some of its territories and colonies, and limit the size of its military.
  • A League of Nations was also formed to prevent future wars. It helped Europe to rebuild after WW1 and 53 nations had joined by 1923. The U.S. Senate refused to let the United States join and President Woodrow Wilson, who actually established the league, suffered a nervous breakdown — spending the rest of his term as an invalid.
  • In 1926, Germany also joined the League of Nations. Many Germans were resentful of the harsh conditions of the Treaty of Versailles and Germany and Japan both withdrew from the League of Nations in 1933. Italy also withdrew in 1936.
  • The League of Nations could not stop Germany, Italy and Japan from expanding their power. They took over smaller countries and many believe that World War 1 didn’t really end and World War 2 was an extension of it.


Causes of the First World War:

In the background there were many conflicts between European nations. Nations grouped among themselves to form military alliances as there were tension and suspicion among them. The causes of the First World War were:

Conflict between Imperialist countries: Ambition of Germany

  • Conflict between old imperialist countries (Eg: Britain and France) vs new imperialist countries (Eg: Germany).
  • Germany ship – Imperator.
  • German railway line – from Berlin to Baghdad.

Ultra Nationalism:

  • Pan Slav movement – Russian, Polish, Czhech, Serb, Bulgaria and Greek.
  • Pan German movement.

Military Alliance:

  • Triple Alliance or Central Powers (1882) – Germany, Italy, Austria-Hungary.
  • Triple Entente or Allies (1907) – Britain, France, Russia.

International Anarchy:

  • Secret agreement between Britain and France allowing Britain to control Egypt and France to take over Morocco. Germany opposed, but settled with a part of French Congo.
  • Hague conference of 1882 and 1907 failed to emerge as an international organization.

Balkan Wars:

  • Many Balkan nations (Serbia, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece and Montenegro) were under the control of Turkey. They defeated Turkey in the First Balkan War. The subsequent war was between the Balkan countries themselves – Eg: Serbia vs Bulgaria.
  • Defeated countries like Turkey and Bulgaria sought German help.


  • During German unification, Germany got Alsace-Loraine from France. France wanted to capture Alsace-Loraine back from Germany.

Immediate Cause: assassination of Francis Ferdinand:

  • Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian native (in Bosnia). Austria declared war on Serbia on 28th July, 1914. [Reason for assassination: Annexation by Austria the Bosnia-Herzegovina, against the congress of Berlin, 1878]


The Course of the War:

  • Group 1 (Allies): Serbia, Russia, Britian, France, USA, Belgium, Portugal, Romania etc
  • Group 2 (Central Powers): Austria-Hungary, Germany, Italy, Turkey, Bulgaria etc.
  • War on Western Side: Battle of Marne.
  • War on Eastern Side: Battle of Tennenberg (Russia was defeated).
  • War on the Sea: Batter of Dogger Bank (Germany was defeated), Battle of Jutland (Germany retreated).
  • USA entered in 1917.
  • Russia withdrew in 1917 after October Revolution.


Treaty of Versailles, Paris:

  • Germany signed a treaty with Allies (Triple Entente) on 28th June 1919. It was signed at Versailles, near Paris. (14 points)
  • Leaders: Clemenceau – France, Lloyd George – Britain, Woodrow Wilson – USA, Orlando – Italy.


Treaties after World War I:

  • Treaty of Paris – with Germany.
  • Treaty of St.Germaine – with Austria.
  • Treaty of Trianon- with Hungary.
  • Treaty of Neuilly – with Bulgaria.
  • Treaty of Severes – with Turkey.


Consequences of First World War:

  • Rule of King ended in Germany: Germany became a republic on November 1918. The German Emperor Kaiser William II fled to Holland.
  • Around 1 crore people were killed.
  • Unemployment and famine.
  • Epidemics.
  • The fall of Russian empire after October revolution (1917) which resulted in the formation of USSR (1922)
  • Emergence of USA as a super power.
  • Beginning of the end of European supremacy.
  • Japan became a powerful country in Asia.
  • Poland, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia became new independent states.
  • Baltic countries – Estonia, Latvia and Lithvania – became independent.
  • Rule of Ottamans came to an end in Turkey.
  • New boundary lines were drawn for Austria, Germany and Turkey.
  • Strengthened independence movements in Asia and Africa.
  • League of Nations came into being.
  • Germany had to return Alsace-Loraine to France.
  • German colonies were shared.
  • Germany gave up Saar coal field.
  • Germany gave up Polish Corridor, and made city of Danzig independent.
  • Monarchy was abolished in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Russia.
  • The harsh clauses of the Treaty of Versailles finally resulted in the Second World War.


WW1’s significance for India:

  • The world war ended the myth of invincibility of British Empire in India as the British faced many humiliating defeats during the war
  • The soldiers that returned after war raised the morale of masses.
  • India supported Britain in world war on its promise of fighting for democracy but serving Indian with Rowlat act immediately after war shattered Indians. This led to the rise of national consciousness and soon Non Cooperation movement was launched.
  • Formation of USSR also led to the rise of communism in India with the formation of CPI and imparted a socialist tinge to freedom struggle.


Why did India support British’s war efforts?

  • Indian nationalism, at that time, was dominated by moderates who believed that if India contribution to the British war efforts would result in British’s benevolence towards the natives and would grant us more constitutional reforms
  • Indian army was aloof from the nationalist movement as magazines, newspapers were not allowed in the barracks and so they fought for the British Raj


India’s contribution:

  • The Empire’s biggest contribution was by India. This included 3.7 million tonnes of supplies, over 10,000 nurses, 1,70,000 animals, £146m of Indian revenue, and political support — including that of Gandhi, who helped recruit Indian volunteers in the face of nationalist opposition.
  • Indian Army: the largest volunteer force in the world, which provided 1 million troops to serve overseas.
  • Over 74,000 were killed — five times more than the combined death toll from every war that India has fought since independence — and 80,000 were held prisoner.
  • When the Lahore Division and the Meerut Division entered World War I, they were the first Indian soldiers ever to take part in a war in Europe
  • By the time they sailed out from Marseilles 14 months later, they and their compatriots—138,608 Indians in all—had helped blunt Germany’s Schlieffen Plan
  • Formulated by German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905-06, the Plan envisaged a short war—a quick, decisive invasion and defeat of France via Belgium, forestalling the attritional war that would allow the superior strength of the probable Allied powers to be deployed
  • With the 100th anniversary of the Armistice and the inauguration of monuments to Indian soldiers in France, it is a contribution worth remembering


Effect of the war on Indian national movement:

  • There was a surge of nationalism and rise of mass civil disobedience when the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms’ failed to deliver on the expectation of home rule that had led to popular support for the British war effort
  • As the war dragged on, casualties mounted and recruitment methods grew more coercive, resentment grew
  • It is no coincidence, perhaps, that Punjab—which supplied a large proportion of the troops thanks to the British martial races theory—turned into an epicenter of nationalism after the war
  • Post-war military reforms to transform the Indian army into a modern force started a process that accelerated with the onset of World War II
  • By 1946, the Indian military was a potent enough force that the prospect of its rebellion, triggered by the Royal Indian Naval Mutiny that year, was a major contributor to the British decision to fold.


Socioeconomic impact:

  • Between 1911 and 1921, literacy rates (as well as the number of literate individuals) increased significantly in heavily recruited communities
  • This effect is strongest for men of military age, which is consistent with the hypothesis that soldiers learned to read and write on their foreign campaigns
  • A war economy is by definition a distorted one
  • The logic of empire exaggerated this. Requisitioning of food supplies, particularly cereals, led to rampant food inflation
  • The drain on the Indian economy in the form of cash, kind and loans to the British government came to about 367 million pounds


Rise in the domestic market:

  • Domestic manufacturing sectors such as cotton benefited from the decline in British goods that had dominated the pre-war market
  • The steel sector—so crucial after independence—benefited as well. For instance, the ailing Tata steel mills were handed a lifeline in the form of a contract to supply rails to the Mesopotamian campaign
  • British investment was rerouted to the UK, creating opportunities for Indian capital
  • In short, the war economy boosted Indian capitalism in some ways at least.



  • Protected the northwest of India, buttressed British garrisons in Egypt, Singapore and China, as well as contributing to seminal battles of the Western Front, such as the Somme and Neuve Chapelle. At Ypres, in particular, Indian casualties were exceptionally high, compounded by the shock of German chlorine gas in April 1915.
  • Greatest impact in West Asia: with 60% of all Indian troops serving in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), and another 10% in Egypt and Palestine. On Jerusalem’s capture the next year, it was Indian Muslim troops who were tasked with protecting the Dome of the Rock.


Sample Question:

Critically examine the roles of the India in First World War? And how does it impact on Indian national movement.