Why Did Mahatma Gandhi Supported British Army As ‘Sergeant Major’?

Mahatma Gandhi, our Bapu, father of India, was once a Sergeant Major and supported British Army. Yes you read it right. Not only that he also won the medal for the services rendered to British cause in the Anglo- Boer war fought between 1899 and 1902.

National Defence Bureau,
New Delhi, 10 October 2018

Mahatma Gandhi As Sergeant Major 

Mahatma Gandhi participated in three battles and rose to become Sergeant Major while commanding the Natal Ambulance Corps for the British Army.

It might be astonishing but the true is that in the year 1899 Mahatma Gandhi donned a uniform. This uniform belonged to a voluntary Ambulance Corps which he not only founded but commanded to earn laurels of Britishers. The scene was enacted in Natal where Mahatma Gandhi, known then as Mr Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was fighting as a passive resister for the rights of Indians settled there. The performance of his voluntary ambulance unit was appreciated by all when the Anglo-Boer War ended in 1902 after the capture of Transvaal. This unit consisted of 1100 Indians. The Commander-in-Chief of the Army mentioned the heroic deeds performed by this ambulance unit whose members walked 20 to 25 miles a day to carry out their voluntary duties to help the injured.

The background to the Boer was something like this.

While Britishers ruled over Natal and Cape Colony, Germans and Dutch Protestants occupied areas to the north of Natal and Cape Colony under the name of African Federation which meant Transvaal and Orange Free State. When gold and diamond was found in the mines of Kimberley, many Englishmen and other people also migrated to those areas. British Government had a covetous eye on Transvaal and it captured Transvaal in 1877 and forced the republicans to accept supremacy of the British crown. But by 1884, Transvaal was able to snatch autonomy amounting to independence. The local Englishmen who were called Utilanders were not allowed to use English in courts and schools. There was constant tension because of these demands between the Englishmen called Utilanders and the local people termed Boers who used the language called Afrikaans. The British Government was planning to fight against Boers under this pretext. Sensing trouble, the two Boer republics gave an ultimatum to the British Government to grant them full independence by 11 October, 1899. As soon as the period of ultimatum was over, the fight started. But the British were not in a happy position. Their total strength in South Africa consisted of 27,000 men, while the African Boer troops amounted to 48,000 men. General Sir R Buller was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the forces and he arrived with his corps and went to the war front on December 15.

The course of war did not favour the British. Buller was defeated by Boer General Botha and his other troops at Ladysmith and other places were involved in a long seige. The situation became so difficult that troops had to be despatched from all parts of British dominions. Lord Roberts was appointed Supreme Commander-in-Chief with Lord Kitchner as second in command. The best British forces and the best of the British General had to be forced into action. It was during these days that Mahatma Gandhi thought of raising an ambulance unit to help the wounded. The Governor of Natal was sympathetic and Gandhiji was able to secure the services of the eminent Doctor Booth to train his unit. It was only when the Britishers had a reverse at Spian Kip that the objection to participation of Indians to help the injured and wounded soldiers was withdrawn and voluntary Indian ambulance unit was allowed to join the effort. Their sense of service and capacity for hard work was appreciated and won them many admirers.

Following the relief of Ladysmith at the end of February 1900, the war moved away from Natal and both corps were immediately disbanded. 34 of the Indian leaders were awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal: Gandhi’s is held by the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library in New Delhi

After the outbreak of the Bambatha Rebellion in Natal in 1906, the Natal Indian Congress raised the Indian Stretcher Bearer Corps, Mahatma Gandhi acting as its sergeant major. Twenty members of the Corps, including Gandhi, later received the Natal Native Rebellion Medal.

Gandhi used his involvement in the Anglo-Boer War as the means to force the British Raj to recognize Indians as equal citizens of the empire. As army medics, the Natal Indian Ambulance Corps had the potential to impress the Imperial government with their unwavering courage and dedication.

*The article is abridged from various sources available in public domain.

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