Millions of Indians served in the British Indian army in the centuries of British rule over the subcontinent. There were also a small number of Indian-born men in London during the Great War who joined the British forces and served alongside white British servicemen. Two of them were Paresh Lal Roy and his younger brother Indra Lal Roy, who became the first Indian fighter ace.
Lolita Roy and her six children were all born in Calcutta but lived in London from 1901. Her husband Piera Lal Roy was the director of public prosecutions in Calcutta. In 1911, Lolita and the children lived at 77 Brook Green, West London. The eldest daughter, Leilavati, was 22 years old and married, Lolita’s other daughters were Miravati and Hiravati. The sons all appear to have been educated at St Paul’s School: Paresh Lal, Indra Lal and Lolit Kumar. By 1914, they had moved to 15 Glazeby Road before moving on again in October 1915 to 67 Fitz-George Avenue in Kensington.
On 21 December 1914, Paresh Lal Roy enlisted in the reserve battalion of the upper-class Honourable Artillery Company, signing up for overseas service immediately. After a few months of training, he left for the front, arriving with the 1st battalion on 1 May 1915, joining 3rd Division. The unit subsequently served as Headquarters troops, as well as serving in the Royal Naval Division (63rd Division) from July 1916 to June 1917. Other than a note that he was wounded in action on 24 May, but was not hospitalised, and that he was sick for a week in August 1917, there is little information in his service record about his war service in the HAC.
Meanwhile, Indra Lal Roy was serving in the school cadet force at St Paul’s. In April 1917 he left school and joined the Royal Flying Corps. During the months he spent in training he was commissioned the British Army, as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps. As we’ve seen in the cases of G.E.K. Bemand and Walter Tull, non-white men were not strictly allowed to become officers in the army. However, Roy was able to be commissioned; Flight magazine described him as
one of a band of young Indians studying here who, precluded until recently from any chance of obtaining commissions in the Army, found scope for striking a blow for the Empire in the new arm of our forces.
Roy was not the first of these young men who became flying officers. Hardutt Singh Malik, a student at Oxford at the outbreak of war, campaigned to be commissioned in the Royal Flying Corps. Eventually he was given an honorary commission in April 1917 and went to the front in June. Malik served in 62 and 28 Squadron and was credited with two victories.
Following his training and commission, Indra Lal Roy joined the elite 56 Squadron. He was not particularly successful as one of their SE5a pilots, though, and after being injured a crash in that winter he was sent home (accounts vary about whether this was November or December or even early 1918). He had further training back in the UK before being sent back out to the front and joining 40 Squadron (now part of the Royal Air Force) in June 1918, this time as a temporary Lieutenant.
This time, he was extremely successful. During two weeks from 6 to 19 July 1918, he shot down ten enemy aircraft in just over 170 hours of flying. Flying SE5a number B180, he shot down three German aircraft on 8 July and two each on the 13th and 15th. This was an incredible run of success, perhaps unique. Indra Lal Roy became the first Indian fighter ace.
On 22 July, though Roy successful streak came to an end and he was shot down during a dogfight with Fokker DVIIs from Jasta 29. He did not return from his mission, but his fate was unknown. It was not until 18 September that it was officially assumed that he had been killed in action. In the end his body was found, identified and buried in Estevelles Communal Cemetery in France.
Just three days after he was officially declared dead, Roy was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his bravery and skill in those weeks in July:
A very gallant and determined officer, who in thirteen days accounted for nine enemy machines. In these several engagements he has displayed remarkable skill and daring, on more than one occasion accounting for two machines in one patrol.
At the same time, Paresh Lal Roy was seeking to follow his younger brother’s lead and join the Royal Air Force. At the end of September, he was transferred home from the HAC to become a cadet in the RAF. He had not qualified by the end of the war and was discharged in early 1919.
Lt. Indra Lal Roy DFC and Pte Paresh Lal Roy were Indian-born British subjects, living in London. Like many of their contemporaries who remained in India, they joined up to fight in the war and they both served on the Western Front. Indra was an exceptional example, both for getting a commission in the RFC and RAF and for the skill he displayed that earned him a gallantry medal. Paresh served in the army from 1914 to 1918 and survived the war; he appears to have returned to India and become a prominent amateur boxer (as well as a traffic superintendent).
Census records 1901 and 1911
P.L. Roy’s service record
National Archives page on I.L. Roy including his service record