237: India and the War


In her time of need the British Empire called upon her possessions around the world for assistance, and India answered.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Premium Episode number 43. The First World War would see the countries involved in the fighting strain themselves like never before, and for the British that meant taking advantage of their vast colonial empire to the greatest amount possible. A key part of that empire was the British possessions in India. Over the course of the war over a million men from India would join in the fighting, all on the side of the British Empire. They would fight on the Western Front, at Gallipoli, in East Africa, Egypt, the Levant, and Mesopotamia. Their contribution, both in terms of combatants and non-combatants, as well as in material would play a critical role in the British Victory. For their efforts 11 Indians would win the Victoria Cross, the highest British military honor. However, both at the time and after the Indian troops would have to contend with deep seeded racism that both negatively effected their treatment during the war but then also caused many to minimize the accounts of their contributions during and after the war. Many myths would be created by those who sought to reduce the acclaim that the Indians received for their actions, myths that have persisted until today. During this episode we will discuss some of those myths, as well as discussing the contributions of the Indian forces all over the world. This will not be the full story of those actions, with many of the wider stories having already been discussed on the podcast. However, during this episode we will at least discuss the actions in overview and some of the contributions of the Indian troops in those actions. We will also spend some time on some less well covered topics like India before the war, the recruitment practices of the British in India, and the turmoil that some of that recruitment caused.

First, we have to talk about geography. There are two important things to consider when discussing British India during the First World War. The first is that India as a whole was much larger than it is today, containing at least part of 10 different countries that are on the modern day world map. The country was also regionally distinctive with various areas like Punjab, Bengal, and Bombay being very different in terms of the people that lived there and those people’s relationships with the British. This meant that many of the soldiers may not have identified with a unified Indian identity during the war, but instead with their own regional group. Within those regional groupings the Indian troops of the British Army in India, and the support of the local elites, were critical to the British keeping control of India. These local elites were able to keep support for the British at a reasonable level, which meant that the use of violence to maintain support was a rare occurrence.

That did not mean that the British were not prepared for violence though, and that preparation revolved around keeping a large garrison of both British and Indian troops in India at all times. Before the war the army was seen by many Indians as a gateway to a professional career and an educational system. The average sepoy was not paid enough to be considered rich, but they were paid enough to maintain a family. Men who served for long periods were also provided with other incentives, like a pension, which would be paid out to family members if the sepoy was killed. In other cases farmland was provided to the man when he retired. The British would take advantage of the regional nature of the Indian society and would encourage units to recruit from the same areas. This meant that some units would contain several family members and friends, adding a layer of honor onto the soldier’s service. While most of the troops in the Indian Army would always be stationed in India detachments would be sent overseas at times. Before the First World War Indian troops would see service in both Africa and China. During these operations they would partake in both population pacification as well as fighting against roughly equivalent formations. In both of these roles they would acquit themselves well. The total number of soldiers who participated in these expeditions was in the thousands. While these men served in many different theaters, they would never serve in large numbers in Europe. This was due to two different manifestations of British racism. The first was that it was believed that the Indian troops were inferior to the European troops and would not stand a chance. The second was that if they did end up doing well it would erode the feeling of British superiority that the British did all that they could to maintain in India. The First World War would see these concerns overridden due to the need for troops.

There were other downsides to service within the Indian Army, at least for Indians, most of which were related to the fact that Indian troops were seen as inferior to the British soldiers they served alongside. They would never be given the same promotional opportunities and there was a ceiling on how far any Indian could be promoted. All of the highest positions within the regiments were held by British officers, and Indian Officers, even those of similar rank, were expected to be fully subordinate to the British officers. Initiative was not in any way encouraged among the Indian officers, and when they were called upon to lead units early in the First World War it was shown that this negatively effected their ability to lead if British officers were killed or wounded. This deficiency would be well cited by critics of the Indians, but I am not sure I can blame them, they had never been given a chance to exercise actual independent command, and when they were put in that position they did not perform well, just like so many European soldiers who were put in similar positions during the war.

British racism did not just effect the conduct of the officers and men after they were in the army, it even altered who was brought into the army in the first place. This was due to the British adherence to something called the Martial Race theory. This theory stated that only some of the Indians, based on where they were from, were suitable for military service. The regions that were seen to produce soldiers were from the Punjab, the Northwest Frontier, and the areas on the south side of the Himalayas. It was felt that men from these areas were more suitable for military service due to their overall lack of education, with many of the areas heavily recruited from being the least educated in India, and due to some perceived genetic traits. Those from southern India were through to be far too soft and weak to make good soldiers. This meant that the make up of the Indian army was not in any way a representative sample of the Indian population as a whole. The martial race theory would mean that some areas of India would bear the brunt of the fighting during the First World War, with areas like the Punjab providing most of the soldiers for the army. Even after it was clear that the Indian army would have to massively expand the British would still adhere to the martial race theory, and so the people of the areas were called upon for greater and greater efforts.

The order to begin mobilization for the war arrived in India on August 8, 1914, 3 days after war was declared in Europe. At that moment there were 155,000 officers and men in the Indian Army and almost immediately 2 divisions and a cavalry brigade were ordered to prepare to depart for Europe. To do this they had to gather all of the men for their divisions together, even though they were widely spread due to summer leave being given to almost a third of the men. Even with this added difficulty it would take just a few weeks for the first convoys of troops to be on their way to Europe, with the first one leaving part of August 22. The immediate response of the Indian troops, and their rapid transport, was seen as critical in London. The quick shipping of these troops allowed those in London to announce that the troops on the Indian Army were on their way, an announcement that helped counteract the more worrying news that was arriving in London about the early defeats that the BEF was experiencing on the Western Front. The Indian and British troops from India would arrive in Marseilles in the south of France on September 26. They would be moved north rapidly and would be behind the British front in Flanders by mid-August.

While some of the troops from India were already on their way to Europe, back in India recruitment efforts were instantly thrown into high gear. Over the first nine months of the war almost 70,000 Indians would volunteer for service. During this same period more than 80,000 total troops would be sent out of India for service all over the world. This was just the beginning of sending troops to Europe, and it very quickly caused problems for the recruitment structures, which had been created to keep up with the more steady pace of pre-war actions. Before the war each regiment had generally needed to round up about 75 men per year to make up for general age and health related attrition. However, after the first few months of the war these numbers changed from 75 per year to over 100 per month. By 1918 these adjustments would allow the Indian forces to expand to a total of 1.4 million men, but during this expansion they also stayed confined to specific areas of the country due to the Martial Race theory. One of these areas was the Punjab. Punjab was a critical recruiting ground for the army before and during the war, during the first months of the war almost half of all of the soldiers recruited by the army and also about half of the men sent overseas were from Punjab. Over the course of the war this ratio would continue, requiring a huge intensification of recruitment efforts in the province. At first a simple expansion of pre-war efforts were enough, but soon extra incentives had to be used to find more men to be brought into units. Pay was raised by 25 percent for any soldier that was posted overseas. In January 1917 food was provided to all recruits from the moment of enlistment, where previously they would have to pay for food until they were on active duty. In mid-1917 50 rupees were given to every recruit, then in 1918 an additional 4 rupees per month was given to all soldiers on overseas duty. These escalating incentives were required not just due to the number of men that were available, and were needed, but also due to stories that began to arrive from the front almost as soon as Indian troops joined the fighting. Some of these accounts were positive, but many were also negative. Here is one example of one of those negative letters, written by a Indian Muslim soldier form Punjab. He would use the term havildar in his letter, which is a rank in the Indian army roughly equivalent to a sergeant. “For God’s sake, don’t come, don’t come, don’t come to this war in Europe. Write and tell me if you and your regiment are coming or not. 1 am in a state of great anxiety, and tell my brother Muhammud Yakub Klian for God’s sake not to enlist. If you have any relatives, my advice is do not let them enlist. I write so much to you because I am a pay havildar and read the letters to the double company commander Otherwise, there is a strict order on writing such a subject. Cannons, machine guns, and bombs are going day and night, just like the rains of the month of sarwan [July to August]. Those who have escaped so far are like the few grains cooked in the pot. That is the case with us. In my company there are only about ten men. In the regiment there are about two hundred.” Even with the difficulties in recruitment mounting through the years conscription was never implemented. This was due almost entirely to concerns about the effect that conscription would have on the local population. Even just rumors of possible conscription led to civil disobedience in several provinces. It is somewhat fortunate, at least for the leaders, both Indian and British in India, that the war ended when it did. It saved them from having to more seriously consider conscription, which may have been required to sustain the Indian army in 1919.

While the recruiting problems would mount as the war progressed, at the very beginning of the war the Indian forces would make a quick and significant contribution to the Entente war effort. By November 1914, after some of the early fighting, fully one third of all of the British forces on the Western Front originated from India. All of these troops were not necessarily Indian in ethnicity, but all of the units were based in India before the war and a majority of the soldiers within them were Indian in descent. By November many of these troops had already participated in several battles, including the fighting at La Bassee, Messines, and Armentieres. During this fighting they would perform admirably. With General Willcocks, who would serve with the Indian Corps throughout its time on the Western Front writing in his book With the Indians in France that “Facing a heavy fire of machine-guns and howitzers, the 47th Sikhs receiving their baptism of fire… pushed forward covering themselves with honour, and not halting a moment until they were into, and in the case of one platoon beyond the farthest trenches occupied by the Lincolns. With this no further advance was possible with the limited numbers at their disposal.” This would be the time period when the first set of myths about the Indian troops would originate. One of these myths was that the Indian troops did not do well in the cold weather of Western Europe. I believe I even repeated this myth back in the early episodes of the podcast. There were some problems among the Indian troops due to the onset of winter, but that was rooted in the fact that they had shipped out from India in summer uniforms and when the weather got colder they were not provided with more suitable garments. In the version of the story that is sometimes told the Indians were just not used to the cold weather, and when it got cold they could not function, which simply was not true. At the simplest level many of the Indian troops were recruited from areas like the Himalayan foothills or the Northwest Frontier and were no strangers to cold weather.

By the end of the year the Indian units were exhausted, they had suffered thousands of casualties and had been in almost constant action. Due to their condition they were pulled off the line for a few weeks when possible. This allowed the troops to rest and for more replacements to arrive in Europe. This would prove to be an important period, because the Indian troops would be essential to the British offensives of 1915. At Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge, and Loos they would play an important role in the British attacks. Even with these contributions as the year wore on the decision was made to start rotating the Indian units off of the Western Front and to send them to other theaters. This was not due to poor performance, in fact that Indian Corps was one of, if not the, most experienced unit in the British Army by mid 1915. Instead, the decision was mostly due to the difficult challenge of keeping the Indian units supplied and reinforced while fighting in Western Europe. During this period supplies and men had to be shipped all the way from India, no small feat, and it was proving beyond the capabilities of those involved to keep enough men coming to Europe to keep the units at a reasonable strength. For example, after the attacks at Neuve Chapelle many of the Indian units were down to just 39% of their original strength and British troops had to be added to their ranks to bring the units back to fighting strength. So the decision was made to move the units to theaters closer to their home, specifically Africa and the Middle East. This would be done by the end of the year, with the place of the Indian troops taken by the new British forces which were arriving at the front in good numbers by the beginning of 1916.

During their time in Europe the Indian troops had been treated pretty well, all things considered. In France many soldiers would report that the French families that they were billeted with from time to time treated them very well. One would write that ‘The people here treat us better than mothers treat their children in India.’ Others would just find themselves in a kind of culture shock, with one writing home that “The people here keep horses, cows, pigs and dogs. Their cows give more milk than ours. Their horses are used where we use cows, and their dogs where we use horses. The horses are as big as camels, and have hands and feet the same size as camels. I myself have seen dogs pulling carts. This is true.” There was also thought given by the British leaders to make sure that there was good medical care provided for the wounded Indians and that the care that was provided obeyed all religious provisions that might be applicable. Obeying these religious requirements was believed to be very important because the British wanted to make sure they did not create any religious tension with India, a country that was primarily Muslim. Just to be clear though, while the Indian soldiers may have been treated well, they were not treated like White soldiers. When in hospital they were confined to hospital grounds, which were surrounded by barbed wire and military police due to concerns that Indian men would have relations with British women, a situation that had to be avoided at all cost.

Before we move away from the Western Front we need to discuss one further myth that has developed over the years, and this myth was around the prevalence of self-inflicted wounds by Indian troops on the Western Front. The general idea with this one is that large numbers of Indian troops were so shocked by the fighting on the Western Front that they resorted to self-inflicted wounds to get away from the front. This certainly happened with several incidents being officially reported and confirmed, however the number was not completely outside the norm. All units of the British army, and other armies as well, had some small percentage of men who were guilty of self-inflicted wounds. These were often soldiers that were just arriving at the front, and being Indian did not mean they were more likely than anybody else to commit the act. In 1917 Lord Curzon would summarize the importance of the Indian troops on the Western Front by saying ‘The Indian Expeditionary Force arrived in the nick of time. That it helped to save the cause both of the Allies and of civilization after the sanguinary tumult of the opening weeks of the War, has been openly acknowledged by the highest in the land, from the Sovereign downwards.’

Outside of the Western Front the Indian Army would also be involved in the ill-fated invasion of German East Africa. During this invasion they would attempt to take the city of Tanga with an amphibious landing. It would end up being one of the most poorly managed military campaigns that I have ever read about. The troops were loaded onto their ships in India, and then they were sailed to Africa. They then sat on the boats for an extra day, and then were landed straight into a mangrove swamp. Many of the troops were seasick by the time that they reached their destination, after having been stuck on the ships for several days. They would also land in the morning, after a long night of little sleep. The final nail in the coffin was that the German Colonial Troops were well aware that they were on their way. This was not a typical case of good intelligence by the Germans, but instead due to the actions of the British commander who felt the need to notify them 24 hours before the invasion that he would be landing the next day. With all of these problems it should be no surprise that the invasion would not go well. Colonel Meinertzhagen, an officer in the British Army would later say that the Battle of Tanga “is the best example I know of how a battle should not be fought, not only in the events leading up to the fight but in its conduct from the General Officer Commanding to the rank and file who suffered.”

The area of greatest contribution by the Indian Army would be in the Middle East. Their first experience in the theater would be at Gallipoli. They would arrive on the Gallipoli peninsula on April 30th as part of the first major set of reinforcements. In total 16,000 Indian troops would fight on the peninsula and while they were in the fighting they would earn a solid reputation among the other troops, including the ANZACs. However, they could do little to save the Gallipoli campaign from its failure and just as the Gallipoli campaign was wrapping up an even greater disaster was developing at a little village on the Tigris called Kut al-Amara.

In late 1914 the British had invaded Mesopotamia with the seizure of Basra on the Persian Gulf. The Mesopotamian theater would be conducted and manned by troops from India, and the India office would be in almost total control of the endeavor, at least until 1916. During this time they would try to advance up the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in the hopes of capturing Baghdad. Much like the logistical mistakes that were made in Africa, the advance up the rivers in Mesopotamia would be a comedy of errors. There were not enough transport for supplies, so as the men advanced up the rivers it became harder and harder to push supplies forward to the units in the vanguard. This came down to a simple lack of river transport craft, and an overall lack of patience, which would have allowed for proper supply dumps to be created. This meant that by the time that the troops reached the outskirts of Baghdad they were at the end of their tether, and they were defeated. With the defeat they were forced to retreat, a retreat that would nto end until they reached Kut al-Amara. A siege would begin in the city and continue for 144 days, while supplies dwindled and all relief efforts failed. Critical to this siege, and the failed relief efforts, were the same supply issues that had prevented the advance from being successful in the first place. When the garrison surrendered and was taken into custody the soldiers were forced to march 600 miles through the desert to Aleppo in modern day Syria. Those that arrived would be nearly starved, and for the next few years they would be fed just enough food to make sure they could continue to do the manual labor that was demanded of them.

Such a colossal failure, with it being called the greatest British defeat in a hundred years, an investigation was demanded, and it would be done by the Mesopotamia Inquiry Commission. Their goal was to determine why the campaign had been such an abject failure. The results would be published in the Mesopotamia Report. This report, presented to parliament on June 27, 1917 acted as an indictment not of the Indian troops, but instead their political and military leadership. The report would blame the system of military administration for the failure. The result would be the government in London mandating a shake up of the military leadership of the Indian Army in the Middle East, and a demand that all future efforts would be quarterbacked from London. Overall this was a good development for the Indian troops at the front, with later campaigns putting far more focus on medical care and ensuring supplies were reaching the front in sufficient quantities.

While the fighting troops from India would occupy most of the histories told of the war, India made two other important contributions to the war. The first was the laborers that were sent to all theaters, in total there would be over a million of these men. They would do everything that could be done with manual labor, quite literally digging ditches and trenches, but there were also more skilled workers as well like bakers, carpenters, tailors, all of the various things that armies needed to have to be able to continue to fight the war. Another important contribution from India was economic. In terms of direct monetary contribution India would give 146 million pounds, with a further 75 million raised in war bonds. Along with that money there were also large quantities of cotton, wool, and jute exported both as raw materials as well as woven into cloth and fabric which was critical to keeping the armies in Europe properly clothed.

As the overall exertion by India for the war effort grew and grew, called for reform within India also grew. The thing at the top of the desires for reform was for self-government, and Indian politicians would become louder and louder in their calls for this self-government during the war. There was little support, at least initially, for self-government in either London or Delhi, with both governments wanting to just focus on winning the war. However, by 1917 some sort of statement was going to have to be made. With tensions rising in India, and with so many troops already being removed from the country, far too many according to the Viceroy of India, who started raising concerns about the lack of non-Indian troops in India all the way back in 1915. In August 1917 an official statement would finally be made. This would be called the Montagu Declaration because it was made by Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India. The core of the declaration were some of the political reforms that would be made in India after the war. This would involve a slow transition to self-government to be started after the war was over. It did not satisfy many Indian nationalists, but was important in keeping moderates on side until the conflict was over. The first reforms would begin with the Government of India Act in December 1919, but it would be far less than what many Indians hoped for.