when Indians fought For The Empire

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when Indians fought For The Empire

Sunday, 13 January 2019 | Gautam Mukherjee

when Indians fought For The  Empire


Author - George Morton-Jack

Publisher - Hachette, Rs 699

This book travels year by year from 1914 to 1918 to give a masterful account of wars that involved Indians under the British Raj. This is a gem that would interest  the war history buff as much as the general reader, writes Gautam Mukherjee

For the strapping, if illiterate, peasants from the “martial races” recruited into the Indian Army it meant a salary plus additional allowances for overseas posting, and fifty acres of “irrigated land” that no money-lender could usurp, plus an “inheritable pension” on retirement. For those who joined up voluntarily during World War I that ended a century ago in 2018, it was a fit occupation for men who liked being soldiers.

Indians who joined as sepoys were not promoted to the King’s Commission then. They could never be officers commanding British and Indian troops alike, but enjoyed native ranks like Jemadar, Subedar, and internal promotions instead. Nor did they enjoy equivalent pay or facilities of White soldiers, though in the European theatre they were well fed and cared for. This included excellent medical treatment and hospitalisation if injured.

And yet, did the Indians fight, a half million strong at 1918, bravely and with zeal, for the empire? Yes, and in theatres as widespread as France/Germany and British interests in Africa and Iraq. A number of Indians won Victoria Crosses, the highest award for valour, just like the European soldiers in the Great War, and not all of them posthumously either.

Politically, the Indian nationalists decided to back the British war effort without reservation in the expectation of concessions towards Indian “self-government” in line with the White colonies of Australia and Canada that enjoyed “Dominion status”.

Instead, there was an extension of the Defence of India Act of 1915, with its “powers to detain without proof and sentence to death without appeal”. And it was soon after the war, in April 1919, that the infamous Jallianwala Bagh massacre took place. The British betrayal was acutely felt and sharpened the move towards independence.

In terms of anti-British activity in the period under review — mutinies, murders, desertions — provoked by British high-handedness, the lead belonged not to the subjects of British India or the Princely States, but to the “independent Pukhtun tribal areas of Waziristan”. The Mahsud and Afridi tribes resisted the British always, and with considerable success, irrespective of whether they joined their Army, or raided their positions in British India.

Indeed, author George Morton-Jack dwells on the preoccupation the British had with Muslim sentiment as they confronted the “Sick man of Europe” or the “Ottoman Empire”. This mainly because Turkey was the custodian of Mecca, and how the Muslim of British India would react to fighting against the Sultan of Turkey and the Caliph, was an issue of the greatest concern. As it turned out, there were isolated outbreaks of Islamic fervour against British imperialism, but these were easily contained. For the most part, the Indian Muslim had no real problem fighting against the “other” Muslim or anyone else their officers indicated.

The genesis of the extensive use of independent India’s armed forces for UN Peace Keeping activities may have its origins in the lead up to World War I, during it, and its aftermath, when the British found themselves with 27 per cent more territory, quite a lot of it in West Asia, which they intended to hang on to. The British Indian Army was used extensively for this purpose too, and post 1918.

The Great War also went some way to advance the cause of racial equality as heavy losses, particularly in Europe, prompted the Allies to lay less stress of the “colour-bar”.

The civilians of France treated the Indian soldiers with great kindness and as “Liberators” from the German yoke, and opened their eyes to democratic notions of liberty, equality and fraternity. Many were able to comprehend for the first time the demands of a new nationalism that would have to exclude the British in the end.

The Germans, of course, wanted to provoke a Jihad amongst the Muslim Indian troops and dropped leaflets into the trenches they occupied. While conditions in the Indian front in France were bad at first, the British countered with a massive increase in “logistical support” and “unprecedented quantities of food”. Top leadership, at least till 1916, such as Kichener, Willcocks, and medical care head Walter Lawrence were all distinguished old India hands, familiar with the manners and mores of their charges. 


Things were a lot meaner in the West Asian theatre. The infamous Mesopotamia Report put the finger on the Viceroy Charles Hardinge and Commander-in-Chief in India Beauchamp Duff for grave lapse that had thousands of Indian soldiers perishing in pitiable circumstances. It received a lot of media play and debate in parliament at Westminster. Rudyard Kipling, the celebrated author and poet of the Raj took up for the slaughtered Indian soldiers. He asked for those responsible for the British defeats in Iraq, the mismanagement and neglect, to be pilloried and punished.

And yet, there was a mood amongst the top Allied Military Brass as the war dragged on, to use the Indians for front-line action in various theatres on a relentless basis. It even claimed British Indian Army General James Willcocks’ job, as his superior Douglas Haig, did not think much of his efforts to shield his Indian troops from attrition and casualties. Willcocks became persona non grata  in the War Office after being fired by Haig, and could only get a job as the Governor of Bermuda  thereafter. The old style caring and nurturing of troops that Willcocks practiced was replaced by a more ruthlessly “scientific” approach.

And then, there were the uneven regulations. Apart from much lesser pay than their European counterparts, when an Indian was invalidated he had to return to the front after recovery. The option to retire and return to his country after being injured or wounded was denied him. Only European troops enjoyed this privilege.

It follows the ups and downs of military strategy and tactics, the dramatis personae, and the sheer blood loss of trench warfare. The European theatre, particularly the Battle of the Somme, was priority number one, but Indian troops were sent to a number of lesser strategic spots around the globe simultaneously. Recently, Israel made special mention of Indian troops in connection with the liberation of Haifa.

The so called “War to end all Wars” was not successful, despite its millions in war dead. But it certainly made an international fighting force of the Indian soldier and added to the regimental histories of many Indian formations that survive to the present day.

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