The Indian Empire at War
The story of the Indian Army in the First World War has never been told fully that to the world at large the ‘Great War’ has always remained a white man’s epic, whether it’s the French and the British fighting the Germans or the Australians and the New Zealanders against the Turks. There have been only piecemeal attempts at best, offering glimpses of the trenches of Flanders or the travails at Kut; but now for the first time we have a thoroughly comprehensive work narrating the incredible saga of the men from the Subcontinent fighting in battlefields across the globe, without which the Allies could have never won the war.
George Morton-Jack in his exhaustively researched book, The Indian Empire at War, not only narrates the exploits of the various Indian Expeditionary Forces, but also paints the peculiar socio-political scenario that prevailed in India at the time that actuated so many men fighting a war so far away from home for a regime that had colonized their own country. In the process, the Indian Soldier of the war emerges neither a mercenary nor a staunch loyalist of the British Crown, but a hardy individual driven by the need to earn a livelihood and take care of his family, a motive no different from those of millions of his compatriots of the times serving the British in their civilian capacity. In an impoverished country, they had no option but to turn to the only paymaster who could sustain them. What set the soldier apart however was his tremendous sense of honour which saw him brave the horrors and privations of the war with unflinching courage, comforted only by the thought that if he was killed in action the ‘Sirkar’ would take care of his family.
The book also illustrates the deep-rooted racial prejudices of the British and how they were forced to rid themselves of many once they found their empire under threat and the Indian Army became their last bastion. The biggest game changer of these was the lifting of the ‘colour bar’ forbidding deployment of Indian troops against white Europeans, for fear that an Indian victory over the whites might embolden them to turn against the British. It had to go when Indian troops were inducted into France to fight the Germans. As the war went on and the Indians (many of them hardened veterans of Frontier Wars on India’s northwest) began proving their mettle, emerging as good or better than any European soldiers in combat, perceptions changed. There couldn’t have been a better accolade than the grudging admiration of their fighting prowess by the enemy, the Germans, themselves, who were given to contemptuously dismissing Indian soldiers as ‘coolies’ prior to the war. A burly Sikh veteran consoling a weeping German lad taken prisoner, repeatedly telling him ‘ro mat’ ‘ro mat’, the tone conveying compassion even if the latter did not understand the meaning of the words, is just one of the interesting episodes witnessed and remembered. One of the least known horrors of the trench warfare was when the Germans, irked by the stubborn fight put up by the Indians, dug a tunnel under the Indian trenches, filled it up with explosives and blew it up, slaughtering thousands of Indians who were blown to smithereens. Not to be outdone, the Indian Sappers dug a tunnel under the German trenches and gave it back to them in the same coin. The wrong perception that gained ground in some quarters that the Indian troops panicked under fire and fled or resorted to self-inflicted injury has been unequivocally countered in the book. The war was such a horrible experience for all involved that shell-shocked troops behaving irrationally was nothing peculiar to Indian troops. There were as many or more British, French or even German troops acting in the same manner.
The fact that Allies had their back to the wall at the First Battle of Ypres and it is the arrival of the Indian infantry that saved the day for them is eminently highlighted in the book; so is the stellar performance of the latter during the one year they remained in France, before being moved to Egypt and the Middle East, under a plan to reallocate troops based on their suitability for terrain and climate. Equally well portrayed are the grand exploits of the Indian Cavalry which served for three years on the Western Front distinguishing themselves in the many battles from Somme to Cambrai, often in dismounted role as infantry.
The war also saw the Indian troops beginning to assert themselves after putting up with racial slighting for years. During the course of the war, the British were compelled to address, at least partially, many legitimate concerns of the Indian soldiers about their discriminatory scales of salary and benefits compared to the British soldiers. By the end of the war, they were even training eligible Indian young men for grant of King’s Commissions, breaking away from the practice of awarding only Viceroy’s Commissions to Indians. The last indeed was largely a reciprocal gesture towards the nationalist leadership, which had cooperated with the British establishment for large-scale recruitment, in return for measures towards Indian self-governance.
While the Indian soldiers left their enduring legacy in Flanders Fields with their endless acts of heroism, they themselves underwent a priceless transformation due to their interaction with the French who treated them with great fondness. The French way of life, wherein men and women lived as equals, influenced them so profoundly that on returning to India after the war they strived to emulate the French ways, educating their girl children and respecting their women more. Some even got married to French women and had babies.
The British establishment had ensured that the Indian troops received excellent logistical support throughout their engagement on the western front. However in East Africa, where they fought a running bush war with the German Schutztruppen, the logistics just couldn’t keep up and they suffered untold horrors before they got the better of the enemy in the end. Their worst nightmare unfolded at Kut in the Middle East when an entire Indian Division was besieged and had to surrender, following an ill-conceived campaign with no proper planning or logistics. Thousands of men fell prey to starvation and torture in Turkish captivity. In the wake of the debacle at Gallipoli, where the Anzacs – Australians and New Zealanders – along with some Indians were trounced by the Turks, this turned out to be the war’s darkest hour and the ‘cemetery of reputations’ for the Allies.
The most outstanding contribution of the Indian Army to the Allied Victory of course was its almost single-handed conquest of the Ottoman Empire, duly avenging the humiliations of Gallipoli and Kut. This was all the more remarkable because unlike the western front where the army had mostly veterans in its ranks, the army which took the field in the middle east in the final phase was largely constituted of fresh recruits often trained under field conditions. Not all of them were from the traditional ‘martial races’ either, the army having had expanded its recruitment bases to include regions previously not favoured to meet the increasing demand for troops, in the process making it more pan Indian in nature. The book also explodes the myth of Lawrence of Arabia and his Arab Legion being heroes of victory over the Ottomans. While actions of Lawrence and his Arabs amounted to no more than ‘pinpricks’ in the Allies’ final campaign, it was the Indian Army which delivered the ‘sledgehammer blows’. And whoever heard of the great Lawrence of Arabia being held prisoner by the Indian Cavalry? No wonder he made disparaging remarks about Indian Soldiers later in life.
The book also systematically analyses the professionalism, or lack of it, of an array of personalities involved in command and staff. Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War and former Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army, the leading voice that urged mobilization of the Indian Army and lifting of the colour bar, General James Willcocks, the most decorated British soldier and popular Commander of the Indian Corps in France, who ended up losing his command for his attempts to save his men from excessive casualties, General Douglas Haig, Commander of the British Empire’s forces in France and Belgium, who couldn’t get along with Willcocks, Charles Hardinge, the egoistic Viceroy of India, who craved to be the ‘Pasha of Bagdad’ and engineered the disastrous initial foray of the Indian Army into Ottoman Iraq, General John Nixon, Hardinge’s over-optimistic field commander who hopelessly stretched his line of communication, General Charles Townshend, the infamous commander of Indian 6th Division that surrendered at Kut, who enjoyed the hospitality of the Turks while his men starved, General Stanley Maude, the brilliant commander of the Indian troops who reversed the earlier misfortunes in Iraq, General William Robertson, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, who brought about sweeping changes in the Indian Army’s command and staff structure to streamline it for the global conflict, General Edmund Allenby who led the Allied forces to their final victory in the Middle East, Sir Pratap Singh, the indomitable Commandant of the Jodhpur Lancers, the oldest serving Indian Soldier in the war, who at 74, fulfilled his dream of charging at the head of his lancers in Palestine. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the Prussian commander of the German forces in East Africa, one of the world’s best guerrilla fighters, who could never be brought to his knees till the armistice, Werner Otto von Hentig, the German officer who led the Indian POWs on a secret mission to Kabul to turn Afghanistan against the Allies and Mahendra Pratap, the Indian revolutionary who enlisted the Indian prisoners for the secret mission to Afghanistan are a few of the many that feature in the 530-odd page masterpiece.
If there is one anomaly in the book that is discernable, it is the somewhat excessive focus on the Pukhtun soldiers – Mir Dast, VC and his brother, Mir Mast, who deserted, stealing a disproportionate number of pages – and the concerns the army had to address for their susceptibility to the jihadist propaganda by the Turks, owing to their religious sensibilities. In the bargain many of the war’s great Indian Victoria Cross winning heroes from Khudadad Khan to Gabar Singh Negi and Gobind Singh find only passing mention while many others like Darwan Singh Negi do not even appear anywhere. One reason for this could be that narrating each tale of heroism would have probably hindered the flow of the main story, which goes on flawlessly. Indeed, it is revealing to read of the German scheme to raise an Indian Legion from prisoners and deserters to fight against the British Empire with motives of jihad or Indian independence.
All in all a brilliant read.
The Indian Empire at War, from Jihad to Victory – the Untold Story of the Indian Army in the First World War
Little, Brown. London, 2018