A. Kumar u.a.: Indian Soldiers in the First World War

Indian Soldiers in the First World War. Re-visiting a Global Conflict

Kumar, Ashutosh; Markovits, Claude
War and Society in South Asia
London 2021: Routledge
240 S.
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
George Morton-Jack, Oxford

This book’s title suggests a focus on the Indian soldier in the First World War, yet its scope is broader. “It is part of a new trend in the First World War studies away from the Eurocentric point of view that prevailed for many years towards a greater awareness of the global dimensions of the conflict”, its editors remark in the introduction (p. 1). It “seeks to provide fresh perspectives to the military history [of India in the First World War] while exploring some ignored topics” (p. 1), “brings to the forefront some of the ignored aspects by proposing a social history approach” (p. 6), and “has tried to incorporate the new researches on the Indian soldiers” (p. 9).

The introduction includes an overview of imperial India’s military part in the war. The British mobilized 1.5 million Indians as the Indian Army grew tenfold between 1914 and 1918; “some 1.1 million were sent abroad to fight or assist in military operations in different theatres of the war”, including France and Belgium (the western front), East Africa, Mesopotamia (Iraq), Egypt, Palestine, China and the Dardanelles (Gallipoli) (pp. 2-4).

Chapter 1 by Shrabani Basu surveys Indian servicemen on the western front with an emphasis on individuals. It dwells primarily on Indian royalty, politicians and infantrymen in 1914-15. Chapter 2 by Kaushik Roy scrutinizes Indian troops’ “will to war”: “what propelled them to go out of the trenches to meet the German mines, shells and bullets?” (p. 43-4). Roy’s themes are numerous, from training and tactics to leadership and logistics.

In chapter 3 Tony McClenaghan reviews Indian Maharajahs’ States’ troops, money, ships, ambulances and aircraft poured into the British war effort. Claude Markovits’ chapter considers Indian soldiers’ encounters in France with French civilians. Siddhartha Das Gupta’s chapter takes in Indian Army (or British) strategy, command and tactics in Iraq (Mesopotamia) in 1914-16. Manas Dutta’s chapter is on the Indian Army in East Africa, 1914-18. In chapter 7 K.C. Yadav assesses how Indian veterans’ experiences at war overseas reshaped their attitudes to education, architecture and domestic life in Haryana villages. Then chapter 8 by Jangkhomang Guite considers rural hill communities of north-east India which provided military recruits, mainly labourers, or took up arms to resist the British.

A majority of the chapters do provide fresh perspectives. Roy’s chapter incorporates latest research and interpretations to take forwards debates on Indian combat motivation, for instance reassessing the ‘hard’ military role of the Indian Army’s 9,500 British officers of 1914-18. “Nationalist and post-colonial writings have pooh-poohed the British officers as nauseating creatures of imperialism”, he writes. “The focus of post-structuralist research is on the mentality of the sepoys by analysing folk songs, drawings and what not.” However, he argues, “It cannot be denied that heroic risk-taking leadership enabled the British officers to retain hold over the Indian soldiery” (p. 53).

Many studies have treated the Maharajahs’ contribution to the British war effort as a something of a sideshow while they concentrate more on other topics. Yet McClenaghan’s Chapter refreshingly investigates its detail and dynamics as an important subject in itself. His original assessment covers statistics of war dead in the Maharajahs’ forces, and awards of battle honours. His chapter should be one of the first points of reference for future studies of India’s ‘princely’ States during the war.

Markovits’ chapter helpfully identifies three types of the well known censored Indian soldiers’ letters from France: first, those that present France “as a paradisiac country”, for example for its widespread primary education in contrast with India; second, those that act as “a corrective” in viewing India more favourably; third, those that criticise France “for the irreligion of its inhabitants” (p. 96).

Yadav’s chapter is an elegant summary of his pioneering primary research, in particular into schools funded or set up by Indian veterans. He characterises Indian veterans as “disciplined soldier-reformers” who in their villages “transformed … every aspect of life, to whatever extent was possible, especially in the difficult post-War days” (p. 173).

Guite’s innovative chapter stresses north-east India as a remote region where “the First World War was interestingly felt very strongly” (p. 181). In exploring both collaborative and violent local responses to recruitment and Empire, he presents an original case study on the war’s global impacts.

Some chapters struggle to offer fresh perspectives where they seem to synthesize previously published work more than they develop debates through drawing on new primary research or approaches. As an example, Markovits assesses Indian Muslim troops broadly as “Muslims” who held a “puzzling” variety of views on sexual morality and religion given their apparent “homogeneity of social background” as Muslims (p. 97). However, Markovits does not touch on the question of whether the variety in their views as “Muslims” may be probed by disaggregating them (where possible of course) into their diverse regional, social, tribal or clan groups which had similarities and differences in outlook. A Muslim infantryman from the independent tribal areas bordering Afghanistan might have seen the world differently to a Muslim cavalryman from the Deccan in central India. Such difference might help to explain different Indian Muslim views of France.

As another example, Dutta’s chapter on East Africa (which has an excellent bibliography) has significantly more scene-setting descriptions of the East African theatre in general – on naval, German or Portuguese forces and so on – than might be expected, reducing his focus on the subject of Indian soldiers. Meanwhile Dutta mentions only in passing wartime British records for East Africa of Indian desertions and of British punishments for Indian troops including flogging and executions – under-researched issues that he could perhaps have developed in fresh directions.

Despite its title, the book does not seem clearly to define exactly what an “Indian soldier” was, and how this changed from 1914 to 1918 with new areas of recruitment the length and breadth of imperial India. “The men from the mountains were preferred to those from the hot, low-lying valleys and plains”, states chapter 1. “The latter were never enlisted” (p. 16). This was not the case.

Elsewhere in the book, there are statistics, dates or matters stated as fact that should be treated with caution and not taken for granted as accurate. The following are a few examples. The Indian Corps in France and Belgium in October 1914 is described as “45,000-strong”, comprising “28,500 Indian and 16,500 British troops” in two infantry and two cavalry divisions (p. 3); at the time it numbered 15,000 Indian troops and 5,000 British in just two infantry divisions. The same Indian Corps is described as holding “for one year a 17-km sector of the front” (p. 3); in 1914-15, it held at different times various sectors of frequently changing lengths. The figure given in “India’s 74,000 war dead” (p. 4) is open to debate: the official British statistics of the 1920s, imperial era Government of India records and Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) records indicate a total of 50,000 Indian war dead for 1914-18 (the 74,000 figure, often stated during the First World War centenary, appears to be an error based on a loose reading of the CWGC data for the period 1914 to 1921, so that it includes separate post-war campaigns such as the Third Anglo-Afghan War 1919 and Waziristan 1919–20, and a significant number of White British casualties in Iraq and at sea in 1914-21). The “most famous” Indian desertion on the western front, by Afridi troops of the 58th Vaughan’s Rifles, is dated February 1915 (p. 6); it was March. The Indian Labour Corps sent to France in 1917 is described as “48,000 strong” (p. 6); it totaled 28,000 men. Concerning 1914, the statement “Never before had the Indian troops sailed to the West” is followed by an intimation that Hindu troops had not before crossed the seas (or “Black Waters”) because of a caste taboo (p. 19). Both of these assertions are problematic: there were several pre-1914 voyages of Indian soldiers to the West, such as to Cyprus in 1878; between the 1700s and 1913, the British had often deployed by sea Hindu troops who had negotiated the religious issue, for instance during and after the Indian Army’s expedition to China in 1900-02. For the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in France, from 10 to 12 March 1915, the figure given for Indians killed is “4,233” (p. 21) – around eight times the official record of around 500 Indians killed (the 4,233 figure resembles the total British Empire killed and missing at the battle, including roughly 3,500 White British Army killed and missing, among them prisoners of war taken to Germany). As a final example here, significant numbers of Indian troops are described as “sent to … Palestine” in 1915 (p. 30); the British did not invade Palestine until 1917-18.

The book’s aim of incorporating new research on the Indian soldiers is substantially but not quite thoroughly met. Markovits for example states: “It is difficult to know whether the soujourn in France and the exposition to a different kind of society had an impact on aspects of the returning soldiers’ lives and that of their families” (p. 99). This is a view of a kind previously expressed by historians including David Omissi [1], but one that could have been modified in light of Yadav’s chapter on Indian soldier-reformers, besides other available recent research on the topic.[2] (Indeed, Markovits’ chapter and Yadav’s could have been joint.) More broadly, the book does not mention a range of significant recent work. Some of this, like Radhika Singha’s book The Coolie's Great War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict, 1914-1921 (2020), was no doubt published too late for inclusion. Yet even allowing for reasonable limits of what could be fitted in, other recent publications that the book could usefully have incorporated towards fresh perspectives include some latest work up to 2018 by David Omissi, Peter Stanley and Dominiek Dendooven.[3]

All in all, this book is a valuable addition to the field. Its chapters by Roy, McClenaghan, Yadav and Guite most brightly meet its aims. The book cannot however claim throughout to be a trusty guide to certain points about India, the Indian Army and First World War. Further it offers little in the way of fresh comparisons and contrasts between fronts or between the Indian and other armies.

The Chapters, like many recent studies, describe the Indian soldiers as “forgotten” and studies of them as filling “a gap” in the historiography. This reviewer for one hopes that welcome books like Indian Soldiers in The First World War: Re-Visiting a Global Conflict will help bring a time soon when such things no longer need be said. At some point the Indians of 1914-18 need to be seen as a remembered and integral part of First World War history.

[1] David Omissi, Europe Through Indian Eyes: Indian Soldiers Encounter England and France, 1914-1918, in: English Historical Review 122 (2007) 496, p. 395.
[2] For instance, George Morton-Jack, The Indian Empire at War, Boston 2018 (updated edition 2020), Epilogue.
[3] Omissi, Europe Through Indian Eyes; Peter Stanley, Die in Battle, Do Not Despair, Warwick 2015; Dominiek Dendooven, Asia in Flanders Fields. A Transnational History of Indians and Chinese on the Western Front, 1914-1920, PhD thesis (2018, University of Kent, Universiteit Antwerpen, Belgium; available online at https://kar.kent.ac.uk/67923/). Also see Dominiek Dendooven, Asia in Flanders Fields: Indians and Chinese on the Western Front, 1914–1920, Philadelphia 2022.

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