Going Over The Top: The Indian Army

By David Flin

In the previous article in this series, I looked at the role played by the British Empire and Dominions, with the exception of the Indian Army. The astute among you will have probably realised that this article will look at the role played by the Indian Army during WWI.

The first thing to note is that, like Australia, India never had conscription. The entirety of the Indian Army was volunteer. And volunteer they did, in large numbers. Almost 1.5 million men volunteered, in addition to around 200 nurses. Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus volunteered, and from diverse regions.

They saw fighting on the Western Front, in East Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Salonika, the Caucasus and Gallipoli. The Indian Army sent seven expeditionary forces overseas, called, imaginatively, Indian Expeditionary Forces A through to G.

Indian Expeditionary Force A went to the Western Front, sending around 150,000 men to serve in two army corps, one infantry and one cavalry. The first four divisions arrived in Marseilles on 30 September, 1914, and went straight to the Ypres salient.

Forces B and C went to East Africa; Force D was involved in the Mesopotamian campaign; Forces E and F were in the Palestine campaign; and Force G was involved in the Gallipoli campaign. In addition, individual battalions were involved in smaller campaigns; for example, the 36th Sikh Battalion took part in the siege of Tsingtao, and the 19th Punjabis were involved in the 1918 Malleson Mission in support of the Ashkhabad Socialist Revolutionary Committee against the Bolshevik Tashkent Soviet.

As a bit of a descent into the tiny detail from the big picture, while there are 1.5 million stories of the contribution of soldiers of the Indian Army, some stand out.

Ressaldur Badlu Singh, of the 14th Murray’s Jat Lancers is one such story. On 2nd September, 1918, on the west bank of the River Jordan in Palestine, his squadron had to attack a strong position on a hill occupied by machine guns and 200 infantry. He and six men charged and captured the position. He was mortally wounded at the top of the hill when capturing the last machine gun, but all the guns and infantry had surrendered to him before he died.

Another remarkable story is that of Pratap Singh of Idar. He was the third son of the Maharaja of Jodhpur, born in 1845. He served as Aide-de-Camp to the future King Edward VII from 1887 to 1910. Naturally, as the Colonel of the Jodhpur Lancers, he went to war with the regiment, and in 1914, he went to the Western Front and served in the trenches alongside his regiment, along with his two teenage sons, Hanut and Sagat, who were also officers in the regiment. When the regiment was rotated into the rest area, he became an indefatigable socialite, dining with the rich and powerful, which included French President Raymond Poincaré, the French Army’s Commander-in-Chief Joseph Joffre, and the British Royal Family. In 1918, the regiment was transferred to the Middle East, where it took part in the Palestine campaign, and took a major role – at the age of 74 – at the battle of Meggido.

It was, however, one thing for princes to volunteer. Why did so many people from all levels volunteer?

A simple answer can be made in one word. It’s by no means a complete answer, but it goes a long way towards an explanation. Caste. Becoming a soldier and fighting meant that one became a member of the warrior caste, and for many, that was a major improvement in their status. Obviously, it’s by no means that simple, but as a first approximation, it holds some truth. Delving into the intricacies of the Indian caste system is beyond the scope of this article (and, if I’m honest, beyond my ability as a writer).

Indian soldiers at the Somme

Tradition was another reason. Some saw it as their duty to win honour. A Sikh soldier, Indar Singh, fighting on the Somme in 1916, wrote home: “It is quite impossible that I should return home alive. But don’t be grieved at my death, because I shall die, arms in hand, wearing the warrior’s clothes. This is the most happy death that anyone can die.”

In addition to bravery in the fighting, one element that was commented upon, especially in the early months of the war on the Western Front, was the matter of relationships between Indian soldiers and British and French women. Several men praised the education of European women, and gave instructions for their own daughters to be taught to read: “For once they can read, the whole of knowledge is within their grasp,” said one Ressaldar. Some soldiers considered that European women were “shameless”, because they mingled so freely with men; it must be added that this did not seem to have a great deal of impact on the willingness of the Indian soldiers to mingle freely with these “shameless” women. In 1917, one Muslim trooper married a French woman. The news dismayed his family, and so he wrote to them to explain the “truth” of the matter, which was that he had only married the woman because King George V had personally ordered him to do so. Historians consider it unlikely that King George had given this instruction, but the family accepted the marriage, and in due course, he returned to India with his wife. One assumes and hopes they lived happily ever after.

Battle of Bazentin Ridge. The 20th Deccan Horse, Indian Army, in Carnoy Valley, 7th Divisional Area, 14th July 1916.

What did the Germans think of Indian troops on the Western Front? The soldiers, who generally regarded the British, French, Belgians, and other white troops essentially as “people on the other side of No-Man’s Land” took a different view of Indian troops. Generally, speaking, there was a preference not to take Indians prisoner. German propaganda highlighted the threat to the supremacy of the ‘white race’ if Asian (and African) soldiers were trained in the handling of modern arms. The propaganda argued that they would lose all respect for the white man if they were allowed to participate as equals.

Well, they would say that. It was most unfair of the Entente to make use of manpower resources far in excess of what the Germans had available. In the end, that’s probably the most telling factor in determining the significance of the Indian Army in World War One. The foe they faced feared their involvement.

I rather think I’ll leave the final word to the much-derided Rudyard Kipling.

Hindu Sepoy in France. This man in his own country prayed we know not to what Powers. We pray Them to reward him for his bravery in ours.

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David Flin is the author of the SLP books How to Write Alternate History, Six East End Boys, Tales from Section D, The Return of King Arthur and Other Alternate Myths, and Bring Me My Bow