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Volume 48 Number 22, November 11, 2018 ARCHIVE HOME JBCENTRE SUBSCRIBE

Commemoration of the Centenary of the End of World War One

Massive Conscription of Indians by the British

Indian troops headed for East Africa, 1917

Once World War I broke out, Britain called on all its Dominions and colonies for men and materiel. Of these, none bore a greater burden and sacrifice than India. By the end of the war, nearly one-and-a-half million soldiers and non-combatants from India had been brought to the Western Front in Europe and to the other theatres of war. Of these, around 70,000 were killed, and tens of thousands more left shell-shocked, blind, crippled or suffering other severe wounds and mental trauma. India was also bled dry in terms of foodstuffs and other resources for the war effort, with disastrous consequences.

At the outbreak of war, the British Indian Army consisted of 76,953 British, 193,901 Indians and 45,600 non-combatants. It was claimed to be a "volunteer" army. Unlike Britain, there was no conscription in India during the war, though considering the disastrous effect that colonial plunder and exploitation had had on the Indian economy, regular pay and subsistence was an offer many could hardly refuse. It was a disciplined and experienced army. The British only recruited from what they termed "the martial races" from northern India: Pathans, Baluchis, Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs, Nepalese and others. No lower castes were recruited as soldiers, while thousands were employed for cleaning and other menial tasks. No Indians could become commissioned officers, only junior officers of the regiment, while even the most senior Indian officer was subordinate to the most junior British officer. Loyalty was primarily to the regiment, which functioned very much as a "family", the expression being "loyalty to the salt", to the provider. Regiments were organised on common regional, religious and linguistic lines, with many soldiers coming from the same villages. The British were ever-mindful of the lessons of 1857, when disaffection in the Indian Army was one factor which led to the First War of Independence.

Western Front

The first Indian troop ships arrived at Marseilles on September 26, 1914. They were warmly received by the local population. By early October two divisions of the Indian Army were encamped in France. Within just a few weeks they were moved north to the Western Front. Though winter was setting in, they did not have adequate clothing. They remained in their thin cotton khaki drill and sweaters which provided no protection from the wind, sleet and rain of the dark October and November months. In fact it was New Year before they were issued with greatcoats, by which time many had died from cold and frostbite. Initially it had been considered that the Indian troops would be used as reserve or garrison troops, but in fact they were sent straight into the front lines.

Initial enthusiasm soon gave way to despair. The conditions in the trenches were appalling. As well as the bombing and incessant shelling, rains brought flooding. Disease was rife. Trenches collapsed. Frostbite was common. Letters home captured the situation. A Pathan soldier wrote: "No one who has ever seen the war will forget it to their last day. Just like a turnip cut into pieces, so a man is blown to bits by the explosion of a shell.... All those who came with me have all ceased to exist.... There is no knowing who will win. In taking a hundred yards of trench, it is like the destruction of the world."

If soldiers were injured, they would be sent to the hospitals and convalescent depots in France. Once recovered, they would be returned to the front line. A wounded soldier wrote home: "I have no hope of surviving, as the war is very severe. The wounds get better in a fortnight and then one is sent back to the trenches.... The whole world is being sacrificed and there is no cession. It is not a war but a Mahabharat, the world is being destroyed."

Members of British West Indian Regiment stacking shells, Ypres, France, 1917

Despair was compounded by the fact that, while British soldiers were given regular home leave, no leave was ever given to the Indian troops. This was constantly asked for but refused.

This despair was noted with concern by the British authorities. Ever wary of disaffection, they had taken great care, for instance, to provide separate cooking facilities and water supplies according to the various religious obligations, as well as other measures. Strict censorship of letters home was imposed. Many letters were stopped altogether. In addition great vigilance was shown by the authorities in preventing what they termed "seditious literature" reaching the troops. So concerned were they, for example, about literature from the Ghadar Party that all mail from San Francisco, Rotterdam and Geneva was closely monitored.

Yet even in such trying circumstances, the Indian troops fought with great bravery. This was shown clearly in the battle to seize a German-held salient at Neuve Chapelle in February 1915. The battle raged over four days of relentless fighting. General Douglas Haig had believed a prolonged attack would produce results in the end, even if it meant taking heavy casualties. Both Indian divisions played a prominent part in the battle. One Indian soldier killed in action was awarded the Victoria Cross. In all 4,233 of the Indian Corps were killed, mainly from the heavy German artillery bombardment. Neuve Chapelle was taken. But in the four days of intense fighting and thousands of casualties, only 1,500 metres was gained. Subsequently Haig's report and numerous books written about the battle, including the British state's History of the Great War,[1] made scant if any mention of the contribution of the Indian troops.

The Battle of Loos in September 1915 was to be one of the last major operations undertaken by the whole Indian Corps on the Western Front. The battle raged for two weeks, yet no gains were made. Casualties were high, with most battalions reduced to fewer than a hundred. At the end of the year, having endured a second winter in the trenches, the bulk of the Indian Corps were moved to other theatres of war - the Middle East, Gallipoli and Africa. In early 1917, further Indian troops were recruited for these theatres, where casualties had been high and reinforcements were urgently needed. The Secretary of State for India had asked the Viceroy to raise no less than an additional 100,000 troops by the Spring of 1918 to fight the Turks. Only the cavalry would remain on the Western Front until 1918, and the sappers and miners until 1919, clearing mines.

In the summer of 1916, Haig amassed over a million soldiers in the Somme for a major onslaught on the German lines. The Indian Cavalry would bear the brunt of the operation. In the first few hours alone British troops and their allies, with the Indians to the front, took nearly 60,000 casualties with 20,000 dead. Despite the casualties, Haig ordered the action to continue. The battle raged until mid-November. The total number of dead was 1.3 million. The allies had advanced six miles. Though reports in the newspapers continued for months, few mentioned the Indian Cavalry.


Great publicity was done by the British authorities regarding the hospitals provided for wounded Indian soldiers in England, the care to observe religious rites, and the amenities provided. It was even claimed that the King of England had handed over one of his palaces, the Brighton Pavilion, for conversion into a hospital. This was a blatant lie, since Brighton Council had been its owners for over 50 years. Nearly 120,000 carefully stage-managed postcards of the hospital were distributed and over 20,000 souvenir booklets sent to India. The reality, however, was otherwise. The Pavilion and other hospitals were surrounded by barbed wire. Kitchener's Hospital, the former Brighton Workhouse, was described in one letter home as "Kitchener's Hospital Jail". No English nurses were allowed to treat the patients, only to carry out supervisory roles. There was no fraternisation. Outside activities were limited and under heavy supervision. Visits to the patients were only allowed with passes and under scrutiny, to guard against what were termed "Indian nationalists". Only those with the most severe injuries were returned to India. The others were sent back to the front. Self-harm and suicide were common. Letters home revealed many complaints about the food and the treatment. Many expressed the suspicion that the Indians were being sacrificed as "cannon fodder". Some urged their relatives at home: "Do not enlist!"


Indian troops in France in 1915

The war was brought to a close with the Armistice of November 11, 1918, the October Revolution in Russia the previous year being a major factor in bringing peace. The Peace Conference convened in Paris in January 1919, was to last six months, and conclude with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. India had three delegates at the Conference, the Secretary of State for India, Edward Montagu, the Maharaja of Bikaner and Lord Sinha. All three shared a vision of India eventually governing itself, but within the British Empire, with Sinha commenting that Britain must remain "the paramount power".

Back in India the intellectual elite had backed the war expecting concessions as a reward for the sacrifices made. But they were to be bitterly disappointed. The Government of India Act of 1919 only consolidated colonial rule.

The war had had a devastating effect on India. Crops had failed, prices were high and a spirit of unrest was growing. Famine had been declared in Central India. The greatest unrest was in the Punjab. Severe hardship was occurring in the cities. There was great anger at the seizure of foodstuffs for the war effort under the Defence of the Realm Act. War weariness gripped the region, which had sent the most combatants to the front. Villages were mourning the dead and tending the wounded.

The response of the British Government was the Rowlatt Act, passed in London in March 1919. It banned public meetings and muzzled the press. It authorised in camera trials without jury. Persons suspected of revolutionary activity were imprisoned without trial for up to two years. Protests were put down by troops with lethal force.

On April 11, 1919, General Reginald Dyer occupied Amritsar, imposing a curfew and banning all gatherings. A proclamation to that effect was read out on April 13. That day was the festival of Baisaki, the Sikh New Year. Crowds had gathered at the Golden Temple in a festive mood. Nearby was the enclosed park called Jallianwala Bagh. Thousands had gathered there peacefully at a rally to discuss the Rowlatt Act and recent police killings. As is now well known, Dyer brought armed troops in through the single narrow entrance to the park and opened fire on the crowd, ordering his troops to keep firing until their ammunition was exhausted. There was no escape. Around 1,000 were killed and some 1,500 wounded.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre shocked and enraged the country. Barely five months from the end of the war, in which 400,000 Punjabis had fought, this was Britain's reward. Dyer was unrepentant. The massacre was followed by the bombing of Punjab cities, the extension of martial law and further repression. In London, the report to the War Cabinet for that week barely mentioned the event, simply stating that there had been "trouble" at Amritsar where "troops were called in to restore order". No mention was made of the killings. It was not raised at the Peace Conference in Paris either.

The troop ships returned to Bombay and Karachi. Bands played but there was no heroes' welcome. Too many had died. Too many were crippled, blind or shell-shocked. Some hospitals for the wounded and limbless were set up, but of little help to those returning to remote regions. Crops had failed. Unrest was rife. A new mood of nationalism was growing in the country. The heroes would now be of the Independence or Freedom Movement. In the British official histories of the war there would be little mention of the Indian soldiers who had made such sacrifice.


1. The reference is to the 109 volumes known as History of the Great War Based on Official Documents by Direction of the Committee of Imperial Defence, abbreviated to History of the Great War or British Official History.

(Shrabani Basu. "For King and Another Country: Indian Soldiers on the Western Front, 1914-18." London: Bloomsbury, 2015.)


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