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Indian Army - The Great War

The increase of military expenditure which the scheme involved was viewed with increasing disfavour by Indian nationalists. Lord Hardingc's Government, threatened with the loss of the opium revenue and anxious to find money for education and other civil needs, came to the conclusion that the Anglo-Japanese alliance and improved relations with Russia justified a re-examination of the military requirements of India. The Secretary of State agreed to refer the question to a committee presided over by Field-Marshal Lord Nicholson. The committee were not unanimous and presented a majority and minority report. Before action was taken on these reports war with Germany and Austria broke out.

In 1914, when the World War broke out, the regular forces in India comprised 75,575 British soldiers, including 2,689 commissioned officers; 159,861 Indian army troops, including 2,771 British commissioned officers and 341 British warrant and non-commissioned oflkcrsjand 21,069 Imperial service troops. The reserves of the Indian army numbered 36,000 odd. Many of these were found during the war to be unfit for active service. The Volunteer force consisted of some 38,000 Europeans and Eurasians. During the World War the Indian army was greatly enlarged, as demands were made upon it by the Home Government for service abroad. In the last year of the World War the Government of India undertook to raise an additional half-million combatant recruits, and no doubt the full number would have been raised had the Armistice not intervened. All charges were borne by the Home Government, but the heavy task of recruiting, training, equipping and despatching the new armies fell on the Indian administration.

During the Great War (1914-1918), Indian Army units served on the Western Front, and at Gallipoli and in Salonika. But the main effort was in Mesopotamia, where more than 300,000 Indian soldiers were deployed. During World War I, India's contribution of troops, money, and supplies to the Allied cause was substantial. More than 1 million Indian soldiers were sent abroad, and more than 100,000 were either killed or wounded.

On the outbreak of the World War in August 1914 the country as a whole was exceedingly quiet. Relations with Afghanisian and the frontier tribes were good. The magnificent response made by India to the needs of the Empire is a matter of world history. "Nothing has moved me more," ran the King-Emperor's message delivered by the Viceroy to the Legislative Council on 08 September 1914, "than the passionate devotion to my throne expressed both by my Indian and English subjects and by feudatory princes and chiefs of India, and their prodigal offers of their lives and their resources in the cause of the realm." On the motion of an Indian member the Council unanimously affirmed their unswerving loyalty, promised unflinching support to the British Government, and offered on behalf of the people of India to share in the cost of the war. The Council reflected the general attitude of the country.

In the hour of stress the deep-rootedness of the British connexion and its indispensability to the safety of India were clearly realized. Many Indians saw that in this matter British and Indian interests were identical. The political leaders suspended their controversies with the Government and gave it their support. The martial classes eagerly responded to the call to arms. From the rulers of native states lavish offers of help poured in. They were recounted in the Viceroy's telegram to the Secretary of State, dated Sept. 7 1914, which was read in both Houses of Parliament and circulated throughout the Empire. As a wonderful demonstration of loyalty and generosity, its effect on popular feeling was immense.

With this confidence and enthusiasm were mingled some alarm and bewilderment. Trade came to a standstill. There were runs on the banks, withdrawals of deposits, encashment of currency notes and hoarding of coin. Timid Marwari traders of Calcutta closed their businesses and fled to Rajputana. In the remoter districts rumors of the collapse of the British raj disturbed the countryside. The Mahommedan peasantry in the Jhang district and in adjoining districts of the south-western Punjab raided and burned the houses of Hindus and moneylenders, and military force was required to restore order. In Bengal the revolutionary societies redoubled their criminal activities. In San Francisco and Vancouver an Indian revolution was openly preached to the Sikhs settled there, and numbers of them were incited to return to the Punjab to take part in a general rising. Their designs were detected, their plots to seize arsenals and tamper with the troops were frustrated, and a formidable conspiracy was broken up by a vigilant local government having behind it the goodwill and help of the rural population. But for some months the Punjab was disturbed by murders, dacoitics, and robberies and the reckless use of arms and explosives.

In India as a whole the situation was so satisfactory that the Indian Government was able to denude itself freely of its military resources to meet the insatiable demands of the home Government for troops and war material. Most of the British troops, the flower of the Indian army, the best of the artillery, and large quantities of ammunition were despatched to France and other theaters of war. In September 1914 a force of 70,000 men was sent to France. By the end of 1915 India's contribution amounted to nearly 80,000 British and 210,000 Indian officers and men. At one time the original British garrison was reduced to only 15,000 men. These were gradually supplemented by territorial and garrison trocps from home, but throughout the war the British element in the army in India was dangerously below the defensive needs of the country. The expeditionary forces sent from India to France, Egypt and East Africa passed on arrival to the control of the home Government, and the responsibility of the Indian Government for them was thereupon confined to replacing losses by fresh drafts and providing supplies.

It was otherwise with the expedition sent to Mesopotamia. Until the spring of 1916 the home Government, though it initiated the expedition and directed the policy, left the control and management to the Government of India. In the judgment of the Mesopotamia Commission, this division of responsibility was unfortunate. The expedition ai first had a very limited objective. It was sent to occupy Basra in the event of Turkey declaring war. Its scope was gradually enlarged and the strength of the force increased until by September 1915 a series of successes brought it within striking distance of Bagdad. The circumstances in which Sir John Nixon sought and obtained permission to advance on Bagdad, the failure of the attack on the Turkish position at Ctcsiphon, the disastrous retreat on Kut al Amara, and the capitulation of the besieged British force on 29 April 1916 are narrated in the report of the Mesopoiamian Commission. The report reflected severely on the Indian authorities and on the organization and equipment of the army in India, on the Secretary of State and his advisers and on the Cabinet. But by the time the report was published (May 17 1917) Lord Harding was no longer Viceroy, the early defects of the expedition had been repaired, a series of defeats inflicted on the Turks, and Bagdad captured by Sir-Stanley Maude. The inquiry had therefore no effect and was barren of results.

The entrance of Turkey into the war placed Indian Mahommedans in a difficult position; but along with the rest of India they loyally rallied to the side of the Crown. Against a few prominent agitators only was it necessary to take action. The premier Mahommedan prince, the Nizam of Hyderabad, and the Begum of Bhopal, in addresses to their co-religionists, effectively stated the British case and exposed the falsity of the pretexts by which Enver Bey and his associates sought to justify the entrance of Turkey into the war. These addresses, and a declaration by the Government of India as to iis altitude towards Islam in general and the Holy Places in particular, served greatly to maintain tranquillity.

The pre-war recruitment for the Indian army, which was on a voluntary basis, was about 15,000 men a year. In order to meet the needs of the armies in the field and to keep the units in India up to strength it had to be increased eightfold. The task proved one of increasing difficulty, and required the closest cooperation between the military and civil authorities and the loyal support of the landowning classes. The races and castes from which serviceable recruits could be drawn were an insignificant minority of the vast population. Before long the Punjab, which furnished 50% of the fighting forces, showed signs of over-recruiting.

India served as the basis of supplies for the Mcsopotamian force and for Indian troops employed elsewhere. It also furnished to the Allies essential materials of which they stood in need. The low development of Indian industries made State assistance and supervision, and in some cases control necessary. At a later stage a central Munitions Board was set up with branches in all provinces. It effected great economies and did much to encourage the manufacture of supplies that formerly could only be obtained from abroad.

Measures were taken to moderate the high prices of food grains, which were causing much distress and discontent among the poorer classes, and to prevent hoarding and profiteering. The Government obtained powers by Ordinance to take possession of stocks unreasonably withheld from the market. Private exports of wheat were prohibited, but the Government arranged to purchase for the United Kingdom considerable quantities within limits of price. Later on the same system of control over export and prices was applied to the Burma rice crop. Control over exports generally was also exercised to prevent goods from going to the enemy.

The statutory power which the governor-general had to legislate in an emergency by Ordinance was freely exercised to secure the safety of the realm. Of these Ordinances the more important were the Indian Naval and Military News Ordinance; the Foreigners Ordinance; the Ingress into India Ordinance; the Commercial Intercourse with Enemies Ordinance; the Articles of Commerce Ordinance. The duration of an Ordinance was limited by statute to a period of six months, but the Indian Legislature passed an Act in 1915 to keep these and other specified Ordinances in force during the continuance of the war and for six months after. The Indian Legislature in March 1915 also enacted the Defence of India Act, giving the Government very wide rulemaking powers for the purpose of securing the public safety and the defence of British India. It also enabled the Government to provide in any notified districts for the trial of certain classes of heinous crime by a special tribunal of three commissioners. It may be mentioned that many of its provisions were reenacted in a modified form by the Kowlatt Act of 1919 (the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act 1919).

The Viceroy's attention was recalled to the pressing realities of the war in the Near East, where German troops had penetrated the Caucasus and Turks were invading Persia. With the collapse of Russia a road to Afghanistan and thence to India seemed possible. In a telegram (April 2 1918) which reflected the anxieties of the western front though it referred to what was happening in the East, the Prime Minister made a strong appeal to the Government and people of India to redouble their efforts and prevent German tyranny from "spreading to the East and engulfing the world."

Lord Chelmsford's response was to convene a war conference at Delhi, to which many ruling princes and representatives of all provinces of every shade of opinion were invited. There he earnestly besought all classes to suspend political strife, to concert measures for gathering up the whole man-power and resources of the country, and to accept cheerfully the necessary sacrifices. The conference heartily and loyally responded to the appeal and agreed upon a programme of measures of no small value. The better organization of recruiting and materials of war was entrusted to boards. A scheme of territorial recruitment was mapped out whereby each province would furnish its quota of men. The ruling princes, who, as always, were preeminently helpful and practical, undertook to furnish larger contingents and to open their dominions to British recruiting parties. The conference was followed by similar conferences in all the provinces. These did much to rekindle public interest in the war and to enlist popular support to the exertions of the Government.

In the five months preceding the Armistice 200,000 men were recruited, and had the war gone on this number would have been greatly increased. In the spring of 1917 the Legislative Council had accepted the Government's proposal to make a free gift of 100.000.000 to the home Government towards the expenses of the war. This was in addition to the obligation ivhich the Indian Government had undertaken, to bear the normal charges of all troops on the Indian establishment sent overseas. In the September session of 1918 the Legislative Council, by a large majority of the non-official members, to whom the decision was left, agreed to make a further contribution. It was to take the form of paying for a certain number of Indian troops employed outside India by Ihc British Government, along with certain pensionary charges. Assuming that the war would last till 1920 the aggregate charge was estimated at 45,000,000. Actually, however, on account of the earlier ending of the war and the heavy cost to India of the subsequent Afghan War, the contribution was reduced to less than one-third of that sum.

In appraising the contributions and the sacrifices made by India to the common cause of the Empire, several factors which distinguish that country from the self-governing Dominions should be remembered. The first was the poverty of the general mass of the population, dependent on a precarious and primitive agriculture, without the stay of large industries, with little accumulated capital, unversed in modern ways of banking and investment, and wedded to the ancient habit of hoarding. Secondly, the fiduciary relation of the Government to the governed, making it reluctant to impose sacrifices on a dependent population, and ever conscious of the difficulty of finding revenue to meet the elementary needs of a civilized administration. Thirdly, the necessities of self-defence owing to un-tranquil borders and liability to invasion. During the war the life of the late Amir of Afghanistan alone averted this danger. Its imminence and gravity were proved by the Afghan War and the rising of the independent tribes which followed on the murder of Amir Habibulla in Feb. 1919.

All these circumstances considered, the part borne by India in the war and the sacrifices made by her people for the common cause were by no means despicable. They were represented by an addition of over 230 crores to her rupee debt, the sending overseas of 800,000 combatants and 400,000 non-combatants, and the furnishing of food-stuffs and other supplies at the cost of much privation among the poorer classes. If the agriculturists as a body and some other sections of the community made money out of the war, the urban classes and the multitude of persons on small salaries and fixed incomes suffered greatly from the dearness and scarcity of food and clothing. Privation undoubtedly intensified the severity of an epidemic of influenza in the autumn and winter of 1919 from which 5.000,000 persons died. It was also a potent cause of the labour unrest, strikes, and labour unions that were a marked feature of industrial India during 1910 and 1920, and that reacted on the political situation, in 1921.

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Page last modified: 03-08-2012 19:23:45 ZULU