THE CONDITION OF THE INDIAN ARMY I914
For many years the Indian Government, The British Raj, had relied on the revenue raised from the sale of Indian Opium to China. With the Boxer rebellion and the growth of Chinese Nationalism, there was a growing resentment of this trade in China. In 1911 the last Chinese Emperor was overthrown and the Chinese Republic established. As opium revenues dwindled, so the burden of taxes fell more heavily on the Indians. This contributed to the increased support for the Nationalist movement. At the same time Britain had entered into an Alliance with France and Russia and as a result the Russian threat to India had temporarily disappeared.
In 1909 lord Kitchener was replaced as the Commander in Chief of the Indian Army by Sir Garrett O’Moore Creagh who was awarded a Victoria Cross in 1879 for his gallantry in the Second Afghan War. He undertook a series of massive spending cuts in Indian Defence spending. The decision was taken to reduce the number of field guns, and the heavy guns were severely reduced in number. There were also massive cuts to the Indian Armies medical establishment. All these cuts to personnel and material, compared to the British Army, impacted on the morale of the Indian Army being at the outbreak of war.
In 1914 the number of Army Divisions available for immediate mobilisation was seven in contrast to the nine available during the Boer War. The Indian Army in 1914 was designed to suppress internal unrest and defend the Northwest Frontier from Afghan raids. It depended on Britain for its officers, and those n leave in Britain in August 1914 were’ impounded by the War Office’. (These officers, who were very loyal to their Indian Regiments, understood their customs and traditions but also spoke the relevant language, and would have been a huge loss to their regiments).
The Indian Army was also dependant on Britain for a large proportion of its munitions, and this supply ceased as the War Office attempted to meet the huge demands of the ’new armies’ being raised in Britain.
With the outbreak of war in Europe, a two Division Infantry Corps and a Cavalry Corps were redeployed to the Western Front. Other forces were sent to Egypt to guard the Suez Canal against a possible Turkish attack and others to British East Africa, and finally troops were sent to Mesopotamia. By the end of 1914 the Indian Army had sent two hundred and ten thousand officers and men to various battle fronts, the British by that time had sent eighty thousand men into battle.
Fifty two British Territorial Battalions were sent to India, which represented only twenty percent of those Indian troops sent elsewhere. It would not have been an easy task to integrate the Territorials into the Indian Army, and as few had any experience of India, using them to suppress internal unrest or on the Northwest Frontier, could prove challenging.
At Kut al Amara, a town 160 kilometres south of Baghdad, the British Garrison, which was largely made up of Indian Troops, was besieged by troops of the Ottoman Empire from 7th December 1915 to 29TH April 1916.
Following the surrender of the Garrison by General Townshend the survivors of the siege were marched to Aleppo. There had been an offer to take the men by boat up river, and there had also been attempts made to pay a ransom for the release of the men in which T E Lawrence was involved. Both attempts were rejected.
The siege has been described by Christopher Catherwood as ‘the worst defeat of the allies in World War 1’ and by Jan Morris as ‘the most abject capitulation in Britain’s Military history’.
Eleven thousand eight hundred men were captured, many of them from the Indian Army. Less than 50% survived their brutal treatment.
THE MESOPOTAMIA COMMISSION
The Mesopotamia Commission was set up by Act of Parliament in 1916 to investigate the Kut al Amara debacle. Defeats by Germany could be blamed on their great military skill, but defeat by the Turks was a different matter. There are three types of official reports, those where the authorities want to know the truth, ones where they want scapegoats, and cover ups In this case the British government was led by capable men who wanted to know the truth.
Their terms of reference could not have been wider and not only referred to the condition of the Indian Army, but every event leading up to the siege, and perhaps most telling ‘the causes contributing to errors of judgement and the shortcomings of responsible authorities’.
Eight men were appointed to the Commission. Four were aristocrats, one a clergyman’s son who became an Admiral, two were new money, and one a former Trade Union leader who became an MP. The oldest was 76 and a Crimean War veteran, the youngest was 40. Five had military experience.
I am grateful to John for his contributions, which have been edited for this edition of Brumration. My additions are in italics.