This article first appeared in the January 2020 edition of Stand To! the journal of The Western Front Association. Members receive Stand To! three times a year and our in-house magazine Bulletin three times a year. Digital Members receive these in digital form and have access to them online. All members have access to the Stand To! archive comprising all issues from No.1 bar the latest three.
When Britain entered the war in August 1914, it was immediately apparent that the British Isles could not supply the number of troops necessary to support France against Germany in Western Europe. British leaders, therefore, turned immediately to the other good-sized professional army in the Empire, that in India. 1 The Army Command in India quickly organised an Indian Corps to go to Europe. (2)
An Indian officer
Among the Indian troops sent was Captain Amar Singh, a Rajput officer from the state of Jaipur, southwest of Delhi.3 Amar Singh was one of a handful of young Indians who were trained in a special military school, the Imperial Cadet Corps, established by Lord Curzon in 1902 in response to Indian demands for military training and officers' commissions. Amar Singh and three other students graduated from the school in 1905 and were given a peculiar form of officer's commission.(4) They received army rank and pay, but they did not have the power of command over combat troops. They either had special appointments in their home states or were in non-combat roles. Amar Singh spent the years 1905-14 as aide-de-camp to a series of generals in the Central India Mhow cantonment. There he found acceptance from his British peers because he was an excellent horseman and was well educated in western literature. It was only at the professional level that bars were placed before him.
Amar Singh's personal history was typical of the Rajput aristocracy. He was trained in the neighbouring state of Jodhpur by Sir Pratap Singh, a member of the princely family.(5) His training included discipline, martial arts, horsemanship, and knowledge of Rajput traditions. His knowledge of Rajput and Indian oral and literary traditions was deepened by an extraordinary tutor, Barath Ram Nath Ratnu. Ratnu also introduced him to classical and contemporary Western literary traditions.(6) As a youth, Amar Singh became an officer in the Jodhpur Imperial lancers. The Lancers were part of the Imperial Service Troops, troops authorised for some larger states. Amar Singh had his first battle experience with the Lancers in China during the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion. (7)
Amar Singh went to war with a sense of his own traditions and honour and with some knowledge of the world. When put in English society, he was conscious of himself and his people as an Indian rather than British. He was, implicitly, an Indian nationalist, although he would not have accepted that term at that time. We know a great deal about Amar Singh's personal history and views, for he kept a diary throughout his adult life. (8)
When Amar Singh went to France in 1914, his professional position did not change. He remained an ADC to a series of British generals commanding the Sirhind Brigade, and his duties; often light, consisted of overseeing the movement of headquarters' supplies and of various minor tasks. His diary reveals that he was a sharp observer of life around him and of historical places. Not holding a command position, he did not fight in the trenches, but he visited the front, and the headquarters staff was often exposed to shelling. He was pleased that the Indian Army was fighting alongside European troops (9) and he was pleased to be involved.
When the Indian Corps reached the front in October 1914, it was thrown piecemeal into the north-western sectors in order to shore up the British and French forces.(10) They served their purpose, with their share of modest successes and bloody failures, and they remained in Europe until late 1915. There were occasional problems of breaking ranks in retreat, of self wounding, and of limited effectiveness, but these were balanced by gallantry, useful service, and willingness to put their professionalism into practice.
The following extracts are taken verbatim from Amar Singh's diary. He reached the front in December 1914 and recorded one of his early experiences in the trenches. On 17 December he and a British colleague
...walked through a long communication trench to the firing lines....After a bit of plodding in the narrow and slippery communication trench we got into the firing line. The trench was held by Gurkhas and the Highland Light Infantry. It was quite an experience being there. About a couple of feet above your head the bullets fly and some come and plant themselves in the parapet. The men were all full of mud and untidy but what else can be expected...The men were keeping up a fire through the loopholes and shooting at the enemy's parapet. There was no one to be seen though in parts the Germans were only about a dozen or fifteen yards away...The officers...one and all seemed quite cheerful even under these conditions. I think the British officer is a wonderful man. There were...fellows who have always lived more or less quite comfortably and their one point is to remain clean. Here they were plastered with mud, wet through up to their knees and unshaved, living on hard ration biscuits and tinned meat, sleeping with their clothes on in this cold in the damp trenches but in spite of all this quite cheerful and setting a [good] example to the men...Some of the Indian agitators ought to be brought here to see all this and they then will probably know the value of an English gentleman. They take a lot of trouble to do their duty. An Indian as a rule does things either when his own interest warrants it or his superior is watching.... We threw some hand bombs but none o f them burst.... I was very glad I went out to the trenches today. I have seen something o f real modern warfare.(11)
The Indian officer's admiration for British officers was balanced by his interest in Indian soldiers and an Indian sensitivity to any slurs on Indian troops (barring individual cases of cowardice or neglect of duty). A few days later, the Germans launched.
a very determined attack and drove us back from our positions with very heavy losses. All our horses were now saddled up and kits packed and everything got ready to move out at a moment's notice. General Macbean was sent with reinforcements and it was arranged to counter-attack and drive the enemy out. I was kept busy running up and down the road taking messages to General Macbean as he had not yet got telephonic communications. I was also sent to help Coleridge to collect shirkers and send them back...This attack...also failed owing to there not being enough men.(12)
The following day, 21 December, was no better.
The attack at about nine o'clock this morning had not been very successful and we had lost a great number of men. The Regiments of our brigade are very badly shaken. They have had nine days' tiring work in the trenches and on top of that this sudden attack by the enemy who started by blowing up a lot of our front trenches. There have been very heavy casualties amongst the officers.(13)
The battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 was another major experience for the Indian observer. Shortly after the conflict, Amar Singh surveyed what had happened.
The Meerut Division was to attack and we were to be ready to support them if necessary....(14) Punctually at 8 in the morning our guns started the bombardment. We had 458 guns of various calibres which were shooting as hard as they could on a target of less than two miles front.... It was one whole and continuous roar like the distant roll of thunder that one sometimes hears in the heavens.... I do not know how to express it in words.... The bombardment ceased and our brave Indian troops rushed the German trenches. The enemy was so shaken that they made no resistance. The honour of this attack lies with the Gharwalis who fought very well indeed...
Now on the evening of the 11th...our brigade got orders to move on to Neuve Chapelle. I rode at the head of the column with the general...The general wanted me to stop at the corner and allow no carts to come further.... The place was very crowded and there was no end of the wounded which were being brought in on stretchers...[They] were met by motor ambulances and taken straight back.... There was a terrible confusion. There were some wounded Sikhs and I watched them empty their magazines and throw all the ammunition in the ditch. Some even took their bandoliers full of ammunition and threw them away with a sigh of relief. They were going back to hospital....
The Germans were shelling the road very hotly.... On both sides of the road were lying the dead and the wounded. The groans of the latter were most pitiful.... The main La Bassée road...presented a more dismal sight. It had trenches on both sides of it but these were full of water. The road was strewn with all kinds [of] equipment. [It was night and I had great difficulty finding the Brigade Headquarters. We eventually went to a dilapidated house where we found the General in a cellar.
...General Strickland Commanding the Jullunder Brigade came and discussed the plans for the day's attack. I was once sent to ask the commanding officers of our regiments to come up to the headquarters.... Col Hill [came to the headquarters] and rudely asked me to get out of his way as he could not work with me standing there.... I have heard Hill's reputation and found that he was up to it. I will never again have anything at all to do with him.... My general was now in command of both the Sirhind and Jullunder brigades.... At about this time two hundred and odd German prisoners...were marched back…
Now a few words about the attack.... The bombardment did not do too much damage because the shells were falling a bit beyond the German trenches.... They put the range up rather too quickly. The result was that the enemy remained in the trenches. Another thing was that our infantry ought to have moved out even while our guns were shooting and while the Germans did not put their heads up. There was about five hundred yards of ground to be covered before we could reach the German trenches.... The Germans were ready to meet us and simply mowed our men down with their machine guns. We suffered very badly and though we took some of the trenches we were finally stopped by a small stream. Our object was to gain a small forest...and in this we failed....
It was worth it in this manner that the bend in our line had been straightened out and we have now got a nice commanding position. But what it has been most useful in is that it proved to us the superiority of our guns. Then it has heightened the morale of our troops both Indian and European.... It was about time the Indian Corps did something after the knock they had in December.... Now they are all in high spirits...and expressed a desire to be sent back to the Front.... Probably this is the beginning of the end. (16)
At the same time, Amar Singh reflected broadly on the Indian experience in Europe.
There is no doubt that the Indian troops have done very well indeed in this war so far. As regards the future, who can tell? The cold has been most intense but they have withstood it wonderfully well. The sickness has been very little indeed except the sufferings from the cold. As a matter of fact the average sickness has been very much below the British troops. It is not so much the cold that has worried them as the dampness. It gets very cold in India too, but that is pure and dry cold. The conduct of the troops has been wonderfully good both in the firing line and in the billets.... A great trouble under which we have laboured is that whenever we fail in the slightest degree anywhere people raise a hue and cry whereas if a British troop fails under the same circumstances no one mentions it. The Indian troops had done very well all along but when we had the reverse at Givenchy and Festubert there was hue and cry. However no one at that time said that there were British troops in it as well.... I do not know what is expected of the Indians. After all a man can give his life up and no one can say that the Indians have been sparing themselves in any way. What more proof can be required than one of the Gharwal Regiments who were six hundred strong at Neuve Chapelle in March last and o f them only fifty-five came back....
Now there was talk in the winter that the Indians could not stand the climate and must be sent back. One scheme was that they should be sent back to India and another that they should be sent to Egypt, and a third that they ought to be sent to Marseilles unless the weather got warmer.... Why can't Indians be thought fit to fight by themselves...? These rumours o f returning the Indian troops died down after a short time. During last month...there was a conference of the Generals when it was decided and General Sir James Willcocks sent in a recommendation that the Indian Corps ought now to be withdrawn.... The Army in India was never meant to come to Europe or fight in such a big and long drawn struggle. They have now got two Divisions out here in France and these are exclusive of the Cavalry Corps. Then there is more than a Division in Egypt and just as many in Persia, and yet more troops in German East Africa, and about a brigade in Tsing Tao in China. You must leave some troops in India too. Then as regards new recruits there [are] practically none to be got now. Who would enlist when there is such a terrible war going on? The Reserve system of India is not very efficient. They have been sending thousands o f these recruits but these are for the most part old and crippled men.... They must take a certain few back.
Yet another matter is that all these men have been writing to their homes in a very desponding manner and telling them that it is a terrible war and that no one would ever return. The wounded who have returned have complained still more bitterly in their letters and have said that even when they get over their wounds, they are shoved back into the fighting and so there is no hope for them....(17) It was decided that there are no more reinforcements forthcoming and now that Kitchener's new army is fit to come in they might fix up a date when the Indian Corps would be withdrawn.... This being settled, the recommendation was sent in and it was given out to the troops that in about six weeks' time they would be withdrawn.... I'm glad to say the Government in England did not accept this recommendation.... From political reasons it could not be accepted. The reason why I was against it is that the lives of a few thousand is nothing compared to the honour of a nation. After all, a man is bound to die sooner or later. But in the future when some blighter who has no sympathies with us would fling it in our teeth that we were not considered good enough to fight against the Germans and so we were sent back.... If you talk o f fears, who is not afraid?...The Germans are more fed up than we are. Look at the numbers in which they come and give themselves up.
The Indians don't behave like that, except for the 20 Pathans, and they had a personal grievance, or at least they thought they had it....
The ordinary Indian does not quite understand what volunteering means....
I asked Graham why people enlisted in England for this war? It is simply because they are following a few valiant men.... Now in India people are not so educated. No one gives them a white feather [a sign o f cowardice] and if anyone did give it, they would not understand it. ...It is not the way of the Indian in the light he looks at it.... No one is going to enlist to the British power and he cannot see why he should hazard his life. On the other hand, the Britisher is more educated and knows that he is fighting for his hearth and home. The Indian fights because his officers want him to.... However there are Indians who realise where their duty is and what is at stake and these are the ruling princes and educated men with some ideas...
When there were rumours about the Indian Corps being sent back I had made up my mind to get myself attached to one of the other brigades and if I could not be attached to a British brigade then I would go over to the Cavalry but in case even they were to be returned, I would have gone to Egypt or the Dardanelles or to Persia. (19)
Among Amar Singh's reflections on the war and the Indian Army's part in it, one fascinating Note deals with 'The Necessity of Keeping Records.' Herein, his experience of war and his Rajput heritage blended together:
To my mind, it is a thing of great importance to keep up a nation's records. In this we are very backward. I am sorry to say that none of our chiefs ever think of it. It has been my opinion that both [the Maharajas of] Jodhpur and Bikaneer who have brought their own troops to fight in this world-wide conflict ought to have brought their own charans who are our hereditary recorders. I spoke about it to the Maharaja of Bikaner and Sir Pratap [his mentor] but they did not seem to care…
Gumanjee Khuchee of Indroka is in charge of the historical department at Jaipur and one day while talking to him.... I tried to impress on him the necessity and advisability of getting up a Charan. It was no use.... He told me he had got the names of all the Rajputs down who were serving in France. I told him that he could not do so.... What we want is a man of learning and imagination who could and would write from personal experience.... Sir Pratap said that all that we do will be recorded in the British books.... The English historians will simply treat about the war in a very general way and what we can expect is a mere mention that the Jodhpur Lancers had also come and did good work.... We have the example of the Mohammedan historians before us.... Now we hold very inferior commands and will be very lucky even if our names are mentioned.... Every nation wants to record its own brave deeds and all others are put down as associates.... What we must do is to encourage this sort of record keeping. Even the Regiments keep their own histories...because the national books have no space for them individually.
Poetry is the best form in which records ought to be kept. It is only through this means that the great deeds of our heroes from the most ancient times have been kept. ...The art o f composing poetry is fast disappearing in Rajputana. It is rather discouraged...I have always taken a great interest in this subject and please God if I ever go back to India will do all I can toward it by collecting and printing as many of the old pieces as I can get hold of. The whole trouble is that the Maharajas and the nobles are either entirely ignorant or are half educated just enough to despise the old literature and not to comprehend the present one.... When I go back I will try to get poets to compose a few lines to record the work of the Rathores [Amar Singh's clan]. Formerly our ancestors had no wide scope. Cabul [Kabul, Afghanistan] was the farthest they ever had their troops to; but now we have got the first chance to come to Europe and are fighting on the part where many and many a time before the fiercest European struggles have taken place and we are missing the chance of immortalising our deeds however poor they may be....
How is a poet going to realise the shape and the lot of the country, the men, the cattle, roads and trenches? The climate, the snow and frost and ice, which are things he has never dreamed of. The roar of the single guns and the rolling thunder of a prolonged and continued bombardment. The hiss of shells coming over and then the sudden burst in the air with its various coloured smoke. The rattle o f machine-guns and the puffs of smoke in the air for bursting shrapnel when firing at an aeroplane.... The fleet of aeroplanes and the aeroplane coming down. The shape and sight of the captive balloons. The sight and misery of the trenches. The men sinking up to their forks in them. The sight o f soldiers caked in mud and the horrible sight of killed and wounded. The masses of barbed wire entanglements. The thousands o f motor cars and lorries and bicycles. The different kinds of people employed... It must be seen and studied to be realised? (20)
The Indian troops, except for some cavalry units, were withdrawn from France at the end of 1915. Their story has been told, as has that of Indian troops in East Africa.(xxil, Although Indian troops in the Middle East are mentioned in histories of the war, a close study of the Indian Army's activities in that area remains to be written. Neither has a book been devoted to the full history of the Indian Army during the war. Most of the Indian Corps, including Amar Singh, went to Mesopotamia. Amar Singh spent the first six months of 1916 in Mesopotamia, a period which included the fall of Kut-el-Amarah to the Turks. There were problems there about his unwillingness, as a Hindu, to eat beef, and he was not well-employed. In fact the Indian Army did not know what to do with him. In July 1916, he was returned to Bombay, to serve as ADC to the general in charge of returning troops. The work allowed him to give expression to his concern for Indian troops, and it put him in a congenial Indo-British social setting. In August 1917, partly as a result of wartime experiences and the service of the Indian Army in the war, Edwin Montagu, Secretary of State for India, announced that self-government was the goal of British policy in India. Among other policies associated with this change, one granted full military commissions to Amar Singh and eight other graduates of the Imperial Cadet Corps who had served during the war. In 1918, Amar Singh was posted to the 16th Cavalry in New Delhi.(xxiii) He stayed in the army until 1921, spending most of his time on the Northwest Frontier. In 1921, an unfavourable report by his commander led to his departure from the Army, although his official retirement did not take place until 1923 (24) Amar Singh and his Imperial Cadet peers were the pioneers in the Indianisation of the Indian Army officer corps. Slowly, others followed in their wake, and the Second World War brought large numbers of Indians into the officers' ranks.(25)
- In August 1914, the Indian Army numbered 155,423. This army was made up of both Indians and British, in the ratio of roughly two to-one. The Indian soldiers were from the so-called 'martial races'. Over time, the British had used various Indian groups as soldiers, but by 1900 they had narrowed their selections primarily to me of the Northwest Frontier, the Punjab, Nepal, Rajputana, and the Upper Ganges Valley. These groups had martial traditions, but there were 'non-martial races' who also had military traditions. Useful histories of this army are Lt-Gen. S.L. Menezes, Fidelity and Honour: The Indian Army from the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century. New Delhi: Viking, 1993; New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2000); Philip Mason, A Matter o f Honour, An Account o f the Indian Army, Its Officers, and Men (London: Jonathan Cape, 1974); T.A. Heathcote, The Military in British India. The Development o f British Land Forces in South Asia, 1600-1947 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).
- The Corps was made up of two divisions, named the Lahore and Meerut Divisions. Each Division included three Brigades, along with Divisional Troops - one Cavalry unit, Engineers, Sappers and Miners, Signallers and Pioneers. (Lt-Col. J.W.R. Merewether and Sir Frederick Smith [later the Earl of Birkenhead], The Indian Corps in France (London: John Murray, 1919), 10-12. This is an extensive, but not very analytical history of the Indian Corps. The authors were very favourable towards the Indian Army and its soldiers. A detailed work is Brigadier General J.E. Edmonds, Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1914, 2 vols. History of the Great War Based on Official Documents (London: MacMillan, 1933); Also see Gen. Sir James Willcocks, With the Indians in France (London: Constable, 1920). Willcocks was commander of the Indian Corps for most of its time in France. A sound recent work is Gordon Corrigan, Sepoys in the Trenches: The Indian Corps on the Western Front 1914-15 (Staplehurst, England: Spellmount, 1999)
- Jaipur, southwest of Delhi, was one of the largest of the semi autonomous states, which comprised Rajputana, now called Rajasthan. These states were under British suzerainty, and the larger states had British Residents.
- Technically, the commissions were in a nominal body, 'The Native Indian Land Forces.'
- Sir Pratap Singh was an unusual and renowned individual. He, in effect, governed the State of Jodhpur most of the time from 1878 to 1922. In addition to being a distinguished Rajput, he was the 'beau ideal' of an Indian aristocrat in British eyes. He established the Jodhpur Imperial Lancers and went with them to China in 1900-01 and to the Western Front in 1914-15. The Jodhpur Lancers were a part of the Imperial Service Troops. Imperial Service Troops were permitted for a few large states. These were trained under British supervision and could be used in conjunction with the Indian Army. The Jodhpur Lancers were taken to China as part of the British Expeditionary Force used to suppress the Boxer rebellion. Amar Singh also inherited a strong sense of Rajput tradition from his grandfather, Zorawar Singh, and his father Narain Singh. Both had distinguished service in Jaipur state. However, the family fell out of favour with the Jaipur Maharaja, Madho Singh, and Narain Singh was forced to join the service of neighbouring Alwar state. This disfavour also meant that Amar Singh was not able to join Jaipur state service until 1922.
- Barath Ram Nath Ratnu was an unusually learned man, both in Western and in Indian literature. He was a member of the Charan caste of traditional bards, s, poets, and historians of Rajputana.
- Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. Rudolph, Editors and Compilers, Reversing the Gaze, Amar Singh's Diary: A Colonial Subject's Narrative o f Imperial India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press; Boulder: Westview Press, 2000), 98- 115,133-97.
- The diary, running from 1898 to Amar Singh's death in 1942, is in the family fort-home at Kanota, six miles east of Jaipur. It is held by Amar Singh's nephew and heir Thakur (title of respect for Rajput aristocrats whose father is deceased; usually a landowner) Mohan Singh. Microfilm copies of the diary are in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi and in the Joseph Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. I am writing about the life of Amar Singh for his Army years, 1905-21 tentatively entitled 'Between Two Worlds: a Rajput Officer in the Indian Army, 1905-21.'
- For racial reasons, Indian troops had not been used in the South African Boer War.
- Their commander, Gen. Wilcocks, preferred that the Corps be used as a unit, but that was not to be. Amar Singh felt the same way as did the general: 'Personally I think it was a mistake because it split up the British Battalion. The Indian regiments must have felt it as a slur on them.' ('Notes about the Severe Handling We Had at the Fight at Festubert and Givenchy.' March 31, 1915. Amar Singh.
- 17. December 1914 ASD.
- 20. December 1914. ASD.
- 21.December 1914 ASD.
- At this point, the Sirhind Brigade included the 1st Highland Light Infantry, the 4th (King's) Liverpool Regiment, the 15th Sikhs, the 1 / 1st Gurkha Rifles, and the 1 / 4th Gurkha Rifles. (Merewether and Smith, Indian Corps in France), 218
- The Gharwalis (or Garhwalis) were a 'martial race' from the Himalayan foothills, but they were not considered one of the best class of fighters.
- 'A Few Notes about the Severe Fight at Neuve Chapelle', 8 April 1915. ASD.
- The Indian Army established a censor's office in Europe to sample Indian soldiers' correspondence. The Censor's office issued confidential reports including excerpts from thousands of letters. ('Reports of the Censor of Indian Mails in France, 1914-1918.' Vol.i 'December 1914 - December 1915'; Vol. iv. 'Printed Reports and Abstracts, with Related Correspondence, Dec.1914 - June 1918.' L/MIL/5/828. Oriental and India Office Collection, The British Library). A fine sampling of the letters is now available in David Omissi, ed., Indian Voices o f the Great War. Soldiers' Letters, 1914-16 (London: MacMillan, 1999).
- The number of desertions to the Germans was very small. Most of the deserters were Pathans, particularly those from beyond the official Indian border.
- 'Some Notes. 9. The Indian Troops.' 6 April 1915. ASD.
- A few Indian Maharajas and aristocrats accompanied the troops to France. They held honorary status and had no military function, except perhaps to bolster Indian troops' morale.
- 'The Necessity of Keeping Records.' 9 October 1915. ASD.
- S. D. Pradhan, Indian Army in East Africa, 1914-1918. (New Delhi: National Book Co., 1991).
- After the full commissioning in 1917, Amar Singh officially was appointed to 2nd Gardner's Horse. However, he was seconded to the 16th Cavalry and did not actually serve with the 2nd Cavalry.
- From the time of his youth, Amar Singh's fondest wish had been to serve in the Jaipur State forces. Before 1922, this was not possible because of the animus of the Maharaja toward Amar Singh's family. However, the Maharaja relented at the end of Iris life, and the rule of his youthful successor, Man Singh, began with a British regency. The British respected Amar Singh's family, and he became a commander of the state forces. When Amar Singh retired in 1936, Maharaja Man Singh bestowed upon him the title of Major-General.
- Thirty-nine Indians, including the future Indian Commander-in-Chief, K. M. Cariappa, attended a special officers' course in Indore in 1919. Thereafter, Indians were sent to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and introduced into the army. An Indian Military Academy was established in 1932, but the massive entry of Indians into the officer corps occurred during World War II. Most Indian wartime appointments were temporary. However, a number of Indians with temporary appointments were given commissions after the war, and they then moved on into the Indian and Pakistan armies after 1947. (See Col. Gautam Sharma, Nationalisation o f the Indian Army (1885-1947) [New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1996] and Pradeep Barua, The Army Officer Corps and Military Modernisation in Later Colonial India. [Hull: University of Hull Press, 1999].)