Dr Adam Prime, lecturer in the Politics and Contemporary History at the University of Salford, talks about his research into the Indian Army during the Great War.

In this podcast you will hear how the Indian Army came about with its origins in the defence of the East India Company from 1757. A hundred years later when the British Army needed to defend the North West Frontier, attack from Russia the fear, a more professional army began to emerge.  By the time of the outbreak of the First World War the army was made up of 240,000 Indian and 17,000 British soldiers.

The Indian Army compromised men from across the Indian sub-continent which included modern day Pakistan in the west, through Indian to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Nepal. 

The split between the Indian and British men was distinct.

The diversity of religious and caste differences had to be met to maintain peace, order and morale. 

The attraction to an Indian man to enlist was significant. Pay was good in relative terms and service could also mean a pension, land and exemption from house tax and other local labour obligations. 


Tom Thorpe [00:00:15] Welcome to mentioned in Dispatches. The podcast on the Western Front Association with me, Dr. Tom Thorpe. The WFA is the UK's largest great war history society. We are dedicated to furthering understanding of the First World War and have over 60 branches worldwide. For more information, visit our website. Western Front Association dot com. It is the 13th of April 2020 and this is episode 156. On today's podcast, I speak to Dr. Adam Prime, Lecturer in politics and contemporary history at the University of Salford, about his research into the Indian Army during the Great War. I spoke to Adam from his office in Manchester. Adam, welcome to the podcast. Could you start by telling us about yourself and how you became interested in the Great War? 

Adam Prime [00:01:02] So I am an associate lecturer at the University of Salford and I refer to myself as a historian of the Indian army in general. Although my main focus is probably 1858 through till the end of the Second World War, I am back on the same degree that I teach on contemporary military and international history. And in my first year I answered an essay question that simply said, 'Why did Singapore fall in 1942?' And the Malay campaign in the fall of Singapore had a huge Indian contingent, and that sparked the Indian aspect of my current research. The First World War I came to a little bit later on in my third year university not really having had that much exposure to the First World War. I was certainly a more of a Second World War enthusiast at that point. But a module simply entitled 'The First World War' persuaded me that actually of the two total wars of the 20th century, I found the First World War far more interesting. And then I began to combine this interest in the Indian army, along with something akin to deciding on a PhD topic I had to hone it down. And I landed on officer corps as my way into the subject, and since that war to cut research back to the Edwardian and Victorian eras as well. Unfortunately for the Second World War it's actually fallen off the end of my research now for the time being, but I might return to the fall of Singapore at some point in the future. 

Tom Thorpe [00:02:26] We're going to talk about the Indian Army during the Great War today. Can you start by giving us a bit of background on the Indian Army, its purpose, history and size before 1914? 

Adam Prime [00:02:37] Okay. While trying not to get too carried away with this question, the Indian army was essentially for internal security and the defence of India's borders. It came into being under the East India Company, which needed troops to guard its trading posts and factories, and later to help as it expanded its territory. The EIC was not without rivals though, and then rival French company was actually the first to begin to recruit native soldiers. As during the war of Austrian succession, the Royal Navy prevented the French from getting recruits to the subcontinent. These local recruits that the French began to work with soon mastered European drill and were put into the field. So the EIC naturally followed suit. It was during the Seven Years War and famously the Battle of Plassey in 1757 that the French rival company was defeated, leaving the EIC as masters of the subcontinent, and to turn that focus on expanding. This continued until 1857, when a military mutiny broke out in northern India. In the presidency of Bengal, India was divided into three presidencies, each with their own army: Bengal in the north, Madras in the south and Bombay in the west. The mutiny developed into a rebellion but lacked central leadership and was ultimately quashed in 1858. And it never spread any further than Bengall. But this was a rude awakening for the British, and it saw the end of the East India Company as the British Crown took over control of the subcontinent, with Victoria becoming the Empress of India from 1858 onwards. The Indian army focussed largely on defending the northwest frontier or modern day Pakistan and Afghanistan against an invasion through Afghanistan by the Russians during the Great Game. The 1857 rebellion had meant that ... It was actually, thanks to the 1857 rebellion, that the Indian army went to war in 1914 in a much better shape than it might otherwise have done. And the Indian military began to embark on reforms, reforms made to the officer corps as well as to the infantry in terms of what they were equipped with, how they were dressed. The officers began to be taxed far more stringently, though, as a far more modern professional army that goes to war in 1914 than otherwise would have done. And some of the most famous British soldiers of this time were involved in that. Lord Roberts, for instance, was commander in chief, first of the Madras army, and then the whole of India. And also we got in 190chener becomes commander in chief of the Indian army, and he is someone who really begins to modernise and change the Indian army for the better. And with that culminates in 1914 with a rather professional, well organised, modern fighting force. In my opinion anyway, and that's what goes to war. 

Tom Thorpe [00:05:31] What size was it in 1914? 

Adam Prime [00:05:34] 1914 - It was 240,000 men, along with somewhere between 70 and 80,000 British troops also on the subcontinent. 

Tom Thorpe [00:05:44] And were those British troops part of the Indian army? 

Adam Prime [00:05:47] No. These are British army soldiers who come under the authority of the Indian army during that time on the subcontinent. 

Tom Thorpe [00:05:54] So the Indian army caters and commands indigenous units drawn from indigenous peoples within the subcontinent. 

Adam Prime [00:06:02] Yes, it does. And of course, when we say India at this point, we do mean modern day countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Indian army also included the Gurkhas of Nepal. 

Tom Thorpe [00:06:13] With reference to the Gurkhas. What was the ethnic makeup of the Indian army's rank and file and secondly, its officer corps in 1914? 

Adam Prime [00:06:21] That is a very complex question. I'll start at the very top with the officer corps. The officer corps was white, British or European, and very much a closed shop. It was reserved for middle class British men, public school educated, and most of who had come through Sandhurst. And the majority of these came from families with either a heavy military background or connections to India, and in many cases both. For example, Vincent Ormsby, who went on to command the 127th Infantry Brigade during the Great War, who was an Indian army officer before the war broke out and was killed in action in 1917. He followed his father into the military and his grandfather into the Indian army. His mother and father actually met whilst Vincent's father was aide de camp to his grandfather. So you can see how deeply woven into the DNA of a lot of these men, both Indian and military service, would have been. The next level down is the Indian officers or viceroy commissioned officers, meaning NCOs. And these haven't got a British equivalent, but probably closest to a sergeant major. And these were a conduit between officers and their men. There's one very good example of what a good VCO would do. Comes from the Great War, in fact, is a trivial issue, but in 1917, the 27th Punjab based in Mesopotamia, refused to be inoculated against cholera. Reason being there was a rumour going round that the inoculation rendered a man impotent. So the VCO went round and located the man who had started the rumour. He persuaded this man to be the first to take the injection and thus the rest of the regiment followed suit. As I say, this is a trivial issue, but this is the sort of thing that VCOs were expected to do, both in the 19th century and during the First World War. When there is unrest and there are a number of peaceful mutinies that break out in the 19th century, as well as, more famously, the 1915 mutiny at Singapore. When these break out is because the VCOs, in most cases, haven't been doing this role. They've been either become uninterested for some reason or in some cases they themselves are dissatisfied with service and thus stop passing on any complaints or issues to their officers. Below the VCOs were the NCOs and these have very much the same role as they would with the British Army, and then below them come the private soldiers known as sepoys, which derives from the Persian for infantrymen or soas who are the cavalrymen. Although you've probably see sepoys used as a blanket term for Indian private soldiers. In terms of make up, the rank and file of the Indian Army was made up of various castes and creeds, but these were never mixed. All religious and caste sensibilities were met by their officers, such as religious ceremonies, dietary needs and clothing and particular headwear. But this obviously became more difficult during the war, and there were certain concessions that had to be made on both sides. For instance, Hindu for Hindu troops, Hindu holy men weren't able to cross the sea -the kala pani, to do so would be to lose status. So to remedy this and not to be seen favouring another religious group, the Indian Army banned all holy men from travelling abroad. But this didn't stop troops in any way. And they muddled through. It was made sure that religious texts were delivered to all fronts, and oftentimes a senior VCO would fulfil the role of the Holy Man. Another good example of this is comes from a chap called Granville Pennefather Evans in the Army Officer. He was the officer commanding a troop ship on the way to Gallipoli when he was approached by a Hindu troubadour who said that his troops were unsatisfied with using the galley after the Muslim troops. And could it be the other way around. Now in India, it wouldn't have been a problem because they would have had a kitchen each. And indeed, when Brighton Pavilion was used as an India hospital, there's no less than seven kitchens in the grounds, so the troops can each prepare their own meals and there's no cross-contamination. Of course that's not possible on a troopship. And Evans had to be quite firm and state that if he changed the order, the meals were prepared the Muslim troops would in turn complain. This was accepted begrudgingly by the subidar. But it shows how during the war, some of these religious and caste issues had to be set aside. 

Tom Thorpe [00:10:57] In terms of the officer class, was service in the Indian Army, seen as the as by the average Victorian gentleman as lower socially than serving in the British army. I'm just thinking about Lord Roberts who who went out there and served as a cavalryman and also became field marshal in the First World War. But he went out partly because of the them. I think they were paid better and he didn't need a private income to be an officer. Was there a lot of truth in that? 

Adam Prime [00:11:23] Absolutely. Indian service was very unpopular at the beginning of the 19th century and continue to be until the Cardwell reforms stopped men transferring to regiments, not the earmarked for India. The pay was better and thus it appealed to men of lesser means. A good example of this would be Claude Auchinleck, only slightly famous for the Second World War. He was the son of a deceased artillery officer. He got a grant for ex officer's sons to go to Sandhurst, but he hadn't got the prime income. His mother couldn't afford to provide the money for him to enter the cavalry or even a fashionable infantry unit. And he hadn't got the maths and science skills to enter the artillery or the engineers, and thus his best bet was to opt for the Indian army. And because of that, and because there's quite a few men in this boat with a lower living costs and high wages attributed to the Indian army and service in India actually became quite competitive. And there had to be caps on the number of Sandhurst cadets that were opting for the Indian army, so much so that I think Auchinleck there was 45 places available in his cohort and he got the 45th place available. 

Tom Thorpe [00:12:39] And how did the Edwardian and Victorian racial views on empire and ethnic groups shape the way the Indian army was organised and recruited? 

Adam Prime [00:12:48] The simple answer is in a huge way. There's something from the Victorian era called the Martial Race Theory and this dominated the Indian army. The idea that some of the peoples of India had a fighting pedigree, while others were far more unfit for military service. Ethnic groups were marginalised en masse. For example, the Bengalis are famous fighters. The Bengal Lancers, for instance, a well-known group within the Indian army. Yet from 1897 onwards, after a poor showing in the Tirah campaign, Bengalis begin to not be recruited. And ... this shows the martial ratings were ingrained. But also it was fluid and it could change almost. Regiments became fashionable and pushed past out of fashion. Troops from Madras in southern Indian were seen as non-martial simply for the fact there wasn't as much action to be seen in southern India. So these were seen as soft or undesirable to an officer. Whereas the Indian army, for the most part, was drawn from quite a small section of the population, namely the Gurkhas who we've mentioned, Sikhs from the Punjab and Muslims from the North-West Frontier regions. Officers sought postings with these regiments because as well as looking for postings in northern India where they'd see action, of course. We mentioned Lord Roberts. Roberts was steeped in this martial race theory. He joined the Indian army before the rebellion. When the artillery all moved over to the Royal Artillery, he moved. Everybody remained in India. And then, as I said, he went on to be commander in chief of the first major National Indian Army as a whole. And he was steeped in this. He believed it was very cool that certain groups were following martial and he promoted the use and he made sure that some of his favourites he was he was very famous for him patronage was Roberts he made sure the sons of his friends etc. all got postings to these martial regiments. He made sure they all saw action with the Sikhs and with the Gurkhas. And it's interesting, when Kitchener comes in, one of the few things he doesn't tackle is the martial race theory, because it's so ingrained in the Indian system. Yet, actually, during the First World War, manpower demand meant that martial race theory had to be done away with. The Indian army couldn't meet the needs of the Great War soley from such a small percentage of the population. And so Bengali troops, for instance, begin to be recruited again, due partly for manpower issues, but also to try and foster support for the war in the area. An officer who joined the Indian Army 1915 from Sandhurst Basil Aimage was attached rather begrudgingly to the 49th Bengal in 1917 when it was created, and these troops were sent to Mesopotamia for training. But the home of the officers for the regiment were rather unhappy. They've got such a low opinion of these men because they were seen as non martial and write home to say, well, actually this hampered the training. This hampered any chance these men had got of becoming good soldiers because the officers weren't interested in training. And there was a phrase from the commanding officer in the 49th, a man called Bulmer Barrat. He referred to these troops as 'congenital maniacs' and 'paralytic idiots'. And this was a phrase that began to be uttered in offices, masses up and down India. There's no evidence for this from Barrat but it's an example of how badly officers viewed these troops and how desperately they were to move on to a formal martial regiment. 

Tom Thorpe [00:16:31] And did these ideas of martial races actually persist through the war? 

Adam Prime [00:16:35] Yes, because ... Although the martial race [idea] is diluted during the war, after the Great War, its returned to and a lot of these not martial regiments ... are disbanded and we return to the Gurkhas, the Sikhs men of the North-West Frontier being the main sources of recruitment once more. 

Tom Thorpe [00:16:56] During the war, how did the Indian army recruit men to its ranks, and what size did it reach by 1918? 

Adam Prime [00:17:03] The Indian army in 1914 was 240,000 men. There was an average intake during the war of 200,000 troops per year, and in 1917/18 there was targets of 500,000 men to recruit. Ultimately, 1.5 million men served in the Indian army during the war. The war ends with about 900,000 belonging to the Indian army. Pre-war the troops are obviously professional and they are drawn largely from farming communities. Pay wasn't massive, but what it was - it was a supplement to the farming income that these families relied upon. And long service was intensified with grants of land to again continue this farming. During the war, however, although there wasn't conscription in India like ... what became in Britain and all recruitment was in theory, at least by volunteering. There was some coercion, almost press gang- like in some areas, particularly in 1918, as resistance to the war grew. Malaria in some areas had taken hold affecting rural communities and therefore they were less willing to send their young men off to fight in the war and would not be available for farming needs. There were recruitment initiatives during the war, though. For instance, in 1917, Mahatma Gandhi had returned to India, having been in Britain and South Africa, supported recruitment, visited villages with a message of "it's our duty to help". And there was recruitment films which showed Indian troops enjoying life in the army, showing the food they got, the sports they played, and just generally having a rather good time at the front. Also around recruitment, there's the case. The issue of officers is obviously, as with the an officer, casualties are rather high. There existed before the war the Indian Army Reserve of officers but this numbered only 40 men in 1914. So there had to be officers found from somewhere. When in 1921, the Indian army begins to reduce and wind down from the First World War, there's a surplus of 4,200 officers, which shows the amount of recruitment that was undertaken during the war. And these were largely drawn from men already working in India. Many belonged to the Indian Civil Service or the Forestry Commission, for instance, men who had the linguistic skills to work with Indian troops and just then for needing the military knowledge. And alternatively, British sergeants who wwere based in India were also promoted to Indian army officers because they had some grasp of the language and knowledge of the military skill involved, too. 

Tom Thorpe [00:19:44] So what was the motivation for many of these men to join the Indian army? 

Adam Prime [00:19:48] Well, as I mentioned, there's regular pay, some troops preferred to join the Indian army as an alternative to hunger. But aside from that, there's an idea of family honour known as izzat, and it was maintaining a family tradition. The regiment was also amongst home from home for some men during times on garrison, for instance, and even on campaign when troops partook in gymkhanas. There would be races and competitions for the sons of sponsors, but the idea being that these would then join same regiment when they became old, you know, fathers, sons, grandfathers, cousin, uncles - they all served in the same regiment and there was an element of pride in it, as well as the idea of gain extra pay and allowances and of course for good service grants of land. 

Tom Thorpe [00:20:39] So what was the role of the Indian Army in the Great War? 

Adam Prime [00:20:42] But the simple answer is: it played a role in all major theatres of the war, but it was initially only intended for garrison duty. The Indian Expeditionary Force A, which is the Expeditionary Force that serves in France and Flanders, was originally earmarked solely for the garrisoning of Egypt to free up British troops, to then go and fight on the western front. But it was quickly decided actually to leave Indian troops behind and use them only for garrison duty would be a bit of a PR disaster back in India. And so Indian Expeditionary Force A is thus dispatched to Marseilles. And I think there's an element here of an influence from Kitchener; as I said Kitchener was a great reformer when it came to the Indian army, I think he knows that these troops are well-trained, well equipped and therefore should be sent out to the front rather than languish elsewhere. Away from the western front there's heavy Indian involvement in Mesopotamia, which you would expect as that campaign is run not from Whitehall, not from India itself. And it's obviously an area that Indian troops can be easily sent to for reinforcements. And that's another reason why the Indian Expeditionary Force A - the infantry of the Indian Corps there are taken away from the Western Front on the Boxing Day 1915 and sent to Mesopotamia. I believe one of the reasons for that is because it's so much more easier to send reinforcements and supplies to Mesopotamia than it is to the Western Front. Later on in the war, there's a huge Indian element on this force that defeats the Ottomans. And before that, if I can hone in on one example. When the Ottoman Army attacked the Suez Canal in 1915, February 1915, in fact, the Suez Canal was defended solely by Indian troops. The only addition to that is one battery of Egyptian artillery. It is Indian 10th and 11th Divisions, including, in fact, Claude Auchinleck in this first action that defends the canal against the Ottoman attack, which, as anyone understands, supply in this era if the Ottomans could have taken the Suez Canal even for a couple of days, maybe sank a few ships and blocked it, that would have seriously hampered Britain's capabilities on the Western Front. There's also all the garrisons, obviously - and places like Singapore where the mutiny happened in 1915 is garrisoned solely by Indian troops, as is Hong Kong. And they're also in use in German East Africa and as well and taking German possessions in China. So they're always - they are at the forefront of this war on the western front, for instance, they were used at First Ypres and it plugged quite an important gap in the line around [ Le Chartres] which otherwise could have been opened to a German advance. But if I may add a little here, being in areas of the world that the Indian army has never been before actually opened up Indian troops to new experiences. And this is a fascinating area of the First World War. For instance, there's example of Indian soldiers visiting Madame Tussauds in London. And there's an excellent piece from the aforementioned Granville Pennefather Evans, who, along with a captain of bombs and a detachment of 400 Sikh troops in Marseilles, these two officers arranged for these troops to visit a local cinema. They met the owner, negotiated a price of one franc per troop and they told the owner they wanted nothing and I quote, nothing sexy, no dancing girls wearing tights, etc. And they sit down, Sikh troops have never been to the cinema before. It starts with a wonderful display of troop ships, etc. as was asked for. But then come the dancing girls, the hero embracing his lover. And this wonderful passage from heaven was where he says, Me and Barnes may have enjoyed the picture were it not for 400 gaping mouths behind us. And that's just one example of these Indian troops being exposed to European life and experience in a whole new adventure, I suppose, for them. 

Tom Thorpe [00:24:53] So what was the military contribution of the Indian army to the British war effort during the Great War? 

Adam Prime [00:24:59] As I said, 1.5 million men served from a starting point of only 250,000. 13,000 awards for gallantry were received by the Indian Army, including 11 Victoria Crosses. And I think one of the main contributions, not contributions, but something worth highlighting maybe, is that the Indian army to achieve, or to aid British victory, accepted privations that they wouldn't have accepted in peacetime. I've mentioned dietary requirements and religious needs before. There's examples on the western front of Hindu Gurkhas eating corned beef, which is against their religion. But they did it because starvation and an inability to contribute would have been the alternative. And there's a lot of examples of this as the war goes on, where men have to accept that actually in India, we may have got exactly what we wanted, but we are professional soldiers for the most part who need to win a war. And that comes through quite strongly in the letters that the Indian soldiers write home. 

Tom Thorpe [00:26:03] How is the how is the contribution of the Indian army remembered today on the subcontinent and in Britain? 

Adam Prime [00:26:10] That's a really interesting question. I think in Britain we are very guilty of still using the term 'forgotten'. Yet a simple Google search of Indian Army First World War, for instance, turns up so many online newspaper articles that this clearly isn't forgotten. Yes, it's probably less well known than the contribution of other Empire and dominion forces such as the Anzacs and the Canadians. But there's certainly an underlying knowledge that there is an Indian contribution to the First World War. It's been highlighted with some documentaries over the centenary as well, and of course, probably forced to name quite famously with the inclusion of a Sikh soldier in Sam Mendes film '1917', which caused some furore when, I won't mention him by name a certain actor rejected the idea that such troops would be present. In Indi it's a little bit different. Indian commemoration began with a visit from then Defence Secretary Michael Fallon in 2014. But if you look at the articles published in India, they're often celebrating Indian contribution, but they're always tinged with bitterness that self-rule was never granted in return for the Indian contribution to victory in the First World War. 

Tom Thorpe [00:27:30] And finally, Adam, where can people learn more about your research? 

Adam Prime [00:27:33] I am currently writing a book called 'The Indian Army Officer Corps, 1858 to 1921: Lives and Careers in the Raj'. And that is a book that looks not only at the officer corps from the purely military perspective, but, as the title suggests, also looking at the experience outside of direct military action, such as the sport they played and the social circles that they ran in, etc.. I do have a chapter in a book editied by Alan Jeffries called 'The Indian Army in the First World War. New Perspectives'. My chapters on the defence of the Suez Canal. And listeners can find chapters in there on most of the fronts in the First World War, as well as the experience of P.O.Ws and various other aspects of Indian army life. I would suggest that people maybe look at the work of George Morton Jack and Peter Stanley as well, who have written some excellent books but also point listeners in the direction of a couple of primary sources. The first one being a published source and David Omissi edited 'Indian Voices of the Great War Soldiers Letters 1914/18'. Indian troops were great letter writers, particularly on the Western Front. Well, these were heavily censored. Well, what Omissi has gone through the censors reports and therefore put together this book full of letters home written by the Indian soldiers. And it's a fascinating read. And on top of that, I encourage people to maybe use the Imperial War Museum Sound Archive. There's some excellent interviews on there from officers of the Indian Army talking about their experience with Indian troops in these various sort of far flung places and new experiences that they had. 

Tom Thorpe [00:29:16] Adam, thank you very much for your time. 

Adam Prime [00:29:18] Thanks. 

Tom Thorpe [00:29:24] You have been listening to the Mentioned in Dispatches podcast from the Western Front Association with me, Tom Thorpe. Thank you all my guests for appearing on this edition. The Theme Music for this podcast was George Butterworth's 'The Banks of Green Willow'. It was performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Chris Rickman and produced by BIS Records. This recording is part of a collection of orchestral works by Butterworth, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and supported by the Western Front Association. This is available from all good record stores under the record code. BIS 2195. Until next time.