Excerpt: Indian Soldiers in World War I

Andrew T. Jarboe is an assistant professor of liberal arts at Berklee College of Music. He is also a history teacher at Match High School in Boston, Massachusetts. He is the editor of War News in India: The Punjabi Press during World War I and coeditor with Richard Fogarty of Empires in World War I: Shifting Frontiers and Imperial Dynamics in a Global Conflict. His new book, Indian Soldiers in World War I: Race and Representation in an Imperial War (Nebraska, 2021), is available this month and is a part of the Studies in War, Society, and the Military Series.


More than one million Indian soldiers deployed overseas to fight on behalf of the British Empire in the Indian Army during World War I. They fought in France and Belgium, Egypt and East Africa, Gallipoli, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. This book is about their contributions to the imperial war effort on the battlefield, the contested meanings contemporaries drew from the soldiers’ wartime experiences, and the impacts these had on the British Empire’s racial politics and on British colonial rule.

Britain’s Indian Army fulfilled three vital functions as part of the imperial war effort. In 1914 and 1915 Indian infantry and cavalry fighting on the Western Front in France and Belgium provided vital manpower at a time when the British Army was desperate for able bodies in the trenches. Indian soldiers also secured important imperial holdings along the periphery of the Indian Ocean, without which the British Empire would have been unable to make war, among those the Suez Canal and Persian oil fields. Indian Army operations also fueled British imperial expansion. Even though the Indian Army was unprepared for extensive and protracted operations overseas at the war’s outset, British policymakers and battlefield commanders spurred its soldiers into a hastily conceived and incompetently led war of imperial expansion in the Middle East. In 1914 and 1915 British imperial ambition produced one disaster after another on the battlefield. When the British press at long last (too late, some might say) shifted its focus to Indian Army operations there, policymakers finally prioritized supplying Indian soldiers with the resources they required to win important victories. By 1918 the Indian Army had transformed into an effective spearhead of British imperial expansion. Its Indian soldiers contributed decisively to Britain’s final victory over Ottoman Turkey.

In some ways, war proved a great leveler. Soldiers deployed to France, East Africa, and the Middle East struggled in their letters home to describe “sufferings beyond the power of words to describe.” While the encounter between human tissue and high explosive shell was always a one-sided affair, the Indian soldiers who deployed overseas encountered dangers beyond those hurled at them by their German and Ottoman opponents. Between 1914 and 1918 thousands of Indian soldiers lost their lives to the racism of British civil and military commanders. Indian soldiers in France had little hope for relief from the trenches, for example. The racist assumptions of army recruiters in India made it impossible to secure their replacements. In the Middle East the racial prejudice of one battlefield commander contributed to the destruction of an entire division of the Indian Army—a loss of some thirteen thousand troops. All the while the colonial medical establishment denied Indian soldiers the kind of life-saving health care white soldiers enjoyed. For all this, many Indian soldiers fought bravely. But just as many resented the racism they encountered in the king’s service, especially if it impeded their chances of returning home safely. To that most basic end—staying alive—Indian soldiers resisted racist army policy and the dictates of their military commanders when they thought it was safe to do so. Some soldiers malingered in hospital. Some deserted to the German or Turkish lines, lured by the promise of a decent shot at making it home again by way of Berlin and Constantinople. Some wrote home, begging friends and family to hide from army recruiters. Strategies like these, what we might call everyday forms of resistance and self-help (as opposed to outright collective defiance), rarely made headlines. But otherwise loyal soldiers did engage in these sorts of behaviors when it was clear that no one else was looking out for their best interests. Sometimes something as simple as foot-dragging saved lives. Sometimes soldier resistance forced the British to change army policy. In any event, Indian soldiers were adept and savvy far beyond what newspapers like the Times reported.

The British press and Indian press were likewise interested in the fates of Indian soldiers. Applauded by British newspapers and statesmen alike, the deployment of Indian soldiers to battlefields in Europe, Africa, and Asia provided rich fodder for the colonial imagination. In England the wartime press boasted that India’s participation in the war permanently linked India to “that singular and wonderful chain” known as the British Empire. A wartime rhetoric that routinely peddled in racial stereotypes about Indian soldiers obscured longer patterns of racial hierarchy and the Indian Army’s prejudicial recruiting practices. Indian families prayed for the good fortune of their soldiers overseas, of course, and Indian newspaper reporters and publishers tried earnestly to satisfy the demand for war news. But where newspaper reporting in England tended to reinforce prewar racial stereotypes, the deployment of Indian soldiers overseas—most notably to the Western Front in France and Belgium—galvanized Indian demands for a realignment of the British Empire’s racial hierarchies and the repeal of some of the racist immigration policies Indians encountered as they sought opportunities abroad.

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