Reviewed by Gary Sheffield (University of Wolverhampton)
Published on H-War (February, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
New Scholarship on Britain’s Indian Army in the Twentieth Century
Until fairly recently, the history of the Army of British India in the era of the two world wars was neglected by scholars. With some honorable exceptions, such as T. A. Heathcote and Jeffrey Greenhut, academics tended to cede the field to popular writers. Given the importance of India to the British war effort both in 1914 to 1918 and in 1939-45, in addition to the critical role of the army in maintaining the Raj, and in its disintegration, this neglect was very surprising. Thankfully, we now have a number of books and articles on the subject, some of which are very good indeed.
This collection of under review certainly belongs in the latter category. The editor, Kaushik Roy, has a distinguished record of publications on the Indian Army of the Raj, and has assembled an impressive, seventeen-strong, international team of contributors. These range from early-career scholars to senior historians of the eminence of Raymond Callahan and Dennis Showalter. The result is a book that is an essential source for anyone interested in the subject.
Without the active participation of local troops, the British could never have conquered and held India. "British" victories such as the future Duke of Wellington's at Assaye (1803) were actually won in large part by the bayonets of sepoys, who outnumbered European troops. The Indian Army was essentially intended for internal security, and for operations on the periphery of British India, most famously on the North-West Frontier, and in Afghanistan. In 1857, what contemporaries called the Indian Mutiny shook British faith in the loyalty of the sepoys. Although this was largely rebuilt over the subsequent decades, what Nick Lloyd in his chapter refers to the "so-called 'Mutiny Complex'" (p. 336) remained in the background. Certainly there was recognition that the Indian Army was the ultimate guarantor of the survival of the Raj. So ingrained were these factors that there was resistance at highest levels to Indian forces being sent overseas in expeditionary forces. Before the First World War the chief of staff in India, Douglas Haig, secretly prepared plans for such deployments. When the viceroy discovered he was furious and ordered the plans to be destroyed--which had a deleterious effect when, in 1914, Indian troops were indeed sent overseas. The dual role of internal security force and imperial strategic reserve for conventional warfare is reflected in two of the sections in this book. Arguably, with only two chapters in the section dedicated to the former as opposed to ten in the latter, internal security is given slightly short shrift.
In the First World War, Indian troops served on the western front and in various "sideshow" theaters. The former campaign is represented only by David Kenyon's interesting piece on Indian cavalry on the Somme. Strikingly, another three contributors (Roy, Showalter, and James Kitchen) all argue that Indian cavalry were rather more effective than has been traditionally believed. The latter two look at relatively well-known operations such as the Palestine campaign, but Roy examines an obscure episode, the Third Afghan War of 1919. Kitchen and Showalter both examine the Indianization of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in 1917-18, the process whereby many British formations were sent to the western front, to be replaced by Indians. The authors have different perspectives but both stress the military effectiveness of the newly Indianized force. Two other chapters, by Andrew Syk and Ross Anderson respectively, examine two critical issues: command in Mesopotamia in 1915-16 and logistics in Mesopotamia in 1914-18. Syk's piece, one of the most stimulating in the collection, is particularly good at highlighting the problems that many commanders had in adjusting to the demands of the modern battlefield. The old "personalized/inspirational model" was no longer suitable, but many commanders had difficulty in embracing a "managerial style" (p. 67). This was also
true of Gallipoli and the western front. As both Syk and Anderson demonstrate, in the first half of the Mesopotamia campaign, the failure to pay close attention to logistics was a consequence of these command problems.
The reputation of the Indian Army in the Second World War has undergone a renaissance in recent years. Historians have been impressed by the military culture that enabled it to adapt to the demands of theaters as different as Burma, North Africa and Italy, and to demonstrate a high level of combat effectiveness. Flexibility, born of the circumstances of the Indian Army's pre-1939 bread-and-butter frontier warfare, married to reform during the Second World War, had produced by 1945 what Alan Jeffreys calls "a well-trained army capable of dealing with almost any tactical situation" (p. 309). The chapters here by Jeffreys, Tim Moreman, and Daniel Marston all address training, an important factor in this transformation. Moreman makes a persuasive case for the campaigns in North Africa being good preparation for the victorious campaigns in Burma. Jeffreys's case study of 4th Indian Division highlights the significance of an individual, Major-General "Gertie" Tuker, in this process. Marston presents a case study of a battalion of one the best formations in Burma, the 17th Indian Division. As with Jeffreys, he stresses the significance of Indian officers in the reform and transformation of the Indian Army. In turn, this can be linked to the experience of the First World War, which forced the pace of change in British India, in the military as well as the civil sphere. Ironically, the man running the British war effort, Winston Churchill, had in the 1930s been at the forefront of the opposition to reform in India and never really respected the Indian Army. Raymond Callahan's chapter details Churchill's prejudices, and compares them with the achievements of Indian forces. The man voted as the "Greatest Ever Briton" in the early 2000s does not emerge well from this account.
Debates on the operational effectiveness of the Indian Army in conventional warfare in 1914-18 and 1939-45 are relatively uncontroversial. The same is not true of the use of Indian forces for internal security. Nick Lloyd's book-length treatment of the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, with its implied sympathy for the situation in which Brigadier-General Dyer found himself, provoked a fierce response. Studies of internal security in India are relevant to the wider issue of British counterinsurgency, specifically the extent to which the use of "minimum force" was a principle. Lloyd returns to this theme in his paper, stressing how ill-prepared troops were when faced with serious civil discontent in 1919, but that matters had improved by 1922, when uneasy peace returned. Nonetheless, as he argues, "firmness" was steadily superseded by "appeasement" (p. 358). Rob Johnson carries the story through to 1946, covering the "Quit India" campaign of 1942-44 en route. He traces the way that the heightened threat to the continuation of the Raj intensified robust military action in matters of internal security, but also moved political concessions up the agenda. By 1945, with the loyalty of the Indian armed forces in doubt, concessions, leading rapidly to independence, came to the fore.
The final section of the book, "Warfare, Society and the Indian Army," contains five high-quality essays. The unifying theme is exploration of why Indian soldiers chose to fight for the colonial overlord, and how the bonds of loyalty frayed and in some cases, eventually snapped. One key answer to why the colonized fought for the colonizers is that the British Indian Army provided a range of benefits for their soldiers but as Nikolas Gardner's analysis of morale in Mesopotamia in 1914-17 shows, when the army was no longer able to fulfil its part of the unwritten contract (as during the siege of Kut in 1915-16), Indian soldiers' loyalty began to waver. This problem reoccurred after the fall of Singapore in 1942, when fifty thousand Indian soldiers were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Perhaps more than half renounced their loyalty to the Raj and joined the Japanese-sponsored Indian National Army. Gajendra Singh's fascinating piece in this collection discusses the interrogation of INA soldiers captured by the British and the nuanced reasons given for transferring their allegiance to their new masters. The INA exposed what he refers to as the "fantasy" (p. 517) that at least some British officers believed about the inherent loyalty of their Indian soldiers.
The concept of the "martial race" was central to the maintenance of the Raj. Certain groups were deemed by the British to be natural warriors. In return for loyalty and military service, these groups received privileges. Thus these colonized peoples were given a stake in the colonial regime, in a form of divide and rule. As Tarak Barkawi argues in his stimulating chapter, the British were keen to build up and maintain "martial races"; he cites a telling quote from British officer of the Second World War: "The Sikhs have many religious customs; we see that they keep them whether they like it or not" (p. 419). The vast expansion of the Indian Army after 1939 undermined the martial races theory, as many men from outside these charmed circles enlisted. As Barkawi argues persuasively, it was pragmatic response of officers to the changed situation that enabled the Indian Army to become effective on the battlefield. He highlights the insights of Bill Slim, that British officers making a determined effort to learn Indian languages might have been more significant than actual linguistic proficiency in creating cohesion. This intriguing suggestion strikes at the heart of a common assumption about the military effectiveness of the British Indian Army.
Two other chapters examine the issue of marital races in the last days of the British Indian Empire. Rajit K. Mazumder's persuasive chapter demonstrates that the Second World War placed the Raj under unprecedented strain. The army was diluted with men from outside the martial races and as consequence the "special relationship" between the "militarized communities" (p. 491) in the Punjab and the British, based on the granting of privileges denied to other groups, began to erode. As a result, a key pillar of the British position in India began to crumble. In 1947 it collapsed, and the tensions and resentments between communities that the ideology of martial races had helped foster exploded. In his important contribution Gavin Rand argues for the "key role played by colonial military strategies in producing and shaping the context in which Partition, and attendant violence, took place" (p. 458).
Collectively, the chapters in The Indian Army in the Two World Wars present a paradoxical picture. Despite being intended primarily for internal security and the defense of British India's frontiers, the Indian Army ultimately adapted well to the very different demands of high-intensity warfare against conventional enemies in faraway theaters. However, the very process of mobilizing for total war twice in a quarter-century brought on massive changes within the Raj and the army that contributed mightily to the end of Britain's Indian Empire. The careful scholarship in the papers in this collection represents a very significant contribution to our understanding of the Indian Army in this momentous era.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-war.
Gary Sheffield. Review of Roy, Kaushik, The Indian Army in the Two World Wars.
H-War, H-Net Reviews.
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