George Morton-Jack Cambridge University Press 335pp £65
The Indian army that arrived in Marseilles six weeks after the start of the war was probably the most curious of the First World War. In a battle for freedom the Indian army was from a country that was itself not free and to call it Indian was a misnomer. The Raj’s racial theory restricted recruitment to the so-called ‘martial races’, the only Indians considered capable of fighting. So the soldiers came from a thin strip of rural communities, generally in the north, with one group, the much loved Gurkhas, from Nepal, a neutral country whose last war had been nearly a century earlier against the British themselves.
The British did value the fighting qualities of these ‘martial races’ but they could not accept they could ever become officers. To be an officer the person had to be pure British, one Indian parent or grandparent made the person ineligible. Even then the British of the Home Army were so contemptuous of their fellow Britons in the Indian army that they called them ‘Hindus’ and objected to any marriage alliance between them and a ‘Hindu daughter’. In the middle of the war, when a British officer of the Indian army left the front, one Home Army senior cavalry commander wrote that British forces in France were ‘well rid of a stupid old Hindu’.
Modern historians have argued that the Indians should never have ventured west. Badly trained for modern warfare, they could not cope with the climate and were so frightened by German shell fire that they deliberately shot themselves in the hand, calf or foot to be invalided. It has been estimated that in the first ten days of fighting 65 per cent of all Indian wounds were self-inflicted, much higher than that for British forces.
Morton-Jack brings all his forensic skills as a barrister to demolish these conclusions, showing that in the First Battle of Ypres, between October and November 1914, the Indians provided a vital link that helped the Allies avoid ‘a disastrous defeat’. Also, the crucial decision to withdraw the Indian battalions in late 1915 was not because they were useless but because they were needed to capture Baghdad, which they did in March 1917. Despite being used to fight rebellious tribals on the North-West Frontier, they adapted well to the mud of Flanders and their court-martial convictions for malingering were a fraction of those for British troops.
The research cannot be faulted but the voice we most often hear comes from the senior ranks of the Raj. Lower-ranked British soldiers were not so impressed with Frank Richards of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers in a 1933 book, concluding: ‘The bloody niggers were no good at fighting.’ Morton-Jack dismisses this as racist thinking but does not fully examine whether the praise from on high was not motivated by the postwar imperial need of shoring up support from Indian collaborators, just as the nationalist agitation was gathering strength. Despite this, by shining the light on a little discussed subject, this book fills a big hole in the literature on the war.