Loyal India by Elizabeth Weigler

Postcard 1914 Sikh troops of the 15th Sikh regiment

A remarkable French postcard dated Sept 1914 heralding the arrival of Sikh troops of the 15th Sikh regiment, wearing their articles of faith. The leading soldier is seen holding the French tricolour in his left hand. (Courtesy : Paramjit Singh, Co-author :Warrior Saints, London, IB Tauris, 1999) – Click to Enlarge

Experiences and Perceptions of Sepoys and Sowars Serving on the Western Front during the Great War

Elizabeth Weigler – History Senior Sem 2010

Great Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914 shortly after the German invasion of Belgium. Almost immediately thereafter, with the support of the native governing bodies and peoples of India, Great Britain decided to send a significant portion of the Indian Army to strengthen the Allied lines of defense in France. At the outbreak of war, they lacked a sufficient number of trained and mobilized troops in Europe, which necessitated the siphoning of troops from other parts of the empire.

The Meerut and Lahore divisions were the first to arrive in Marseilles in September of 1914 after having set sail from “Loyal India” at the end of August. By the end of that year, almost one third of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front was Indian. They were used to fill in cracks in the lines where casualties had been particularly heavy, and to many, performed their part with distinction, honor, and bravery.

India was praised for coming to the aid of the empire and was elevated as an example of loyalty and partnership. Deemed in the newspapers and war pamphlets as “Loyal India”, Her participation in the war set London’s mind at ease, whipped the ruling classes into a frenzy, and changing the lives of thousands of ordinary people in the Punjab, Nepal, and elsewhere in India. “Loyal India” set to work getting the most out of the war effort, which meant very different things to different members of society. To Britain, it averted disaster, to the educated elite of India it meant a means of proving competence, and to the men of the “martial races” it meant a means by which to fulfill their karmic destiny, as determined by the dharma of their birth and increase the reputation of their people.

By the start of 1916, only a small number of cavalry divisions stayed on in France, seeing little military action. The raising of the New Armies rendered the manpower provided by the Indian Army excessive in Europe, and the bulk of the Indian Army was sent abroad to other theaters where Allied troops were in short supply. Their most important actions took place in Mesopotamia and the Middle East, where they took part in combat deemed more appropriate to their unique fighting style.

Little is remembered of the service the men of the Indian Army rendered to the Allies during their short time in France, but the letters written between the men and their families speaks volumes of their war experiences in distant lands.

They fought a war they had little knowledge of amidst doubts of locale and the state of things back home. Most of their initial information came from Great Britain and their officers, but as the war went on, they used their own framework and experiences to gain insight into what was happening to them. They forged relationships with the people of France, formed their own ideas as to hidden meanings within the culture, feared and respected their German adversaries, and rose and fell with the tides of information from back home.

Lt. Gen. Bhupinder Singh Belgium April 1915

Lt. Gen. Bhupinder Singh Belgium April 1915
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For these men, the effects of the carnage of modern war were amplified by many factors. Culture shock, homesickness, extreme conditions, childhood intimacy with company members, new weaponry, worrisome letters form home, and heavy losses all took a heavy toll on their morale. The Maharajas and Indian National Congress had given their consent and support to the delight of British newspapers and propagandists; but who were these ordinary men, and what was their experience. What were they fighting for and why? What were their perceptions of this new world and new technological warfare? For the mostly uneducated sepoys (infantrymen) and sowars(cavalrymen) that found themselves in a foreign country with little hope of returning to their distant homeland, the war did not live in a global theatre, but in the context of their own experiences and homes. They were the bulk of tangible support that made up “Loyal India”.

Perpetuating the Concept of “Loyal India”

The Great War was truly a global one in which armies from across the world fought in unfamiliar theatres. India was no exception. As a part of the British Empire, She was called upon to support her Emperor, and did so without hesitation. While India was neither prepared nor obligated to send troops abroad, the situation in Europe rendered the Indian Army’s involvement necessary. Great Britain was in desperate need of troops on the Western Front, and the units of the Indian Army were the only trained and mobilized forces outside of England in their arsenal.

In 1913, the Government of India accepted the Army in India Committee Report which had determined that: While India should provide for her own defence against local aggression, and, if necessary, for an attack on the Indian Empire by a great Power until reinforcements can come from home, she is not called upon to maintain troops for the specific purpose of placing them at the disposal of the Home Government for wars outside the Indian sphere.

Given that this was the Government’s official standing, much anxiety was expressed in terms of the Indian people’s and leader’s reaction to the decision. While the final power within the Government of India rested with the Secretary of State back in London, Indian Army without the expthe British Government (Home Government) would never have sent the ress support of the various governing bodies of Maharajas, native committees, and the general public in India for fear of insurrection. This fear proved to be unfounded, as support for the Empire came from almost every socio-economic echelon of society.

France 1914

France 1914 – Click to Enlarge

The views of influential people about India’s participation in the war are conveyed through articles, pamphlets, and speeches of Indian National Congress members, the Maharajas, and British reporters and officials. It is important to understand the political context in which the Indian Army was fighting, and the perceptions that followed their movement abroad. Although the soldiers themselves seem to have paid little attention to the macro politics of the time, an illustration of some of the concepts will convey and contrast the attitudes and values of the political arena in which they were (at least in part) fighting and dying.

On the Indian political front, members of the Indian National Congress were looking at the war as a means by which to increase autonomy. The 1915 presidential address of Sir S. P. Sinha illustrates this well. While it is true that there was plenty of talk on all sides to keep the intricate power balance in order, it is obvious that the Indian Government, British Government, Maharajas, and Indian National Congress all needed one another to gain political validation. Sinha saw the war as an opportunity to show the British Government that they had every reason to trust the Indian people and respect their judgment in matters of home rule. In his 1915 Presidential Address he stated:

“It is our earnest hope that the spontaneous outburst of loyalty throughout the country has dispelled for ever all sense of distrust and suspicion between us and our rulers, and that, with this change of spirit, the people will also begin to look upon these officials as zealous co-adjtors in the task of their political self-development.”

Several things are made clear from this speech. The first is that Sinha sees the war as a means by which to prove loyalty and thereby convince the British of self-rule. The second is that The National Congress of India was seeking validation from the Indian people as a ruling body. This is a sentiment mimicked in the soldiers letters, all of which mention the British Government embodied in the King of England as their primary governing body, followed by Maharajas or local leaders.

Essentially, the English-educated classes of India were excluded from the world of the “martial races”, while the “martial races” found it almost impossible to gain access to the education and bureaucratic opportunities it afforded. This was a cultural divide that created two very different worlds, one was of progressive political ideology and a desire for power, and the other was of militaristic and religious ideology. In other worlds, the concerns of these two groups were very different from one another and restricted to different socio-economic needs and desires. In addition to this were the very tangible laws barring Indians like Sinha from military service. Part of this speech calls for the British to admit the educated political elites and “other races… to the same status and privileges” as the “martial races”.

It should be noted that he mentions nothing of bringing education in turn to the “martial races”. It is no surprise then he and others of the Indian National Congress should see the Great War as a means by which to promote not just the concept of homerule for the Indian people, but their power and legitimacy as well.

Much more was said throughout the Empire about the loyalty of the Maharajas who were the local rulers or provincial princes. The pledges of these men made for exotic stories and Britain’s politicians and general public saw them as the true holders of power in India under the Raj. In some ways, their willingness to collaborate with the English was an acceptance of British rule for Indian and Englishman alike. Subsequently, they appeared prominently as the faces of “Loyal India”. Many British pamphlets and newspaper articles recorded exactly how much each Maharaja had given and what they had said of their commitment to aid the English in their war on the amoral Germans.

The Cambridge History of India written in 1964 still adhered to this method of deciphering loyalty; citing the gifts of Maharajas as the most important proof of India’s dependability. While it is true that the Maharajas sought as much validation from the English as the English did from them, the sentiments of loyalty, it would seem, were sincere, and did extend downward to the people of the provinces in which they ruled.

London News

London News
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One last perpetuator of the concept of “Loyal India” was the British newspapers and pamphlets produced during the war. These articles painted the Indian Army as an exotic fighting force, come to save the French people from the German invaders. Articles and pamphlets with titles such as “What is a Sikh?” emphasized the martial lifestyle and training of the soldiers, and commented on their kind-hearted and natural need to defend and aid in righteous battle.

In addition, the way in which the newspapers described the soldiers as fierce fighters and brave allies, born and bred for the fighting ahead, tied into the soldiers perceptions of themselves and bolstered their view that they were accomplishing their desire to make names for themselves. Although many of the soldiers themselves could not read in their native script, let alone English or French, their officers recounted these articles to them, while the reactions of the local French peoples conveyed as much. To those without this information, their relationships with the French locals were still colored by such narratives, though they may not have been aware of the effects.

So, on the eve of the Indian Army’s arrival in France, the soldiers were preceded by the expectations of many. The Indian National Congress wished to use them to convince the British that they were ready to take on more autonomy and responsibility, while the Maharajas wished to show their loyalty and connections to the power of the British Empire. The French and English were expecting relief in war, while Europe awaited the arrival of an exotic natural born fighting force. Most importantly to the soldiers themselves, however, were the expectations of their family and loved ones both back home and on the ship with them. They intended to keep one another safe, prove their merit and that of their families as a “martial race”, and “earn their salt” from the Emperor.

The Sepoys and Sowars of the Indian Army

The soldiers of the Indian Army were much different than the men of the Indian National Congress or the courts of the Maharajas. Most of the soldiers came from rural areas. This meant that their families relied on agriculture as their primary source of income and that they had little access to education. Most were illiterate and unaccustomed to life outside their villages or small cantonments. The British looked for this while choosing which classes to recruit from. They did not want men in the military who had been exposed to political nationalism as the educated classes had been.

Another concept of great importance was that of the “martial races”. Beginning in the 1800’s after the Indian Mutiny, the British concretely marked certain castes as “warlike” so that by 1914, only twenty-four classes of men were being recruited from by the army in India. This idea was drawn from self perceptions based on caste and the British’s perceptions of loyalty and sturdiness. Most were a part of the upper peasantry, which were often the Kshatriya, or warrior, caste. They were hardened to the elements, ignorant of wider political issues, and considered themselves to be marked by bravery, loyalty, and superiority in battle by virtue of their birth.

The majority of these “races” came from the Punjab. In fact, by 1914, over half the Indian Army had been recruited from the Punjab, while the remainder came from Nepal and a few other small northern provinces. This would become an important factor as the war progressed since the British refused to widen their recruitment pool. As the death toll mounted, immense pressure was placed on the populations of these provinces to produce more fighting men. As early as August 1915, letters from the men’s families back home are beginning to comment on the visible lack of men. One man from the Lahore district in the Punjab wrote, “No men of our tribe are now to be found. They have all been recruited already…”There was a lot of pressure on local leaders as the war progressed to meet quotas of military eligible men for their districts. Very few soldiers were literally forced into the military, but ideological and economic pressures were driven hard into their psyches and coercion was fairly frequent, especially in the later years of the war.

News clippping 1914

News clippping 1914 – Click to Enlarge

In the early months of the war, the Indian men in France were career soldiers on the frontier. Most of these men were motivated to sign up for the same reasons. In a society that offered little in the way of social and economic mobility, the military offered a regular salary and the chance for promotion. With the uncertainty of drought and famine, the extra money and prospect of guaranteed provisions was welcomed. Indeed, there are many references to disappointments in or desire for promotion and the importance of “eating” the “government salt” or salary.

The men of the Indian Army also signed for numerous ideological reasons. First, they wished to perpetuate the “martial race” ideal within their family and their own lives, and the military offered the perfect outlet. Tied into this was the concept of personal and family honor that could best be achieved through valor in battle. Second, they fought to show loyalty to the British Empire. They saw their Government as having provided for them, and they desired to show their gratitude. This was coupled with a sense of duty to give the Government its due by displaying loyalty and doing the job they were hired for. These concepts will be discussed in full at a later point.

It is no surprise that many of these men felt similarly. Despite having come from different religious traditions (the majority were Sikh and Muslim with some specific Hindu castes), they all considered themselves to be of the “martial races” and almost all were of similar humble, rural back ground. Aside from this homogeny in sentiment, they were arranged by other traits that added greatly to their concept of camaraderie. The military was organized by caste, religion, language, and province. A regiment usually consisted of a single battalion, subdivided into eight companies. Some battalions consisted of a single group, for instance all Sikhs. The companies would then be divided by particular castes or geographic areas. Other battalions contained more than one religious affiliation and were job-specific. In these cases, however, companies were still determined by religion and caste. This ensured that the company ran smoothly by allowing for cultural cohesion, for the correct administration of rations (as most Indian religions have specific food requirements), and for similar dialects to be spoken by company members.This meant that often times, entire villages would serve in the same battalion and even company. As the war progressed, the scarcity of troops made this difficult to maintain.

This set up added greatly to camaraderie, but it also made fighting the war more difficult. Many of the troops had known one another their entire lives; they were childhood friends and playmates, long time rivals, brothers, cousin-brothers, and brothers-in-law. Family members were often times placed in the same battalion, if not the same company. Many letters personally recount the death of a sepoy or sowar in very familiar terms.

In terms of leadership, all battalions were commanded by British officers. Each officer was trained in the language or languages, religious and cultural customs of his men. While hierarchical distinctions were maintained as they would be today, the sepoys and sowars seemed to have had a great deal of affection for their commanding officers. According to Jeffrey Greenhut of the U.S. Army Center of Military History, there is evidence that British officers took on a variety of roles ranging between “patron… military leader, teacher, father substitute, and general advisor.”Most letters contained within the Omissi collection10 merely denote sepoy and sowar affection and appreciation for their officers as providers and means of recommendation. One letter states, “my heart longs for a glimpse of the Sahib Bahadurs [the British officers]… When I saw the picture of the Sahib Bahadur my mind was transported with delight. Every morning I regard it with pride.”His sentiment reflects not only a fondness for his officer, but the sense of “pride” he relates denotes that the officer became the face of the soldier’s fulfilled duties. As shall be discussed later, the British King, King George V (usually referred to as “the Emperor” by the soldiers) became the figurehead for loyalty and affection towards the Government, a symbol of the pride and sense of accomplishment felt by the soldiers, and the conceptualized giver of military benefits and favors. It would seem that in some cases, the British officers were diminutive, more accessible versions of the power of the Emperor to which this sentiment could be attached.

In addition, several letters call British officers by name, suggesting their importance and a feeling of camaraderie with them as well. Gurkhas and their British officers as a whole seem to have been particularly devoted to one another. One Gurkha wrote his friend in the hospital, “I am very sorry to inform you that one of our officers named Lieutenant [Arthur] Carter was killed…”It would seem that the other man did not know who Lieutenant Carter was, but the Gurkha felt strongly enough about the loss to relate it to him anyway.

Viceroy’s Commissioned Officers (VCO’s) were the Indian officers within the Indian Army. They could only command other Indian soldiers and were given fewer responsibilities and powers. Not much is mentioned specifically about these men in the letters. There is one letter in which a man recounts his subedar’s (Indian officer) death to the subedar’s son. He is presumably a friend of the subedar and knows the boy judging by the familiar terms used. This and other sources suggest that Indian officers were taken from the same areas as the men and they were probably quite well known to one another. Familiarity coupled with an inability to influence a man’s position within the ranks or give him access to goods probably accounts for the fact that few VCO’s were mentioned by title. It would seem VCO’s were just fellow soldiers with a little more power and prestige.

Sikh Brits

London News
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The only other time VCO’s were mentioned in terms of title was when they were new to the company. One soldier expressed his disregard for the replacement VCO’s as they had “defecated in their dhotis for sheer fright,” adding, “what sort of officers are these who have taken their men? These leaders are giving their men a bad name.”This illustrates several things. It supports the idea that VCO’s and their men were quite familiar with one another, since the new VCO’s are not considered as part of the group, where the old ones had been. The second idea it conveys is that of the difficulties of finding and replacing fallen officers. Many of the companies of the Indian Army found it very difficult to adapt to new officers. The Indian Army began the war with 220 British officers and 325 Indian officers, but closed 1915 having lost 500 of each. This took a toll on the morale of the sepoys and sowars, as these men were, in many cases, their only cultural interpreters.

The vast majority of the men fighting in the Indian Army couldn’t speak English. As mentioned before, they had not been exposed to the education of the bureaucratic and political classes that Sinha was a part of. In the strange fields of France, very few Europeans had any knowledge of Indian culture, and the only ones who spoke any Indian languages were the British officers of the Indian Army. This made these officers the only possible interpreters of language or culture that the soldiers had access to. They seem to have done a satisfactory job and prepared their men as best they could, but as the losses began to mount, the initial trust, forged from time and experience, was lost upon the replacements.

The makeup of the Indian Army greatly influenced the experiences that the men had while fighting in France. The proximity of family members and loved ones seems to have had a mixed effect on homesickness. It is likely that this both added to the elegiac mood of the company for village life and provided comfort in familiarity. In addition, they may not have wondered about the fate of their relatives because of proximity, but the pain of having to watch their friends and relatives die must have been doubly difficult. From a practical angle, it greatly enhanced camaraderie and made catering religious and cultural needs easier.

Elizabeth Weigler

Elizabeth Weigler

To be continued…

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Elizabeth Weigler graduated from Ripon College in May of 2010 with a BA in Anthropology and History, and is currently enrolled as a graduate student of cultural anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She plans to research Sikh religious and ethnic acts of self identification in the United States for her dissertation. Her prior work has focused on Sikh history and intergenerational gaps in Pune, India.


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1 Response

  1. Anthony Podboy says:

    Really very interesting & something I hadn’t a clue about. These were proud warriors. I witnessed some British “gentleman” be horribly bigoted to some Indian people in a restaurant in the 70’s & never knew about that either. As an American, I struggle to know some of the nuance of other cultures. Thanks for the insight Ms. Weigher. Well done.