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In 1914 British India was divided into areas under direct British rule – roughly two-thirds of the sub-continent – and the so-called ‘Native States’, whose rulers owed allegiance to the British King-Emperor but exercised varying degrees of domestic self-rule over the territories under their control. The 700 or so Native States ranged in size and power from tiny mountain tribal enclaves whose chiefs held sway over a few thousand people at most to the domain of the Nizam of Hyderabad, who ruled over 11 million subjects.
Twenty-seven of the largest and richest Native States maintained their own armed forces (although some of these were more ceremonial than effective). These private armies could, in a crisis, be mobilised to collectively provide around 22,000 troops for imperial service at the request of the Viceroy, the ruler of British India, whose powers were greater than those of a governor-general in a dominion. Such a request would be unprecedented, however, as the principal embodiment of British military power in India, the Indian Army, was usually quite capable of dealing with all internal and external security threats to the stability of The Raj (the colloquial name for the period of British rule in India – from the Hindi word for sovereignty).
The Indian Army was made up of infantry and cavalry regiments, many of them with lineages going back to regiments raised by the British East India Company in the 18th century. The rank and file were long-serving professional soldiers. British officers commanded these regiments and occupied the top dozen or so positions. Alongside this standard organisation, another layer of command was occupied by Indian officers – ‘Viceroy Commissioned Officers’ (VCOs). This system was unique to the Indian Army. The VCOs carried out a vital intermediary function between the British officers and the Indian enlisted men and NCOs, ensuring that the often vast cultural gulf between these two groups did not impede the unit’s efficiency. The VCOs were commissioned from the ranks; only men with at least 20 years’ service were selected. Technically all VCOs, whatever their rank, were junior to the newest British Second Lieutenant. VCOs could not command British imperial troops.
In peacetime a substantial number of British imperial troops were posted to India on garrison duty and to help secure the volatile North-West Frontier region bordering Afghanistan. Most of these units were recalled to England or sent to France after the outbreak of the war. Where possible, they were replaced by Territorial Army units sent out from the United Kingdom. Throughout the war the British government was careful not to make too great a demand on the Indian Army to contribute forces to operations overseas. The British continued to see the Indian Army’s primary role as protecting and maintaining the security of British India.
After desperate Anglo-French armies halted the German invasion of France at the Battle of the Marne in early September 1914, it was clear that the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) would need more troops – and quickly. With all available divisions of the regular British Army already serving in France, the empire's only other immediate source of professional combat-ready units was the Indian Army. Enough Indian Army battalions to form two infantry divisions were sent from India to France in early October 1914. These divisions formed the ‘Indian Corps’ which, along with a number of Indian cavalry regiments, played a crucial role in nearly all of the BEF’s battles over the next year, including the First and Second battles of Ypres, and the battles of Neuve Chapelle, Aubers Ridge and Loos.
Increasing difficulties in coping with the mass casualties suffered during these battles – the Indian Army’s peacetime recruitment and replacement system was not designed for losses on such a scale – eventually saw the two infantry divisions of the Indian Corps withdrawn from the front line in November 1915 and transferred to the Middle Eastern theatre. The Indian cavalry regiments (now grouped in two divisions) remained in France for another two years before they too were transferred to Egypt. They went on to join the Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Palestine. Even after the cavalry’s departure the Indian Army retained an ongoing presence on the Western Front until the end of the war via the work of Indian Labour Corps units behind the lines.
Western Front, 31 October 1914: Sepoy Khudadad Khan, 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, together with the rest of his machine-gun section, mounts a rearguard action as part of a fighting withdrawal by the 129th during the First Battle of Ypres. After one of the section’s two machine guns is knocked out and its crew killed or wounded, Khan and his gun crew fight on until they in turn are all killed and Khan badly wounded. Despite the severity of his wounds Khan manages to evade capture by the Germans and eventually crawls back to the British lines. For his actions Khan becomes the first soldier of the Indian Army to be awarded the Victoria Cross in the First World War.
By the end of 1914 seven Indian Army infantry brigades had been sent to Egypt to take over the bulk of the garrison duties in the British protectorate and to help defend the Suez Canal. One of these brigades, the 32nd, was made up of Imperial Service troops supplied by the Native States. After the threat of Ottoman attack appeared to recede in early 1915 one brigade was sent to reinforce the Anglo-Indian army in Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq).
An entire division of Indian infantry had been earmarked for operations against Ottoman-held Mesopotamia to protect the refineries of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in the Shatt-el Arab waterway at the head of the Persian Gulf even before the Ottoman Empire officially entered the war. The 16th Indian Brigade landed on 8 November 1914 and was joined by the rest of the 6th (Poona) Division a week later. This force quickly defeated the weak local Ottoman Turkish forces and advanced inland to capture the city of Basra on 22 November. Encouraged by the ease of this success, the Indian force continued their advance along the line of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. In March 1915 the force was doubled in size, renamed the Indian Expeditionary Force ‘D’ and ordered to push on to Baghdad.
This order ultimately resulted in disaster. The overstretched Force D fought its way to Ctesiphon, within 25 km of Baghdad. Defeated here in November 1915, it was forced to retreat some 240 km to Kut al Amara, a town on the Tigris. After a 147-day siege at Kut, Force D surrendered and some 18,000 men went into Turkish captivity. The now renamed ‘Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force’ was reorganised and reinforced to a strength of five infantry divisions and one cavalry division, again with mainly Indian Army troops. The Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force when back on the offensive in late 1916, albeit much more cautiously than previously, and captured Baghdad in March 1917.
Indian Army battalions from the Egyptian garrison were used to help form the ‘75th Division’ which joined the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) in Palestine in July 1917. These Indian troops took part in the decisive Third Battle of Gaza that November and the rapid advance across southern Palestine and into the Jordan Valley that followed. At the start of 1918 the British War Office decided to implement a deliberate policy of ‘Indianization’ of the EEF’s four British infantry divisions to allow the British troops to be transferred to the Western Front. A total of 37 Indian Army battalions were eventually brought in to replace their British counterparts. The two Indian cavalry divisions that had been serving on the Western Front since 1914 were also transferred to the EEF. By the time the EEF launched what turned out to be its final offensive against the Ottoman Turks in September 1918 the majority of its strength – which still included Anzac horsemen and British imperial troops – was provided by the Indian Army.
In April 1915 the 29th Indian Brigade was selected from the Egyptian garrison for inclusion in the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force (MEF) and the attack on Gallipoli. Two batteries of mountain artillery from the 29th Brigade landed at Anzac Cove on the afternoon of 25 April 1915 to support the New Zealand and Australian assault, but the rest of the brigade was held back as a reserve until 1 May, when it joined the British at Cape Helles. The 29th Brigade took part in the Third Battle of Krithia and later fought alongside the Anzacs during the Sari Bair Offensive in August. The 29th Indian Brigade was withdrawn from the peninsula in November 1915, before the main evacuations began.
On the outbreak of war the British Colonial Office asked the government of India to send troops to bolster the defence of British East Africa against any attack from German East Africa. At the same time the British War Office requested a force of Indian Army troops for offensive operations against German East Africa. This resulted in two separate forces being dispatched – Indian Expeditionary Forces ‘C’ and ‘B’. Force C’s 2500 men took up defensive positions along the Ugandan border with German Tanzania in September 1914. Force B’s 8000 men first saw action in a failed attempt to capture the German East African port of Tanga in November 1914. After this setback the two Indian Army forces were merged into a single Indian Expeditionary Force B for the rest of the campaign. Other British imperial, colonial and South African troops came to dominate the campaign in East Africa, but the Indian Army maintained Force B to at least brigade strength throughout the fighting, and a total of 17,500 Indian soldiers served in East Africa during the war.
By the end of the war the RIM had expanded to a strength of 500 officers and 13,000 ratings who manned more than 200 ocean-going and riverine transport craft of numerous types as well as two hospital ships in support of British operations across India, Mesopotamia, Palestine and Egypt.
Conscription was not implemented in British India during the war. The Indian Army remained an all-volunteer force for the duration of the conflict.