The British Empire Library

For The Honour of My House: The Contribution of the Indian Princely States to the First World War

by Tony McClenaghan

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The centenary commemorations of the Great War saw a renewed interest in the conflict which shaped the course of modem world history. This was reflected in the number of publications that examined the war and its consequences from a variety of perspectives. Many of these took the reader away from the metropole to hitherto unexplored areas on the periphery. In the context of Britain and its empire this translated into a closer look at the largely unacknowledged contribution of India and its armies to the prosecution of the war effort in various battlefields around the world.

In 1914 the Army in India had three major components: the regular British army in India, the Indian army, and the armies of the semiautonomous Indian Princely States known at the time as the Imperial Service Troops. Professor Peter Stanley has recently examined the role of the ‘Terriers’ that replaced the British regulars in India during the war and there have been a number of books on the Indian army in the conflict, but none that have traced the contribution of the Imperial Service Troops in any great detail. The only publications on the subject, other than the rather sketchy war histories produced by the states of Bikaner, Gwalior and Patiala, were two official publications produced in 1919 and 1930 - History o f the 15th Imperial Service Cavalry Brigade during the Great War, 1914-1918' (London: HMSO, 1919); and Maj Gen Sir Harry Watson, 'A Short History o f the Services Rendered by the Imperial Service Troops during the Great War, 1914- 1918' (Calcutta: Govt of India Central Publication Branch, 1930).

This gap in the historiography of the Great War has been filled by Tony McClenaghan’s latest book For The Honour o f My House, which forms a part of Helion’s series on ‘War and Military Culture in South Asia, 1757-1947’. Well known for his long-standing association with the Indian Military Historical Society, Tony is also the acknowledged authority on matters relating to the military history of the Indian Princely States, a passion he shared with the late Richard Head, to whom the book is dedicated. Tony and Richard had previously coauthored the two-volume Maharaja’s Paltans: A History of the Indian State Forces, 1888-1948 (New Delhi, Manohar Publishers, 2013). He also produced Indian Princely Medals: A Record o f the Orders, Decorations, and Medals o f the Indian Princely States (New Delhi, Lancer Publishers, 1996). The title of the current book is derived from a letter sent by the Maharaja of Patiala to his regiment of lancers serving in Egypt Written after their poor performance during the battle of Mahadat on 29 April 1915, he exhorts them to uphold ‘the honour of my house’ on the field of battle. Drawing on extensive archival research in repositories in Australia, India and the UK, the book presents readers with a deep insight into the myriad ways that the Indian princes and their armies served not just Britain and her empire but also attempted to further the cause of India’s military and political interests.

The book starts with a historical perspective which provides a brief background to the development of the Imperial Service (l.S.) Troops scheme in 1889 and its attendant travails and triumphs up until the start of the First World War. The next chapter is devoted to the role of the ruling princes and their individual contributions - military, financial and political - to the war effort. This is followed by a look at the manner in which the officers and men of the various l.S. Troops followed the lead of their rulers. This chapter examines the various factors affecting recruitment, discipline and morale among them. It is worth pointing out that the Indian princes were not always the handmaidens of imperial policy but also held forth on important issues that were vital to Indian interests. Chief among these was the anomalous position regarding the appointment of Indians as officers in the army and their support for greater political autonomy for India as a reward for its services in the war. The colonial reluctance to trust Indians troops with sophisticated weapons such as machine guns and heavy artillery at the end of the war, was also perceived as an insult by some of the rulers.

The global nature of the contribution of the state units is reflected in the next six chapters. These describe in detail the deployment of the l.S. Troops in France and Flanders, East Africa, Gallipoli, Egypt & Palestine, Mesopotamia and other minor theatres such as Macedonia, the North West Frontier and the Third Afghan War. These are followed by an excellent chapter on Honours, Rewards and Commemoration, and an equally illuminating concluding ‘Aftermath’ which highlights the role of Maharaja Ganga Singh of Bikaner and other princes, in the diplomatic and political arena, among other things. Ganga Singh was a signatory of the Versailles Peace Treaty on behalf of India.

The book contains five useful appendices. These include a unit-wise list of the battle honours awarded, deployments at a glance and an annual listing of unit-wise caste returns. Two appendices containing the Roll of Honour and Honours & Awards have not been included in the book but are available for reference as a PDF on the Helion website. The seven maps in the book have been exceedingly well produced and greatly assist the reader in following the operational narratives. The book is highly recommended both to the professional historian as well as the lay reader with an interest in the old Indian Army and the Great War.

British Empire Book
Tony McClenaghan
First Published
Helion & Co.
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2019 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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