The British Empire Library

The Indian Empire at War: From Jihad to Victory, the Untold Story of the Indian Army in the First World War

by George Morton-Jack

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
The Indian Army served with credit and honour in nearly every theatre of the First World War. By 1918, over 1.4 million Indian soldiers had flocked to the colours. No account of the war can justly ignore this colossal effort and yet, this significant contribution became a mere footnote in the history of the war. The lack of a political identity in 1914-18 served to rob the Indian soldier of his place in history and a commemoration of his service. The First World War centenary commemorations brought about a renewed focus on India and the role it played in it. George Morton-Jack in his excellent and definitive book on the subject sheds light on the experiences of Indian soldiers who served on nearly all fronts across the globe.

Already celebrated for his work on the role of Indians in France and Flanders in his first book The Indian Army on the Western Front (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), Morton-Jack delivers yet again by presenting a refreshingly new perspective of the subaltern voice. This voice is drawn primarily from a collection of interviews of Indian veterans of the Great War, conducted by a team of Indo-American researchers in the 1970s and early 1980s. These interviews provide tantalizing insights into the experiences of Indian soldiers and allow us to understand how they perceived the momentous events that were unfolding around them. Morton- Jack calls this ‘a detective history based on a wide range of fragmentary evidence’. This is reflected in the book, which is rigorously researched with sources collected from across Britain, Germany and India.

The author recounts in vivid detail the varied experiences of Indian soldiers - from the trenches of Europe to the jungles of East Africa; from the pyramids of Egypt and along the Suez Canal to the barren deserts of the Middle East - covering all of their battlefield exploits. The book is divided into seven parts covering the 1914-18 period chronologically with the last part devoted to Indian veterans, and touching upon the Third Anglo-Afghan War of 1919. Interspersed throughout the narrative are several themes that provide a broader context within which this complex story is situated. For instance, racial hierarchies within the Indian Army are tactfully addressed, along with a careful consideration of the nuances of battlefield weaknesses attributed to Indians.

Until the start of the First World War, Indian soldiers had not been pitted against a European adversary. This was in line with the racial colonial policies of the time. The myth of racial superiority was consistently perpetuated through concepts such as ‘prestige’ and the ‘martial races’ and Morton-Jack discusses this at length. Similarly, he explores how assertions of unsoldierly behaviour ascribed to Indians, such as self-inflicted wounds and desertions were, in fact, not unique to them. According to Morton-Jack, the Indians held their own and fared much better than others. This was largely due to the fact that the bulk of them were pre-war regulars who were ‘much tougher, more professional and pitiless than might be imagined’.

Among the social and cultural aspects covered in the book, Morton-Jack has focussed more on portraying Indian soldiers as individuals coming from a cross-section of diverse communities and regions, rather than viewing them as generic ‘Indians’. One particular community that features prominently in the book is that of the Pathans, or more correctly, Pakhtuns. While some Pakhtun soldiers were recruited from within the territory of British India, most came from the independent tribal areas of Waziristan, Tirah and neighbouring territories encompassing 25,000 square miles. These lay outside the jurisdiction of British India and this presented a host of problems for British officers when dealing with these men. The Pakhtuns did not see themselves as Indians. Morton-Jack focuses in bringing out their peculiar characteristics and examines how they fit among the other ‘martial’ classes of the Indian Army. He rightly points out that the story of these recruits from the tribal areas is as important as that of the soldiers who predominantly came from the Punjab province, in order to understand how the war meant different things to Indian soldiers from different places.

Part of the reason why their story has so far been neglected is due to the dangers of visiting these tribal areas for research even today. Yet, drawing upon available resources, Morton-Jack manages to bring to light the fearless spirit and character of the Pakhtun soldiers as never before.

The Indian Empire at War is a detailed and highly engaging book devoid of tedious military or academic jargon and packed with interesting anecdotes and riveting accounts. The new paperback edition, which has been published recently comes with a range of welcome additions. These include a focus on the cautious attitude adopted towards politically volatile Sikh troops; a comparison of the disproportionate attention given to Indians in Europe as opposed to those serving in Mesopotamia; and additional details of Indian casualties and their commemoration, to name a few. The only drawback of the book is the lack of detailed footnotes or endnotes, but this does not detract from the quality of the overall narrative. The book is unlikely to be surpassed in breadth and scope within the Indian historiography of the Great War.

British Empire Book
George Morton-Jack
Little, Brown
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2020 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


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