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The Indian Corps on the Western Front

A Handbook & Battlefield Guide

Review

By Chandar s. Sundaram PhD (McGill)
University of Victoria, Canada

The Indian Corps on the Western Front: a Handbook and Battlefield Guide. By Simon Doherty and Tom Donovan. Brighton, UK: Tom Donovan Editions, with the Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research, New Delhi, 2014. ISBN 978-1-905968-08-04 (pbk). Illustrations. Maps. Notes. Index. Pp. 194. £20.

Until fairly recently, in the words of a writer more clever than I, the historiography of World War I in France and Belgium has been “All White on the Western Front”. The contribution, service and presence of colonial peoples of colour in this pivotal front have been all but ignored. Even when it has been dealt with, scholars of “the cultural turn”, with their rather cavalier and dismissive attitude towards careful, archival, empirical history, have hitherto dominated; which means that, for the military historian and enthusiast, the “non-white” factor on the western front has remained a terra incognita. This volume, taken together with George Morton-Jack’s, The Indian Army on the Western Front, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), and Gordon Corrigan’s Sepoys in the Trenches, (Tonbridge Wells: Spellmount, 1999), counteracts the neglect, at least for the roughly 89,000 Indian combatant soldiers who deployed in France and Belgium in 1914-1915, as part of the Indian Expeditionary Force A, otherwise known as the Indian Corps in France. A further 60,000 Indians on the western front performed support and non-combatant functions. Total Indian Corps casualties on the western front came to 33,116 men (p. 46).

It is not generally known that, in late-1914 and early 1915, the Indian Corps was the only fully-trained and deployable strategic reserve available to the British, while their own “new armies” and the contingents from the various “white dominions”, such as the Canadian, were being trained on the Salisbury Plain. Indeed, the claim that Indian troops indispensably saved the British line on the Ypres salient against the desperate German assaults, collectively known as the  Kindermord bei Ypern – the German equivalent of the British first day of the Somme – has more than a bit of validity, as Morton-Jack has ably shown.(Morton-Jack, pp. 148-53)

The volume under review is impressive. It has been designed and written for the enthusiastic educated layperson, which means that it can be understood by academics as well. It is also sturdy, empirical history, in that its authors seek to explain and clearly elucidate, rather than to “academically” obfuscate. The first eight chapters (pp. 1-58) offer a solid primer on the colonial Indian Army. We have chapters on the Indian Army’s structure and organization, its readiness for war overseas in 1914, its route to the western front, and finally, an overall survey of the Indian Army’s performance there. The authors deal frankly and even-handedly with problems faced by the Indian Army, such as the supply of British higher officers, and reinforcement, which was an ongoing headache (pp. 31-2). Besides offering interesting insights into the sea journey the corps took from India to France and a summary of changes to the Indian Corps’ order of battle (pp. 35-9; 55), the authors, after careful consideration of the available evidence – including a secret report investigating possible cases of self-inflicted wounds among Indian soldiery, which found only nine cases out of a thousand – conclude that the allegations of low morale, and the greater incidence of self-harm and desertion levelled at the Indians by the British top brass and by earlier scholars, such as Greenhut and Gardner, are indeed overblown. As far as I can see, there is only one minor error: Kitchener’s tenure as CinC of the Indian Army ended in 1909, not 1912 (p. 13).

Chapters 9 to 18 are devoted to the actions in which the Corps participated. Each chapter consists of a narrative of the battle, and a guide to that particular battlefield. Detailed, full-color scale maps complement these chapters. In addition, there are frequent side-bars, about such things as Indian Corps winners of the Victoria Cross, such as Khudadad Khan (p. 61), Darwán Sing Negi (pp. 84-5), and two British officers, John Smyth (p. 136) and Frank De Pass (pp. 84-5). Other interesting sidebars deal with the Corps’ commanders, Willcocks and Anderson (pp. 56-7), and a German eye-witness account of an Indian counter-attack (p. 88). The book also contains a section on French cemeteries which contain either the graves of Indian war dead or memorials to them, and a special section on the Chattri memorial erected on the site of the “ghat” (cremation platform) just outside Brighton, where the bodies of fallen Hindu and Sikh soldiers were cremated. (pp. 157-61; 176)

A special feature of the book is that it is illustrated, wherever possible, with rare period photographs. We see, for instance:  the Sikh company of the 57th (Wilde’s) Rifles marching to their camp just after landing at Marseilles in late-September 1914 (p. 35); Indian troops passing through Orléans in a motor-lorry or truck (p.37); the Punjabi Mussalman company of the 57th Rifles manning the trenches at Wytschaete in October 1914 (p. 68); Indian troops training with their recently issued .303 short magazine Lee-Enfield rifles in France in 1914 (p. 25); a posed photo of Indian soldiers wearing gas masks specially modified to fit over their turbans (p. 145); and, perhaps most poignantly, dead Indian soldiers strewn about their field gun at Neuve-Chappelle, with the obligatory shattered-trees-and-stagnant-muddy-brook background that came to characterize the western front (p. 112). We are also treated to photographs of a Sikh gurdwara (temple) erected in Brighton, convalescing Indian soldiers at the Kitchener hospital there, as well as shots of the Indian hospitals in the Brighton Pavilion and Corn Exchange full of hospital beds. (pp. 162-3)

To conclude, the authors are to be congratulated for producing such an informative, stylish and affordable volume. One need look no further for an excellent example of how a battlefield guide should be researched and put together. I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is the least bit interested in the colonial Indian Army.