Sunday, October 30, 2011

India in Flanders Field: Colonial Experience in WWI (Part I)

My last post about tea, which concluded with a promise for more about tea, war, and empire, got me  thinking about Indian colonial subjects whose labor would have supplied the tea served on the front and also about the Indian soldiers in the British Army who served in France, Belgium, and in other fronts during World War One. India's contribution to the Great War, though not insignificant by any measure, does not receive the attention that it ought. While it would be beyond presumptuous for me to attempt to redress this situation in a single post, I can and will cover manageable snippets of the history of India and the Great War as a regular feature of this blog.

Where to begin? Perhaps some basics, to start. The Britain of the Great War era had a massive imperial presence in the world. India was a nation under British imperial rule at this time, as it had been since the nineteenth century (in part as a result of the presence and operations, since the eighteenth century, of the British East India Company).
Indian Troops in Marseilles. Postcard, ca. 1914.
When war broke out in 1914, the British Indian Army had been in existence for several decades, though it had been through a few major transformations. It was formalized as a military body just before turn of the twentieth century. There were British-born and Indian-born troops in the army. When Lord Kitchener became Commander-in-Chief, India, in 1902, he instituted reforms, creating hierarchies and categorizations to organize the forces. The "Army of India" created by Kitchener was thus made up of the "British Army in India" (British troops posted temporarily to India) and the "Indian Army" (Indian-born troops recruited by the British and British officers permanently stationed in India).

Douglas Fox-Pitt. Indian Army Wounded in Hospital in the Dome, Brighton. © IWM (Art.IWM ART 323)

India sent 140,000 troops to the Western battle fronts during the Great War. Troops in the Indian Corps would also be moved to and serve in the Middle East, beginning in 1915. By Armistice Day, there were over 47,000 Indian Army members dead or missing, and over 65,000 injured.

So there you have some introductory factoids about India's presence on the battlefronts of the Great War. By no means is this a small or simple history to relate, but I will be posting more about its particular aspects in future. As the posters that I feature here suggest, there was, clearly, a British Indian homefront (which will be the subject of my next India post) in the Great War. Its identity, resources, and agency were essential to colonial rule, and, more specifically, to British victory in this conflict. How that homefront was defined and how it fit into the larger scheme of the British experience of war will be fascinating to investigate next time at "Ghosts of 1914."

© Fiona Robinson


Sources and further reading:

Lord Kitchener biography:

"For the King-Emperor: The Indian Army During the Edwardian and Georgian Eras, 1901-47"

"Participants from the Indian Subcontinent in the First World War"

British Empire and Commonwealth Museum and their related Images of Empire site:

Wikipedia: British Indian Army

Wikipedia: British East India Company

1 comment:

  1. Fiona,

    First, thank you for your recent "like" on Facebook of my work with "If Ye Break Faith". I've just read some of your work here, and I am very impressed with the style and academic presentation, along with the wonderful range of topics you address. I wish you the best of luck with your continued studies.