Review of “The Indian Army in the First World War”

The Indian Army in the First World War: new perspectives
edited by Alan Jeffreys
published by Helion & Company in 2018 in association with the United Service Institution of India
as part of the War and Military Culture in South Asia 1757-1947 series
Hardback ISBN 978 1 911512 78 3
298 pages plus bibliography and index
Two maps but otherwise not illustrated
No price stated on cover but apparently £35.

The word “forgotten” has been applied to many aspects of the Great War during the recent centenary period and I am sure it will continue to be used whenever the author or journalist was hitherto ignorant of a subject or when a publisher wishes to add a dash of spice to an otherwise dull title. The Indian Army has often been described as forgotten. It’s complete rubbish to describe it so, for it has always received attention and there is a wealth of published and original material about it for anyone who wishes to know more. The word “neglected” is similarly used and in the case of the Indian Army there might have been a case for describing it so. It did not receive too much by way of modern academic study until recent years, but now, as with many other aspects of this conflict, it has attracted a veritable industry of students. All of a sudden, the Indian Army is in fashion.

This compilation of fourteen essays has its roots in a centenary conference. They average at about 25 pages of content, complete with the thorough footnotes and referencing that you might expect of what is essentially PhD level study. I found the writing styles varied considerably (again, as you might expect and especially given that among the authors are academics from India, UK, USA and Australia) but all are readable, did not put me to sleep and in many cases I learned a great deal from them.

The essays cover a wide range of subjects but they can be summarised here as: the mobilisation and demobilisation of the army; the issues and experience of Muslim and Sikh components of the army; the Indian officer corps; matters of supply; the army’s role at home and its work on the Suez Canal, in Palestine and Mesopotamia; Indian POWs in Germany;  and (perhaps slightly off centre but obviously linked) Peter Stanley’s paper on the British Territorials in India. The latter author has previously produced an excellent book (previously reviewed on the Long, Long Trail) about the Indians at Gallipoli, and this subject also receives attention in Cat Wilson’s essay “The dark shadow of the Dardanelles: Churchill’s World Crisis and his portrayal of the Indian Army at Gallipoli”. This I found to be the most thought-provoking chapter in the book. Churchill, of course, found himself the subject of much criticism for his part in that disastrous campaign and his unusually even-handed treatment of the Indians is exposed as part of his case for his defence: compare it to his more scathing views of the Indians in his comparable work on the Second World War. An interesting insight.

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