Also in China, some Gurkhas travelled deep into the interior in disguise with their British officers on official intelligence gathering missions; one group sailed the entire length of the Yangtze River. But by far the largest group of Indian servicemen in China, some 33,000, travelled to Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere in the east of the country in 1900–02. They went for the international intervention by a coalition force of the United States, German, French, Japanese and other major armies to suppress the Boxer Rising, the popular peasant movement that attacked foreign legations and business interests, shooting white diplomats and ripping up European-owned railway lines.
The Indian expedition to China for the Boxer Rising exemplified two significant features of pre-1914 overseas service for Indian recruits. The first was that the Army in India was the world’s most experienced at shipping military expeditions. By tradition this was a British imperial speciality, involving troop-ships of the British merchant marine fitted out by the Sappers and Miners at the Indian Empire’s great ports of Bombay, Karachi, Calcutta, Madras and Rangoon; the Royal Navy as the world’s premier fleet, with command of the deep sea lanes and unrivalled experience of embarking and disembarking troops, supported by the Indian Empire’s own navy, the Royal Indian Marine; and the Indian Army’s British officer ethos of kindly care, which helped to maintain, even enhance abroad the benefits of military service in British India to compensate for the absence from home.
Thus when Indian troops were sent from British India to east China in 1900 for the Boxer Rising they were taken away by sea with a confident British efficiency that ensured smooth, safe and sanitary travel. In China itself, the Indians garrisoned much of the eastern seaboard up to 1902 as part of the international coalition force of occupation while a diplomatic settlement was reached to compensate the foreign powers for Boxer damage to their interests. During the occupation the Indians were well cared for by the British. Specifically, their pay was boosted by a special allowance for active service, plus three months’ pay in advance before departure from British India, and an extra two months’ pay as a gratuity while in China. Their food continued to be served in keeping with their religions, but with a greater quantity and variety of meat, dairy products, vegetables and fruit. They could also, with help from scribes serving as non-combatants, exchange letters with their families through Indian field post offices which sold their own stationery and stamps at cheap army rates, and were linked to British India by regular mail ships.
As for their clothes, the Indians needed extra layers in abundance to cope with the severe Chinese winter of 1900–01, when amid heavy rain, hail and snow the temperature fell to −22°C, freezing beards, sweat and urine. They got them in the form of Canadian warm coats, sheepskin overcoats and lambskin vests, and Norwegian socks and fur gloves. The upshot was that the Indian sick rates were low, with just a few cases of frostbite and pneumonia.
The second significant feature of the Indians’ pre-1914 overseas service shown in China was their engagement with foreign culture. The sources for this are few and far between, but the Hindu diarist Thakur Amar Singh was in China in 1900–01 attached to the Indian Army with the princely States unit the Jodhpur Lancers, and he wrote down his thoughts on Chinese culture which were likely typical of other Indian soldiers’ reactions. Like them, he saw the great sights in and around Beijing–the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace and Great Wall of China–and he was enthralled. ‘The Great Wall was our daily view,’ he wrote of one of his postings. ‘I had walked for weeks continually on it, and was wondering what sort of man he must have been who started this enormous work.’ Amar Singh then met Chinese families in whose homes Indian soldiers were housed. ‘The inhabitants seem quite gentle and friendly and offer fruits, walnuts, chestnuts, tea, and liquor to all the troops. Their villages are most beautifully built and have separate rooms. Their houses are also clean and well built… The most extraordinary thing is that they don’t milk their cows. They don’t know what milk is. All their things are cooked by fat.’