Category Archives: Germany

Explorer and Sheikh Finally Part

From A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles through Islamic Africa, by Steve Kemper (W. W. Norton, 2012), Kindle pp. 302-303:

The packet [Heinrich Barth] gave al-Bakkay to send from Timbuktu included letters for the Foreign Office, the Royal Geographical Society, and many friends. It didn’t reach Europe until 1857, having spent more than two years in Ghadames.

The lull before parting was bittersweet. Barth and his friends from Timbuktu had grown fond of each other. In the mornings, as he took the air outside his tent, they gathered around him for conversation. One morning they asked him to read aloud from his European books, for the sound of the languages. He read the Bible in Greek and some passages in English, and recited a poem in German—the latter a big hit because “the full heavy words of that language” reminded them of their own. Another day they asked him to put on his European clothing, so he dug out his black suit. They admired the fine cloth and the trousers but found the frock coat comical. In Central Africa, wrote Barth, they were right.

As their time left together grew short, he and the sheikh continued their genial wide-ranging talks. They had been almost constant companions for nine-and-a-half months. Finally the day arrived when Barth was to cross the river and continue his journey home. His entry for July 9:

This was the day when I had to separate from the person whom, among all the people with whom I had come in contact in the course of my long journey, I esteemed the most highly, and whom, in all but his dilatory habits and phlegmatic indifference, I had found a most excellent and trustworthy man. I had lived with him for so long a time in daily intercourse, and in the most turbulent circumstances, sharing all his perplexities and anxieties, that I could not but feel the parting very severely.

Barth esteemed al-Bakkay, but couldn’t resist pointing out his flaws. The explorer sometimes judged the sheikh a timid procrastinator, but that seems unfair, considering the violent forces he had to balance. He risked his life by defying Ahmadu Ahmadu. He outmaneuvered not only the emir, but enemies in Timbuktu, including scheming members of his own family, while also dealing with constant threats from bellicose Tuaregs. He was also kind, generous, loyal, open-minded, and invigorating company. Because of him, Barth survived Timbuktu.

When he reached the opposite bank of the Niger, Barth fired two shots in farewell, as al-Bakkay had requested. Then he turned and began jotting notes about the sandy downs of this new shore, and the paths that led away from the river toward the east.

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Indians, Turks, and Lawrence of Arabia

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 479-482:

On 28 September 1918, Lawrence, the Arab forces and their Pukhtun and Gurkha attachments joined up with the main body of Allenby’s Indian cavalry at the southern Syrian town of Dera, a Turkish railway junction between Amman and Damascus. Over the following four days, Lawrence had a series of personal run-ins with the Indian cavalry at Dera that were to leave him with a lifelong contempt for the Indian Army. Indeed, in his autobiographical masterpiece Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926) he would belittle the Indian troops in Palestine as ‘not worthy of the privilege of space’ in the desert, being ‘something puny’ with minds ‘like slow sheep’.

The sourness started outside Dera when Lawrence, on horseback, trotted up to the advance guard of the 2nd Gardner’s Horse. Freshly shaved and in clean Arab robes with a white headdress, intending to impress as an authoritative Arab military leader, he called out, ‘I am Colonel Lawrence. Where is your General? Take me to him at once.’ The young British officer of the guard, Dysart Whitworth, had not slept for fifty hours on the march, and did not like Lawrence’s tone; he snapped back that he was commanding in action, was not a guide, and Lawrence was ‘a bloody fool’. A yelling impasse ensued which Lawrence backed down from, riding off in fury shouting, ‘I’ll have you court martialled!’ Shortly afterwards, while the robed Lawrence was driving in his Rolls-Royce with a Bedu escort, he came upon another Indian advance guard–this time of the 34th Poona Horse under their senior Indian officer Hamir Singh, a veteran of First Ypres. Mistaking Lawrence and his Bedu for Turkish irregulars, Hamir Singh’s guard charged mounted at them, driving off the Bedu and taking Lawrence prisoner as a suspected spy. Another heated argument broke out, with Hamir Singh refusing to let an apoplectic Lawrence go for some time.

On 1 October Lawrence drove into Damascus triumphantly in his Rolls-Royce with his Arab irregulars as liberators, just ahead of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force’s Indian and other Allied troops. The capture of the city, 120 miles north of Allenby’s Megiddo start line on 19 September, confirmed the crushing success of the offensive. In weighing up the contribution of Lawrence’s Arabs, George Barrow would always repeat what a captured Turkish divisional commander told him: ‘The Arabs gave us pin pricks; the British–blows with a sledge hammer.’ The Arabs had indeed been marginal, and the hammer blows had been struck most frequently by the Indian infantry and cavalry.

In the week leading up to Lawrence’s entry into Damascus, Indian cavalry regiments had been decisive in the pursuit of the retreating Turkish divisions and German Asia Corps all the way up from Megiddo. They had taken the majority of the Allies’ 75,000 predominantly Turkish prisoners, along with several towns–for instance, the Jodhpur Lancers had seized Haifa on 23 September with a mounted charge through the streets. The Indian cavalry’s feat of arms at Megiddo was in fact the last time in western military history mounted troops played a leading role.

The Turks’ own part in their downfall in Palestine was rooted not so much in their inferiority in numbers, guns or aircraft, all of which they had in good quantities for defence, as in their sapped spirit. This accounted for the large numbers of prisoners who surrendered easily. By mid-1918 the resolve of the Turkish Army was not what the Indians had seen at Gallipoli in 1915, on the Tigris in 1916 or at Gaza in 1917. The long war had gradually worn down them and their supply system, and by Megiddo they had little energy to carry on. Some of the Turkish troops there had fought hard, but many had lost heart, with no boots on their feet and almost no food to eat, at one with their artillery horses who were too under-nourished to pull back half their guns on the retreat. On account of the Turkish Army’s scrawny appearance and reduced fighting capacity at Megiddo compared to the well fed, trained and equipped Egyptian Expeditionary Force, one British staff officer remarked that Allenby’s offensive had ultimately been that of an Indian tiger against a Turkish tomcat.

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Battlefield Recyclers in France, 1917

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 418-422:

Once London’s Directorate of Labour had requested the Indian Labour Corps for France, the tentacles of the Indian Army’s reformed territorial recruitment system under its Commander-in-Chief Charles Monro spread in early 1917 to suck in the villagers required. India’s local civil authorities carried the offer of Labour Corps employment to some rural regions that had provided pre-war Indian soldiers, above all in the North-West Frontier Province, Punjab, and the Himalayan foothills of the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. Yet they focused more on remoter communities without traditions of military service. These were predominantly isolated tribes of the forests and jungles of north-east India in the provinces of Bihar and Orissa, Assam and Burma, including those future tennis-court builders the aboriginal Santhals, who had been converted to Catholicism by Belgian Jesuit missionaries. Then there were some other recruits from further south–Bengali Christians, and Jews, Parsis and Hindus of the Bombay area.

Some of the Indian Labour Corps volunteers from the Himalayan foothills of the United Provinces stepped warily down to its small town recruitment stations, making it clear to the recruiters where they wanted to go. They asked for ‘Phranch’ not ‘Bachchra’ (France not Basra) having heard the balance of opinion on the rural grapevine about which of the two the soldiers preferred. They and the other Indian Labour Corps recruits entered into contracts to work on the western front, mostly for a fixed term of one year, and governed by Indian Army law, making them a part of the army. Each of them joined a particular labour company named after their home region or town near it, such as the 31st Bihar, the 42nd Ranchi or the 51st Santhal companies. Like the Indian soldiers, the labourers’ driving motivation was economic: a regular wage with three months’ advanced pay was a windfall for their generally impoverished agriculturalist families. Some from the Lushai Hills of Assam in north-east India were enticed in particular by the prospect of saving enough money in France to return home more eligible for marriage. Still more attractive for the Lushais and others from Assam and the Himalayas was a lifetime local tax exemption, guaranteed by certificates handed out by the local civil authorities.

The Indian Labour Corps’ companies were given a military veneer with khaki uniforms and company officers. Although several of the officers were Belgian Jesuit missionaries familiar with their men, some were British strangers who did not speak their languages. A few others were the wounded Indian soldiers who chose to return to the western front. They were pensioned Garhwalis, Gurkhas and Punjabis who had fought there in 1914–15, presumably had a fondness for France, and elected to go back to make money without the dangers of regular infantry work.

On the sea lanes from British India across the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean to Italy from April 1917, the Indian Labour Corps sweltered in hot, cramped quarters below deck. These conditions killed a few who had embarked with cholera, and their bodies were dropped into the sea. More died of cholera in southern Italy at Taranto, where they were buried, while others were held in quarantine for a month. As the Indian labourers travelled the length of Italy by railway passing medieval stone towns on hill-tops and much else they had not seen before, the unrestricted German submarine warfare they had just escaped at sea shaped the work that lay ahead for them in France. Significantly increased sinking of Allied shipping meant war materials were scarcer, and therefore the Indian Labour Corps would have more salvage work to do than otherwise, looking for metal, wood and other debris–a dangerous task that would take them to the trenches. When the Indian labourers started work on the western front in June, they cleared up parts of the Somme battlefield which the Germans had abandoned in their retreat to the Siegfried Position. They stripped bare disused trenches or dug-outs, and lugged rusty barbed wire and other front line debris onto motor trucks for disposal or recycling. Father Frans Ory, one of the Indian Labour Corps’ Belgian Jesuit missionary officers, wandered about the derelict trenches with his company of tribal labourers from British India’s north-eastern province of Bihar and Orissa, many of them former pupils at his missionary school at Ranchi. He saw how shocked his men were by what they found. ‘Every five yards we come across bones still wrapped up in their puttees, arms and legs blown off by shell-fire,’ he wrote at Thiepval on 26 September. ‘One of our old Ranchi boys had his heart full and stood by weeping.’

The Indian Labour Corps did many other jobs around northeastern France in support of the Allied forces. Its companies worked looms to make mattresses, cut stone in quarries, chopped down trees in forests, and made charcoal, an ingredient for gas masks. They also made trench duckboards, built an aerodrome, burned limestone in industrial kilns, and laid roads and railway tracks. They worked around nine hours a day, day after day. Indeed, they rested so little that exhaustion set in among several companies, and British supervisors administered opium to keep the men going.

The labourers had an uneasy relationship with their Indian officers who had chosen to return to the western front having fought there in 1914–15. These veterans kept aloof and liked to assert their superior status as old combatants. As the winter of 1917–18 drew in, they preferred to go cold rather than wear the warm coats made available to the labourers. Some in fact looked on the labourers with contempt as their social inferiors. ‘The men are utterly filthy and take no care of their health,’ said one of the old soldiers, a Punjabi Muslim, who disapproved of his men’s lack of the hygiene and discipline he had known in his regiment.

Each evening the Indian labourers trudged back to their camps, which were isolated and scattered about the countryside up to five miles from the nearest village. They were confined to their camps when not at work, which afforded them very little interaction with the local people. Their camps were initially so dreary and devoid of almost anything but tents that a company of Lushai tribesmen from India’s north-eastern hills of Assam decided to improve theirs. ‘We looked around and collected corrugated iron sheets and other things, and we built a big recreation hall,’ explained Sainghinga Sailo, the Lushais’ company clerk. ‘The other room was made into a canteen. We pooled our money to buy and sell all kinds of things. The canteen began to make a profit. We bought a bioscope. Since many of us had not seen “moving pictures” it brought us much joy.’

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POW Death March from Kut, 1916

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 308-311:

In the last days of April and into early May in the desert outside Kut, the Turks gathered the 6th Indian Division’s prisoners for transportation into captivity. They separated all the British and Indian officers to travel ahead to camps in western Turkey. The officers’ journey northwards in the coming weeks was uncomfortable, by river boat, railway, mule cart, donkey and German motor lorry. Along the way they saw many dead Armenians strewn at the roadside or thrown down wells, grim signs of the Turkish government’s mass killings. The officers were treated respectfully by their Turkish guards and tolerably fed. But their Indian and British men had a very different experience from May to August. They underwent a horrific 600-mile death march from Kut through the Iraqi desert to labour camps in Ottoman Syria outside Aleppo and in the nearby Amanus and Taurus mountain ranges, which stretched into Turkey up the Mediterranean coast. ‘It was like one thing only,’ said an Austrian officer who encountered the prisoners of Kut on a mountain road at the end of their march as an army of walking skeletons driven on by Turkish rifle butts, ‘a scene from Dante’s Inferno.’

The march came about because the Turkish authorities did not have enough transport for the captive Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Christian ranks of the 6th Indian Division, having allocated what little was available to their officers. From Kut, day after day in searing heat and choking dust, the Indian and British ranks suffered horrific maltreatment from Turkish guards, both soldiers and policemen, and from local Iraqi civilians, who appeared from the villages they passed. They were beaten, whipped, knifed, stoned and shot, while their boots, clothes and water bottles were ripped off them. Some were also raped and infected with sexually transmitted diseases.

The prisoners were too weak to resist all the abuse, a consequence not just of their privations under siege but also of how poorly they were fed on the march. They initially had a small boatload of food sent upriver from Indian Expeditionary Force D, which they soon gobbled up outside Kut, the desperate Indian troops fighting each other for it. Thereon they had what the Turkish Army could spare them, chiefly old stocks of its staple biscuit ration–a rock-hard slab five inches long and three quarters of an inch thick, made of coarse flour and husks, sometimes with earth mixed in and often green with mould. Paltry rations of black bread and flour were also available. The Indian prisoners used the flour to make chapattis, which they heated over tiny fires fuelled by dried dung they picked off the desert floor or reeds they pulled from the Tigris. Otherwise they had to barter for food at high prices from their Turkish guards or Iraqis, usually in return for what few pieces of uniform they had left. To drink they had only gulps of the muddy Tigris water, or what they could scoop up in their hands from open village drains flowing with excrement.

The Indians’ diet on the march aggravated their existing intestinal infections from the months spent inside Kut. Many of them with gastro-enteritis passed bloody diarrhoea before dropping unconscious to die on the sand, filthy and emaciated. Others who collapsed in the desert crawled into the streets of villages to slump fly-covered in fetid corners, begging for scraps and slowly starving to death. Only a lucky few got any medical care, either from Turkish doctors or from a handful of convalescent Indian Medical Service officers who travelled up from Baghdad behind the main officer group.

The Indians who survived the march the best were regimental groups of old professionals who stuck together as teams to protect one another, bringing on the slowest and feeding the weakest. The men of the 7th Gurkhas did this, their pre-war NCOs filling the place of their officers, and refusing to let their companies break down. The youngest Punjabi wartime recruits fared the worst, lacking the pre-war professionals’ levels of training to work for each other. Their groups disintegrated more easily, stumbling on in isolated fragments that much reduced their chances. By August, across the desert between Kut and Aleppo, around 2000 of the marching Indian prisoners lay dead, along with a larger proportion of the British ranks. Some of their corpses were buried by regimental comrades in shallow graves excavated by hand, only to be dug up by jackals at night. Iraqi civilians cleared up a few other dead prisoners from around their villages by slinging them into ravines. But most of them remained where they had fallen in the desert.

From September, the Turks forced the surviving ranks of the 6th Indian Division into hard labour. Their task was to help construct the Ottoman Empire’s unfinished masterpiece of pre-war infrastructure, the Istanbul to Baghdad railway. Under the supervision of the railway’s German and Austrian engineers, the Hindu and Sikh prisoners were concentrated along the line in the Syrian desert east of Aleppo, in the locales of Ras al-Ayn and Nusaybin. ‘Their conditions were truly pitiful,’ wrote Percy Walter Long, an Urdu-speaking British sergeant of the Royal Artillery, who was put with them. He saw them daily on the construction sites, labouring from 4.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. in gangs, breaking and carrying stone to build embankments and lay track ballast …

The Muslim, Gurkha and most of the British prisoners from Kut laboured further west on the railway, in the Amanus Mountains in north-west Syria and the Taurus range in southern Turkey. They were the skeleton army the Austrian officer had seen as incarnations of hell on earth. ‘We were set to work at blasting and tunnelling,’ recalled Muhammad Qadir Khan, a Punjabi Muslim prisoner of the 120th Rajputana Infantry. ‘I was weak and not fit for much work, so I was beaten and told to work harder. Nearly all who were on the work were beaten and ill-treated.’

Throughout the winter of 1916–17, the labouring Indian prisoners of Kut were fed just enough to keep them working–bread, beans, meat now and then, and water they had to fetch from desert wells or mountain streams. Yet hundreds died of exposure, malnutrition and typhus. On newly completed sections of the railway, they occasionally saw what the Cabinet’s decision to capture Baghdad had ultimately led to for them: a part in strengthening enemy supply lines, plain to see as German rail trucks rattled by carrying artillery, machine guns and other weaponry for the Turkish Army in Iraq.

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Ayub Khan, Fake Deserter Spy Hero

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 248-251:

It had in fact struck the independent Pukhtun of several Indian regiments in France that the German jihad leaflets presented an opportunity to enter enemy lines under false pretences in order to spy–an old Pukhtun trick played on British camps during small wars in their tribal areas. In early 1915 some Afridi and Mahsud asked their British officers for permission to attempt the ruse in the German trenches, but were turned down on account of the dangers of being shot at any stage of trying it. One of the men denied permission was a young pre-war Mahsud NCO named Ayub Khan. In December 1914 he had been stationed in British India near Waziristan with his regiment the 124th Baluchis, and his Mahsud company had been ordered to sail for France as casualty replacements for the 129th Baluchis. Twenty-two of his company’s Mahsud had straightaway deserted to dodge the overseas draft, but Ayub Khan had declined to go with them, in itself an indication of professional commitment. Indeed, once his British officers had discovered the desertions, Ayub Khan had sworn to them, according to the 124th Baluchis’ regimental history, ‘he would either die in France or return an Indian officer’. In France in early 1915, Ayub Khan joined the 129th under the command of their pre-war officer Harold Lewis. The two got on well as Ayub Khan tried to impress for a promotion, although Lewis had drawn a line at his request to desert to spy. But Ayub Khan made up his own mind to do so, vanishing from the 129th’s trenches in the early morning darkness of 22 June. At midnight that day he dropped back in over the parapet, very tired, and refusing to give Lewis any account of his escapade until he had got some sleep.

On waking he told Lewis where he had been. ‘I went up to the German wire, lay down, and slept,’ Ayub Khan began. ‘As dawn broke I stood up, raised my hands and called out “Musalman”.’ He was welcomed into the German line, assumed to be a deserter; ‘I was treated well, and the men in the trenches gave me cigarettes.’ He was then taken four miles to the rear on a light railway, to the German-occupied French town of Marquillies. ‘I waited outside a big office. At length I was called inside and interrogated by a Staff Officer through the medium of an officer who spoke very bad Hindustani.’ Following questions about the BEF, the interrogating staff officer–the Prussian Generalleutnant Kurt von dem Borne–told Ayub Khan ‘how wrong it was for Mussalmans to fight against the allies of Turkey’, and asked why he had deserted. ‘I am of an independent race,’ Ayub Khan replied, ‘I am not an Indian. I do not see why I should daily risk my life.’ He added there were twenty more Mahsud of the 129th Baluchis who felt the same. ‘We all want to desert, but we dared not come over together lest we should be mistaken for a raiding party and be fired on and killed. We decided that I should come alone and arrange matters.’ Von dem Borne offered Ayub Khan 20 marks for each of the other twenty Mahsud, equivalent to 300 rupees in total, if he returned to the Indian trenches and brought them over to the Germans. Ayub Khan struck the deal, agreeing a time and place for the mass desertion, and was taken by motor car to the German front line to crawl back to the 129th Baluchis. The morning of his return to the regiment, Ayub Khan showed no inclination of sticking to his side of the bargain with von dem Borne. Rather, he poured out to Lewis every scrap of military intelligence he could. He had spent his time with the Germans making a mental note of all he saw, so he was able to report a range of information, of a kind considered valuable on the western front: German regimental numbers he had seen on epaulettes; the technical details of German trench construction down to the design of parapets, machine gun nests and dug-outs; and the layout behind the German trenches, including ammunition dumps and the whereabouts of von dem Borne’s headquarters.

Word of Ayub Khan’s story soon reached James Willcocks and he went up to the 129th’s trenches to hear it from the man himself. ‘Ayub Khan carried his life in his hand,’ Willcocks reflected, ‘for had his actions caused one doubt of any kind among his captors he would assuredly have been shot.’ Yet Willcocks still tested the young Mahsud NCO’s word by directing the Indian Corps’ artillery to fire on one of the spots he had identified as an ammunition dump. Willcocks took the ensuing ‘very considerable explosion’ as the proof he needed, and spontaneously gave Ayub Khan 300 rupees to match von dem Borne’s offer, along with a special promotion in the field to a higher grade of NCO. He also directed that a large sign be put up above the 129th Baluchis’ trenches saying ‘The Traitor Has Been Shot’. This was a ruse ‘to notify the Hun that the treachery had been discovered’, and therefore to pre-empt any shelling of the regiment’s line by the Germans ‘in a fit of pique if they felt tricked’.

Lewis felt that Ayub Khan’s solo spying surpassed the bravery even of the 129th’s Punjabi Muslim machine gunner Khudadad Khan, the first Indian soldier to win the Victoria Cross. For Lewis, Ayub Khan’s devotion to duty in the presence of the enemy was unique. John Hannyngton, the 129th Baluchis’ commanding officer, and Willcocks agreed: they recommended Ayub Khan for a VC. The BEF authorities, however, rejected the recommendation and forbade Ayub Khan’s story from going public under a censorship ban. Their concern was that self-appointment as a spy was no example to the British soldier, who should not be encouraged to do the same.

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The Indian Corps Saves the Day, 1914

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 139-141:

In the last week of October, the BEF’s commanders of its British corps from the Home Army admitted the tight spot they were in. Douglas Haig wrote that his I Corps, holding part of the left of the BEF line before Ypres, was ‘exhausted… 2 Brigadiers assure me that if the Enemy makes a push at any point, they doubt our men being able to hold on’. Also on the BEF left, Haig’s neighbouring British IV Corps commander Henry Rawlinson confessed, ‘We are hanging on only by our eyelids; we want men, and always more men.’ On the BEF right, the II Corps commander Horace Smith-Dorrien wrote ‘My poor troops are simply worn out.’ The BEF’s fundamental dilemma was one of averting fatal over-stretch–how to hold its 35-mile line into November with so few men who were so tired when the German attacks kept coming until mid-month.

The BEF was able to cling on because the Indian Corps arrived with around 22,000 Indian and British troops to hold a total of 12 miles, or about a third, of its line, principally on the right in France. In early November on the BEF’s left by Ypres, where the German onslaught fell heaviest, its original British corps avoided defeat on the narrowest of margins with French assistance and a few British Territorial home defence troops who had volunteered for France. For the BEF’s Home Army corps to have also held the right of its line without the Indian Corps’ assistance would have been too much for them: their British troops would have been spread too thinly to keep the Germans from breaking through. After First Ypres, Haig talked in private of how the Indian Corps had ‘saved the situation by filling a gap’, while his intelligence staff officer John Charteris acknowledged it had been ‘invaluable… when we had no other troops to put in’. And if the Indian Corps saved the BEF’s line from collapsing, it also saved the whole Allied line at First Ypres–of which the BEF held half–and therefore probably the Allied cause in the west in 1914.

Why, then, has Indian Expeditionary Force A’s part in the Allied story of survival in 1914 not loomed larger in the history of the First World War? One reason is that it was not general public knowledge at the time. By First Ypres the British press had moved on from celebrating the lifting of the colour bar [prohibiting nonwhites from fighting whites]–which was already yesterday’s news, there was only so far it could be celebrated when British African troops remained prohibited from fighting in Europe under their own colour bar. Rather, the press was eager for Indian battle stories, but British government censorship prevented much battle information on the Indians getting out. The story-starved British press generally turned to fantasy, inventing reports from First Ypres of Sikhs as superhuman slayers of 20,000 German troops in an afternoon, Gurkhas throwing khukuris through the air with deadly accuracy, and Indians shooting down aeroplanes with their rifles. Grains of truth were few and far between, some appearing in The Times, which described the BEF’s Indian troops at First Ypres as ‘long-service professional soldiers… fighting as steadily as the rest of the Army’. So little reliable news of Indian Expeditionary Force A reached India in November that the Viceroy, Charles Hardinge, said ‘people in India are wondering what has happened to the troops and where they have gone’. He was compelled to write to James Willcocks asking for private updates.

In British national memory, First Ypres came to be seen as the British Army’s ultimate moment of sacrifice of 1914, scarcely mentioning Indian Expeditionary Force A as the BEF’s lifeline. But the Indian factor should be included to recognise that the Indian Army was ready before the war to deploy fast to France, and to fight when it got there. The achievements of Force A at First Ypres become all the clearer in light of its sister Indian Expeditionary Forces’ experiences against the Germans in 1914–Forces B and C to East Africa. These cooperated in an ambitious attempt to capture German East Africa largely by themselves, yet unlike the Indian part in First Ypres, it was an utter fiasco.

 

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British Indian Expeditionary Forces, WWI

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 10-14:

All the men of Indian Expeditionary Force A to France went to liberate German-occupied territory in the name of democracy. Some 85,000 Indian soldiers and 50,000 non-combatants served with Force A on the western front. In the wider world the Indian Army served extensively to shut down the German colonial empire, partly as a natural adjunct of the British cause against Prussian militarism in Europe, and partly to secure British colonies. On 6 August 1914 the Cabinet at 10 Downing Street was already cooking up, wrote Asquith, ‘with some gusto… schemes for taking German ports & wireless stations in E & W Africa & the China Seas… I had to remark we looked more like a gang of Elizabethan buccaneers than a meek collection of black-coated Liberal Ministers.’ These extra-European anti-German schemes unfurled until the war’s end, with some 40,000 Indian soldiers and 12,000 Indian non-combatants taking part, primarily with Indian Expeditionary Forces B and C in tropical Africa.

The greatest Indian numbers overseas, however, were involved in the war against the Ottoman Empire covering most of the Middle East. Approximately 430,000 Indian soldiers and 330,000 non-combatants invaded the region, making the Indian Army by 1918 the single largest Allied force on Ottoman soil. Turkey had been neutral until the end of October 1914, when it picked sides by sending warships over the Black Sea under a German admiral to bombard Tsarist Ukraine. ‘The Turkish Empire has committed suicide, and dug with its own hands its grave,’ Asquith proclaimed within days, as Russia, Serbia, Britain and France responded with declarations of war. ‘It is the Ottoman Government that has drawn the sword, and which, I venture to predict, will perish by the sword. It is they and not we who have rung the death-knell of Ottoman dominion, not only in Europe, but in Asia.’

As Asquith heard that death-knell in early November 1914, he was distracted by the need for British notes of religious caution towards the Ottoman Empire as an Islamic state. At the time the global Muslim population stood at 270 million. Around 100 million Muslims were British subjects, 70 million of them living in the Indian Empire, which made Britain the greatest Muslim power of the day, as the French Empire in North Africa and the Russian in Central Asia had 20 million Muslims each, and the Ottomans 15 million. While most Indian Muslims’ head of state was the King-Emperor, they generally revered his Ottoman counterpart, the Sultan of Turkey, as their highest religious leader. The overwhelming majority were Sunnis for whom the Sultan was Caliph, or the Prophet Muhammad’s direct successor, in whose stewardship lay Islam’s Holy Places including Mecca and Jerusalem. The British were anxious that Indian Muslims could see the war on Turkey as a war on Islam, stirring them into anti-British protest in sympathy with Ottoman co-religionists, and that Arabs under Ottoman rule could be equally alienated when they might otherwise turn on the Turks as Allied rebels. So Asquith was quick to reassure the King-Emperor and the Sultan’s Muslim subjects alike. ‘Nothing is further from our thoughts or intentions than to initiate or encourage a crusade against their belief,’ he announced on 9 November. ‘Their holy places we are prepared, if any such need should arise, to defend against all invaders and to maintain inviolate… We have no quarrel with Mussulman subjects of the Sultan.’

In the earliest days of the war on Turkey, therefore, British sensitivity to Muslim opinion ruled out any large gathering of British Empire forces for an immediate strike on the Ottoman state. Instead the British government ordered only pinpricks on the Ottoman Empire’s southern limits, reckoned to be the unavoidable minimum of military action at low risk of offending Muslims worldwide. They were all tasks in November 1914 for the Army in India. Thus Indian Expeditionary Force D of just one Indian brigade headed up the Persian Gulf. Its most obvious job was to guard from Turkish attack the Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s refinery at Abadan, vital to the British government as Anglo-Persian’s majority shareholder which depended on it to fuel the Royal Navy’s warships, and lying on the coast of neutral Iran by the border of Ottoman Iraq (known to the British as Mesopotamia). But Force D’s primary purpose was to put Indian and British boots on the ground in Iraq close to Abadan, just enough to give the local Arabs confidence of British support if they rebelled against the Turks.

Meanwhile Indian Expeditionary Forces E and F sailed to secure Egypt, a de facto part of the British Empire. Egypt’s northeastern border was the longest British imperial land frontier with the Ottoman Empire, and its main asset was another British government shareholding: the Suez Canal, the precious sea link between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean for Allied troopships and war materials.

From the second week of November 1914, however, the initial caution of the British war on Turkey receded as three pressures turned it into a tornado that over the next four years tore about the Middle East and European Turkey, carrying the Indian Army with it in all directions.

Firstly, the Sultan of Turkey made a dramatic intervention to wield his spiritual authority as Caliph as a force of Allied destruction. At Istanbul on 14 November 1914 he declared a holy war, or jihad, against the Allies, developing the world war into a collision between Christianity and Islam. In a joint effort with the Germans, the Turkish government orchestrated the Sultan’s jihad to multiply anti-Allied fighters. It called on all Ottoman Muslims as obedient servants of Allah to defend their Islamic state against the Christian Allied invaders coming from the Persian Gulf and elsewhere, and on all Muslims of the wider world, especially in the British, French and Russian empires and Iran, to join the jihad to punish the Allies for conspiring to annihilate Islam. ‘The rank of those who depart to the next world is martyrdom,’ the Sultan’s chief religious scholar, the Sheikh al-Islam, said of the holy warriors summoned by the official jihad proclamations that spread across Muslim Asia and Africa; ‘those who sacrifice their lives to give life to the truth will have honour in this world, and their latter end in paradise.’ For the sin of refusing to join the jihad, the Sheikh warned, the inevitable penalties were ‘the wrath of God’ and ‘the fire of hell’. Within days, in the name of the jihad the Turkish Army was plotting attacks with German officers and desert-dwelling jihadists on British Empire troops, oil pipelines and other installations from Egypt to Aden, Iraq and Abadan–all places where Indian troops were targets.

Secondly, following a Russian request in New Year 1915 for new Allied operations to divert the Turkish Army from the Caucasus, the Allies kick-started coalition warfare out of the eastern Mediterranean towards Istanbul. This began in February 1915 with Anglo-French naval attacks launched from island bases in the Aegean Sea, before falling hardest with military landings on the Gallipoli Peninsula dangling from the Ottoman Empire’s European fringe–where Indian Expeditionary Force G served.

Thirdly, the British kept bounding forward through the Middle East by following their imperialist noses to the war’s end. They seized military opportunities on horizon after horizon from the edges of Egypt, Ottoman Iraq and the Indian Empire, all in British imperial security interests and eventually making Britain the dominant force in the Middle East with control over the Islamic Holy Places. There was no masterplan here; rather it happened almost by accident as the sum of grand strategic decisions taken in bursts to secure and expand the British Empire–broadly speaking, if the war on Germany was for democracy, the war on Turkey was for imperialism.

By November 1918, the British had a stranglehold over the Ottoman Empire resembling the grip of an enchanted giant squid, its master the Prime Minister in London, its main body the Indian Empire, and its two longest tentacles Indian Expeditionary Forces: one being Force D extending from British India 2000 miles up the Persian Gulf into Ottoman Iraq, the other Force E 2500 miles up the Red Sea to Syria.

I resisted ordering this new book because the list price of the Kindle edition is over my normal threshold for Kindle books, but after downloading a sample, I decided to go ahead and buy it at what I presume to be a temporary promotional discount. It fits too well with the major themes of this blog.

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