Category Archives: military

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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Did the Sepoys Fight for ‘India’?

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 446-447:

All the evidence from the great British listening post for the Indian troops’ thoughts–the censors office of Indian Expeditionary Force A in France that translated thousands of their letters–points to a communication gap still existing in mid-1918 between the educated urban Indian politicians and the uneducated rural Indian soldiers. The translated letters indicate among the Indian infantry and cavalry in France no nationalism as Gandhi and the Indian politicians articulated it at the Delhi War Conference. The letters’ anthologiser, the British historian David Omissi [also author of The Sepoy and the Raj], found this a ‘deafening silence’:

The ‘India’ that they wrote about… was very much a geographical expression, and one that was not central to a sepoy’s main sense of self. Even in Europe, the sepoys left little evidence that they imagined themselves to be primarily ‘Indians’… Prominent people never mentioned in the letters read like a political Who’s Who of the First World War: Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, Lenin, Trotsky and Gandhi are among the many who failed to make any impression. [The] soldiers never discussed… international politics, except in cases which, for Muslims, had an obviously ‘Islamic’ angle… Nor were the troops aware of, or interested in, Indian ‘high’ politics… Two men voiced a hope for self-government after the war, but neither were soldiers: one was a labourer and the other was clearly an educated man. The only letter which could in any way be described as subversively ‘nationalist’ was written by a storekeeper.

Indeed, far from subscribing to the nationalist politicians’ argument in favour of the war, many village families were against military service for their own reasons. As the demand for recruits rose in 1918, so did villages’ reluctance to send their men to fight. Rural pandemics of malaria and bubonic plague made helping hands at home all the more precious in the fragile rural economy, and the new publicity boards’ propaganda posters and poetry only went so far to convince communities that had suffered losses at the fronts to give up more men. In some Punjabi districts volunteers became so unforthcoming that the local recruitment brokers, under pressure from provincial civil authorities to fill their quotas, grew desperate and strayed into unlawful coercion. Such brokers visited Punjabi villages with gangs to seize recruits against their will, and often took cash bribes to leave a village alone. There were also brokers who abused magistrates’ powers of summons to court, by arranging for summons only to grab men for the Indian Army when they showed up.

In Punjab’s Shahpur district, the young men of a number of villages stood up to the coercive brokers, entering into pacts to resist them with force. On occasion this led to violent fights and riots, leaving village streets running with blood. The active Punjabi resistance to recruitment deterred the Government of India from imposing conscription to make sure of reaching its new annual target of 500,000 recruits. This was despite local authorities’ pleas for conscription because their stretched recruitment networks were, in the words of one British civil servant in Punjab in May, ‘riding the voluntary horse to a standstill’.

There was also coercive recruitment in the Indian Empire’s remoter hill and jungle tracts of the north-east called on for non-combatants for labour corps.

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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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Each Pukhtun ‘a law unto himself’

From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 64-67:

The Indian Army by 1914 had approximately 7500 independent Pukhtun soldiers, serving across forty regiments. They saw the world through their own passionately tribal eyes–as Afridi, the tribe of Tirah in the north of the tribal areas which provided a third of the Indian Army’s independent Pukhtun; as Mahsud, a major tribe of Waziristan in the south yielding 1300 recruits; or as Mohmand, Orakzai and others of territories which like Tirah and Waziristan were in the exclusive possession of their particular tribe. So self-assertive were these tribesmen that each man was a law unto himself, rendering their value as imperial soldiers highly ambiguous. As the Mahsud would say in their soft Pushtu dialect with a knowing shrug and a smile, ‘we are very untrust-worthy people’.

All the independent Pukhtun tribes lived by their ancient and egalitarian tribal code ‘Pukhtunwali’, meaning the way of the Pukhtun. Each individual closely observed its mores of honour, hospitality, rivalry, revenge and courage, giving rise to feuds in which retribution for insults was exacted personally to maintain pride. The feuds were typically between families of the same tribe over zar, zan or zamin–gold, women or land–and they were often settled in cold blood by both men and women. Feuding was exceptionally dangerous by the early 1900s because around 100,000 Pukhtun men had become the proud owners of their own European modern rifle.

The tribal areas had no ban on owning guns as British India did, and many tribesmen bought their rifles on the local arms market from cartels operating out of Europe that smuggled the weapons through Oman, Iran and the Afghan province of Helmand; others bought their rifles from Australia, or stole them from the Army in India. Murder by rifle was so common a feuding fate for men, women and children that the tribesmen who feuded the most, above all the Afridi, had come to live not in Punjabi-style villages but in spread-out homestead-forts topped with multi-storey towers, their gun-slits rising above gardens of roses and apricot trees. The tribal areas were a smouldering bed of resistance to the bordering Indian Empire. Their mullahs, the literate holy men learned in the Koran who commanded great respect as the authorities on the tribes’ rough and ready brand of Islam, continually preached against the British. They spoke of them as an existential Christian threat to Pukhtun independence, warning of imperial intentions to annex the tribal areas and impose western-style laws that would spell the end for Pukhtunwali as they knew it, collapsing their tribal universe. From time to time the mullahs called for jihad against the Christian imperialists at their door, stoking anti-British tribal feelings into flame in order to gather lashkars (war parties of between 20 and 300 men) to serve Islam as mujahideen, or holy warriors. The lashkars then broke into British India’s adjacent North-West Frontier Province to raid towns and villages, or ambush Army in India camps and patrols.

Tensions between the independent Pukhtun and the Indian Empire led to no fewer than sixty-six separate Army in India invasions of the tribal areas between 1849 and 1908. The invasions were known as small wars, and lasted weeks or months until a truce was brokered and the Indian forces withdrew. The invasions were never to conquer or annex, but to punish particular tribes for jihadist incursions into British India. The tribes bitterly opposed the invasions, fighting back with an absolute refusal to accept defeat–a tenet of Pukhtunwali, whose defence was their highest honour and motivation.

By the early 1900s, the Afridi and the Mahsud had fought the British the most and were particularly adept defenders of their homelands of Tirah and Waziristan with their modern rifles. In one Anglo-Afridi small war of 1897–8, deep in Tirah’s mountains and ravines, tireless Afridi lashkars inflicted a series of minor tactical disasters on the British Army. They outmanoeuvred and annihilated detachments of the Northamptonshire Regiment and Yorkshire Light Infantry, taking no mercy on some of the wounded Tommies. They stripped them naked and mutilated them as marks not just of their rage at the invaders, whom they utterly rejected as outsiders with no place in their tribal world, but of Pukhtunwali’s permanence too. ‘The Hague Convention,’ wrote the British officer Hugh Nevill in 1912, referring to the international law of the day on humane treatment of enemy wounded and surrendered, ‘is to them not even a name.’

In the Anglo-Afridi war of 1897–8, over 500 British soldiers fell to rifle fire–a third of them were killed and a few had limbs blown off by large-calibre sniper bullets. Indeed, some British battalions had to be withdrawn early from Tirah, exhausted by the intensity of the mountain fighting and flummoxed by the Afridi lashkars. To Winston Churchill, serving with the Tirah Expeditionary Force in 1898 as a young British Army officer, the campaign amounted to a ‘fruitless errand… To enter the mountains and attack an Afridi is to jump into water to catch a fish.’

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