Who served in the British Indian Army during the First World War?
At the outbreak of the War in August 1914, the British Indian Army consisted of around 194,000 regular soldiers and 46,000 non-combatants, giving a total of 250,000 personnel. By the Armistice in November 1918, the force had grown to nearly 1.5 million, with a million serving as soldiers.
In total, the Indian Army sent around 1.5 million men and 173,000 animals from Indian ports to nearly all theatres of war across Europe, Africa and Asia. One in every six soldiers of the British Empire was from the Indian subcontinent; its contribution was the equivalent of all the forces from the then dominions of the British Empire combined (namely Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa). Of these around 400,000 (about a third of the British Indian Army) were Muslims.
Care was taken to only recruit soldiers from peoples who were considered to have a proven track record of military prowess, the so-called “martial races”. Also the British avoided relying too heavily on one particular type of soldier and deliberately mixed soldiers from different back grounds. Recruitment from city populations was also generally avoided partly because of the risk of introducing radical or nationalist sentiment in to the ranks of the Indian military. Recruitment from city populations was also generally avoided partly because of the risk of introducing radical or nationalist sentiment in to the ranks of the Indian military. Also the British avoided relying too heavily on one particular type of soldier and deliberately mixed soldiers from different back grounds. Thus Indian units were composed of soldiers from various ethnic groups or classes, mainly comprising Sikhs, Punjabi Muslims, Punjabi Hindus, Brahmins, Rajputs and Gurkhas (who hailed from the independent country of Nepal). These soldiers fought in all the major theatres of war on land, air and sea, alongside British troops. Indian soldiers were all recruited as volunteers. Some were members of families with a tradition of military service already. Some joined as the result of recruitment campaigns (towards the end of the war these campaigns were often run very ruthlessly). Propaganda created expectations of a return and the war raised hopes of greater economic independence, self-assurance and standing with government.
Indian Amy soldiers were in action on the Western Front within a month of the start of the war. A total of 140,000 men, comprising 90,000 combatants (those in the front-line) and 50,000 non-combatants (those in auxiliary battalions), saw active service on the Western Front in France and Belgium.
After a year of front-line duty, sickness , casualties and a loss of highly trained British officers who understood the cultures and religions of their men reduced the Indian Corps to the point where it had to be withdrawn (although Indian cavalry continued to serve on the Western Front) . Nearly 700,000 Indian Army soldiers served in the Middle East, fighting with distinction against the Ottoman Empire in the Mesopotamian theatre of war. Indian Army troops also served in Aden, Egypt, Palestine, Persia, Italy, Salonica, Russia, East and West Africa, on the Gallipoli peninsula and even in China.
Indian Army soldiers won 9,500 medals in the five main theatres of war, i.e. France and Belgium ,East Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Palestine, and Gallipoli (they won a further 3,500 medals India and in the frontier wars), including 11 Victoria Crosses – the supreme award for valour.
The project is a collaboration between think-tank British Future and the organisation New Horizons for British Islam. British Future is an independent, non-partisan thinktank seeking to involve people in an open conversation, which addresses people’s hopes and fears about identity and integration, migration and opportunity, so that we feel confident about Britain’s Future. New Horizons is a forward-looking organisation that will work for reform in Muslim thought and practise. It is inspired by Islamic values and speaks from within the Islamic tradition for the benefit of all.