The Sahibs

May 3 2014
We are grateful to Commodore Subrata Bose for this very informative piece of history



When he dismounted his horse and walked into Jerusalem like a pilgrim in October 1917, General Edmund Allenby was performing a feat that even England's greatest warrior-king, Richard the Lionheart, couldn't. Commanding two divisions of doughty Indian soldiers-Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians-Allenby became the first Christian commander after the First Crusade to defeat a Muslim army and enter the HolyCity. None mutinied, not even the ‘Mussalman' battalions! The politics of religion would be played afterwards with the Khilafat Movement.

A few days earlier, the 6th Gurkhas had become the only Allied unit to cross into the Turk- and German-held Gallipoli. Bill, a young subaltern in the Royal Warwickshire regiment, watched the daring charge in awe, and applied for a transfer to the Indian Army at a lower pay. Years later, Field Marshal William (Bill) Slim would command the entire Indian Army, and become one of India's most fondly remembered army chiefs since Stringer Lawrence raised the Madras Army, and thus the Madras regiment, in 1748.

Such acts by young British gentlemen-officers made the imperial-minded British rulers in India rethink about Indians, and the feudal-minded Indian gentry rethink about the army in which sons of their serfs had been serving.

At the start of the war, the Indian regimental ranks numbered 2,39,561, none of them a ‘gentleman' (if you count out a few royals who, for the love of military regalia, sought honorary commissions). The Indian ‘gentlemen', the ones who had gone to college, would be recruited only after the war when commissioned ranks were offered to Indians.

Till the end of World War I it was the muscular, but barely literate ones who were recruited-into lower ranks and at the most for viceroy's commission.

The viceroy's commission would later be called the junior commission, a class of semi-officers not found in any other army today. Just as the British officers had to call every viceroy commissioned officer saab, even today officers address the junior commissioned officers, who are below them in rank, as saab. Even the President, the supreme commander, has to address a subedar-major as saab.

By the time the war ended, 11,00,000 Indians had served overseas; 60,000 didn't come back; they were buried or lost in France, Greece, North Africa, Palestine, and of course Mesopotamia; another 70,000 came back minus a limb or two or permanently crippled.

So, it was the case with the empires. Five empires had gone to war in 1914-British, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Turks. One survived. It took another 30 years and another world war to bring about the end of history's last and mightiest empire and the birth of the world's largest democracy.

As soon as the war was proclaimed, Viceroy Hardinge committed two infantry and two cavalry divisions to Britain's war effort. India had a recruitable manpower (men aged 18 to 50) of 7.2 crore. Congress leader Madan Mohan Malviya promised Hardinge that India would grudge “no sacrifice of men and money in order that the British armies shall triumph”.

The most pressing theatre at the start of the war was France. The British Expeditionary Force there was losing out to the better-armed Germans after fighting for two months when the Meerut and Lahore divisions landed at Marseilles in October and, as Charles Chenevix Trench wrote in The Indian Army and The King's Enemies 1900-1947, “practised for a day or two with the short Lee-Enfield rifle which was new to them, and were entrained for the front.” The Baluch regiment (now with Pakistan) charged into Ypres where Sepoy Khudadad Khan, a Punjabi Muslim, became the first Indian to win the Victoria Cross.

The Bengal Sappers, an engineering unit still serving the Indian Army, fought as emergency infantry, and lost all its British officers. Yes, officers led from the front. Lt-Col. E.R.R. Swiney led the newly raised 39th Garhwal Rifles (still serving as Garhwal Rifles), wearing Gurkha uniforms and carrying khukri (because earlier they used to be recruited into the Gurkha regiments), in a brilliant flank attack on the Germans in Neuve Chapelle where Naik Darwan Singh Negi won India's second VC. Short of horses, the Poona Horse (earlier 17th Queen Victoria's own cavalry and now an armoured regiment) fought on foot, with no winter clothes.

From France, the 129th Baluchis and 40th Pathans (their successor units are now in the Pakistani army) went to East Africa. Their reputation had preceded them. Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, the German general who waited for them in East Africa and who was respected even by the British as Erwin Rommel would be in the next war, noted in his diary that the Indians “are without a doubt very good”.

The disaster was Mesopotamia, which ranks as one of the two worst humiliations (the other was at the hands of the Afghans, 1839-42) suffered by the British empire in its two and a half centuries of existence. The military objective was small-safeguard the oil wells near Basra from the Turks. An expeditionary force, under Major-General Charles Townshend, who had brilliantly defended Chitral in the northwest 25 years earlier, was sent from India. Having taken Basra, Townshend got ambitious. Why not the ancient town of Ctesiphon? Or even the fabled Baghdad, the city of the Arabian Nights?

It looked easy. There was no major Turkish resistance, but what Townshend ignored was that he was stretching his supply lines thin. He took Kut-al Amara where Turkish general Nuruddin tried to block him. The 24th and 66th Punjabis, the 2/7 Gurkhas and 117th Mahrathas, whose successor regiments are still in the Indian Army without the numerals, stormed into Ctesiphon, but Townshend wisely retreated to Kut. Nuruddin struck again, just once, and laid siege to Kut. And there perished thousands, without food, medicines or even water. Their names are etched on the stones of Delhi's India Gate.

Finally, Sir Stanley Maude redeemed the Indian and British honour. He took back Mesopotamia, leading his Sikhs, Mahrathas and Gurkhas, ably assisted by Madras and Bengal Sappers, all still in the Indian Army. The Delhi Cantonment still has Maude Lines, though the road signs near ‘Cavalary' Road say ‘Maudelines'.

Edmund ‘Bull' Allenby's ride into Palestine, commanding the 4th and 5th Indian divisions, along with an Australian and a New Zealand division, against a formidable line-up of Turks and Germans was history's last great cavalry campaign. The two divisions were mostly composed of 2nd Lancers, 29th Lancers, 6th Cavalry, 38th Central India Horse, 36th Jacob's Horse (Scinde Horse), 19th Lancers, Jodhpur Lancers, 9th Hodson's Horse (raised by the notorious William Hodson who shot the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar's unarmed sons in cold blood in 1857), 20th Deccan Horse, Mysore Lancers, 18th Lancers, 34th Poona Horse and Hyderabad Lancers. Most of these units were later amalgamated into armoured regiments of the Indian Army.

They marched from Nazareth to Damascus where Risaldar Nur Ahmed of Hodson's Horse made hundreds of Turks surrender to him. Poona Horse surrounded a motor-car carrying a European wearing Arab clothes. They took him for a German spy and grilled him in Urdu. The man shouted back in Arabic. British officers reached the scene and further questioned the ‘spy'.

Spying he was, but for the British. He would later employ Pathans from the Indian Army for several of his famous raids. His name was T.E. Lawrence.

The war changed India, the way it was governed and the way it waged its wars. The British began to take the Indians more seriously as rulers and commanders. The Montagu-Chelmsford reforms of 1919, though not very successful, gave more civil powers to Indians. Three committees-Esher, Rawlinson and Inchcape-overhauled the army. They recruited college-bred young Indian gentlemen as officers. Thousands enlisted.

The two reforms and a few on the same lines later would save India from chaos and civil wars many years later. In about three decades, when the Empire had to leave India, it left a class of Indian leaders wedded to the finest form of Westminster democracy, and an incredibly huge class of officers who would lead their men from the front in war after war.