The British-Indian Army and its officer class

Lord Linlithgow Viceroy of India

On 3rd September, 1939, with all the powers invested in him by the British crown, the Viceroy of India brought India into the war against Germany. He did so without bothering to consult with any of India’s political leaders and by failing to do so lost the support of India’s entire political class.

He needn’t have done so, after all, Nehru, who had spoken out passionately against the evils of Hitler’s regime, had been educated at Harrow, the same school as Churchill; while Gandhi, trained as a lawyer at the Inner Temple, would never have allowed an independent India to arise out of the ashes of Britain’s institutions. A more diplomatic approach on the part of the Viceroy might have won India’s full cooperation.

In response to the snub, the regional assemblies resigned, government was sabotaged and Congress stepped up its campaign to rid India of the British.

Yet, with India in revolt, Britain was still able to raise a volunteer army of 2.5 million men, the largest volunteer force in history, of which 87,000 were to lose their lives and 30 were to win the Victoria Cross, an army which was to fight with great courage and discipline and play a crucial role in the Allied victories in North Africa, Europe and Asia.

British possessions in India

It had been the British East India Company that had first entered India through Bengal and bled it of its wealth. It had been through its private armies, recruited from amongst the Muslims of Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, that the company had extendeded its fiefdoms and acquired unrivalled supremacy throughout the Indian sub-continent.

When those troops finally rebelled in the Mutiny of 1857, the power of the East India Company had collapsed and the government of India had reverted to the British Crown. Bengal, once the richest province of India, had been broken and impoverished. In 1911, the capital was moved from Calcutta to Delhi.

No longer were Bengali troops deemed reliable for maintaining public order and suppressing dissent. The British now turned to the Punjabis, Pashtuns, Gurkhas, Sikhs and Rajputs of the North West to man their armies. But ever fearful of revolt, each ethnic group was studiously assigned to its own regiments so that the possible disloyalty of one could be quashed by another. Kinship and tribal ties served to reinforce regimental pride while simultaneously alienating the soldiers from the members of other clans. The caste system was shrewdly manipulated to give respect to the north-western tribes as “martial” while despising Bengalis as “unmanly”. British pomp seduced India’s elite to collaborate, while differences in caste, class and religion prevented a united front from emerging to challenge Britain’s greatest imperial possession.

During the period of the East India Company, only one in ten regiments had been British. After the mutiny, it was felt necessary to increase the number to one in three and to withdraw all artillery from Indian hands. By 1880, there were 65,000 British troops to 135,000 Indian. The cost of the British regiments was left to the Indian exchequer, a British soldier costing three times as much as an Indian one.

No attempt was every made to create a citizens’ army through National Service that might protect Indian interests. The army remained a mercenary one in service to the British crown. Immediately after the Indian Mutiny, its principal role was to maintain public order. Battalions and regiments were garrisoned in every large Indian town. Loyalty of the troops was maintained by deploying the regiments away from their home grounds.

Senior command of the Indian army was kept in the hands of British officers, trained at Sandhurst and holders of the Kings’ Commission. Indians could only aspire to the Viceroy’s commission which put them in command of squadrons and platoons but no larger units. Indian soldiers were required to salute Indian officers but no British soldiers were expected to do so.

British and Indian Officers 15th Bengal Infantry 1885

The Viceroy’s commission was given to those soldiers who had served for some time in the regiment who could act as liaison officers between the Indian troops and their British officers. They would have been older men with little experience beyond their regiments, without the staff training needed for higher rank and with little opportunity for promotion.

In 1901, Lord Curzon founded the Imperial Cadet Corps at Dehra Dun, an elite corps designed to give the sons of Indian princes and aristocrats experience of military life. This allowed them a commission without the long experience normally required of the peasant soldiers, but it was still only the Viceroy’s commission and the aim was more to flatter than empower.

Under Kitchener’s reforms in 1903, the role of the army was shifted from that of maintaining public order to one of defending the borders, principally along the North-Western frontier. This involved a major restructuring in which the battalion strength units, scattered across the country, were fused into large operational divisions either on active duty or held in reserve.

The First World War challenged many of the presumptions that underlined the pre-war organization of the Indian army. Desperately in need of manpower, recruitment was extended to the “non-martial” castes. At the height of the war, Indians who held the Viceroy’s commission were made eligible for the King’s commission. In 1917, ten vacancies were opened for Indians at Sandhurst. In 1918, the Chelmsford-Montagu report recommended to parliament that measures should be taken to encourage self-government in India, implicit in this was the gradual Indianisation of the army.

But the concessions and pledges were soon qualified or rescinded. At the end of the war, the “non-martial” castes were the first to be demobilised. Of the first 25 men to enter Sandhurst, only 10 passed through.

Under pressure from India’s Legislative Assembly, the Viceroy appealed to London for measures to bring Indian officers into the Army on a par with their British counterparts. London, however, was wary of having British subalterns under the command of Indian officers and therefore settled on a slow policy of Indianisation in segregated units in which Indian officers with the King’s commission would first replace those Indians with the Viceroy’s commission and then move up slowly to replace their British counterparts. Complete Indianisation was estimated to take over 22 years. Only 5 out of 104 infantry battalions were selected for Indianisation; 2 out of 21 cavalry regiments; and 1 pioneer battalion (sappers and miners) out of 7. Since the programme was conceived as an experiment, the eight units did not even constitute a complete operational division, while 17,000 British officers remained in command of the rest of the Indian army.

It was a firm belief of the time that only proper breeding and a public school education could provide the right material for the officer class. To give Indian boys the correct background, the Prince of Wales Royal Indian Military College was founded in Dehra Dun in 1922 as an Indian Public School.

In 1932, another reluctant step was taken towards autonomy with the establishment of the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun, an Indian equivalent to Sandhurst. It opened in 1932 and was tasked to produce 40 commissioned officers twice a year following two and a half years of training.

The Second World War, like the First, was to expose how reactionary and timid the British had been. In 1939, fewer than a thousand Indians held the King’s commission, by 1945, 15,740 were to have it, while senior Indian officers were put in command of battalions, regiments and brigades. By the end of the war, nobody thought it necessary to “stiffen” Indian brigades with a British brigade. Nor was recruitment confined to the north as Bengali and Madrasi troops proved themselves to be equal in valour to any Punjabi.

Just as it had been the revolt of the soldiers that had announced the end of the East India Company, so was it a mutiny within the armed forces, this time in the navy, that showed the British that they could no longer hold India. Within two years of the end of the war, they were out.

This entry was posted in Alamein (politics). Bookmark the permalink.