Finest Hour 163, Summer 2014
By Raymond A. Callahan
There are few more dramatic descriptions of the coming of World War I than Winston Churchill’s account, in The World Crisis, of the moment when Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, broke into the Cabinet’s interminable discussion of the intractable “Irish Problem” to read the text of Austria-Hungary’s ultimatum to Serbia. There follows a matchless account of the end of the long European peace and the war’s opening stages. Matchless—but not comprehensive.
Churchill was not, of course, writing a general history of Britain’s war but his account was, it is safe to say, more widely read and influential than that of any other British politician or general—so the omissions are of some consequence. And no omission is more striking than the imperial dimension of the British war effort, especially the role of the Indian Empire. India’s role would set in train changes that would powerfully affect Churchill’s career in the 1930s and the shape of the world war he would wage in 1940-45.1
The King-Emperor’s declaration of war on Germany automatically committed the Raj to war as well. That vast structure, supervised by what in retrospect seems a remarkably tiny cadre of British officials, possessed its own army, and had done so since its 18th century origins under the “Honourable Company.” In 1914 that army was 150,000 strong, its soldiers drawn from the “martial races”—a Victorian invention that in practice meant from the Punjab and the North West Frontier. There were also Gurkha regiments recruited from the client kingdom of Nepal, widely thought of (not the least by their officers) as the Indian Army’s equivalent of the Brigade of Guards.
All Indian Army officers were British. A tentative (and rather half-hearted) prewar effort at commissioning Indians, the Imperial Cadet Corps, had not produced a single Indian officer by 1914. It was an Army that, in addition to internal security duties (known as “Aid to the Civil”) campaigned endlessly against the “frontier tribes”—the perpetually intractable “Pathan” (now styled Pashtun) clans of the ungoverned mountainous belt of territory that lay between British India and the somewhat amorphous Kingdom of Afghanistan.
This had produced an army of combat-experienced units with good company and battalion officers, but numerous weaknesses for the war it was about to enter. It had no field artillery. (Indian gunners had proved formidable opponents when a section of the army rose in rebellion in 1857. Thereafter the Indian Army’s only artillery units were the famous “screw guns,” the muleborne mountain batteries.) The other weaponry it had was obsolescent. Its supply, transport and medical services, adequate for small scale frontier warfare, were incapable of sustaining largescale overseas campaigning. The heavy officer casualties the Indian Army would sustain were very hard to replace—the language skills and knowledge of the men they commanded simply could not be quickly replicated. The Indian “Viceroy Commissioned Officers,” a category unique to the Indian Army, intermediary between British officers and Indian NCOs and sepoys, were not trained to assume command responsibilities. Thus heavy officer casualties soon experienced in France and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) could, quickly degrade unit efficiency and morale. There was no mechanism in place for expanding the army rapidly or replacing heavy casualties. Finally the general officers of the Indian Army, products of a seniority-based promotion system, were a mixed lot (something that could of course also be said of virtually every European army in 1914). Taken together, these facts would indicate that the Indian Army would not fare well in large-scale industrialized European-style warfare.
Nor, initially, did it. Two divisions were rushed to France (and, in a telling commentary on their inadequate equipment, some units were issued with bayonets only on the train from Marseilles to the front). Their combat performance was good but their casualty levels were high, much higher than in frontier campaigns and especially high among the irreplaceable regular officers. In addition to combat losses, they suffered severely from the cold, wet northern European winters—a climate to which they were unaccustomed and against which their uniforms and equipment, designed for very different conditions, offered inadequate protection.
Finally, British officials fretted continually about the possibilities of off-duty sexual contact with European women, a violation of one of the Raj’s most deeply held taboos (although the French, on whose soil they were stationed, seemed quite untroubled by this issue).
Eventually, both Indian divisions were redeployed to Mesopotamia, where they could more easily be supported from India (and where they presented no social problems in the minds of officialdom). Still, until 1918, large numbers of Indian cavalry remained on or behind the Western Front, an enduring testimony to Douglas Haig’s stubborn refusal to recognize that the age of horsed cavalry was all but over.
It was in the Middle East that the Indian Army would make its major contribution to the imperial war effort. It garrisoned Egypt, provided much of the army Allenby led to victory in Palestine in 1918 and carried the burden of the war in Mesopotamia. One can argue about the need for that campaign as well as about its strategic direction by Delhi and London. But without the Indian Army it simply would not have been possible.
After a clumsy start in April 1916, which produced the surrender of an entire Indian division at Kut, south of Baghdad, a reorganized army, many of its initial weaknesses remedied, carried the campaign to a successful conclusion, ending the war on what ultimately became the Iraqi-Turkish border. That grueling four-year struggle trained the men who would lead the Indian Army in World War II. Claude Auchinleck, who would stop Rommel’s drive on Cairo in 1942 and serve as the Indian Army’s last and greatest British commander-in-chief, spent his war there, as did the great Bill Slim (after nearly dying at Gallipoli). Others, less well known, who would play key roles in the Indian Army during World War II, learned their trade in the aptly named “bastard war.”
This had an important consequence in 1939-45. The British’s Army approach to war by then was conditioned by the experience of the Western Front, where virtually every senior World War II British officer had served. That approach, based on the bloody lessons of 1915-16 and the successes of 1917-18, which featured massive artillery preparation and limited objectives, is seen at its most effective in Montgomery’s Alamein victory and Alexander’s 1944 “Diadem” offensive in Italy. Indian Army generals, who had not been conditioned by the Western Front, proved to be more innovative and flexible, especially Slim, whose 1944-45 reconquest of Burma is considered a masterpiece of the general’s art.2
By 1918 the 150,000-man Indian Army was a force nearly a million strong, plus nearly a half-million non-combatant labor units, voluntarily enlisted (although in some cases, officials used a great deal of “unofficial” pressure to reach district recruiting quotas). It had fought in France, Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia, as well as Gallipoli, Salonika and East Africa.
This huge war effort came at a very high cost. India put more divisions in the field than all the “white dominions” combined. The expectations of political India were that India’s loyalty and massive contribution would be rewarded by movement toward Dominion status. The statement by the Secretary of State for India, Edwin Montagu, to the House of Commons in August 1917 that “responsible government” was the goal of British policy in India was a response to these expectations, and one that set in train irrevocable changes in the Raj.
Along with triggering political change, World War I set in motion a fundamental alteration in the Indian Army. By 1918 it had become clear that the opening of its commissioned ranks to Indians could no longer be avoided. The process of “Indianisation,” as it was dubbed, would be slow and marked by false starts and foot-dragging, but, like the promise embodied in Montagu’s declaration, it was a process that, once started, was impossible to reverse or abandon. Even more than the Montagu declaration, Indianising the officer corps meant the end of the Raj.
W-hat does all this have to do with the career of Winston Churchill? His enormous energy and drive, his intense focus on the task at hand, his capacity quickly to absorb masses of information relevant to that task—all these are well-known qualities. During World War I he was absorbed successively at the Admiralty, with weathering the shock of his fall from power in 1915, and with the rebuilding of his career. In The World Crisis it is remarkable how little there is about any imperial subject, let alone India (which merits no listing in the index of any of the volumes). What this meant was that the image of the Raj, already fixed in his mind, remained undisturbed by the radical changes wrought by the war. That image had, of course, been formed during the last years of Victoria’s reign, when Churchill had spent a few years in India as a subaltern in the 4th Hussars.
Officers of British cavalry regiments had a rather isolated existence during their tours in India. The cavalry comprised the most aristocratic regiments of the British Army. They had little contact with the Indian Army and tended to regard it as infra dig (indeed they thought of much of the British Army in similar terms). British “civilians” (the administrative personnel of the Raj) tended to be kept at arm’s length as well. They had little contact with Indians, either, except for servants (or, in the case of comparatively impecunious officers like young Winston Churchill, money-lenders).
The one exception was the Indian princely order, whose lavish hospitality was socially acceptable, whose facilities for sport were excellent—and whose hostility to budding Indian nationalism was intense. All this produced a picture of India based largely on what amounted to clichés: the loyal princes, the sturdy peasantry (grateful for the protection of the Raj), the brave sepoys (utterly dependent of course on their British officers, and needing to be watched carefully, lest 1857 come again), the “manly” frontier tribesmen, the sinister Hindu priest-hood, and the “unrepresentative” westernized Indian. It was possible in fact for British Army officers to do a tour in India while learning very little about it.
Churchill, whose agenda in those years was self-education and progress, via journalism, toward the political career he wanted (with polo thrown in), was no exception to this. The India he saw in the late 1890s was slowly changing before 1914; the war, the rise of Gandhi for which the war opened the way— changed it more dramatically, and more rapidly. Focused intently on the European war, Churchill paid little attention to any of this. When he turned his attention to India again in the 1930s, he saw developments through the filter of the India over which Lord Elgin had presided as Viceroy. This may account for the gap that separated much of his rhetoric in the 1930-35 fight over the India Bill from the realities of India—assuming India, not toppling Stanley Baldwin, was his real concern during that contest.
Similarly, in 1940-45, it is clear that Churchill, while recognizing the need for a much expanded Indian Army (which grew from 180,000 to 2.2 million by genuinely voluntary enlistment), never understood or trusted it. In 1941 he asked Auchinleck whether Indian soldiers, if equipped with modern weapons, would point their guns in the right direction, a tactless remark that reflected attitudes born of Mutiny memories, still widespread in the 1890s. Auchinleck, Slim and most other senior Indian Army officers understood that “Indianisation” was both necessary and irrevocable; that their Army would have a steadily growing number of Indian officers (rising from about 500 in 1939 to 12,000 in 1945); and that this made postwar independence certain, despite the Prime Minister’s hankering to “keep a piece of India.”3
The Empire that marched off with Britain to war in 1914 was changed fundamentally by that conflict. Much has been written about the impact of the war on the growth of a sense of themselves as independent nations in the Dominions—most dramatically in Australia, where “Anzac Day,” commemorating Australian sacrifice at Gallipoli, remains the great national patriotic celebration. But no part of Britain’s global empire escaped the transformative effect of the mobilisation of manpower and resources that World War I enforced. A new world emerged in 1919, one in which the Empire no longer rested on the solid (or so it seemed) foundations taken for granted in the late Victorian and Edwardian years.
And therein lies one of the paradoxes of Winston Churchill’s career. He was very perceptive about (though not necessarily welcoming of) the changes the war had wrought in British politics, the structure of Europe, and Anglo-American relations. But he never really understood either how much India had changed— that there was no choice but to continue along the road signposted by the Montagu declaration—or that the Dominions, especially Australia, felt very differently about themselves as a result of their 1914-18 experiences.
That is why it is useful to take note of the vast changes in the British Empire taking place in the background of the titanic European struggle that absorbed Churchill for four intense years, and fills the vivid pages of The World Crisis. For those changes would shape and constrain many of his actions as he led Britain and its Empire in their last great war. A passionate believer in the benign nature of the Empire—as well as its necessity for the continuation of Britain’s global power—it was Churchill’s fate to become prime minster at a time when the imperial tide was ebbing rapidly—as the changes set in motion by the world crisis of 1914-18 reached their inevitable conclusion.
Dr. Callahan is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Delaware. His last article in these pages was “Churchill and the King’s Other Army” in FH 158.
1. A brief survey of the war’s impact on the Empire is Robert Holland’s “The British Empire and the Great War 1914-1918” in Judith M. Brown and Wm. Roger Louis, eds., The Oxford History of the British Empire, 4 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), IV 114-37.
2. The story of the Indian Army in World War I is told briefly and elegantly by Philip Mason in A Matter of Honour: An Account of the Indian Army, Its Officers and Men (London: Jonathan Cape, 1974). A more recent, scholarly assessment is Kaushik Roy, ed., The Indian Army in the Two World Wars (Leiden & Boston, Brill Academic Press, 2012).
3. WSC to the penultimate Viceroy, Field Marshal Lord Wavell, September 1945. Penderel Moon, ed., The Viceroy’s Journal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), 163.