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Belligerents and Participants
in World War One:
The Dominion of India


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By the turn of the 20th century, the Indian National Congress seeking independence had fallen into two camps; there were those who were willing to work with the British toward reforms while others called for an armed struggle to rid the nation of all the British. Some in the Congress were heartened by the 1909 India Act that gave Indians some voice in the legislature, but radical elements remained a threat to British rule. This was also the year in which Britain’s Commander-in-Chief in India, Herbert Kitchener, completed a number of military reforms that united the colony’s various armies into a single Indian army.




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Despite a deep resentment toward the British occupation, Indians reacted very much the same as other dominions when George V, King of Great Britain and Emperor of India, asked for help at the outbreak of World War One. Through incentives of good pay and appeals to personal honor, his Viceroy Charles Hardinge managed to raise the largest volunteer army in the world. In addition to guarding India’s frontiers against Afgan and Ottoman incursions, Great Britain deployed these troops in seven different Expeditionary Forces during the course of the Great War.

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One of the first dominion armies ready for combat was Indian Expeditionary Force A. It was dispatched to the Western Front early in the War as they were in desperate need of reinforcements. These troops served alongside the British Expeditionary Force in Flanders where they fought at the Battles of La Bassee and Neuve Chapelle. While under the overall command of General James Willcocks, individual Indian units were commanded by their own officers such as the well known General Pratap Singh, Majaraja of Idar.

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A number of Indian regiments held legendary designations that were associated with the old Bengal Army. This had been the army of the Bengal Presidency of the British Raj functioning under the British East India Company. As Great Britain strengthened its own grip over the region, these troops were eventually assimilated into the Indian Army. There was however a long standing romance that continued to surround the regiments of Gurkhas, Punjabis, Sikhs, and Bengal lancers. Many units with ethnic designations were singled out for special attention on postcards. Most cards depicting troops at the front show them only as generic Indians, while those specifying units were usually placed in generic locations.

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Unaccustomed to their new military rations and very cold weather the Indian troops sent to the Western Front suffered very badly during their first winter. Seeing that this was having a serious negative affect on their morale, the British high command transferred Indian infantry units to Egypt in 1915 before the following winter rolled round. Despite that there was little of strategic importance for their cavalry to do; they would not leave Flanders until early 1918, just in case of a successful breakthrough.

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Although most Indian combat troops were eventually transferred out from the Western Front, manpower shortages brought many more colonials, including large numbers of Indians back to France in early 1917 as part of the newly formed Labor Corps. The British felt that Indians were more reliable than other ethnicities, and so they were often assigned duties closer to the front lines such as digging trenches and hauling ammunition. Most of these troops would serve at the Somme front. Their presence freed up many Brits to serve on the front lines.

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British East Africa was reinforced with two Indian Expeditionary Forces in 1914. Force B under the command of General Arthur Aiken was deployed in German East Afrika in 1914, but after their decisive defeat at the Battle of Tanga in November, they returned to India. Expeditionary Force C was primarily used to guard the strategic railway that connected Uganda to the coast. Some of these men were part of another offensive into German East Afrika, but they too were defeated in the Battle of Kilimanjaro in October. All further campaigns in this region ended in failure.

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By far the largest number of Indians served under General John Nixon in Expeditionary Force D. They made up the bulk of the Allied army that operated in Mesopotamia. Shortly after their arrival in 1914 they secured the British oil fields around Basra with ease. While this was their only goal, their quick victory inspired British General Townsend to embark on a useless campaign up the Tigris River to take Baghdad. This British-Indian army extended itself too far, and when the Ottomans were reinforced, they were defeated and the Battle of Ctesiphon and forced to withdraw. They took up refugee in the lightly fortified city of Kut, refusing to retreat further while they had the chance. They then found themselves besieged with all attempts to relieve them failing. Thousands of Indians were marched to their death after being taken prisoner when Kut fell. A later campaign led by General Maude in 1917 proved more successful. While he managed to capture Baghdad, it had no strategic importance to the War. Many bad decisions were made in Mesopotamia because generals put their careers over the lives of their men.

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Indian Expeditionary Force F was created in Egypt to help defend the Suez Canal in 1914. Elements were stripped off in 1915 to form Expeditionary Force D, which was sent to reinforce the disastrous campaign for Gallipoli. After its failure these troops returned to Egypt but some units were totally disbanded. They would be reinforced in 1918 by Indian troops from the Western Front and Mesopotamia to form Expeditionary Force E, which would fight in the Sinai and Palestine.




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There were a number of publishers in India that produced military postcards, but they were primarily oriented to an English speaking audience. Even military cards imported from Japan were mostly titled in English. While Indian postcards covered events in Africa, Gallipoli, and Mesopotamia, they largely covered the activities of British or Anzac forces. While racism played a role in regard to the subjects covered, publishers catered to the audience with the most money to spend on cards.

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Many postcards of the Western Front depict Indian troops but few of these were produced by British publishers. Far more seem to appear on French cards where they served a dual purpose. Indians were an exotic curiosity, and cards of them generated more than average interest. These cards were also needed to show Indians as a benign presence; they could be a terrible menace to the enemy but French folks were perfectly safe with them stationed in their midst.

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The greatest number of postcards depicting Indian soldiers seems to have been published in Germany. They were also an exotic curiosity there, but they were also used to indicate how desperate the Allies were to bring in sub-human troops to fight their battles for them. In some cases they are just shown fighting the same matter of fact way as their British counterparts, but on some cards they are shown as savages fighting with knives in their mouths. This played off the fact that Gurkhas were traditionally armed with curved long knives known as Kukri.

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While it was German publishers who produced the most racist cards of Indians, those of the Allies approached the topic with unease. Indians had to be presented as competent soldiers whose weight enhanced the Allied war effort. On the other hand they could not be presented as vicious or bloodthirsty for that might generate fear in the local populations in which they had contact. Most cards depicting Indians thus end up as generic poses in nondescript situations.

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Some Allied publishers played up the exotic nature of Indians in their representations of them. Stereotypes could easily be employed as they aided in the telling of simple narratives. If used properly, Indians could be portrayed as a formidable enemy and unique asset to the Allies while tempering fears of them through humor.

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The Turks advanced into Persia during the Great War with hopes of extending their Empire to India but they never reached its borders. The only violation of Indian territory came when the German Cruiser Emden attacked the port of Madras in September 1914 during its raid through the Bay of Bengal. Although oil tanks were set ablaze, the real damage came in the fear it created that temporarily shut down the jute and tea trade.

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By 1914 the British had succeeded in stamping out the most radical nationalist groups in India that espoused a war of terror against the foreign occupiers. The independence movement did not just fade away but went underground , developing links with similar movements in other parts of the world, most notably the Ghadar party in the United States. Germany tried to harness the Indian and Irish radicals within these movements by teaming them up under a central committee in Berlin. They tried instigating a general revolt within the Indian military in early 1915, but only seemed to have luck among the troops deployed in Singapore. In February, when rumors spread that they were going to be sent to fight against fellow Muslims, a violent mutiny broke out. The insurrection was quickly suppressed by the arrival of fresh British, Japanese, and other Allied troops; and news of it was suppressed in the hopes of containing its spread. While all soldier’s mail was censored, those to and from India received special scrutiny so that any containing references to independence could be seized and destroyed.

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Despite that the British found Indians to be their most reliable troops, the Indian independence movement would be a constant concern to British authorities. The Germans stirred up as much trouble as they could in prewar years in hope that it would help disrupt any future war effort that might be directed toward them. Real trouble however came from within, and from expatriates like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, who returned from South Africa in 1914. While he did not openly oppose the War, he took up the cause of the Indian Independence movement organizing plantation and garment workers.

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The Indian National Congress did not interfere with the War effort in hopes that India would be rewarded with more autonomy in the postwar years. Instead they were greeted by the Rowlatt Acts, which extended the emergency powers of the British government imposed during the Great War to combat civil unrest. Many Indian veterans had been infected with notions of equality while stationed overseas, and these ideas only added to their desire for more control over their lives. When unarmed protesters came out in April 1919 at Armritsar, hundreds were gunned down and killed by the British army. This massacre created a would that would not heal and it spurred Mahatma Gandhi to form his non-cooperative independence movement the following year. Britain had fended off German and Ottoman threats to India but the Indians themselves continued to pose a constant danger to British rule.

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The Bombay Presidency, a remnant of the East India Company, served as an important administrative province of British India ruled directly by the Crown. While it was only one of three administrative districts that divided India, it extended beyond the nation&rsqi;s current borders west to Yemen. In addition to providing troops to fight for the British Empire during World War One, the governor of Bombay, Lord Willingdon established a relief fund for war victims. A special women’s branch was organized by his wife, and they helped raise money by selling labels and postcards. Most of these seem to be Christmas cards that depict Allied forces deployed in the Middle-East. Their quality is rather poor since they were printed by the Bombay Times, which was not in the postcard business. While India did not manufacture large quantities of postcards, demand was great because of all the soldiers leaving or passing through for far off theaters of war.




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