The First World War is still widely perceived to be a white man’s war based on the Western front. Popular images of brave young white men dying for king and country dominate museum exhibits. But some 4 million non-white men were mobilised into the European and American armies during the war, in both combatant and non-combatant roles.1
The colonies were critical to the war effort as a source of both labour and materials. Empires could not prosecute a successful war without colonial troops. Paradoxically, the call to arms to defend empire coexisted with the inferior status of non-white people within the imperial hierarchy. War reinforced racism and the imperial division of the world but it also challenged the colonial set up and produced resistance to its rule.
Nearly 1.5 million Indian soldiers fought for the British Empire in the First World War, both in Asia and in Europe. And at the other end of the Empire over 16,000 men from the West Indies also served. The British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) was created in 1915 to serve overseas by grouping together volunteers from the Caribbean; “15,600 men in the regiment’s 12 battalions served with the Allied forces, with two thirds of the volunteers coming from Jamaica and the rest from Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, the Bahamas, British Honduras (now Belize), Grenada, British Guiana (now Guyana), the Leeward Islands, St Lucia and St Vincent”. As well as serving in France, the BWIR played a vital role in active combat against the Turkish army in Palestine, Jordan, Mesopotamia and Egypt and also served in northern Italy.2
This article will focus primarily on the experiences of Caribbean and Indian soldiers within the British Empire to demonstrate how oppressed peoples were mobilised to defend the empires of their oppressors, but other belligerent countries also made use of colonial troops. France had 90,000 indigenous troops already under arms when the war started. Between 1914 and 1918 they recruited nearly 500,000 colonial troops, including 166,000 West Africans, 46,000 Madagascans, 50,000 Indochinese, 140,000 Algerians, 47,000 Tunisians and 24,300 Moroccans. Most of these French colonial troops served in Europe, though the majority of Africans across the colonies served as labourers or carriers in Africa. In total over 2 million Africans were involved in the conflict as soldiers or labourers; 10 percent of them died, and among the labourers serving in Africa, the death rates may have been as high as 20 percent.3 Additionally, nearly 140,000 Chinese contract labourers were hired by the British and French governments, forming a substantial part of the migrant labour force working in France during the war. Over 20,000 black South Africans served in the South African Native Labour Contingent formed in September 1916, and more were attached to the Cape Auxiliary Horse Transport Companies in France.4
With the entry of the United States into the war, nearly 400,000 African American troops were inducted into the US forces, of whom 200,000 served in Europe. By comparison Britain’s white dominions in total furnished just over 1.4 million with 640,000 Canadians, 401,000 Australians, 136,000 white South Africans and 220,000 from New Zealand.5
Germany also made use of its colonies to provide troops for the war. Some 2,500 Africans were enlisted from East Africa and 1,650 from German Cameroon in West Africa.6 The colonial forces for German Southwest Africa consisted of volunteers from the imperial army and navy, including some Austrians and white Afrikaners from South Africa, but essentially comprised members of German regiments. For Germany, the war was in large part waged to revise the imperial division of the world in 1914, but for Britain and France it was to defend the existing order and the deployment of colonial forces reflected this.
Non-combatant labour: capitalist exploitation
In September 1914, only a month after the outbreak of war, two divisions of infantry and cavalry of the Indian Army journeyed across a continent to the Western front. Even at this early stage allied forces had already suffered huge casualties, making reinforcements an urgent necessity to plug holes in the British defensive line. European rulers initially thought it would be a quick war—“over by Christmas”—but it soon became evident this was to be a long haul and so preparations were made for total war. To that end the entire resources of empires were put at the disposal of the war effort turning it into a global conflict.
The capitalist war machinery went into overdrive to ensure every aspect of the colonial economy—materials and labour power—was subordinated to the needs of war. The West Indian colonies contributed nearly £2 million from tax revenue and voluntary donations, which provided war supplies such as planes and British Red Cross ambulances. West Indian produce such as sugar, rum, cocoa and rice continued to be sent to Britain. Trinidadian oil production increased three-fold to meet wartime demand and Sea Island cotton was used in aircraft production.7 Similarly India contributed an initial £100 million to the war effort and provided a further £20 million to £30 million in annual contributions.8 Indians at home endured higher taxes, material shortages and rising prices to pay for this, which would all be exacerbated by the failure of the monsoon in 1918-19. These donations were made in spite of severe hardships caused by major increases in the cost of living throughout the colonies.
In Europe and Africa accommodation and fortifications had to be built; thousands of miles of trenches had to be dug; roads, railways and canals had to be built and maintained; telephone lines and cabling had to be installed; and ships, trains and trucks had to be loaded and unloaded at the docks, railheads and distribution centres. Military equipment had to be maintained and horses had to be fed and looked after. In addition to these essential tasks, the generals and senior officers were cosseted behind the frontlines with 65,000 men and women servants allocated to wait on them. All this ancillary work required huge amounts of labour and increasingly the generals could not afford to use combat forces on such work. Initially it was undertaken by labourers and tradesmen sent from Britain and grouped into Labour Companies of the Army Service Corps. Latterly this work was also carried out by women workers, organised in the Women’s Auxiliary Corps.
Despite all these measures, the chronic shortage of labour persisted and workers from all parts of the British Empire (informal as well as formal), notably China, Egypt and the West Indies, were brought to work on the Western front, mainly in France. It is estimated that as many as 100,000 labourers came from the colonies. Indians were recruited for military work services, work on the railways and inland water transport, in the Ordinance Labour Corps and in other positions such as telegraphists, cooks, carpenters, shoemakers, tailors and washermen. BWIR troops were engaged in numerous support roles on the Western front, including digging trenches, building roads and gun emplacements, acting as stretcher bearers, loading ships and trains and working in ammunition dumps. This work was often carried out within range of German artillery and snipers. In July 1917, 13 men from the BWIR were killed by shellfire and aerial bombardment. Several battalions of the BWIR were deployed to Egypt and Palestine. Here too they were mostly used in support functions, such as guarding prisoners and holding reserve posts and outposts. Black and Indian troops were seen as suited to menial tasks.
The War Office, headed by Lord Kitchener, was initially opposed to the use of any black soldiers alongside whites. Kitchener’s poster plea “Your country needs you” meant white men only. True to his racist outlook, Kitchener believed black faces would be too conspicuous on the battlefield and that the German army would laugh at the mighty British Empire relying on black soldiers. But there were also deep concerns that black soldiers might actually outperform their white counterparts in military prowess and valour and that this would lead to demands for greater self-governance after the war, particularly if they had rifles in their hands. However, the Colonial Office and the monarch himself, George V, decided otherwise. Keen to show a united empire in wartime, they were also concerned that excluding black troops would undermine British authority in the colonies. Hence the BWIR, as a separate black unit within the British army, came into being. It was to be commanded by white officers and no Caribbean soldier could rise above the rank of sergeant. Similarly, Indian regiments were all commanded by a white officer class and it was very rare for an Indian to rise above the rank of a subedar—a rank below British commissioned officers and above non-commissioned officers.
Some joined quite enthusiastically as a means of demonstrating patriotism to the mother country. In 1914 George Blackman joined the British West Indies Regiment, telling the recruiting officer he was 18 when he was actually 17. “Lord Kitchener said with the black race, he could whip the world,” Blackman recalls. “We sang songs: ‘Run Kaiser William, run for your life, boy’”.9 “We wanted to go. The island government told us the king said all Englishmen must go to join the war. The country called all of us”.10
Many West Indians were keen to fulfil pledges of loyalty by volunteering for military service. The enthusiasm to play a military role is clearly expressed by this Barbadian: “We have put up sugar and money…but that won’t win our battles. It’s lives we desire to give…it is only fair to give these colonies the opportunity of showing the true spirit of patriotism that they have always evinced in the past”.11 Similarly, hundreds of thousands of Indians flocked to volunteer for service. One wrote home to his brother from the Western front: “We shall never get another chance to exalt the name of race, country, ancestors, parents, village and brothers, and to prove our loyalty to the government… We go singing as we march, and care nothing that we are going to die”.12
One Indian soldier in France urges another soldier in the Punjab to get more recruits: “This is not time for slackness. Consider the way in which the whole country is exerting itself and doing its duty”.13 Another was enthusiastic about France and England, particularly about the possibility of travel: “What am I to say to you about England? May God grant victories to our King. If I were to set about writing down the praises of Marseilles, my hand would be wearied with writing. Further, I went to Paris for seven days. What is Paris? It is heaven!”14
The identification with the British cause and empire patriotism at times even withstood the death of friends, as this letter testifies: “He was buried in a Muslim cemetery near London with great honour and dignity. The exalted government has showered every blessing on us here, which I shall remember all my life, and which will bind me in complete loyalty”.15
Others, however, were motivated by more mundane concerns such as obtaining regular food and wages in economies characterised by casual and low-paid employment. Most Caribbean recruits were plantation workers and artisans. Of the first 4,000 men enlisted into the BWIR, 1,033 were labourers, 657 were cultivators, 356 carpenters, 245 bakers, 42 police constables and 40 teachers.16 In 1914 unemployment was high in the Caribbean, particularly for urban youth, with many West Indians working for as little as nine pence a day. One young Jamaican man, Eugent Clarke, who volunteered aged 21 stated: “It wasn’t easy to find work in Jamaica, and the pay was nothing. It was mainly cultivation. Only one or two factories were in the island. The people couldn’t get work”.17
There were clearly economic factors propelling some to join the volunteer force. Though conscription was introduced into Britain, it was not a feature of colonial recruitment in the First World War and thousands of men in the Caribbean and India came forward “willingly” to sign up.
Patriotism was nurtured by the approach of liberal nationalists who believed loyalty to the empire would lead to equal treatment as citizens of empire and consequently to greater forms of self-governance. While some declared it a white man’s war and refused to sign up, leaders such as the Jamaican Marcus Garvey said young men from the islands should fight in order to prove their loyalty and to be treated as equals. The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), founded by Garvey in Jamaica on the eve of the war, telegrammed a resolution to the Colonial Office in London “express[ing] our loyalty and devotion to His Majesty the King, and empire…pray[ing] for the success of British arms on the battlefields of Europe and Africa, and at sea”.18
Similarly, Mohandas Gandhi called on Indians to fight on the Allied side. “We are, above all, British citizens of the Great British Empire,” he told them. Gandhi, who had been in London when war broke out, circulated a letter to Indians in the UK that declared, “we, the undersigned have, after mature deliberation decided for the sake of the motherland and the empire to place our services unconditionally, during this crisis, at the disposal of the authorities”.19
In an open letter to the Indian public the former Liberal MP and Indian nationalist, Dadabhai Naoroji, wrote: “Fighting as the British people are…in a righteous cause to the good and glory of human dignity and civilisation, and moreover, being the beneficent instrument of our own progress and civilisation, our duty is clear—to do everyone our best to support the British fight with our life and property”.20
In April 1918 the British Viceroy Lord Chelmsford convened the Indian War Conference (also known as the manpower conference) in Delhi. Its purpose was to set in motion the recruitment of half a million Indians, starting in June that year. Gandhi responded by supporting the resolution “with a full sense of responsibility”.21 And he assured the Viceroy that “I love the English nation, and I wish to evoke in every Indian the loyalty of the Englishman”.22 In a speech in Patna, Gandhi made clear his view that India should provide men for the war and not make this contingent on self-rule as “any calamity that overtakes the empire is one that overtakes India as well”.23 These views reflected the middle class basis of elite nationalism which was wedded to constitutional reforms and aimed more at finding accommodation with imperial rule than in fighting for genuine national liberation.24 Under colonialism indigenous elites comprised wealthy landowners; industrial magnates such as G D Birla, financier of many of Gandhi’s projects, and the Tata family; as well as aristocrats from the princely states. Their liberal nationalism opposed foreign rule and sought change in the imperial set up. But their approach was moderate, favouring lobbying and petitioning in legislative councils for representation. This social layer, often Western educated, hankered after recognition and a space for themselves within the colonial government rather than mass agitation. Consequently, their class base mitigated against militant nationalism from below that emphasised mass direct action against imperialism.
However, the limitations of liberal nationalism did not prevent ordinary Indians and West Indians from joining the war effort. For many this was a chance not only to prove loyalty but also to demonstrate their own sense of personal worth and courage.
Reality in the ranks and at the front
The ideology of colonial recruitment was expressed by a Manchester Courier propaganda piece of September 1915 under the banner “Unity and Honour of the Empire”: “Nothing has surprised the enemy more than the solidarity of the British Empire. Every part of King George’s dominions is helping the Mother Country, and the spirit and devotion shown by our fellow-subjects overseas in upholding the unity and honour of the empire has met with general admiration”.25 And it continued to boast: “It is hoped, and there is no doubt, they will receive a particularly hospitable welcome”.26 However, the stark reality of war coupled with institutional racism would sorely test the loyalty of even the most pro-British black recruit.
As George Blackman recalls, conditions were appalling: “It was cold. And everywhere there were white lice. We had to shave the hair there because the lice grow there. All our socks were full of white lice”.27 The colonial soldiers’ initial journey to England was perilous, with hundreds suffering from severe illnesses and hardship. In March 1916 a ship transporting BWIR men from Jamaica, the SS Verdala, was diverted into a blizzard near Halifax, Canada, to avoid any lurking German warships. The soldiers’ winter uniforms were left locked up while they froze in thin summer clothes. As a result of inadequate equipment, over 600 men suffered from exposure and frostbite, 106 required amputations and at least five died.
A sense of their lived experiences can be gleaned from letters sent home. All correspondence was heavily censored by the British, ever watchful for signs of rebellion and seditious literature being exchanged. This was overseen by the India Base Post Office set up in Rouen and then Boulogne in December 1914. It was staffed by members of the Indian Civil Service whose job was to read letters and send short reports to the Secretary of State for India, India Office, War Office, Foreign Office, Buckingham Palace and the Commanders of Indian Divisions. Indian soldiers, like all troops, were aware of this elaborate layer of checking and censorship and for every letter praising king and mother country there were those that spoke of wartime realities:
I went into the trenches on 7 August and returned on 28 August. Some of our men were wounded. I am not permitted to give any fuller details. The battle is raging violently, and various new ways of fighting have been introduced. The ground is honeycombed, as a field with rat holes. No one can advance beyond the trenches. If he does so, he is blown away. Mines are ready charged with explosives. Shells and machine guns and bombs are mostly employed. No one considers rifles nowadays, and serviceable rifle ammunition is lying about as plentifully as pebbles. At the trenches, thousands of mounds of iron, representing exploded shells, lie on the ground. At some places corpses are found of men killed in 1914, with uniform and accoutrements still on. Large flies, which have become poisonous through feasting on dead bodies, infest the trenches, and huge fat rats run about there. By the blessing of God the climate of this country is cold, and for that reason corpses do not decompose quickly. It rains frequently and that causes much inconvenience. At the present time we are suffering, as the horses are tethered outside and the rain has converted the ground into slush. Sometimes we have to march in the rain and then the cold is intense. However after two years’ experience, we have grown used to all these troubles and think lightly of them. I have lots to write about, but I have no leisure, nor have I permission to do so. Even this I have had to write very prudently, otherwise it would be withheld.28
One soldier, though part of the censorship machine, begs friends not to enlist: “If you have any relatives, my advice is don’t let them enlist. It is unnecessary to write any more. I write so much to you as I am Pay Havildar [commander] and read the letters to the double company commander. Otherwise there is a strict order against writing on this subject”.29
Another letter offers advice on how to circumvent the censorship regime:
It is a great pity that you never write any real account of the war in France. No doubt your officers read the letters. But cannot you devise any way of dodging them? I will tell you what to do. When you write a letter, on one page write in invisible ink made out of lemon juice and I will read everything. If you cannot get this, take some lime which has not been wetted and grind it up and mix it with water and write and I shall be able to read it all.30
Others sent coded messages to their family urging them not to enlist. One man wrote to his brother: “Think over what I say and you will understand what I mean when I say, ‘stay in the village’”.31 Upon a friend from his unit being injured, a Pathan civilian in India wrote to him imploring him to exaggerate the extent of his back injury so that he would be sent home: “wherever you go, do not straighten your back. Then, please God, something good will come of it… I wish to impress this upon you as strongly as I can…do not straighten your back. Your position is a very good one”.32
In sharp contrast to notions of duty, honour and fighting for king and country, colonial troops faced a whole range of inequalities in military equipment, mobility and privileges that separated them from their white counterparts. Non-white colonials were routinely segregated and closely watched. Black South Africans stationed in France were housed in closed compounds, prohibited from entering the houses of Europeans, expressly forbidden to speak to white women and were allowed alcohol for one hour a day but only with a white non-commissioned officer present.33 Indians in France fared no better. They were subject to curfews and other restrictions.
When Indian soldiers were wounded and brought to hospitals on the south coast, concerns over white nurses tending to “native” soldiers led to “absolutely inflexible rules” keeping them within hospital precincts.34 Even in rare occasions of recreation segregation ruled. In London, Cook’s Tours organised trips for small groups of Hindu and, separately, Muslim soldiers. The supervised tours allowed tourist combatants an hour’s shopping at a department store and a ride on the Underground as well as escorted visits to royal and other tourist sights in the capital.35 No such supervision, restrictions or rules governed the soldiers from the white dominions in any theatre of war.
Some Caribbean soldiers were involved in actual combat in France. Photographs from the time show black soldiers armed with British Lee Enfield rifles, and there are reports of West Indies Regiment soldiers fighting off counter-attacks. One account tells how a group fought off a German assault armed only with knives they had brought from home. Interviewed in 2002 at the age of 105, Blackman still remembered trench fights he fought in, alongside white soldiers: “They called us darkies… But when the battle starts, it didn’t make a difference. We were all the same. When you’re there, you don’t care about anything. Every man there is under the rifle.” He recalled one attack with particular clarity: “The Tommies said, ‘Darkie, let them have it.’ I made the order: ‘Bayonets, fix,’ and then ‘B company, fire.’ You know what it is to go and fight somebody hand to hand? You need plenty nerves. They come at you with the bayonet. He pushes at me, I push at he. You push that bayonet in there and hit with the butt of the gun—if he is dead he is dead, if he live he live.”.36
The horror of trench warfare certainly hit home. Young Eugent Clark, like many colonial soldiers, served in Ypres:
The war was raging in Europe. The Germans never ceased fire. Night and day, bombs. We had to live under the earth in dugouts. The Somme was bad, man. You stuck in the mud. We had a rough time in that country. The wind would cut you. How we cold. We had to have double socks. Every soldier had to wear double or the cold would have killed us.37
And similarly death brought the sheer brutality of war to intimate levels:
I was in the trench when they started to shell. Shells coming, man. What happened with my friend, Eustace Phillips. So, he was on the hilltop and he was just going into the Bivouac [shelter] when he and the shell met together. Dead! And those things always make you feel you shouldn’t have been in the army. I didn’t get to see his funeral because when you’re in the front line you don’t have no funerals. They just make a hole and sometimes four or five of you go in the hole, you know.38
Detachments of the second battalion of the BWIR were deployed against German forces in the Tanganyika campaign and the first, second and fifth battalions remained as part of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) until the end of the war. In July 1917, during the Palestine campaign, the machine gun section of the BWIR was involved in several raids on Turkish trenches at Umbrella Hill in Gaza. Some Indians fought in Gallipoli 1915-16 and over 1,300 died.
The following description by a British officer of two Indians being captured by Germans, leaving their mules behind by a haystack, highlights both the tremendous courage of colonial soldiers and paternal admiration by their officers: “After a time, their captors being fully occupied with their own affair the two Indians managed to slip away. They did not make straight for our lines. Not a bit of it. They sought and found the haystack, recovered their mules, reloaded them with the ammunition-boxes and strolled in”.39
The same officer also describes one of the first Indian men to be given the Military Cross that was killed in action as “white a man as ever lived”.40 General Edmund Allenby reported to the Jamaican governor that he had “great pleasure in informing you of the excellent conduct of the Machine Gun Section… All ranks behaved with great gallantry under heavy rifle fire and shell fire, and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operations”.41 Military combat exposed deep contradictions at the heart of the imperial army: they could simultaneously take great pride in and admire colonial troops for their valour while being wedded to racist notions of empire.
Racism and “martial races”
British imperial rule depended on co-opting sections of the colonised societies, using a policy of divide and rule to bestow privilege and favour in return for loyal service. This was intertwined with racism and theories of racial categorisation to justify oppression which, when it came to deploying young men of the colonies to fight on behalf of empire, led to the theory of “martial races”—those born to fight. In this endeavour the British made full use of colonial constructions that incorporated notions of honour and duty that were ascribed to subjects. In India British officers took the Persian/Urdu term izzat, loosely translated as “honour” and incorporating feelings of self-respect, personal dignity, familial duty and community obligations, to pathologise Indian behaviour. In the military context the concept of izzat proved to be a powerful motivator.
The Great Indian Uprising of 1857, referred to by Britain as the Indian Mutiny, had a decisive impact on the development of British imperial concepts of “martial races”. Racial categorisation had been a key feature of colonial conquest and early Victorian paternalism had hardened into “unashamed racism” that viewed all colonial subjects as inherently inferior.42 This was reflected in army recruitment patterns as preference was given to certain types of Indian for army service, notably Nepalese, Punjabis and people from North-west Frontier and Baluchistan in what is now Pakistan. These areas were held to be relatively quiet during the 1857 rising and therefore a more reliable source of loyal stock. Conversely, Bengal, the northern province of Awadh and Delhi, as sites of resistance, were deemed untrustworthy. Under the East India Company,43 initial Indian recruitment came from mercenaries and low-caste volunteers but the elite Bengal Army eventually became composed largely of high caste Hindus and landowning Muslims. These two elite groups were seen as traitors during the uprising; consequently the recruitment of sepoys (soldiers) began to favour low caste, peasant, uneducated groups, those deemed as “relatively backward minorities whose then privileged position would depend on the continuation of British rule”.44 Hence, Nepalese Gurkhas, Pathans, peasant Sikh and Muslim Punjabis and Baluchis were deemed brave warriors with the requisite “manly” qualities required for soldiering and loyalty. Educated, urban Bengalis were contemptuously dismissed as idle, spineless and effeminate.
Some have argued that the concept of martial races was “less a theory than a catch-all phrase” used to justify different roles for Indian troops.45 Intellectual laziness certainly epitomised British officers in India and elsewhere in empire but the martial race doctrine did have theoretical underpinnings rooted in colonial “sciences” that pitted white Europeans at the top and black and brown skinned peoples at the bottom. The latter groups were further divided into a set of characteristics based on models of social Darwinism and crude biological racism, thus providing a suitable and comforting justification for empire. Colonial officials produced several documented accounts espousing a highly structured doctrine of martial races that directly corresponded to their experiences of Indian resistance. Commenting on Gandhi, Lieutenant-General Sir George MacMunn argued:
The gentle yet merciless race of hereditary moneylenders, from which Lala Ghandi springs, only kept within bounds by an occasional flaying and roasting, have never been able or even tried to protect their own hoards. Not for them, nor for the classes whence come the political lawyer, was the troopship that led the martial men of India westwards, to fight in the war of freedom.46
This was in sharp contrast to his admiration of those classified as martial:
The Jat Sikhs mighty and curled of beard, kin perhaps to the men of Kent, the Jutes from Jutland, with them Moslem and Hindu Rajput, the fierce hillmen from the frontiers, the Tartar from Nepal that we know as Gurkha, recking little else than that the Badshah or Padishah, the great White King, had summoned them and that his white officers would lead them and his white troops fight by their side.47
Similarly, a British Indian army officer wrote that Sikhs and Gurkhas were the only people he had encountered who “really liked fighting”48 and that Sikhs had distinguishing marks such as uncut hair and steel bracelets to remind them of their martial heritage.49 Another officer wrote that he had “soldiered with Rajputs, Pathans, Sikhs, Gurkhas, Punjabi Mahomedans, Madras Sappers and Miners, Dogras, Garhwalis and other races. Each had its characteristics, and these must be recognised by any one entrusted with the command of Indian troops”.50
Each had their own specific qualities. So the Dogras are “quiet, steady, clean soldiers”; the Pathans “have quicker wits than the other races” and Sikhs are “fine manly soldier[s]”, but should not be spoiled or pampered.51 Military historians are not noted for their critical gaze on army matters but Jeffrey Greenhut is spot on when he asserts that the concept of martial races had an “elegant symmetry” in that it posited intelligent, educated Indians as cowards, while those “defined as brave were uneducated and backward”, thus leaving the combined qualities of intelligence and courage with the British officer class.52 Thus the practice of racism was backed up by imperial intellectual gloss that was fundamental to the ideological foundation of the Indian army.53
Paternalistic racism pervaded every aspect of army life. One officer stated Indians “are of course splendid fighters, but are very lost without their officers”.54 James Willcocks, commander of the Indian Corps in France, summed up the officer corps’ attitude to Indian soldiers thus: “No one has greater admiration for the Indian soldier, and officer when he lives up to it, than I have. He’s generally brave, nearly always loyal—but he is seldom if ever fit to replace the British officer”.55 In this way martial theory neatly dovetailed every racist stereotype to buffer colonial armies. And these notions persist into the present, with the Gurkhas remaining a highly recognised section of the British army, celebrated for their fighting prowess but until recently ignored and rejected by the state when it came to paying pensions.56
Racist theories were similarly important to the French Empire. General Charles Mangin, a keen advocate of West African military recruitment, wrote La Force Noire in 1910 in which he put forward a racial and military justification for the use of African soldiers. Mangin had long held the view that the “black force” was comprised of “natural warriors”, “primitives, for whom life counts so little and whose young blood flows so ardently, as if avid to be shed”.57 His chief concern was the creation of a large reserve of African troops to counter France’s demographic imbalance in the face of Germany.
Like those of his British counterparts, Mangin’s arguments were based on biological determinism that ranked Africans in order of physical size, “military strength” and apparent loyalty. So West Africans from Senegal, Ivory Coast and central Africa were prized as loyal subordinates who had demonstrated previous valour and support for the French in Africa. For Mangin these “select” African peoples “have precisely those qualities that are demanded in the long struggles in modern war: rusticity, endurance, tenacity, the instinct for combat, the absence of nervousness, and an incomparable power of shock”.58
As early as 1909 French military theoreticians supported Mangin’s proposals asserting that in the coming war “the ‘black’ troops will have no rivals when it is a matter of delivering the final shock”. Traits such as savage impetuosity in attacks with the bayonet, cold-blooded and fatalistic temperament were taken as inherited qualities of the “black race”.59 However, Mangin had his critics within the French military command too. General Charles Moinier was suspicious of black soldiers. He had his own racial hierarchy stipulating that Africans were “simply not capable of adapting themselves with the same facility [as Europeans and North Africans] to the necessities of modern warfare”.60 Moinier was stationed in Madagascar and other generals based in North Africa were more pre-disposed towards Arab soldiers than those from sub-Saharan Africa.
Just as racism informed their preferred choice of colonial soldier, it also guided their reservations about others particularly in relation to latent fears about the very presence of non-white men in Europe with their close physical proximity to white civilians. Fraternisation with white women, in particular, was a key component of wartime anxiety. Colonial fantasies of uncontrolled black male desire and wartime nymphomania became an obsession. Inter-racial relationships had long exercised the minds of American generals in terms of black Americans stationed in Europe. Now similar fears afflicted British politicians and the high army command. Sex, or even the prospect of it, was troublesome. Lieutenant-Colonel Evelyn Howell, the first Indian mail censor and later foreign secretary to the government of India, argued that, were Indians allowed “to conceive a wrong idea of the ‘izzat’ [honour] of English women…[it] would be most detrimental to the prestige and spirit of European rule in India”.61
Indian troops enjoyed slightly more freedom in France than in Britain. For most soldiers, of any nationality, this was their first time away from home, surrounded by new and unusual sights, smells and sounds. With death ever-present any chance of human intimacy with civilians afforded some possibility of normal life. And colonial troops were desirous of this as much as any other soldier. One Indian soldier wrote: “In England there are very beautiful women. But they do not even give us one”.62 So even the human touch was circumscribed by a combination of material paucity and racial subordination.
In his fictional account of Indians sent to France, Across the Black Waters, Mulk Raj Anand refers to the “unwritten law that no sepoy was to be seen on familiar terms with the women in this country”. The English “did not like…the brown-skinned Indians to look at white women”.63 This point is illustrated well in his novel when he describes the reactions of sepoys on their first visit to a French brothel:
They were eager to taste this new sensation, but even as they waxed enthusiastic they were restrained by the humility of their position as sepoys who had never dared to look at a white woman with the eyes of desire. And the sense of the poverty of their pockets threatened to put all these pleasures beyond their reach.64
In 1917 a race riot, foreshadowing the larger riots of 1919, broke out when white youths in London’s working class East End, “incensed” by “the infatuation of the white girls for the black men”, attacked the houses of the latter.65 The Home Office inspector of constabulary spoke of the “irresistible fascination” of women for Chinese men;66 while in Sheffield, newspapers reported in shocked tones that Salvation Army workers were horrified by young women “consorting with and listening to the persuasions of coloured men”.67 These were indeed considered dangerous liaisons!
The tensions in wartime would eventually spill over into active resistance. This took two forms: anti-colonial rebellions of civilians and resistance in the ranks. The former included the Chilembwe Uprising of January 1915 in Nyasaland (modern day Malawi) and the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin.68 But in some respects the more significant and of immediate concern for the British was talk of mutiny. In 1917 Chinese and Egyptian dock workers drafted into the port of Boulogne by the British came out on strike alongside British and Commonwealth Army mutineers at Étaples. Field Marshall Haig ordered reprisals in which 27 of these strikers were shot dead.69 There are two other highly significant mutinies involving soldiers who had seen battle.
The Singapore Mutiny of February 1915
The 5th Light Infantry Regiment of the Indian Army had been sent from Madras to Singapore in October 1914 to replace the Yorkshire Light Infantry, which itself was bound for the Western front. This unit was, unusually, an entirely Muslim unit, made up of Rajputs and Pathans, two groups, termed “martial races”. One month after its arrival in Singapore it was announced that the regiment would be sent to Hong Kong. The same month Turkey, responding to the prompting of its ally Germany, declared war on Britain and its allies. The Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed V, was the Muslim Caliph. So the Germans, aware that nearly half of the world’s 270 million Muslims lived under British, French or Russian rule, calculated that if they could foment rebellion among the allies’ Muslim subjects, this huge fifth column could be potentially devastating.
As the day of embarkation approached, a rumour took hold among the Indian infantry that their actual destination was not Hong Kong but Turkey, where they would be thrown into battle against Turkish Muslims. At 3.30pm on 15 February 1915 some 800 soldiers broke out of their barracks and killed several British officers before moving on to other areas of the city.
Responding to British pleas for help, French, Russian and Japanese warships docked in Singapore on 17 February. Some 75 Japanese sailors, 22 Russians and 190 French marines landed and alongside Singaporean police, British sailors and Malay States Volunteer Rifles, they began to round up mutineers who had taken refuge in the jungle to the north of Singapore. That evening 432 mutineers had been captured and the remaining subversives were finally rounded up by 20 February.70 By the time the revolt was quashed, the mutineers had killed 39 Europeans—both soldiers and civilians. Three days later an inquiry, initially held in camera, identified three Indian officers as key conspirators but more than 200 sepoys were tried by court martial with 47 executed, 73 given terms of imprisonment ranging from seven to 20 years and 64 transported for life. The public executions by firing squad took place at Outram Prison, and were witnessed by an estimated 15,000 people “packed on the slopes of Sepoy Lines looking down on the scene”.71 These very public reprisals were designed to send a warning to the entire population.
The remnants of the 5th Light Infantry, numbering 588 sepoys plus seven British and Indian officers, left Singapore on 3 July 1915 for Africa and by 1922 it was disbanded. The British believed that soldiers had been incited to riot and mutiny by outside agents of either religious agitators or nationalists such as the Gadar Party.72 Although the mutiny was quashed, it took almost a week for the British to restore order. To enhance Singapore’s internal security, the British passed the Reserve Force and Civil Guard Ordinance in August 1915, requiring compulsory military service from all male subjects between 15 and 55 years of age who were not already in the armed forces, volunteers or police.73 It also proved that they could no longer depend on Indian soldiers to garrison the colony, thus demonstrating not only that they were caught off-guard but also how this episode shook the very foundations of British rule in Singapore. Subsequently all Indian nationals in Singapore were required to register, thereby alienating a previously acquiescent community, as well as showing the limits of empire.74
Taranto: Armistice Day
The port of Taranto was a logistical centre for the British army on the south eastern tip of Italy. On Armistice day, 11 November 1918, nine BWIR battalions that had served in France and Italy were concentrated at the port to prepare for demobilisation. Three further BWIR battalions that had served in Egypt and Mesopotamia joined them. There were severe labour shortages at Taranto and the allies used colonial troops to furnish their infrastructure needs. Demoted to labour units this meant the West Indian troops had to carry out the arduous work of loading and unloading ships, as well as the demeaning task of building and cleaning toilets used by white soldiers and Italian labourers. To add insult to injury, white soldiers were awarded a pay rise of six pence a day while the black soldiers were not as the War Office designated them mere “natives”. On top of this they had to endure separate and inferior hospital access and segregated recreational facilities. All cinemas and YMCA huts open to British troops were off limits to West Indians. Some black soldiers wrote a letter of complaint to the governor of Barbados stating that this racist policy was “not only an insult to us who have volunteered to fight for the empire, but also an insult to the whole West Indies”.75
For the BWIR troops this was the final indignity. On 6 December 1918 the men of the 9th Battalion revolted and attacked their officers. On the same day a group of about
180 black sergeants forwarded a petition to the secretary of state for the colonies demanding a 50 percent pay increase on a par with the rest of the British army and argued for officers’ commissions to be open to non-white men. “During the mutiny, which lasted about four days, a black NCO shot and killed one of the mutineers in self-defence and there was also a bombing. Disaffection spread quickly among other soldiers and on 9 December the ‘increasingly truculent’ 10th Battalion refused to work” and a “generally insubordinate spirit prevailed”. A senior commander, Lieutenant Colonel Willis, who had ordered some BWIR men to clean the latrines of the Italian Labour Corps, was also subsequently assaulted.76
Both the 9th and 10th Battalions were disbanded and the men distributed to the other battalions, which were all subsequently disarmed. On the fourth day a battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment, including machine gunners, was dispatched to restore order and the “ringleaders” were rounded up with 60 West Indian soldiers later tried for mutiny and 49 of them convicted. One was executed by firing squad, another imprisoned for 20 years and others received sentences ranging from three to five years.
The aftermath of war
More than 74,000 Indian and 1,250 British West Indian troops died in the war. Tens of thousands more were wounded and maimed. The Commonwealth war graves at Seaford in Sussex have 19 headstones displaying the crest of the BWIR and the Menin gate at Ypres, Belgium bears a stone inscribed with the names of Abbas Khan, Ahmed Khan and Aiman Singh Gurung. These are testimony to their sacrifice.
But those who survived would be severely disappointed if they hoped victory would bring respect, equality and freedom from colonial rule. Just as racism was functionally necessary to the stability of imperial rule and war, it was critical to its aftermath. Post-war Britain was characterised by economic hardship with workers, particularly seamen, competing with each other for scarce jobs. As demobilised black troops joined settled Caribbean, Arab, Chinese and Somali communities in port cities, a wave of racist agitation resulted in riots targeting them. Some trade union leaders actively discouraged the employment of black workers and armed groups of racist thugs whipped up a frenzy of violence against black people as “outsiders stealing our jobs”. Peter Fryer’s excellent book Staying Power chronicles the series of riots in South Shields, Liverpool, South Wales and London’s East End. For Fryer: “the end of the First World War ushered in the most troublous and stormy age of profound social crisis” in Britain.79 It was against this backdrop that black troops were not allowed to take part in a London Peace March on 19 July 1919 to celebrate the end of the war.
Wartime racial anxieties spilled over into peacetime with a grotesque racist propaganda campaign following the deployment of African troops in the Rhineland. In 1919 between 25,000 and 40,000 French colonial troops from Algeria, Madagascar, Morocco, Senegal and Tunisia were stationed on the Rhine. Controversy erupted in Germany with sensationalist headlines accusing African troops of rape and molestation of white women. The German press denounced the use of “primitive black troops to watch over a white nation” and lurid cartoons carried hysterical imagery of “black sexual debauchery threatening German womanhood and white racial purity”.80 The campaign, orchestrated by German nationalists opposed to the French occupation, quickly achieved international notoriety as it was championed by radical voices in Britain, the US and Canada.
The most pernicious example of this was Edmund Dene Morel’s 1920 article “Black Scourge in Europe: Sexual Horror Let Loose by France on the Rhine”, in which he described how France “is thrusting her black savages…into the heart of Germany” where “primitive African barbarians”, carriers of syphilis, have become a “terror and a horror”.81 This was made even more deplorable by the fact that Morel was an opponent of colonialism who had campaigned for African rights in the Belgian Congo. He was also a pacifist and member of the Independent Labour Party who went on to become a Labour MP in 1922. It was the Daily Herald, then a leading daily left paper, that published Morel’s piece. It was later published as a pamphlet, entitled The Horror on the Rhine, in which Morel wrote that black troops “must be satisfied upon the bodies of white women”.82 The pamphlet was so popular that eight editions of it appeared and a free copy was distributed to delegates at the Trades Union Congress in 1920. Morel uncritically accepted reports that German women had been assaulted and raped. Of course, there was no evidence for this at all but it did not stop a whole range of liberals, radicals and women’s groups from joining the chorus, supposedly in the name of feminism and defending German womanhood. Throughout the spring and summer of 1920 the Labour Leader opened its columns to Morel and other writers discussing the black troops issue. Foreign Affairs devoted a special supplement in July 1920 to the subject and even the circular of the Northumberland Miners’ Association spread Morel’s word to its readers.83 The liberal Commonweal referred to “hordes of Senegalese savages” and the “lust of black soldiery”, while The Nation talked of black men as “savages” and “black terrorists”.84
In spite of their anti-imperialism, certain sections of the British left reflected racist attitudes of the imperial powers. Fortunately, a minority of Marxist anti-imperialists stood against this tide and the young Jamaican socialist, poet and novelist Claude McKay responded to Morel’s tirade in a letter published in The Workers’ Dreadnought, edited by Sylvia Pankhurst.85 McKay demanded: “Why all this obscene, maniacal outburst about the sex vitality of black men in a proletarian paper?” And he continued, “I, a full-blooded Negro, can control my sexual proclivities when I care to, and I am endowed with my full share of the primitive passion… Besides, I know hundreds of negroes of the Americas and Africa who can do likewise”.86 He was disgusted by the racist hysteria that seemingly gripped sections of Britain’s left.
Post-war demands for freedom were met with savage repression throughout the empire, but nowhere more than in India where British forces, led by the odious General Dyer, massacred peaceful protesters in Amritsar in April 1919, killing 379. At the same time victory led Britain and France to extend their imperial possessions. They seized former German colonies in Africa and divided up the defeated Ottoman Empire in the Middle East according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which took its name from its negotiators, Sir Mark Sykes of Britain and Georges Picot of France.87 At a meeting in Downing Street, Sykes pointed to a map and told the prime minister: “I should like to draw a line from the ‘e’ in Acre to the last ‘k’ in Kirkuk”.88 And so the modern day Middle East, replete with entrenched sectarian divisions, was created by the hasty drawing of straight lines on a map in crude chinagraph pencil. The post-war carve-up was designed to suit the imperial victors in their strategic and political goals. They set up the League of Nations to provide a figleaf of legitimacy to their cherry-picking that Lenin rightly described as “a thieves’ kitchen”. Another 1.8 million square miles of territory and 13 million people were added to the British Empire.
But the war irrevocably changed attitudes of the veterans to imperial authority. The shift in the Anglo-imperial world from empire patriotism to greater assertion and confidence in demanding equal rights and freedom was brought home in a memo by a senior Colonial Office official from 1919 that sharply revealed colonial anxieties: “the black man has come to think and feel of himself as good as the white”.89 In addition, nationalist stirrings had been awakened and sharpened. These could not be neatly packed away. At the end of the war Britain faced a war for independence in its closest colony—Ireland—and colonial revolts in India, China, Egypt, Mesopotamia and in the Caribbean, where discontent among demobbed West Indian soldiers fused with the anger of workers protesting against the economic hardships caused by the war.
When disgruntled BWIR soldiers began arriving back in the West Indies, they quickly joined a wave of strikes resulting from a severe economic crisis produced by the war and the influence of black nationalist ideology espoused by Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey, who by now had altered his stance towards British rule in the Caribbean. Disenchanted soldiers and angry workers unleashed a series of protest actions and riots in a number of territories including Jamaica, Grenada and especially in British Honduras, where demobilised soldiers attacked the businesses and homes of the ruling commercial elites. Similarly disturbances hit Port of Spain, Trinidad, with militant strike action in December 1919.90 Protests following the Amritsar massacre proved to be a turning point in forcing the British government to concede constitutional reforms, which would propel Gandhi and other nationalist leaders to be bolder and more assertive in fighting for independence.
The Russian Revolution of 1917, which hastened the end of the war and broke up the Tsarist empire, showed colonial rule could be broken and imperialism overthrown by mass movements led by organised workers. The Irish rose in revolt and won the liberation of most of the island. Anti-colonial movements developed across the British and French Empires, with Britain facing fierce resistance in Iraq, for example. But tragically these movements would come to fruition only after the empires and their peoples had been convulsed by a second world war.
Talat Ahmed is lecturer in South Asian History at the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of Literature and Politics in the Age of Nationalism: The Progressive Episode in South Asia, 1932-56, and contributor to Say it Loud: Marxism and the Fight Against Racism.
1 Thanks to Alex Callinicos, Christian Høgsbjerg, John Newsinger, Tony Phillips, Camilla Royle and Ian Taylor for their very helpful and critical comments on this article in draft.
2 Johns, 2013.
3 Strachan, 2004, p3.
4 Levine, 1998, p104.
5 Pati, 1996, p39.
6 Farwell, 1989, p109.
8 Vadgama, 1984, p92.
9 Quoted in Rogers, 2002.
10 Rogers, 2002.
11 West India Committee Circular, 17 November 1914, p502.
12 Letter number 226, Signaller Kartar Singh to Kunar Khan, Ludhiana District, Punjab 22 January 1916, in Omissi, 1999, p141.
13 Letter number 263, Peshawar Singh (Sikh) to Sirdar Mahindar Singh (19th Lancers, Sialkot District, Punjab), 9 March, 1916, in Omissi, 1999, p161.
14 Letter number 260, Mahomed Firoz Din (Punjabi Muslim) to Firoz Khan (19th Lancers, Sialkot, Punjab), 7 March 1916, in Omissi, 1999, p160.
15 Letter number 215, Muhammad Hussein Khan (Punjabi Muslim) to Lumberdar Said Hafiz Khair Muhammad (Jullundur, Punjab, India), 10 January 1916, in Omissi, 1999, p136.
16 Quoted in Bourne, 2014, p66.
17 Quoted in Bourne, 2014, p63.
18 Letter to Right Honourable Lewis Harcourt, MP, Secretary of State for the Colonies, 16 September 1914, quoted in Hill, 2011, p76. See Johns, 2013.
19 Indian Opinion, 16 September 1914.
20 The Times, 5 September 1914, p9.
21 Gandhi, 1918-19, p5.
22 Gandhi, 1918-19, p8. Letter to Viceroy, 29 April 1918.
23 Gandhi, 1918-19, p37.
24 See Ahmed, 2009.
25 Manchester Courier, 25 September 1915.
26 Manchester Courier, 25 September 1915.
27 Rogers, 2002.
28 Letter number 394, Daya Ram (Jat) to Kalu Ram (Ambala City, Punjab, 2nd Lancers, Urdu), 6 September 1916, France, in Omissi, 1999, p231.
29 Letter number 67 Havildar Abdul Rahman (Punjabi Muslim to Naik Rajwali Khan (31st Punjabis, Fort Sandeman, Zhob Distict, Baluchistan), 20th May 1915, in Omissi, 1999, p61.
30 Letter number 408 Farrier Major Khan to Wali Mahomed Khan (Punjab Muslim, 18th Lancers, France), Jhelum, Punjab (Urdu), 19 September 1916, in Omissi, 1999, p239.
31 Letter number 22, A Wounded Sikh to his Brother, 14 February 1915, in Omissi, 1999, p37.
32 Letter number 103, Khan Muhammad (40th Pathans) to Sher Jang (40th Pathans, a hospital, France), 26 July, 1915, in Omissi, 1999, p81.
33 Levine, 1998, p107.
34 India Office Records: IOR/L/MIL/17/5/2016, Colonel Sir Bruce Seton, “A Report on Kitchener Indian Hospital, Brighton”, 1916.
35 Visram, 1986, p128.
36 Rogers, 2002.
37 Quoted in Bourne, 2014, p69.
38 Quoted in Bourne, 2014, p69.
39 Alexander, 1917, p71.
40 Alexander, 1917, p61.
41 Cipriani, 1940, p20.
42 Greenhut, 1984, p16.
43 The East India Company (EIC) was a British joint stock company established in 1600 under a Royal Charter, making it the oldest of several European East India companies. Its shareholders were aristocrats and wealthy merchants with the British state exercising indirect control. The EIC aggressively pursued trade across the East Indies and Indian Ocean. It came to pre-eminence in India from 1707, where it ruled large areas and took control of administrative areas, known as presidencies, backed up by its own private army. Its effective rule in India lasted from the 1757 Battle of Plassey in Bengal to 1858, when its rule was deposed following the 1857 Indian Uprising.
44 Greenhut, 1984, p15.
45 Cohen, 1971, p45.
46 MacMunn, 1933, p3.
47 MacMunn, 1933, p4.
48 Yeats-Brown, 1945, p31.
49 Yeats-Brown, 1945, p30.
50 Willcox, 1920, p7.
51 Willcox, 1920, pp56-57.
52 Greenhut, 1984, p16.
53 Greenhut, 1983, p70.
54 Quoted in Greenhut, 1983, p61.
55 Quoted in Greenhut, 1983, p66.
56 Press Association, 2011.
57 Mangin, 1910, p258.
58 Mangin, 1910, p343.
59 Quoted in Lunn, 1999, p525
60 Quoted in Lunn, 1999, p525.
61 India Office Records: IOR, L/MIL/5/825, 18 June 1915, pp60-61.
62 India Office Records: IOR, L/MIL/5/825, part VII, 28 October 1915, p1,183.
63 Anand, 1940, pp105 and 264.
64 Anand, 1940, p63.
65 The Times, 3 July 1917, p5.
66 Chinese contract labourers had been brought over as part of the Chinese Labour Corps working in the south of England, London and Liverpool—O’Neill, 2014.
67 Home Office Archive: HO45/10724/251861, memorandum of Leonard Dunning, H M Inspector of Constabulary, 19 October 1914; Sheffield Weekly Independent, 4 August 1917, p2.
68 The Chilembwe revolt was centred on the black middle class and encouraged by grievances against the colonial system, including forced labour, discrimination and the new demands on the indigenous population caused by the outbreak of war.
69 Fuller, 2014, p23.
70 Harper and Miller, 1984, pp172-179.
71 See “Execution of Twenty-Two Renegades”, Straits Times, 26 March 1915.
72 The Ghadar Party was an organisation founded by Punjabi Indians in the US and Canada with the aim of securing India’s independence from British rule. Imperial interests dictated that colonial troops were servile, unthinking military fodder and their “natural” state was unswerving loyalty to Pax Britannica. Consequently for the British, mutiny could only be a result of external agitation. The lack of indigenous agency in these accounts has quite rightly been challenged—See Singh, 2014, pp184-186.
73 Ban, 2001, pp56-58.
74 Sareen, 1995, p822.
75 Quoted in Elkins, 1970, p100.
76 Public Record Office, CO 318/347.
77 Major Maxwell Smith, Commanding Officer of 8th BWIR Battalion to Major General H F Thuillier, Commanding Troops, Taranto, 27 December 1918, Public Records Office, CO 318/350. See Johns, 2013.
78 Quoted in Smith, 2008, p229.
79 Fryer, 1984, p312.
80 Wigger, 2010, pp34-35.
81 Morel, 1920, quoted in Reinders, 1968, p1.
82 Quoted in Fryer, 1984, p317.
83 Reinders, 1968, p11.
84 Quoted in Fryer, 1984, pp317-318.
85 McKay, 1920.
86 Quoted in Donlon, 2016.
87 Both were quintessential “empire men”, aristocrats seasoned in colonial administration, and believers in the notion that the people of the region would be better off under the benevolence of European empires.
88 Acre is a coastal town in northern Israel and Kirkuk is in northern Iraq.
89 Gilbert Grindle, Assistant Under-Secretary at the Colonial Office in London, quoted in Bourne, 2014, p71.
90 Elkins, 1970, p103.