The Wilson Quarterly

NEARLY 30 KILOMETERS SOUTHWEST OF BASRA, just off the open road to Nasiriyya, stands a sun-bleached stone monument to a forgotten era. In contrast to the grandeur of some of Iraq’s more modern monuments, the Basra War Memorial blends modestly and unobtrusively into the surrounding sandy desert. Its windswept and dilapidated stone edifice commemorates the 40,500 members of the British Empire’s operations in Mesopotamia whose final resting places are unknown. Among those names chiseled into immortality in the lengthy stone walkway framing a central pillar are the sons of India. An engraved sentence “as sad as any I’ve read in war” caught the eye of BBC reporter Fergal Keane while he accompanied coalition troops during the 2003 Iraq war: “It says simply: For Subhadar Mahanga and 1,770 other Indian soldiers.”

Such unassuming memorials as in that empty stretch of desert near Basra pay tribute to the extraordinary sacrifice of Indian soldiers, among others, who deployed to fight in the Great War. Yet despite these soldiers’ journeys across the seas and into the heartland of the Ottoman Empire, the Indian contribution to World War I in the Middle East is considerably less acknowledged outside the British Isles and the Indian subcontinent.

In truth, the links between the Middle East and South Asia go back centuries; the Great War served to bring the two populations even closer and in larger numbers than ever before. It was Indians, Egyptians, Australians, and other colonial subjects who manned the trenches and peopled the platoons that fought and won the war in the Middle East for the British. The presence of such large numbers of foreigners in the heart of the Middle East represented an opening that built on centuries-old contacts between South Asia and the Middle East.

As 1914 dawned, major combat operations seemed a distant prospect to the soldiers of the Indian army. At the start of monsoon season that summer, the Indian army comprised a mere 155,000 men organized into nine divisions and eight cavalry brigades. To the Indian soldier of early 1914, it would have been unimaginable that by the time the Armistice was signed four years later, India would provide one-tenth of the manpower of the British war effort — more than 1.27 million men, including 827,000 combatants. Altogether, nearly 60,000 Indians died fighting for the crown on the battlefields of Mesopotamia and France.

EARLY IN THE CONFLICT, BRITAIN insisted on conscripting only particular types of Indians. Since the 1850s, British military recruitment efforts bypassed the educated masses of urban India and instead focused on the illiterate teenage peasants from north and northwest — a region that was, by 1914, home to 80 percent of India’s 57 million Muslims — whom the Brits saw as infused with a warrior spirit.

At the outset of the Great War, Punjab alone accounted for 60 percent of India’s military conscripts. Their ranks were joined by Sikhs, Rajputs, Gurkhas, Jats, Dogras, Pathans, Hindustani Muslims, Ahirs, and almost 70 other population groups. Together, they crossed the Indian Ocean into foreign lands to do battle on behalf of the Crown.

In organizing their Indian forces, the British reinforced martial class demarcations by assigning recruits to ethnically, spiritually, or linguistically homogeneous companies and even regiments. Emphasizing group distinctions mitigated the potential for uprising, as the distinctive “religious practices, dietary restrictions and religious ceremonies” of homogeneously constructed regiments fostered separate and cohesive identities. The hierarchy of Indian society, transplanted to the battlefield, shaped the interactions of, and colored the relationships within, Indian units. As losses undermined homogeneity and replacement officers dwindled in quality and numbers, Indian units suffered along with their British counterparts.

Yet unlike their British counterparts, few Indians rode the wave of emotional patriotism that swept the home isles. Historian David Omissi’s careful combing of Indian soldiers’ war letters shows that “people never mentioned in the letters read like a political Who’s Who of World War I: Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, Herbert Asquith, Lenin, Trotsky, and Gandhi.” More than anything, it seems that the focus, instead, on family, clan, and caste helped inspire the Indian soldiers as warfare intensified from frontier patrols to frontal charges.

The Ottomans were well aware of the Indian Muslim presence in the British lines, and they moved promptly to exploit their status as coreligionists. Because almost one-third of these new infantrymen with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force were Muslim, Ottoman frontline patrols were accompanied by the regimental imam, who would sing prayers at the British troops, hoping to lure defectors. In response, British staff officers intensified their vigilance when Indian soldiers were on leave in contact with Ottomans. Intelligence officers at Suez, Ismailia, and al-Qantara kept watch for Ottoman propaganda, while military police toured frontline divisions, showing soldiers photographs of the appalling conditions of Indian prisoners of war. When possible, leave parties were organized to Jerusalem to visit religious sites; after the end of hostilities, small groups were able to participate in the pilgrimage to Mecca.

That many Indians were Muslim was a source of angst for the British military— and a wellspring of possibility for the Ottoman Empire. 

In retrospect, the Ottoman effort was mostly ineffective at sparking Indian military defections. When religion proved ineffective, the Ottomans attempted other propaganda strategies. One Indian battalion in Mesopotamia was greeted by a shower of Hindi pamphlets warning them that “England was starving and would soon be unable to feed and clothe them.” The Indian officers wrote a reply and requested it be dropped on the Ottomans. It included the lines, “We have never been fed and clothed so well, but prisoners taken from you are in rags. … We will never cease to fight for the King Emperor Jarj Panjam [George V] until the evil Kaiser is utterly trodden into the mud.”

The Ottoman effort failed in part because so many Indian Muslims separated political duty from religious fealty, thereby easing their anxieties over the war. But that loyalty sometimes strained to overcome cultural obstacles. Sikhs, for example, refused to wear steel shrapnel helmets, citing religious prohibitions against the wearing of such hats. Meanwhile, the war diary of a Punjabi regiment describes the challenges the British faced during one cholera inoculation campaign in Mesopotamia in the spring of 1916: “The Khattacks except the Indian officers and NCOs refused to be done as they still believed the stories they had heard in Egypt about all inoculation rendering men impotent. Even when told in turn that this inoculation was not voluntary but by order they still refused, and had to be marched back to camp under arrest. Subedar Major Mir Akbar found out who was at the bottom of this refusal and persuaded them to agree to be inoculated the following day.” 

DESPITE THE BEST EFFORTS OF THE BRITISH, public opinion in colonial India included a noticeable sympathy for the Ottomans. As with troops in the field, on the Indian subcontinent, an attempt was made to limn out a distinction between the political and religious aspects of the war — an attempt with limited success.

The removal of the partition of Bengal in 1911 had encouraged Indian Muslims predisposed to extraneous cultural influences and sensitive to their Muslim status to reflect on their loyalties. Such potentially pro-Ottoman predispositions were given voice in newspapers such as Comrade, Hamdard, Al-Hilal, and Zamindar, which expressed regret at the Ottoman entry into the war but emphasized pan-Islamic solidarity, the sacredness of the Islamic holy sites, the British annexation of Egypt, and Ottoman victories in places such as Gallipoli.

At the beginning of the war, Sultan Mehmed V issued a fatwa for jihad in order to address the question of loyalty: “The Moslem subjects of Russia, of France, of England and of all the countries that side with them in their land and sea attacks dealt against the Caliphate for the purpose of annihilating Islam, must these subjects, too, take part in the Holy War against the respective governments from which they depend? Yes.”

The British fear of uprising was real during the war, but after 1915 the threat never rose above mere potential. Ultimately, proof of Indian sympathy for the Ottoman caliphate emerged after the war in the form of the Khilafat movement of 1919 to 1924, organized by Muslims in India in support of the Ottoman Empire. None other than Mahatma Gandhi lent strong support to the cause of the Khilafat during the mass noncooperation movement against the British in the aftermath of the Great War.

For Indians both at home and in the military, tales told by the returning wounded constituted a central source of news and information. Alarming reports of drought and disease began to reach the front in 1915, compounding such anxieties among soldiers. The impressions created were of a brutal, grim conflict — sowing doubts among prospective Indian soldiers who weighed the promised rewards for enlistment against the dangers of combat. Punjabi folks songs from the era maintain a telling emotional distance from all the war’s partisans, and a conviction that for the poor, war, above all, meant suffering.

Ultimately, Ottoman efforts to exploit this shared religious identity failed, in part because so many Indian Muslims separated political duty from religious fealty.

Although Indian soldiers knew their missives faced the probing eyes of British censors — and therefore likely shaped their letters to pass muster — some felt a genuine connection to the war. One soldier wrote that this was “the time to show one’s loyalty to the Sirkar, to earn a name for oneself. To die on the battlefield is glory. For a thousand years, one’s name will be remembered.” Bonds forged in the crucible of trench combat reinforced morale. Echoing a refrain heard across military history, one soldier confided, “I cannot describe to you how great fascination there is in fighting at the front. One experiences a feeling of exhilaration.”

These concomitant feelings of loyalty and exhilaration were doubly tested at the outset of Sharif Husayn’s Arab Revolt in June 1916. It was a jolting event for Indian Muslims, whose incredulity hardened into criticism at the revolt for risking the sanctity of Islam’s holy sites. Throughout India, anti-Arab feeling was apparent; the All-India Muslim League in Lucknow embodied the reaction of political actors across Muslim India: “The Arab rebels headed by the Sharif of Mecca, whose outrageous conduct may place in jeopardy the safety and sanctity of the holy places of Islam in the Hejaz and Mesopotamia.”

Nonetheless, in the letters that Omissi curates, ideological discussions or broader political dynamics generally rank behind concerns of the familial strains caused by war. One Punjabi soldier argued that while “those who do not put their hearts into the work of fighting the King’s enemies are clearly worthy of the greatest blame,” it is incumbent on the king to ameliorate the burdens of extended deployment. He continued, “[The Caliph] Hazrat Umar … had a law passed that in future every married soldier should be allowed to return to his home on leave once every six months. I have been astonished to think that when we have such a King, renowned throughout the world for his kindness and justice, he has never considered this problem.”

Indian soldiers faced a mixture of socioeconomic hardship and ideological pressure. Some units mutinied rather than face their brethren on the battlefield, while some Pathans even fired on their own sentries before deserting their ranks. According to official figures, after four years of war almost half of the Punjabi deserters remained at large. Some soldiers worried about the desertions and what they said about the honorability of the overall unit. Others worried over the condition of their Indian comrades who were imprisoned after mutinying. As the war ground on, an increasing number sought to escape the front through self-inflicted wounds, often to their left hands and feet, while night blindness in one unit was discovered to be mostly self-induced.

FOR GREAT BRITAIN, EGYPT'S STRATEGIC VALUE was immeasurable: an equidistant geopolitical hub between the Middle East and Europe for deployments ranging from Basra to Marseilles. Since the British takeover of Egypt in 1882, maintaining control over the Suez Canal became the sine qua non of London’s regional strategy. Thirty-four feet deep, 100 miles long, and 190 feet wide at minimum, the Suez Canal constituted a formidable waterway, more than one-third of which was naturally protected by lakes and floodplains. The rest, however, would need to be protected by troops. It would be defended at all costs.

By January 1915 the British had increased the Suez defense to 70,000 soldiers drawn from across the empire: Indians, Australians, New Zealanders, all united to defend the canal. Although the government controlled any reporting on troop movements, the disembarkation of thousands of Indians at railway stations inevitably sparked curiosity. “The streets of Egypt were packed with English and Indian soldiers staying at Heliopolis and Zeytun,” al-Ahram reported. “The crowds gathered to watch them and some thought that the Indians looked exactly like the Japanese.” In Egypt, separate military encampments did limit somewhat the interaction between Indians and Egyptians, and British apprehension at the prospect of thousands of Indian men stationed in Egypt caused them to declare Port Said — a noted prostitution center — as entirely “out of bounds.” Some, however, readily resigned themselves to their new milieu, even taking to their new setting enthusiastically. In four years of war, India sent 95,000 combatants and 135,000 noncombatants to the Egyptian and Palestine front.

IN THE PREDAWN HOURS OF EARLY FEBRUARY 1915, Indian sentries spied the silhouetted mass of an Ottoman attacking force silently pushing off the east bank of the Suez and making its way toward their defensive works. In the ensuing battle, Punjabis trained heavy fire on pontoons and other amphibious assault craft, sinking them in rapid succession, with Rajputs, Egyptians, and Sikhs participating in the operation.

As one of the first Egyptian-Indian actions of the war against the Ottomans, the first Suez offensive set the tone for the ensuing battle over Palestine. Several Indian divisions saw action on disparate fronts from the lush countryside of France to the barren desert of Mesopotamia. Then, following the surrender of Baghdad, these troops joined newly arrived Indian cavalry — redeployed from Europe — to help form the Egyptian Expeditionary Corps.

Although they would win him brilliant victories, culminating in the Battle of Megiddo in northern Palestine in September 1918, Field Marshal Edmund Allenby, leader of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, invoked some of the same stereotypes as his contemporaries in discussing his colonial men. In the aftermath of one Pathan outpost deserting to the Ottomans, Allenby was piqued. “If I could be reinforced by 3 or 4 good divisions … I could, I think, really get a move on my Turks.” So it must have been disheartening to Allenby when in late 1917 London accelerated the “Indianization” of his force.

Increasing the number of Indians in the Egyptian Expeditionary Corps was Britain’s effort to build up Allenby’s troops “without having to make recourse to fresh drafts from Britain, which was facing accumulating manpower problems.” British planners also hoped to draw on the organizational skills and combat experiences of Indian units acclimated to three years of war in the Middle East. The perceived downside to such a move was the risk of stationing in Palestine large numbers of Indian Muslims in direct opposition and proximity to their Ottoman coreligionists. By late 1917, the gears of the Indian recruiting system were rotating at full speed, enabling such a policy shift.

The increasing “Indianization” of Britain’s army was born of necessity and occurred amidst British jitters over stationing Indian Muslims in proximity to their Ottoman coreligionists.

On December 11, 1917, Allenby dismounted and walked into Jerusalem, prompting Prime Minister Lloyd George to advocate a major offensive to break out into Greater Syria, thereby refocusing “a Eurocentric effort he regarded as counterproductive.” In response, Allenby submitted his resourcing requirements for further action. Allenby’s plans, however, were soon interrupted by a massive, last-ditch German offensive launched in March 1918 in Flanders and France, an attack that ripped large holes in two British armies. Allenby’s hopes for British reinforcements died along with entire divisions in the fields of Flanders and France. As the War Office rapidly recalled troops to Europe to stem the rising German tide, the pace of “Indianization” in Palestine quickened. While Allenby’s deceptions eventually outmaneuvered the Germans and Ottomans, the war itself was fought and won largely by an Indian and Egyptian force.

Integral to that victory was “the last great cavalry campaign in history.” Although Indian infantry prepared, assaulted, and broke through the Ottoman lines during Allenby’s fall offensive, it was the Desert Mounted Corps that pushed through the Ottoman gaps and prevented an orderly Ottoman retreat. This sweeping cavalry ride accomplished what European troops had been unable to do in the stalemate of Europe. New York Times correspondent W. T. Massey reported on “great feats by the cavalry” and described Indian charges: “brilliantly … perfectly timed … masterly success … a feat almost without parallel in this war.”

As in past conflicts, the cavalry also served as raiders and intelligence gatherers. Charles Trench, an Indian army officer in the 1930s who became known for his popular historical works, relates one such raid during the “dash up the coast:”

Just short of Damascus a squadron of the Poona Horse charged in error a body of Arabs who proved too elusive for them. They did, however, bag a large motor-car containing a European splendidly Arab-garbed. Suspecting a German spy, Risaldar Major Hamir Singh demanded his surrender, and there ensued a heated altercation, neither understanding one word the other said. It transpired that this individual’s name was Lawrence, and that he had something to do with the Sharif of Mecca’s forces.

As Trench suggests, this incident may in part account for T. E. Lawrence’s general bias toward the Indian army. The incident notwithstanding, Allenby’s attack — up the coastal plain, through the central Palestinian highlands, and across the Jordan River valley — inspired pride among Indian troops. Testifying to their momentum, in all of 1918 the Egyptian Expeditionary Force suffered only a few dozen desertions.

That is not to say, however, that Allenby’s thrust through Palestine was simple. Although it is often portrayed as swift and active in comparison to the static European front, conditions in Palestine were far from ideal and cost Allenby 9,980 Indian and native troops. While British captains often fixed bayonets and ordered charges, it was mostly Indian units who executed those orders. Their suffering is exemplified in the Indian experience at Kut, while their determination was rewarded with the eventual capture of Baghdad.

Indeed, it was in Mesopotamia where the pain of defeat and the exhilaration of victory merged into one.

IT BEGAN IN NOVEMBER 1914, when the Indian Sixth Division was dispatched to capture Basra and secure the Anglo-Persian oil installations. Facing them in Mesopotamia were 17,000 infantrymen, 380 cavalry, 44 field guns, and three machine guns. By the time of the Armistice, over 600,000 Indian men had, in one form or another, experienced the great convulsion of Mesopotamian warfare. In the beginning, a large-scale war along the Tigris seemed unlikely. However, after a series of initial victories, British decision-makers were tempted by the ease of their early advances and cast strategic prudence aside.

Lord Hardinge, the British viceroy, argued in November 1915 that “our success hitherto in Mesopotamia has been the main factor which has kept Persia, Afghanistan, and India itself quiet.” Ultimately, however, the blame for one of the greatest catastrophes in British military history — the defeat at Kut — rests on the commanders on the spot, in particular General John Nixon. Nixon’s preference for an ethos of inspirational leadership came at the expense of logistical preparation. The Tigris expedition faced one logistical hurdle after another; unfortunately, Nixon’s confidence in the fighting spirit of his men came at the expense of such indispensable work as the development of the port of Basra. Martial valor proved no substitute for careful preparation.

From the beginning, life inside besieged Kut was emotionally and physically torturous. As the historian Nikolas Gardner has detailed, the Ottomans bombarded Kut with “leaflets printed in various Indian languages calling on sepoys to murder their British officers and join the Turks.” As elsewhere, this Ottoman initiative had little effect, but it reminded Townshend of the dilemma Indian soldiers faced fighting in a foreign land against coreligionists while subsisting on inadequate provisions and receiving insufficient medical care. As the siege dragged on, conditions only worsened.

On January 20, 1916, as the prospect of immediate relief was dwindling and vegetables and other food grew scarce inside Kut, Townshend ordered his men to halve their rations. The garrison’s tinned meat supplies gave way to an even less appetizing reality: the consumption of pack animals.

Although famished, many Indians refused to incorporate horse and mule into their daily diet, as they considered themselves prohibited by religious rules from doing so, and fretted that their comrades would share news of this trespass upon returning home. Townshend sought to overcome his soldiers’ hesitations by soliciting statements from Indian religious leaders, posted throughout Kut, “sanctioning the consumption of horseflesh.”

Moreover, the soldiers’ reliance on diminishing and inadequate rations of flour and unprocessed grain led to outbreaks of pneumonia, jaundice, and dysentery at alarmingly high levels. On March 7, 1916, the daily ration was set at 10 ounces of barley flour and four of parched barley grain; by the end of the month, rations were further reduced to six and four ounces, respectively. In mid-April, after rations were reduced to four ounces of flour, roughly 10,000 Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims relented and began consuming horsemeat. For some, it was already too late; by one author’s documentation, in consuming less than half of the calories necessary to maintain their strength, British soldiers lost an average of 12.5 pounds, while Indians lost approximately 17 pounds during the siege. Reads one soldier’s memoir: “We are a sick army, a skeleton army rocking with cholera and disease.” A small percentage of the force despaired; desertions rose, and others committed suicide.

Surrender followed. Conditions did not change quickly after the fall of Kut. One major summarized the state of conditions while entrenched with Punjabis in simple, unexaggerated staccato: “Heat is appalling and only just beginning. Flies bite hard and are in thousands. Cholera has started. … We lie and gasp all day. … Meals are practically an impossibility on account of the flies.” He later describes a march in which “men fell like flies” as more than “1,000 collapsed from heat and lack of water. … Men simply crumpled up.”

These conditions were endured by a particularly large number of Indian soldiers, since more than twice as many fought in Mesopotamia as in France (or Palestine). The influence of these theaters could not have been equal; Mesopotamia, more than Palestine or France, shaped the Indian soldier.

Thirty percent of the Indian force would not survive their Ottoman internment.

IN THE GREAT WAR, SOUTH ASIANS WERE CRITICAL to Triple Entente victories around the Gulf, in Palestine, and throughout Greater Syria. This fact alone justifies paying increased attention to the Indians who fought in the Middle East, especially when compared to the enormous scholarship devoted to their European counterparts. Set aside their military contributions, however, and an additional rationale for studying these South Asians emerges.

It was Indians, Egyptians, Australians, and other colonial subjects who manned the trenches and peopled the platoons that fought and won the war in the Middle East for the British.

By traveling across the Indian Ocean and into the Middle East, these men experienced new worlds and new people. In Palestine, they fought with the Arab Revolt; in Mesopotamia, they suffered among rivertine tribes; on Gallipoli, they charged Ottoman Turks; and in Cairo, they experienced cosmopolitan urbanites.

A diverse array of Indians encountered an equally diverse group of Middle Easterners for four intensive years, deepening and broadening a long-standing connection between the two regions. As the Middle East transitioned into its postwar era, its interactions and experiences with South Asia became an important part of its historical memory.

* * *

Leila Tarazi Fawaz is Issam M. Fares Professor of Lebanese and Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University. This piece is adapted from her book, A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War, available from Harvard University Press.

Read Next

Countries and Western: The Geopolitics of Music