Jump to content
Free downloads from TNA ×
The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Indian Army Corps - Winter 1914 & 1915


Guest

Recommended Posts

In Hew Strachan's book 'The First World War' there is a colour photo of some Indian Cavalrymen. Part of the caption states:

"The infantry suffered terribly that winter and was deployed to other theatres in November 1915, but these cavalrymen stayed for two more years"

The 'suffering' that Strachan alludes to was the suffering from the winter conditions rather than battle casualties. I have seen similar comments in other publications that imply the Indian troops did not cope with the cold as well as their British counterparts. This is something I always thought was strange. Many Indian troops came from the more mountainous regions of India and Nepal and would have been familiar with cold harsh climates. One might argue that these men would have been more suited to working in the cold that many of their British counterparts. Many of the other Indian Army troops would have had experience of the NW Frontier region and and been exposed to its harsh winter climate.

The Indian army had a long tradition of serving in harsh mountainous conditions. Going back to the retreat from Kabul in 1842 when the 44th (East Essex Regiment) was destroyed at Gandamack it would appear that a number of Indian Troops managed to fight their way to Jalalabad in the bitter winter of Jan 1842. British mythology at the time, reinforced by a rather bad painting by Lady Bulter propagated the idea that only one British Officer (an assistant surgeon) got back. Not much mention of the Indians. I wonder if these deep rooted (British) preconceptions about Indian troops were a legacy of an earlier era that were perpetuated in 1914/15 and beyond.

There is plenty of evidence that British soldiers suffered in the winter of 1914/15 with many diaries recording hundreds of men going sick due to cold related injuries. I have no doubt the Indian Troops suffered too however is there any evidence that Indian troops suffered more than others? I wonder if early British comments were tainted with bias or prejudices towards Indian troops and these comments (possibly unfounded) have been picked up and regurgitated by later authors. If the Indians were particularly susceptible to the cold one wonders why the Indian Cavalry were kept in France and Flanders for two more years while the British sent Yeomanry Regiments to Egypt and Mesopotamia. It also doesn't explain how a Garhwal Rifleman managed to overcome the cold of Festubert in late November 1914 and overcome rather a few Germans as well, winning a VC in the process. Presumably this particular Indian Army soldier was not debilitated by the cold or indeed the two head wounds he had sustained. A small sample, but I think illustrates some (small) conflict with these claims.

I would be interested in seeing any supporting evidence that the Indian troops were more susceptible than British troops to the cold.

MG

Link to comment
Share on other sites

In "The Indian Corps In France"1918 Chap XXIV puts the reason as the failure of the reinforcement chain that had difficulty in replacing casualties as well problems of the quality of some of the initial troops arriving in France and that establishments of units was generally lower than the equivalent British unit. Sorry a very brief summary as I am not that good at typing on my tablet as I am away from home, there is a full discussion but weather does not play a part from my quick skim.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Seems to me that in the Diary of the Meerut Division the RAMC had serious concerns about the Indians and the cold, as well as their dietary requirements.

Actually Brydon, the surgeon who was one of the few survivors of the retreat from Kabul, was from my home town. After four days on the retreat,the army was reduced to 170 cavalry and 380 sepoys, most of whom were severely frostbitten and several snow blind. By the fifth day, all the Indians had died or deserted. They eventually reached Futtebad only 16 miles from Jalalabad with three captains, a lieutenant and the two army doctors. However in fine Glencoe fashion in reverse they were murdered with the exception of Brydon, who made it to the beseiged city of Jalalabad. A very few others trickled back afterwards. The entire story is told in Eric Malcolm's book, "Heroes and Others", and is fairly factual I think

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I can't recall where I read it, but I have seen it reported that the higher casualties from sickness were actually among the British units in the Indian divisions, rather than among Indian troops which, as you say, would have been accustomed to the cold conditions of a European winter. However, it is also relevant that European winters are also wetter than Indian ones (I believe) and the Indians may have suffered more from trench foot and similar conditions.

Replacing casualties among Hindustani-speaking officers was also a problem, but presumably that would still have applied wherever they were deployed.

Ron

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Martin - Morton-Jack (is that the right name?) in his excellent book on the Indians in France seems utterly to disprove that old chestnut (along with several others). As mentioned by Mr Clifton, it seems to have been sort-of expected but it didn't happen. Morton-Jack's book (assuming I have his name right) should be a Set Text for this Forum.

Ron: not just Hindustani; a wide range of languages and dialects were needed, depending on type of regiment.

hazel: read Dalrymple's Return of a KingUtterly superb and available as a paper back (probably e-type thingy, too).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This informative site, Doctor Brighton's Pavilion, reflects the tone of your opening quotation in its page Casualties in France giving some quotations from letters home:

In this sinful country, it rains very much and also snows, and many men have been frost-bitten… All the men will be finished here. In the space of a few months how many have fallen and how many have been wounded.

‘There is no fireplace. We are not given milk…It is very cold. We have to call the nurses “mother” and the European soldiers “Orderly Sahib” - if we do not we are reported. The five Brighton hospitals are good. The others are not good. We are not given soup. We get nothing.’

and these were from the early hospital sites at Brighton and Brockenhurst!

However, it's implied that a lot of the problems may have been - as with the BEF in the first winter of 14-18 (and several other conflicts both before and after) - down to the men being wrongly or poorly equipped for the conditions it was experiencing, not necessarily down to their hardiness. (I remember my father telling me how he was sent out to a very hot southern Italy in the latter stages of WWII with clothing more appropriate to an English winter, although in his case they were re-equipped shortly after arrival).

Not something I can profess any knowledge of, but it strikes me that enlistment to any given Indian regiment is likely to have been from a specific locality of India, and that men from those recruited in the more temperate southern areas would be less able to endure (and be equipped for from the outset) the harsh winter conditions encountered than those from the colder, more rugged northern areas where such weather would be more the norm.

The Doctor Brighton site is well referenced, so perhaps some of those might be worth following up.

NigelS

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Mr Broomfield is absolutely correct I was reading the very section about sickness in Morton-Jack's book last-night. He is equally correct in his judgement of the book. Expensive, but currently the definitive source on the Indian Army in France and Flanders. It is equally clear from his references that the evidence was widely known that the performance of the troops was extremely good in most battalions and that sickness rates and self harming was at low levels overall by British officers and included in their accounts of their war. Not least the Official Historian took and wrote agin them. I hope to post a review shortly - it will be highly positive.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Martin - Morton-Jack (is that the right name?) in his excellent book on the Indians in France seems utterly to disprove that old chestnut (along with several others). As mentioned by Mr Clifton, it seems to have been sort-of expected but it didn't happen. Morton-Jack's book (assuming I have his name right) should be a Set Text for this Forum.

Ron: not just Hindustani; a wide range of languages and dialects were needed, depending on type of regiment.

hazel: read Dalrymple's Return of a KingUtterly superb and available as a paper back (probably e-type thingy, too).

Indeed...as you know I own the book too. .. and is one of the reasons for posting. I would be interested to see how widespread these claims were and who the sources were (beyond those contained in the Indians Army Corps in France). I had generally thought it was 'myth' that had been recycled but when one sees luminaries such as Strachan echoing the claims I wondered if there were high level reports/claims to such an effect. There is no reference in his book. I would also be interested in following the historiography (is that the right word?) of the claims. Occasionally it is possible to trace misinformation to a few sources or single source that implanted the idea in the minds of some authors.

Mr Broomfield is absolutely correct I was reading the very section about sickness in Morton-Jack's book last-night. He is equally correct in his judgement of the book. Expensive, but currently the definitive source on the Indian Army in France and Flanders. It is equally clear from his references that the evidence was widely known that the performance of the troops was extremely good in most battalions and that sickness rates and self harming was at low levels overall by British officers and included in their accounts of their war. Not least the Official Historian took and wrote agin them. I hope to post a review shortly - it will be highly positive.

I would be interested in seeing the stats on the British troops v Indian Troops.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Gotdon Corrigan in his Sepoys in the Trenches cites the failure of the reinforcement system as the principle reason. Compared to other theatres of war, the Western Front provided by far the longest line of communication from India, with most reinforcements tending to go to Mesopotamia and East Africa.It was felt, too, that the Indians would adapt better to Mespot than British troops. Also, the arrival of the Canadians in force reduced the need to retain the indian troops in France.

Charles M

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Gotdon Corrigan in his Sepoys in the Trenches cites the failure of the reinforcement system as the principle reason. Compared to other theatres of war, the Western Front provided by far the longest line of communication from India, with most reinforcements tending to go to Mesopotamia and East Africa.It was felt, too, that the Indians would adapt better to Mespot than British troops. Also, the arrival of the Canadians in force reduced the need to retain the indian troops in France.

Charles M

Morton-Jack argues that the removal of the Indian Army Corps 'was triggered neither by the Flemish climate nor by casualty replacement problems, but by the Indian Government's grandiose strategy in Mesopotamia'.

My personal belief is that it was 'Answer D - all of the above'. I think that climate hit the Indian Corps hard simply because they were not equipped fast enough to deal with the rapidly deteriorating weather. Having insufficient clothing was an undeniable factor in the initial period, particularly for those wearing khaki drill uniforms. This was quickly solved by December 1914 but it must have had an impact in November and may well have planted the idea in some minds that Indian troops were susceptible to cold conditions.

MG

Link to comment
Share on other sites

My reading of modern accounts indicates that the "suffering in the European winter" stories were a face saving excuse for the failures of the Indian Corps.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

My reading of modern accounts indicates that the "suffering in the European winter" stories were a face saving excuse for the failures of the Indian Corps.

And possibly by pointing the finger at the Indian Corps this would deflecting attention way from some of the shortcomings of the BEF?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

My reading of modern accounts indicates that the "suffering in the European winter" stories were a face saving excuse for the failures of the Indian Corps.

Is that the failure of the 'Indians' in the Indian Corps, or the Corps as a whole?

Mike

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Read the book the stats and supporting evidence rather than simply quote the long accepted views. The Indian Army's performance, its tactics, casualties, reactions to bad weather - noting that the troops who had served in the north were well used to cold and wet weather - and the statistical evidence is stated in the book in fairly convincing detail. Despite traditional views of the Indian Army's performance the 'standard' account of poor performance really does not seem to stand up to close scrutiny for these and many other reasons covered by Morton-Jack. I really think the doubters should take a look at the book before returning to the broadly accepted view that the Indian Army was a failure in Europe, although the author does not ignore specific failings in regard to reinforcement and second rate battalions.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks David. I'm reading some of them, and I was asking, more from the point of view of the 2nd Black Watch, who didn't do so bad in the winter of 1914/15?

" no yard of trench entrusted to the Battalion was ever lost, either in France or Mesopotamia. " From A Highland Regiment in Mesopotamia

Mike

Link to comment
Share on other sites

hazel: read Dalrymple's Return of a KingUtterly superb and available as a paper back (probably e-type thingy, too).

While I am a great admirer of Dalrymple (City of Djinns was equally good), 'Signal Catastrophe - the Story of the Disastrous Retreat from Kabul 1842' by Patrick Macrory is the definitive book on that part of history in my view. He gives a very sympathetic view of the Indians. IIRC the adjutant of the 44th of Foot was taken prisoner as he had wrapped the Regimental Colours around him and the Afhgans thought he was a prince due to the gold braid. If you cant find the book in a bookshop I am reliably informed it is often found in the ** ahem** railway section due to its title.

Back to 1914-15. If the Indian Corps was such an alleged failure, did any of the higher echelons of command or those with a ringside seat comment on it? I have trawled Haig, Kitchener, Hankey, Churchill, Spears, French etc and cant find anything. MG

Link to comment
Share on other sites

OH Vol 1 1915 p22 or 72/532 DVD


(Note 2) " The failure of the Indian Corps to hold the line in which it had been for two months is attributed to: general ignorance of trench warfare and bombing, shortage of technical troops owing to a weak establishment, heavy casualties, lack of engineer stores, and too many troops exposed to shelling in the front trenches. It must be recalled that the climate and conditions of the ground in Flanders winter reacted adversley on the natives of a hot climate. Further there was in the Indian Corps at the time a lack of suitable clothing and of the accustomed special rations. "


Mike

Link to comment
Share on other sites

OH Vol 1 1915 p22 or 72/532 DVD
Further there was in the Indian Corps at the time a lack of suitable clothing and of the accustomed special rations. "
Mike

That would be Edmonds .....This is completely at odds with the view of British Officers with the troops. The CO of the 41st Dogras: "Clothes we have in such abundance showered on us we do not know what to do with them.' The was echoed by the CO of the 2/2nd Goorkhas (Sirmoor Rifles): "That if we move I must leave several cart loads [of clothes] behind if it is not taken from me" and more tellingly James Wilcox "it is a case of being over-clothed...it is absolutely untrue for anyone to say the Indian troops now in France are underclad' (wriiten on 10th Dec).....All quotes from material in The Indian Army on the Western Front by Morton-Jack. page 155.

The quote from Vol 1 of the OH France and Belgium 1915 is interesting. The Co-author was Gapt G C Wynne of the KOYLI (captured at Le Cateau and a POW for the rest of the war). The KOYLI was one of a few British regiments that completely ran out of trained reserves. 'Heavy casualties.... and too many troops exposed to shelling in the front trenches' would just as well apply to any British Line Infantry Battalion, particularly the KOYLI at Le Cateau. The reinforcements in late 1914 and early 1915 would also be 'in 'general ignorance of trench warfare and bombing'. Quite lacking in balance.

MG

Link to comment
Share on other sites

There had in the British army been a long history of disrespect for the Indian Army and Indian Army Officers. Not least Wellington was regarded by many as merely an Indian Officer. Only the top cadre of officers from Sandhurst gained entry to the Army in India it is worth noting. Morton-Jack notes what he and officers of the Indian Army considered the official historian's bias and satisfactorily I think refutes his allegations. Not least of course many Indians do not live in a hot climate and the Indian Army had greater experience of fighting in highly inhospitable conditions than the home army.

Certainly however, just like the BEF, the Indian Army did take some time learn the new way of trench warfare and suffered at 1st Ypres particularly under heavy shelling. The BEF also frequently failed to hold the line in 1914, not least at Zandvoorde on October 30th, etc, etc. Equally the Indians were using small group movements to get into German lines almost as a matter of course with considerable success. It really is time to rethink established views an M-j has most certainly done that with skill.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

There is some evidence that the Indian Army Corps was more innovative and imaginative in their response to trench warfare. Allegedly they started the first organised trench raids, were the first to develop bombing tactics for clearing traversed trench systems and pioneered (1912) the Bangalore Torpedo (and a host of other trench weapons) and their use under the Sappers and Miners

I believe Slim developed his respect for the Indian Army while at Gallipoli where temperatures hit -14 degrees Celsius in November 1915 in one of the more brutal blizzards recorded in the war. There is nothing quite like seeing it in the raw. If anyone needs reassuring that Indian troops and (importantly) their auxiliaries were made of stern stuff, it is worth perusing the correspondence with the OH authors on the silent, passive bravery of the muleteers recorded by many British Officers with no previous links to India.

MG

Link to comment
Share on other sites

There had in the British army been a long history of disrespect for the Indian Army and Indian Army Officers.

In WW2, Messervy was the only Indian Army officer to command a British division. Given the number of IA officers in the Middle- and Far East theatres, that cannot be a coincidence.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I wonder if it is relevant that Sir James Willcocks was actually senior to Haig, when the latter was chosen to succeed French at around the same time? Perhaps the Indian Corps was moved to take him out of the picture.

Ron

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I wonder if it is relevant that Sir James Willcocks was actually senior to Haig, when the latter was chosen to succeed French at around the same time? Perhaps the Indian Corps was moved to take him out of the picture.

Ron

If, as Mike suggests.you read "The Indian Corps. in France", you could certainly be forgiven for that assumption. It is made very obvious that there was no love lost between Willcocks and Haig.

Hazel C.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The OH France and Flanders 1915 Vol 2 Chapter XXIII covers the departure of the Indian Corps.

It is too long to quote in full, but the given reasons for its departure are:

1. Gen Sir John Nixon commanding in Mesopotamia requested an Indian Division from France.

2. Austen Chamberlain (Sec of State for India) was anxious to get the Indian Troops out of France before winter

3. Kitchener objected at first but then relented. OH Mesopotamia Vol 1 pp 307-11; Vol II pp 5,9-11.19-21, 27-8,126 cover this

4. "The winter climate and hardships of the Western theatre of war had been particularly trying to the Indian soldier" p.403

5. Heavy losses. Total casualties (Indian) 495 Officers and 20,375 ORs

6. "Reinforcements had from the first been a constant source of anxiety"

7. Loss of British officers with experience and training and language skills

8. Poor quality of Reservists

9. "after the fighting during the battle of Loos it was felt that the deterioration had set in and the corps could be better employed in a theatre more suited to its characteristics and where conditions were less severe".

The last reason is interesting. The idea that "conditions were less severe" in Mesopotamia is simply nonsense. In 1916 the Sick ratio in 1916 in Mesopotamia was nearly three time higher than in France and Flanders. Different conditions of course but the reason given by Edmonds does not fit the facts.

MG

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
×
×
  • Create New...