Views of India: Cheshire News’ Representation of Indian Soldiers in WWI

By Gemma Ashmore

Of the colonial nations which offered forces to the British effort in WWI, India was the nation who contributed the most; by 31st December 1919, over 877,000 combatants and over 563,000 non-combatants had been recruited from the country.[1] In 1914 alone, there were over 239,000 men in the British Indian Army.[2] The activities of these Indian soldiers were reported alongside those of local regiments, as they took part in key battles and contributed to the overall war effort. In Cheshire, the Nantwich Guardian and the Chester Chronicle were responsible for bringing news of the front to the people of the county, telling stories of heroics and reporting death tolls; amongst these stories were those of the British Indian Army.

Much of Cheshire’s involvement with the Indian Army was third-hand, with the stories told to them by the papers being their only major engagement with the Indian men fighting in the war on behalf of the British Empire. The stories these papers chose to tell were what shaped opinions on these men back on the home front, as those back home were unlikely to ever meet an Indian soldier and learn first-hand what it was like for them on the front lines. However, the overwhelming majority of articles written about these soldiers were extremely generalised and biased. They presented a very specific picture of the Indian experience, particularly the Indian willingness to join the war, all without truly humanising the soldiers being discussed.

sikh soldier

Portrait of a Sikh soldier

On two separate occasions in 1914, the Chester Chronicle ran articles with a focus on the Indian devotion to the war. On 3rd October an article titled India’s Splendid Loyalty: Profound Attachment to the Crown was published which decidedly refuted the suggestion by an Indian publicist that the greatest favour Britain could pay India was ‘a hundred years of peace; that will give us a chance to work out our salvation’.[3] The author of the article went on to describe how any “thinking” Indian was ‘warmly attached to the Crown and [knew] that the brightest hopes of this country [were] bound up with the maintenance of the British Connexion’.[4] The article attempts to speak on behalf of the so-called “educated” Indian, professing a deep and unshaking dedication to the Empire and the Crown and suggesting that the whole soul of India had been extended towards the plight of Belgium.[5]

Similar sentiments were offered by the article published on 28th November which reported the words of an Indian Prince, unnamed beside his title, which professed similar levels of dedication and dismissed the objections of ‘little people’.[6] The Prince’s words went further, saying that India had been disappointed by the low number of 100,000 troops originally requested and should the emperor request ‘one million, two million, three millions, [their] pride will be the greater.’[7] From his perspective, a view being presented uncritically and without counter, millions of Indians were willing to die for the Empire.[8]

A third article, this time published in the Nantwich Guardian in 1917, shows that this was not an opinion that changed much with time. It presents a heavily romanticised view of India’s call to arms, suggesting that all differences of opinion simply faded away when the call was sent out.[9] Whilst it goes on to call out how many of the achievements of Indian soldiers have gone unreported in the press back in Britain, it continues to present a very particular version of events. Similarly, though there was an enthusiastic response from parts of Indian society, mostly the middle classes and the native Princes such as the prince who contributed to the Chester Chronicle, the bias in the papers remains clear.[10]

The Nantwich Guardian and Chester Chronicle ran most of the articles on Indian Soldiers’ activities in the war, articles which were overwhelmingly positive in their descriptions of the Indians’ heroics and general attitude. In August of 1915 an article in the Nantwich Guardian published a descriptor written by Sir Ian Hamilton about the Sikh troops in Gallipoli, which praised them for their extreme gallantry and their unwavering determination despite heavy losses.[11] Another article from late December 1916 offered similar praise, for the Indian Troops’ perseverance in the face of the loss of three hundred and fifty men during an advance; for their general ‘fire and zeal’; and for how they ‘rose grandly to the occasion’ in the face of their first large scale attack.[12] There isn’t a bad word said about the strength or determination of the Indian soldiers as they fought alongside the British; an image is painted of a heroic Indian army who would falter in the face of nothing and who fought valiantly for the empire at every opportunity. No loss could hinder their fighting spirit nor their success.

There was also a running theme of giving praise to the Indian soldiers for specific skills and attributes that are either implied to be or are attributed directly to the fact that they are Indian. For example, in the Nantwich Guardian’s 1916 article, Indians in Battle, the Gurkhas are described as ‘agile little men’.[13] The Sikh soldiers are described as ‘the stubborn fighting man’.[14] One article even presents the German views on the Indian soldiers, where the Germans suggest that from their perspective the Indian soldiers are often more of a threat to them than the British, at least in hand-to-hand combat. They are once again suggested to be more agile, specifically they are described as ‘much stronger

gurkhas-at-kit-inspection

Gurkhas at kit inspection

and more nimble than the German soldiers’ in such a way that makes it impossible for the Germans to defeat them unless the numbers are heavily in their favour.[15] The English had, supposedly, even began to hold off on the introduction of Indian soldiers to a battle until the hand-to-hand combat portion of the fighting began, to maximise their chances.[16] From both the British and the German perspective, Indian soldiers are described as excelling in ways that the British do not and these skills are generally attributed to the fact that they are Indian. Combined all these articles paint the image of an army of small, strong, agile Indian soldiers who are unfalteringly brave and willing to die on behalf of the Empire. Overall, it’s a favourable image. On the whole, the stories told about the Indian troops were vastly generalised pieces of writing which didn’t do much to demystify or humanise the soldiers that they talked about. While this is clearly a type of morale boosting propaganda, presented alongside stories of successes of British soldiers that are written in similar ways, it is nevertheless written in a very specific way that presents a very specific image of the Indian Army as they fought alongside troops from Britain itself.

Stories were passed on second-hand by British soldiers such as Trooper Stinchcomb, a member of the Royal House Guards, who worked alongside Indian soldiers for a time and described them as ‘a smart lot of fellows’ and praised their skill at creeping across the ground towards enemy trenches.[17] Another article presented the experiences of a driver who was supplying the Indian troops, who talked about the issues that they were having with the change in climate causing terrible frostbite.[18] In fact all of the previously mentioned articles were also written from the perspective of an observer, and offered little insight into the lives of the Indian soldiers themselves. Even when reporting on things that had been said by Indians, such as the Prince, their names went unmentioned and it supported a very specific narrative.

One article from November of 1914 and titled Indian’s Cuteness: How he did the Germans is a good example of this type of reporting, as despite the story being totally centred on the quick-thinking of an Indian soldier, it gives only a second-hand eyewitness account. The story tells of an Indian private soldier who, when caught in a German spotlight on his approach toward their trenches, took initiative and ran towards the trench. His actions shocked the German troops, and he was eventually allowed into the trench where he was quizzed on his nationality and when asked about the British he ‘drew his hand across his throat with a lively gesture of disgust, adding, as he re-enacted the scene, a snarl.’ His acting convinced the German troops, who allowed him to stay there for the night. In the morning he indicated that he could bring back more Indian troops who would also like to defect, and they let him go; he brought back information, and was promoted for his bravery and quick-thinking.[19] However despite his achievements, the soldier isn’t named at all in the article, only referred to as the Indian private soldier and it is written from an outsider’s perspective.

No article found had references to any Indian soldier by name and mostly talked about Indians as a group, rather than dipping into the stories of individual soldiers. When a soldiers from the Indian army did get discussed, it was usually a British soldier who’d been assigned there. For example, a Cheshire soldier who was assigned to the Indian Army had his death reported on 5th December 1914.[20] Of course reporting the deaths of local boys is understandable and in part a separate issue, but it highlights that there were no real discussions of individual Indian soldiers at all.

That isn’t to say that the people of Cheshire didn’t care about the Indian troops, after all what was written was overwhelmingly positive; if intended to boost morale. Beyond that, people in Cheshire contributed to a fund started by Sir Roberts called the “Indian Soldiers’ Fund” which aimed to provide supplies and amenities for the Indian troops on the front lines. The first record of this in the papers is from 17th November 1914, in an article written about a local fundraising event in Crewe. During this event a film about the growth of the British Army was shown, and all money paid to attend as well as a round of extra donations was donated to the Indian Soldiers’ Fund. In total, they raised £32 1s and 7d (equivalent to approximately £3,390 in today’s money).[21] In August of 1915 Crewe contributed a further £25 of the day’s money to the Indian Soldier’s, alongside similar donations made to the Belgian refugees and other causes.[22] As well as reporting the takings themselves the papers told of the effect their money was having, in January of 1915, forty-six ambulances were supplied to the Indian troops with money from the fund contributing,[23] and in May of 1915 Christleton near Chester received a copy of a report which showed how the fund had helped.[24] The people of Cheshire wanted to see how they were contributing to the war effort, and that included how they were contributing to the aid of the Indian troops they were hearing about fighting in the war. The way in which the papers had been writing about the Indian soldiers, and the emphasis on their value to the war effort, no doubt influenced people’s desire to be involved in their aid.

Indian infantry prepared for gas attack

Indian infantry prepared for gas attack

This does not and cannot encompass all of the Cheshire based reporting on the Indian Army during the war, with records incomplete and items overlooked in searches. However, it offers an insight into the reporting surrounding the Indian Army and their soldiers during the First World War. Generalised reports full of praise were the norm, which would have contributed to people’s desire to aid the Indian troops, but as positive as these reports were there was little effort made to humanise the soldiers beyond their role in the fighting. The stories told were about the Indians as a group, but not about the soldiers as people.

Images courtesy of the British Library

 

[1] Santanu Das, ‘Indians at Home, Mesopotamia and France, 1914-1918: Towards an Intimate History’, in Race, Empire and First World War Writing, ed. Santanu Das, (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2013), pp. 70-89 (p. 70.)

[2] Santanu Das, ‘Indians at Home, Mesopotamia and France, 1914-1918: Towards an Intimate History’, in Race, Empire and First World War Writing, ed. Santanu Das, (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2013), pp. 70-89 (p. 70.)

[3] ‘India’s Splendid Loyalty’, Chester Chronicle, Saturday 03 October 1914, p. 7.

[4] ‘India’s Splendid Loyalty’, Chester Chronicle, Saturday 03 October 1914, p. 7.

[5] ‘India’s Splendid Loyalty’, Chester Chronicle, Saturday 03 October 1914, p. 7.

[6] ‘An Indian Prince’, Chester Chronicle, Saturday 28 November 1914, p. 7.

[7] ‘An Indian Prince’, Chester Chronicle, Saturday 28 November 1914, p. 7.

[8] ‘An Indian Prince’, Chester Chronicle, Saturday 28 November 1914, p. 7.

[9] ‘Indian Fighters’, Nantwich Guardian, Tuesday 17 July 1917, p. 6.

[10] Santanu Das, ‘Indians at Home, Mesopotamia and France, 1914-1918: Towards an Intimate History’, in Race, Empire and First World War Writing, ed. Santanu Das, (Cambridge University Press: New York, 2013), pp. 70-89 (p. 72.)

[11] ‘Valour of Indians’, Nantwich Guardian, Friday 20 August 1915, p. 5.

[12] ‘Indians in Battle’, Nantwich Guardian, Friday 29 December 1916, p. 3.

[13] ‘Indians in Battle’, Nantwich Guardian, Friday 29 December 1916, p. 3.

[14] ‘Valour of Indians’, Nantwich Guardian, Friday 20 August 1915, p. 5.

[15] ‘A Staggering German Confession’, Chester Chronicle, Saturday 31 October 1914, p. 8.

[16] ‘A Staggering German Confession’, Chester Chronicle, Saturday 31 October 1914, p. 8.

[17] ‘How London Scottish & the Indians Fought; The Marvellous Indians’, Cheshire Observer, Saturday 07 November 1914, p. 2.

[18] ‘Supplying the Indian Troops; Indians Frost-Bitten’, Nantwich Guardian, Tuesday 08 December 1914, p. 3.

[19] ‘Indian’s Cuteness: How he did the Germans’, Chester Chronicle, Saturday 28 November 1914, p. 7.

[20] ‘Local News’, Chester Chronicle, Saturday 05 December 1914, p. 8.

[21] ‘Effort for Indian Troops’, Nantwich Guardian, Tuesday 17 November 1914, p. 3.Monetary calculation effected using Bank of England Inflation Calculator http://www.bankofengland.co.uk/education/Pages/resources/inflationtools/calculator/default.aspx.

[22] ‘By the Way’, Nantwich Guardian, Friday 20 August 1915, p. 3.

[23] ‘War Brevities’, Nantwich Guardian, Tuesday 05 January 1915, p. 3.

[24] ‘Christleton’, Chester Observer, Saturday 22 May 1915, p. 10.

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