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The Indian sepoy in the First World War

Dr Santanu Das reveals the role of the Indian sepoy in World War One and explores the fragments of historical sources that shed light on the experiences of the one million Indians who served.

‘Do not think that this is war. This is not war. It is the ending of the world. This is just such a war as was related in the Mahabharata [the Indian epic] about our forefathers’, wrote a wounded Indian soldier from a hospital in England on 29 January 1915. This anonymous sepoy [from the Persian word sipahi meaning soldier] was one among over one million Indians, including over 621,224 combatants and 474,789 non-combatants, sent overseas between August 1914 and December 1919 for the Great War[1]. They served in places as diverse as France and Belgium, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Gallipoli, Palestine and Sinai, and East and West Africa, testifying to the global nature of the First World War and its reach for the subjects of the empire.

Of all the colonies in the British, French and German empires, the contribution of undivided India (comprising present-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma and Sri Lanka) in terms of manpower remains the highest: a total of one and half million men, including soldiers and non-combatants, were recruited into the British Indian army during the First World War. India joined the war as part of the British empire. In late September and early October, two Indian divisions – renamed Lahore and Meerut and totalling some 24,000 men – arrived at Marseilles to the joyous cries of ‘Vivent les Hindous’ and were placed under the command of General Sir James Willcocks. They were almost immediately sent to the trenches to fill in the gaps left by the heavy casualties suffered by the British Expeditionary Force. Over the next four years, a total of 140,000 men would be sent to France. Most of them would serve there from October 1914 to December 1915: they took part in some of the fiercest battles – Ypres, Givenchy, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Loos – often suffering traumatic losses and winning the first Victoria Crosses to be awarded to Indians.

Analysis of 1000 injuries received in action and the theory of self-infliction

Colonel Bruce Seaton’s report which found no evidence to support the theory of self-wounding among Indian soldiers.

Secret document assessing the extent to which Indian troops were wounding themselves to avoid fighting. The conclusion states that there was no statistical evidence to support this claim.

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The achievement of the Indian Corps in the Western Front has been the subject of intense debate. Military historians such as Jeffrey Greenhut had pointed out their uneven performance, noting the unsuitability of a colonial army raised primarily for internal and frontier defence for industrial warfare or the long European winters, without adequate training or winter clothing. However, some of these ideas have been challenged by a younger generation of scholars such as George Morton-Jack who have argued for the professionalism and competence of the Indian Corps on the Western Front. In fact, both views can be accommodated. There were reports of widespread loss of morale and allegations of self-wounding in late October and early November of 1914, after the first shock of industrial combat, but over the long winter, Indians were responsible for manning one third of the British line in France. They formed half of the attacking force in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle on 10–12 March, 1915, and there were records of exceptional bravery, with Khudadad Khan receiving the first Victoria Cross to be received by a South Asian soldier. However, in the early months of 1916, the infantry divisions were withdrawn (while the cavalry remained behind) and redeployed in Mesopotamia which henceforth would form their main scene of action. Some 588,717 Indians, including 7,182 officers, 287,753 other ranks and 293,152 non-combatant ‘followers’ (often forming porter and labour corps), served in Mesopotamia.[2] A significant number – often estimated at around 10,000 – from the 6th Division were captured at Kut-el-Amara, after a prolonged siege and ultimate surrender by General Charles Townshend on 29 April 1916. The Hindu sepoys, along with their British counterparts, were subjected to severe brutality in the hands of their Turkish captors, including a 500-mile long march to Ras-el-Ain. However, the highest casualty rates for the Indians were in Gallipoli, where some 1,624 of the 3,000 combatants were killed. There is no monolithic or single ‘Indian war experience’: it has to be nuanced to the specificities of rank, kind of work, class, region and theatre of battle, among others. Moreover, there were hundreds of thousands of women and children in different villages in India whose lives were irretrievably altered by the war, and it is important to remember and recover their war experience as well.

Report on the defence of Kut-al-Amarah

Report on the defence of Kut-al-Amarah under Maj-Gen Charles Vere Ferrers Townshend 3rd December 1915-29th April 1916
Lt-Gen Sir Percy Henry Noel Lake, Commanding Indian Expeditionary Force 'D'

Confidential report on the defence of Kut-al-Amarah under British General Townshend from 3 December 1915 to 29 April 1916.

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Most of the sepoys were recruited from the peasant-warrior classes of North and North-Western India, in accordance with the theory of the ‘martial races’, with Punjab (spread across present-day India and Pakistan) contributing more than half the number of combatants. They came from diverse religious backgrounds, including Punjabi Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus. The Indian army was a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious force. Many of these men were semi- or non-literate and did not leave behind the abundance of diaries, poems and memoirs that form the cornerstone of the European war memory. But traces of their war experience remained scattered across the world in libraries, archives and private collections: the British Library has a strong collection of photographs, showing them digging trenches , or prepared against a gas offensive, or Dogras and Highlanders sitting side by side in a trench; in private collections around Ypres one finds various objects – head-dress, utensils, rifles, bayonets – used by the sepoys; and, further afield, at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, one finds a page where an Indian had signed his name in the diary of an Australian private in three languages. The wounded Indian soldiers were cared for in hospitals set along the southern coast of England, the most well-known being the Pavilion and Dome Hospital in Brighton . In spite of the elaborate and often superb facilities inside the Pavilion hospital for the Indian wounded – a combination of Victorian paternalism and hard-nosed imperial war propaganda – and occasional pockets of intimacy between Indian sepoys and European soldiers and civilians, most of the imperial structures and racist hierarchies remained intact: barbed wire surrounded the hospital grounds so that the Indian sepoys could not venture into town, and the most senior Indian officer remained inferior in rank to the junior-most English officer.

Indian infantry digging trenches

Indian soldiers digging trenches, 1915.

This photograph shows Indian soldiers digging a trench, which is then reinforced with sandbags and protected by barbed wire at the front. It was taken by Charles Hilton DeWitt Girdwood, a professional photographer employed to record Indian and later British troops on the Western Front.

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The most substantial – and tantalisingly incomplete – source for these Indian ‘voices’ is the substantial collections of their censored mail, housed largely in the British Library and some in the Cambridge University Library. Some of these have been put together by David Omissi in a fascinating volume titled Indian Voices of the Great War (1999). These letters were often dictated by the sepoys and written down by scribes and then translated and extracted by censors; these extracts are what survive today. Neither the transparent envelope of sepoy experience nor just scribal literary embellishments, these letters are some of the earliest encounters between South Asian plebeian history and textual form: given their heavily mediated nature, they are best read as palimpsests where, underneath various accretions, one can still hear the echo of the sepoy heart. Some letters even mention the ingenious codes often used to hoodwink the censors, as in the following letter from Bugler Mausa Ram in the Kitchener’s Indian Hospital:

The state of affairs is as follows: the black pepper is finished. Now the red pepper is being used, but occasionally the black pepper proves useful. The black pepper is very pungent and the red pepper is not so strong.

‘Black pepper’ and ‘red pepper’ refer to Indian and European troops respectively, in a coded advice against further recruitment. Indeed, it is important to go beyond the stereotype of the Indian sepoy as the loyal izzat-driven subject or the naive, hapless victim of war, and to see him as a complex, intelligent individual, negotiating between different cultures, institutions and people. These letters open up a whole new world in First World War history and culture, and cover an extraordinary range of topics and emotions, from an initial sense of wonder at the modernity of France (‘Each house is a sample of Paradise’), to comments on French people, agriculture, education, gender equality or the occasional thrilling account of romance and sexual braggadocio (‘The ladies are very nice and bestow their favours upon us freely’), to the trauma of the war (‘As tired bullocks and bull buffaloes lie down at the end of monsoon, so lies the weary world. Our hearts are breaking’).

Letter from Mohammed Agim to Subedar Major Firoz Khan

This censored letter was written in 1915 by Indian soldier, Mohammed Agim. He describes the high loss of life amongst Indian troops.

'What can I say of the war? It is a manifestation of divine wrath. There is no counting the number of lives lost.'

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‘Heart’ is a recurring word in the letters and the emotional reality of these men in the Western Front finds one of its most evocative accounts in the Indian novelist Mulk Raj Anand’s war novel Across the Black Waters (1939). In recent years, another extraordinary archive has emerged: a collection of more than 2,500 audio-recordings of Allied prisoners of war done by the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission between 29 December 1915 and 19 December 1918, including a large number of non-white colonial prisoners. The soldiers were asked to stand in front of the phonograph, and made to read out a text, or sing a song or tell a story. Some felt compelled to tell their life-story, as in this haunting recording of Mall Sigh done on 11 December, 1916:

There was once a man. He used to eat butter in his native Hindustan.
This man then came into the European war
Germany captured this man. He wishes to return to India.
If God has mercy, he will make peace soon.
This man wishes to go away from here.
If he goes back to Hindustan, he will again get the same food.

We do not know whether Mall Singh returned to his homeland or not, but many did – mutilated, traumatised – but also, at times, more confident, secure and worldly-wise. While it is not yet possible to draw a straight trajectory between the First World War and the rise of Indian anti-colonial nationalism, the First World War experience may be said to have imbued the Indian sepoy with a greater sense of his rights.

Like the mutilated letter or Mall Sigh’s truncated voice-recording, the Indian history of the First World War is necessarily a history of fragments: these kinds of testimonies – or what I call objects, images, music and words – need to be placed alongside each other so that we can recover to some extent the body of the Indian sepoy scattered across the globe and the stories of those he left behind.


[1] The figures are quoted from Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire during the Great War 1914-1918 (London, 1920), reproduced in India’s Contribution to the Great War (Calcutta: Superintendent Government Printing, India, 1923), 79.

[2] India’s Contribution to the Great War, 97.

Further reading

Gordon Corrigan, Sepoys in the Trenches: The Indian Corps on the Western Front 1914-1915 (1999)

Santanu Das, Podcast about the Indian Sepoy in the First World War 

‘Indians at home, Mesopotamia and France, 1914-1918’ in Das (ed.),  Race, Empire and First World War Writing (2011)

‘Writing Empire, Fighting War: India, Great Britain and the First World War’ in Susheila Nasta ed. India in Britain: South Asian Networks and Connections, 1858-1950 (2013)    

Jeffery Greenhut, ‘The Imperial Reserve: the Indian Corps on the Western Front, 1914-1915’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 12 (1983), 54-73

George Morton Jack, ‘The Indian Army on the Western Front, 1914-1915: A Portrait of Collaboration’, War in History (2006) 13: 329-362.

S.D. Pradhan and Ellinwood (ed.), India and World War I (1978)

Franziska Roy, Heike Liebau and Ravi Ahuja ed., When the War Began We Heard of Several Kings: South Asian Prisoners in World War I Germany (2011)

David Omissi (ed.), Indian Voices of the Great War, 1914-1918 (1999).

David Omnissi, The Sepoy and the Raj (1994).

Rozina Visram, Asians in Britain (2002).

Radhika Singha, ‘Finding Labour from India for the War in Iraq’, Comparative Studies in Society and History (2007), 49:2, 412-445.

  • Santanu Das
  • Dr Santanu Das is the author of Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature (Cambridge, 2005) and the editor of Race, Empire and First World War Writing (Cambridge, 2011) and the Cambridge Companion to the Poetry of the First World War (2013). His book India, Empire and the First World War: Words, Images and Objects is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.