Books

The Indian Empire At War; by George Morton-Jack; Little, Brown Book Group; Pages 582; Rs 699

World War I was a long and brutal military confrontation between the major  powers  of the early 20th century fought across the trenches of Europe and in large swathes of Asia and Africa  resulting in the death of  millions of hapless soldiers and civilians who became unwitting pawns in the great global ‘game’.

Nov 16, 2018
World War I was a long and brutal military confrontation between the major  powers  of the early 20th century fought across the trenches of Europe and in large swathes of Asia and Africa  resulting in the death of  millions of hapless soldiers and civilians who became unwitting pawns in the great global ‘game’.
 
The  four-year long war that led to as many as 20 million dead and an equal number wounded ended  on November 11, 1918 when an armistice was signed  and a defeated Germany was compelled to accept  closure.   Over the last decade there has been a spurt of interest among historians about the Great War,  and  the Indian contribution which remained relatively obscured  has been brought back into focus.  Undivided India, then a colony of the British Empire contributed  1.5 million Indian soldiers  and non-combatants to this war and they served with distinction in all the major theatres,  and it is estimated that as many as  74,000  of them died in that war.
 
This book is among the more recent additions to this slim corpus  on the Indian  effort in the war  and  is both comprehensive  and distinctive. As author George Morton-Jack points out,  “this  book is the first single narrative of it on all fronts, a global epic (emphasis added) not only of the Indians’ part in the Allied victory over the Central Powers, but also of soldiers’  personal discoveries on their four-year odyssey.”
 
Neatly Divided into six major chapters,  the book provides the political context  beginning with the Delhi Durbar  of 1911  in a lucid introductory chapter  and the manner in which  Herbert Asquith then “Britain’s brandy-loving   Prime Minister“ declared  in Parliament  (6 August 1914): “We are unsheathing our sword in a just cause.”
 
But when they were  swiftly recruited from different parts of  British India to be shipped (like  lambs to the slaughter ?) to distant lands  in Europe – for many of these young men it was their first foray outside of their villages and  small townships.  They understood little of the complex politics about the War, were intrigued about the  ‘Jermuns’ (Germans) and as Morton-Jack adds:  “...the Indian ranks stoically suffered  the western front’s rain and mud, cruelly catapulted by the fates into a war far from home that was never their own yet winning their fair share of VCs.” 
 
The VC (Victoria Cross ) was awarded  for the highest acts of gallantry  in ‘the presence of the enemy’ and this book diligently records the  incredible valour of the Indian ‘fauji’ in the Great War.  As the author recounts, in 1927,  the Secretary of State at London’s India Office “favourably compared the Indian  infantry in France to the 300 Spartans  at Thermopylae, ‘those whose valour was immortal’.”
 
However this book is not only about the battlefield exploits of the Indian soldier but a multi-layered, rigorously researched  and empathetically interpreted account  of  the Indian contribution to the war.  The author’s objective of shining “a more filtered light on the Indian soldiers”  is  luminously  met. 
 
Pictures and maps embellish the value of this book and one of the more moving  is that of an Indian cavalryman  sharing his food with a local woman near Baghdad. Another is of a German officer standing over the body of a dead Indian soldier – posing for the ‘trophy’ photograph.
 
Morton-Jack, to his credit, does not shy away from recording the cruel face of the colonial ruler and details  the coercive methods used to recruit the reluctant tribal Indian. He notes that    despite all the talk in London of “fighting the world war in defence of freedom”, the unfortunate experience of the Kuki (Assam)  and Marri (Baluchistan)  tribesmen -  where hundreds were killed by British and Indian officers  for resisting recruitment - “revealed that as colonial rulers the British  had not changed their ugliest spots of colonial control from pre-1914 days.”
 
This is a splendid book and the author is to be commended for the manner in which he leavens the diligence of the  researcher with the objectivity of  the historian.
 
(C Uday Bhaskar is Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be contacted at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fighting the climate change apocalypse: West should practise what it preaches

The Pew study survey found that 24 percent of Indians believe that technology can solve the climate-change problem – and definitely that's the way forward as technology is bringing down the price of green energy. And China and India can make the most significant contributions as they leap-frog to greener technologies –

Read more...

Indian government appoints new Chief Economic Advisor

The Indian government has appointed Krishnamurthy Subramanian as its new Chief Economic Advisor (CEA) in place of Arvind Subramanian, who left the post in July this year.

Read more...
Tweets about SAMonitor
SAM Facebook
SiteLock