On the morning of 26 September, 1914, the Castilia and the Mongara sailed into Marseilles. On board the British India Company ships was the Lahore Division of the British India Corps. An article in The Times, published on 2 October that year, described the scene as the units disembarked and marched up the boulevards leading away from the port amid gathered crowds: “Women presented the troops with cigarette and fruits and girls presented flowers and pinned them to tunics and turbans. The enthusiasm reached fever heat when the Ghurkhas struck up the ‘Marseillaise’… Many of the younger natives leapt… in the air waiving the Union Jack and Tricolour.”
The French had reason to be enthusiastic. When the Lahore Division and the Meerut Division entered World War I, they were the first Indian soldiers ever to take part in a war in Europe. By the time they sailed out from Marseilles 14 months later, they and their compatriots—138,608 Indians in all—had helped blunt Germany’s Schlieffen Plan. Formulated by German Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen in 1905-06, the Plan envisaged a short war—a quick, decisive invasion and defeat of France via Belgium, forestalling the attritional war that would allow the superior strength of the probable Allied powers to be deployed. When hostilities kicked off, the British Expeditionary Force in France was a small, if seasoned, fighting force. Reinforcing it was essential; thus the deployment of the two Indian divisions. With the 100th anniversary of the Armistice last Sunday, and the inauguration of monuments to Indian soldiers in France, it is a contribution worth remembering.
The broader impact of the war on India suffers from a similar lack of attention, save perhaps for the political consequences—the surge of nationalism and rise of mass civil disobedience when the Montagu-Chelmsford Reforms’ failed to deliver on the expectation of home rule that had led to popular support for the British war effort. For instance, what of the army that had fought on the Western Front, and in East Africa, Mesopotamia and the Dardanelles campaign? Used as a border pacification and defence force in peacetime, it was not structured for the kind of warfighting it had to endure. Its equipment was a generation old as a matter of policy, as David Olusoga has pointed out in The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire. Poor strategic planning by the British didn’t help. The slaughter was immense—whether in France or during the disastrous attempt to push beyond Basra to Baghdad. This had two consequences.
First, soldiers writing home warned others not to join up. As the war dragged on, casualties mounted and recruitment methods grew more coercive, resentment grew. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that Punjab—which supplied a large proportion of the troops thanks to the British martial races theory—turned into an epicentre of nationalism after the war. Second, post-war military reforms to transform the Indian army into a modern force started a process that accelerated with the onset of World War II. By 1946, the Indian military was a potent enough force that the prospect of its rebellion, triggered by the Royal Indian Naval Mutiny that year, was a major contributor to the British decision to fold.
The war brought about socioeconomic changes as well. Oliver Vanden Eynde of the Paris School of Economics has “used information from census records to estimate the impact of military recruitment during the First World War in Punjab on the literacy rates”. He found that “between 1911 and 1921, literacy rates (as well as the number of literate individuals) increased significantly in heavily recruited communities. This effect is strongest for men of military age, which is consistent with the hypothesis that soldiers learned to read and write on their foreign campaigns.” The archived letters and diaries of Indian soldiers who served in Western Europe raise another question: did exposure to different societal and cultural norms, such as the role of women in society, contribute in any measure to societal progress in regions that saw heavy recruitment?
There is, of course, the economic impact of the war on India. A war economy is by definition a distorted one. The logic of empire exaggerated this. Requisitioning of food supplies, particularly cereals, led to rampant food inflation. Exports of cash crops like jute suffered due to the loss of the European market. Meanwhile, rising military demand for jute products compensated for the decline in civilian demand with jute mills in Bengal establishing monopolies; skewed income distribution grew even more so, shifting from jute farmers to capital. And as Amiya Kumar Bagchi has noted in “Indian Economy and Society during World War One”, the drain on the Indian economy in the form of cash, kind and loans to the British government came to about 367 million pounds.
That said, there were upsides as well. Domestic manufacturing sectors such as cotton benefited from the decline in British goods that had dominated the pre-war market. The steel sector—so crucial after independence—benefited as well. For instance, the ailing Tata steel mills were handed a lifeline in the form of a contract to supply rails to the Mesopotamian campaign. British investment was rerouted to the UK, creating opportunities for Indian capital. In short, the war economy boosted Indian capitalism in some ways at least.
The Indian national movement, and the country’s socio-economic development did not take place in isolation. World War I linked India to global events in profound ways with far-reaching consequences. It is history worth remembering.