The Indian Army in 1914

by John Richardson.

The Indian Army of 1914 was the largest volunteer army in the world at that time. It consisted of 107 single battalion and 11 two battalion regiments of infantry, 38 cavalry regiments, a joint infantry-cavalry unit, three regiments of sappers and miners and 12 batteries of mountain artillery. In addition to these units the armies of the Indian princes and regiments of European volunteers, could if necessary, be called on to reinforce the order of battle. This army can quite reasonably be said to be the creation of one man – Viscount Kitchener of Khartoum [KK]. He was appointed in 1903 and over the next seven years instituted a wide range of reforms, which were fundamental in setting the army on the path towards becoming an efficient, well prepared force.

Viscount Kitchener of Khartoum

Kitchener’s first act was to renumber the army’s regiments. For most of the 19th century there had been not one Indian Army but three, each recruited by the individual Presidencies – Bengal, Bombay and Madras – which administered the country. These three armies had eventually been unified in 1891, but each regiment continued to retain its old pre-1891 number and the name of the Presidency which had originally raised it. Kitchener abolished these numbers and titles and renumbered all the regiments in a single sequence.

Kitchener then moved to consider the case of the Indian Staff Corps [ISC]. (Sam Cooke had been commissioned into the ISC when he transferred from the KDG in 1892) In the wake of the Mutiny many British officers were detached from their regiments to fill civilian posts. A ready source of men was required to fill the consequent gaps and the remedy was found in the creation of the Indian Staff Corps. Officers were no longer gazetted directly to a regiment; instead they joined the ISC and were only attached to the regiments with which they served. By the final quarter of the century, however, the formation and growth of the Indian Civil Service had gradually permitted many officers to return to regimental duties. The ISC was, therefore, no longer required; Kitchener abolished it in 1903 and once again officers were fully part of the regiment in which they served.

Kitchener abandoned the policy of distributing the army round the country, largely for internal security, and rarely moving regiments out of their old Presidency area. Regiments were made liable for service anywhere in India and all were required to have completed a tour of duty on the North-West Frontier, on the grounds that the main danger to India lay in a Russian invasion via Afghanistan.

Higher formations – brigades, divisions and armies were established in peacetime, providing a command structure that was immediately available on the outbreak of war. With the creation of these higher formations there was a sudden need for trained staff officers. KK therefore founded a new staff college at Quetta.

On the outbreak of war, the Indian Army consisted of a trained and experienced body of men, approximately 150,000 strong, and the Government of India immediately offered two infantry and two cavalry divisions or service anywhere. (Cavalry Corps: 1 & 2 Divs. Indian Corps: 3rd (Lahore) Division & 7th (Meerut) Division.) This force, designated Expeditionary Force A, was destined originally for Egypt to relieve British Troops there, but at the last minute was diverted to France where the divisions were thrown into the battles of La Bassee (Oct-Nov 1914).

In Mar 1915, the Meerut Division formed the assault division at the battle of Neuve Chapelle. Under the circumstances the troops showed considerable courage in what was to them a new style of warfare and one for which they had not been trained. All the Indian regiments suffered from the cold, from homesickness, from loss of their British officers, and from having to use unfamiliar equipment. They were also hampered by the failure of the reserve system which meant that reinforcements drafted to replace casualties were drawn indiscriminately from any number of regiments. The infantry divisions were withdrawn to Egypt in October 1915, but the cavalry stayed on in France until the spring of 1918, when they too sailed for Egypt to form part of the Desert Mounted Corps.

Operations conducted during WW1 had revealed a number of flaws in the India Army – some stemming from Kitchener’s reforms, other from the nature of war itself. The Army recruited particularly from the so called martial races of North India. Regiments were either made up entirely of one group, like Sikhs, Dogras or Gurkhas, known as “single-class regiments”, or in mixed race regiments where there were separate squadrons of different races, as in the CIH, in 1914. This made reinforcement particularly difficult as the officers had to be able to speak the language of their men, as well as English and Urdu, which were the languages of the Indian Army. Family ties and traditions of service meant that the men of a particular sub-unit could be drawn from a small geographical area. The benefit of this local recruiting eased problems of language, customs and cast, and encouraged the fighting for izzat – for the honour and standing of themselves, their family, their caste and their regiment. The negatives aspects were that a disastrous battle with high casualties could have a profound effect on one small geographical area and that reinforcement from a pool of reinforcements meant that there was little izzat to be gained fighting away from one’s regiment among strangers.