16. Indian Army/BWIR experiences

16. Indian Army_banner


Interaction with The British Army

Indian soldiers fought alongside British units, which led to a limited amount of social interaction both in the trenches and in billets. These contacts were fostered by the common experience of the horrors of trench warfare but there is little evidence to suggest that the prevailing prejudicial barriers were broken down on any great scale. On rare occasions, Indian and British soldiers came together to play football, for example the 3rd Horses regiment played against the 18th Lancers in July 1915 in France. The event was watched by the locals, including French children.


Racist Perceptions

Many people though it was wrong that Asians, Africans and Caribbeans should fight in a ‘white-man’s war’ on European soil (see Chapter 6 The British West Indies Regiment). German propaganda in particular highlighted the risk to the future of the colonial system and supremacy of the ‘white race’ (effectively implying Britain, France and Germany), if ethnic minority soldiers were trained in the handling of modern arms and brought to Europe. It was argued that they would lose all respect for the white man if they were allowed to participate as equals and experience their vulnerability.


This prejudice was felt by many soldiers:

 ‘We came to know that the British had no respect for the Indians. They regarded us as their servants. The British soldiers used to get four times more than our salary. Their sepoy [private] did not salute our Subedar-Major [major] or any N.C.O. [non-commissioned officer].’  
Sepoy Ralk Singh of the 45th Rattray’s Sikhs


Religious Issues

In general, Indian troops had complete religious freedom during the war. They were free to hold religious rites and festivals, such as Guru’s Birthday (Sikhs) or the fast of Ramadan (Muslims), except when they were actually engaged in military operations. But religion did threaten cohesion of the British Indian Army particularly after the Ottoman Empire in Turkey entered the conflict, as this meant that the British Empire was now at war with a Muslim power.


Most Muslim soldiers concluded that the war was still lawful; but there were some desertions from Muslim units on the Western Front, as elsewhere. There were also at least three mutinies of Muslim soldiers, usually when the troops in question suspected that they were going to be sent to fight against the Turks.


German propaganda was also distributed in prisoner-of-war camps designed mainly for South Asian troops. In the Half-moon camp at Wünsdorf near Berlin, a mosque was even constructed in an effort to convince Muslims to switch their allegiance away from the British Empire.


BWIR Mutiny

At the end of the war, an estimated 8,000 West Indians from the BWIR were transferred to a military camp in Taranto, Italy, to wait for a passage home. They had to wait for a very long time, and while there, were treated very badly by the white soldiers, who seemed to have forgotten their comradeship at the front.


Several incidents contributed to a rebellion. First, the BWIR troops were denied the pay rise given to their white comrades, and their ensuing complaints were ignored. Then, on 6th December, they were ordered to wash the dirty linen of white British soldiers and Italian labourers. When they were then ordered to clean the latrines of their fellow white soldiers, they refused, which led to a confrontation where angry West Indians attacked officers and threw a bomb into the tent of Colonel Willis, who had issued the orders.


Open rebellion continued for 3 days, until the mutineers surrendered and all the BWIR soldiers were ordered to disarm and had their weapons confiscated. The situation got even worse when the British Army appointed Brigadier General Carey Bernard to take over the camp and restore order, as he refused to see the West Indians as equals, and, referring to them as ‘niggers’, refused them the right to use recreational facilities and even leave the camp. He court-martialled the mutineers, and sentenced them to 3-5 years in prison. While white soldiers were being demobbed, members of the BWIR were virtually being kept prisoner.


By 1919 they were home, but there was no heroes welcome for them as there was in Europe. White Colonials feared them, and, in fact, the soldiers of the BWIR were left with a feeling of rebellion against their white oppressors, which encouraged them to push for independence and in time led to a huge change in the Caribbean.