British Colonial Troops at War, 1914-18

This article is a revised version of an essay submitted for academic credit at the University of Toronto.

A French child greets British Indian soldiers during a break from the front lines. (Reddit)

At the outset of WWII, Britain had one of the best armies in the world. Years of small but tough engagements such as the Boer and Anglo-Zulu wars – and rigorous selection and training programs – had produced an army whose men were in top shape and its officers highly experienced. But as members of the Allies (France, England and Russia) and the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans) soon discovered in 1914, the “Great War” was only great in one aspect: the unprecedented number of deaths. As thousands of men began falling on the frontlines, the British – with their small army – started calling on their colonial subjects to enlist. According to one British General, they would have lost both World Wars if it had not been for the colonial armies.

The Martial Theory of Race

The Sepoy Mutiny in Hyderabad, 1857. (Wikimedia Commons)

Deeply-entrenched British prejudices played a large part in the recruitment and employment of colonial troops. After the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India, British officers devised the martial theory of race in order to classify the combat abilities of different “races”. The theory holds that some groups – such as the Nepalese Gurkhas – are genetically predisposed to combat while Hindus, for example, are not. The implementation of the martial theory helped the British recruit large numbers of colonial troops; it also helped breed competition between different ethnic groups and prevent colonial unity. At all levels, the British colonial soldier’s experience in WWI was largely a result of the scientific racism of the romantic “martial theory”.

The Shock Troops

Although British command sought to recruit as many colonial troops as possible, certain ethnic groups were prioritized. Sikhs made up a large portion of the Indian Army and were often separated into their own units because of British perceptions of them as ancient warriors. Towards the end of the war, the British Army was roughly 20% Sikh.

Sikh troops marching towards the lines. (Flickr)

Gurkhas, from the mountains of Nepal, were held in even higher regard. Gurkhas were and are incredibly tough soldiers, feared by their enemies in every conflict; the British, unable to beat them, instead invited the Gurkhas to join the British empire. Much of the mystique surrounding these skilled warriors was built up by the British press and colonial “adventurers” who likened the Sikhs and Gurkhas either to dark and mysterious warriors from an ancient period or, even worse, animalistic savages who needed an Englishman’s discipline to beat them into shape.

The 9th Gurkhas pose for a picture during a break in their gruelling operational schedule. (Picryl)

The placement of colonial troops depended less on actual combat abilities and more on bizarre notions of warrior heritage. The Gurkha regiment was sought by every Allied commander, and was passed between units with little rest. At Ypres, Gurkhas and Canadians were the only forces to hold their ground despite the first ever use of gas in combat. Throughout France and Belgium the Gurkhas — 200,000 of them during the course of the war — carried a fearsome reputation. Allied command lumped Gurkhas and Canadians together into its “shock” force, used to storm enemy positions that had held out against British and French troops. At the battle of Loos in 1915, the 8th Gurkhas attacked German positions mercilessly and fought until there were no Gurkhas left alive. Despite British respect for the fighting abilities of these “martial men”, it quickly became clear that Gurkhas in particular were viewed as little more than highly-skilled cannon fodder.

The blasted landscape of Ypres after years of fighting. (Daily Mail)

Indigenous Men

Although not technically “colonial” subjects, indigenous men from the dominions (Canada and New Zealand in particular) were treated almost identically to the Martial colonial troops of the Indian Army. Maori men, for example, had long captivated the British in romantic writings. A British newspaper wrote, “A Maori is a fighting animal, while the British soldier is a fighting machine […] one ruled by instinct, the other by [reason].” In 1914, the Maori Pioneer Battalion was formed: ostensibly an engineer unit, the pioneers were also highly skilled infantrymen. Native Canadians too, although not segregated from white troops, were singled out as well and given difficult tasks as snipers and trackers. Although the British were generally correct and the “martial” men excelled in combat, much of the reasoning for their recruitment centred around romantic notions of their status as “exotic warriors”.

The Maori Pioneer Battalion. (Flickr)

The Maori experience in Europe was similar to that of the Gurkhas, and the unit was tasked with carrying out stealthy night raids. According to a particular British observer, Maoris were “innurd [sic] to war and in their attacks work themselves up by their War Dance to a kind of artificial courage which will not let them think in the least”. The man is referring to the Haka dance, a long-standing Maori tradition and another subject of British romantic fixation. British commanders often made Maoris perform Hakas before entering battle, completely unaware of the fact that Hakas are a means of retelling historical events — not just to prepare for war. The unit was sent to Gallipoli; at Chunuk Bair, the Maori Pioneer Battalion was nearly decimated but earned a reputation that led to historian James Cowan exclaiming in 1926 that Maoris ” … made Gurkhas look like children”.

A Canadian sniper in a “hide”. (Wikimedia Commons)

Although Native Canadians were not segregated into special units, they were often singled out for their combat abilities. A full third of all status Indians from Canada served in WWI, and many became renowned for their marksmanship. Henry Norwest, a Cree/Metis man from Alberta, was known for killing 115 Germans. His commanders – having recognized his shooting abilities early on – pressed him to undertake increasingly more dangerous solo raids into enemy territory that eventually got him killed at Amiens in 1918. Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow, an Ojibwe man from Ontario, killed 378 Germans and captured 300 more. Upon entry into the Canadian army, these men were treated relatively poorly; their emergence as expert snipers did little to improve their treatment, but resulted in them being paraded around as little more than highly-skilled unit mascots. After the war, many suffered from emotional and physical trauma.

Francis “Peggy” Pegahmagabow pictured during and after the war. (hohtribute)

The Non-Martial Men

Despite being labelled flabby and weak by British “experts”, non-martial colonial men were also recruited en masse out of pure necessity. In the Indian Army, Punjabis made up the majority of fighting forces, and by 1918 the Punjab province was nearly 100% devoted to war production. The British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) — comprised of all volunteer forces from the British Caribbean — contributed a total of 15,600 men to the war effort, and experienced many of the same prejudices as their Indian army counterparts. But despite their poor treatment, colonial men flocked to the recruiting stations. In many cases, enlistment was seen a way to travel the world and prove oneself as a man. Some saw enlistment (for colonial subjects were rarely officers) as a means to improve the standing of their particular ethnic group within the empire; a proud BWIR recruit announced in 1914, “I mean to win something … for my race.”

One of the few explicitly diverse recruiting posters from the period. (Docplayer.nl)

Non-martial troops were more likely to serve in combat support operations than in actual combat. But when they did fight, it was in the worst conditions and in campaigns that the British public was practically unaware of. Men of the BWIR, as well as Black troops from West and South Africa were relegated to fighting in the Middle East. Treatment by their British commanders was decent, but non-white troops tended to get little in the way of proper supplies for their operations. Colonial troops — Indians in particular — were issued with out of date weapons, a legacy of the Sepoy Mutiny. Units of the Indian army were initially deployed to Europe in small numbers, and at Ypres, mass confusion amidst a gas attack and heavy enemy resistance lead to the deaths of 4,000 Lahore Division Indians in one night. For whatever reason, British military planners decided that the Lahore division’s casualties were a result of European weather.

Captured British Indian troops in the Ottoman Empire. (Ottoman History Podcast)

Deployed to Mesopotamia, Indian and BWIR troops experienced horrible fighting conditions. Many of the Indians sent to the Middle East were experienced only in light border skirmishes with tribesmen in India and were wholly unprepared for modern warfare. British officers were wary of mutiny after feeding their colonial troops horse and goat meat, and a hunger strike was followed by mass desertions. The 76th Punjabis in particular became adept at shooting off their trigger fingers without leaving powder burns so they could be sent home. Furthermore, Muslim troops were often unwilling to fight against Muslim Ottoman troops. Poor conditions, a lack of proper supplies and tensions with British officers lead to the Mesopotamian campaign becoming an unmitigated disaster.

The British Indian Army enters Baghdad in 1917. (Wikimedia Commons)

Behind the Lines

While many colonial troops experienced the worst combat that WWI had to offer, a great proportion never saw any fighting at all. Facing abuse by British troops, colonial soldiers found that French and Belgian civilians treated them with a surprising amount of respect. Gurkha forces, who fought at a near-constant tempo for the duration of the war, were given decent beds and food when brought back from the front lines. The Maori Pioneer Battalion took part in much hard fighting in Europe and the ill-fated campaign at Gallipoli, but after their return to European lines, the unit was given much-needed rest and spent much of their time playing rugby with other Allied units. Strangely, New Zealand newspapers tended to ignore the military exploits of the Maoris and focus entirely on their rugby achievements. 

Chinese Labour Corps workers in England. (Wikipedia)

Non-martial colonial soldiers were viewed with much suspicion by German forces. The Employment, Contrary to International Law, of Coloured Troops upon the European Theatre of War by England and France, a propaganda document, urged Allied nations to limit the use of colonial troops in European combat, saying that non-white troops did not belong there. To a large extent, British commanders agreed. Just like the Germans, the British did not like the idea of “Africans jumping around in a devilish ecstasy” and tried to forbid blacks from fighting in Europe entirely. As a result, Indians, Africans, Egyptians and Chinese troops were put to work on menial labour tasks behind friendly lines. The elite Maori Pioneer Battalion was put to work building roads, while Indians were often relegated to working at field hospitals. The Chinese were in high demand, as “… the coolie is a splendid and versatile worker, inured to hardship and almost indifferent to the weather”. Indian soldiers, and workers from Asia in general, were treated poorly: one BWIR soldier witnessed a British private beating a Sikh sergeant for sport, and Chinese workers had half of their wages stolen by British overseers. 

BWIR men maintain their kit in England. Many Brits were horrified at the prospect of Black men setting foot on European soil, despite their desire to defend it. (Libcom.org)

Fortunately, British command generally forgot about the BWIR. Caribbean troops, who spoke the best English out of the colonial forces, were usually allowed to work near civilian centres and as a result befriended many French people. Etienne Dupuch, a Bahaman soldier of the BWIR, noted in 1919 that…

“…the French people look upon coloured soldiers as their saviours […] our appearance in public spaces was every time the signal for cheers […] at one time an old man knelt down and kissed my feet. I am now so proud to be a Negro.” 

Dupuch had several affairs with French women, and claimed that his low rank of private was the only barrier to attending high-society functions. During the war, martial troops had precious little time away from the frontline; non-martial troops, by contrast, spent much of their time on leave and on make-work projects that allowed them to interact with locals. The awful prejudice of the martial theory actually benefited non-martial troops in some ways, as they were much less likely to be killed in action than martial soldiers. 

Not all Black British soldiers came from “exotic” locales. These men are from Canada. (CBC)

Conclusion

Overall, despite growing demand for combat troops, British commanders prioritized racist thinking over necessity. The romantic image of the “warrior savages” led to martial soldiers being given priority over non-martial men in the recruiting process. In combat, martial forces — Gurkhas, Maoris, Sikhs and Native Canadians — were pushed hard in “glamorous” campaigns, while non-martial forces — Hindus, Sikhs, BWIR and Chinese men — were given distinctly undesirable tasks. And when away from combat, colonial troops were treated poorly by British soldiers but (sometimes) quite well by the locals they defended. Although British colonial soldiers’ treatment varied depending on their “race”, all colonial troops were subject to the prejudices of the martial theory. 

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Duhamel, Karine, and Matthew McRae. “‘Holding their end up in splendid style’: Indigenous people and Canada’s First World War.” Manitoba History, no. 82 (2016): 41+.
  • Gardner, Nikolas. 2015. “British Prestige and the Mesopotamia Campaign, 1914–1916.” Historian 77 (2): 269-289.
  • Goldthree, Reena N. “Viva La France!”: British Caribbean soldiers and interracial intimacies on the Western Front. Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, ISSN 1532-5768, 2016, Volume 17, Issue 3.
  • Hutt, Michael. 1989. “A Hero Or a Traitor? the Gurkha Soldier in Nepali Literature.” South Asia Research 9 (1): 21-32.
  • Khalidi, Omar. “Ethnic group recruitment in the Indian army: The contrasting cases of Sikhs, Muslims, Gurkhas and others (1).” Pacific Affairs 74, no. 4 (2001): 529+. Academic OneFile (accessed April 3, 2018).
  • Kochhar-George, Ché. 2010. “Nepalese Gurkhas and their Battle for Equal Rights.” Race & Class 52 (2): 43-61
  • Koller, Christian. 2008. “The Recruitment of Colonial Troops in Africa and Asia and their Deployment in Europe during the First World War.” Immigrants & Minorities 26 (1-2): 111-133
  • Shell-Hole. (1918, Sep 27). WITH THE MAORI (PIONEER) BATTALION. Chronicles of the N.Z.E.F.: Records of Matters Concerning the Troops and Gazette of Patriotic Effort, 5, 108.
  • Tai-Yong, T. (2000). An imperial home-front: Punjab and the first world war. The Journal of Military History, 64(2), 371-410. 
  • Walker, Franchesca. 2012. “‘Descendants of a Warrior Race’: The Maori Contingent, New Zealand Pioneer Battalion, and Martial Race Myth, 1914-19.” War & Society 31 (1): 1-21

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