Service and Sacrifice: Colonial Troops and the First World War

A seminar given by Professor Sonya O. Rose on 14 March 2012

This post was contributed by John Siblon, a part-time MPhil/PhD history student at Birkbeck College.

Professor Rose is Emeritus Professor of History, Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan and Honorary Professor of History at the University of Warwick (UK) and a Visiting Fellow of Birkbeck College.

What did it mean to serve in the Colonial armies of the British Empire in the Great War? Were those who volunteered conscious of a ‘national project’ for which they were prepared to pay the ultimate price? Is sacrifice an appropriate concept to explore the colonial participation in the war effort? Did colonial subjects actually volunteer for war service? These were some of the questions that Professor Sonya Rose raised in her paper. For the purpose of the seminar, a comparison was made between the service of Indian and Irish troops. Historical scholarship has recently afforded more effort to the study of the colonial war service in the Great War. These studies have outlined the importance of the colonial contributions to the eventual outcome of the conflict. The rhetoric of sacrifice and service therefore applies as much to the colonies as to British and dominion forces.

Both India and Ireland were colonies of Great Britain at the onset of the Great War and both had burgeoning national movements. Sonya Rose explained that in India there was a hope that war service by Indians would lead to home-rule. She provided evidence to show that virtually all of the leading Indian nationalists and supporters of Indian home-rule, from across the political spectrum, supported the war effort by encouraging Indians to volunteer. The language employed by nationalists, from Mohandas Gandhi to Sarojini Naidu, was gendered from the outset and designed to appeal to a perceived need to rescue India’s ‘manhood’ from its emasculated condition at the hands of British rulers. The political dimension was also explicit.  Nationalists wanted men to volunteer both to fight to save India’s ‘disinherited manhood’ and to progress the cause of Indian self-rule.

Professor Rose explained however, that reasons for enlistment were complex. The British used race as an aid to recruitment to the Indian Army. They employed the ‘martial races’ theory and looked mostly to the Punjab and Nepal for their soldiers. As the war progressed and the numbers of volunteers waned, they widened the recruitment base and were happy to use more coercive methods such as impressment. There were threats as well as rewards for colonial officials and they were supplied with quotas to meet for ‘volunteers’.

Were Indian men aware that they were being encouraged to ‘sacrifice’ themselves and what were their responses to the drive to make them ‘volunteer’? Sonya Rose argued the answer to the former is unknowable and complex. In attempting to explore reasons for enlistment, Rose discussed David Omissi’s reading of the letters of Indian soldiers in France. He has concluded that although some sepoys may have been nationalist, ‘nationalism’ was not the language they used in their letters. It will be always be difficult to establish meaning from the letters, when they were subject to strict censorship by the military and self-censorship by the writers. Rose then posed the question that the notion of sacrifice could be achieved by the Urdu concept of Izzat – honour. Might honour to clan or regiment be achieved through sacrifice? There is oral and written evidence where soldiers discuss the need to avoid shaming their clan or regiment. Rose agrees with Santanu Das that there was no uniform Indian war experience and no direct correlation between war service and the rise of nationalism. After the war, there was some recognition of the ‘sacrifice’ of the Indian troops through the demands for sepoys to be given the vote as a reward for their service.

The war service of Irish troops has many similarities but also crucial differences with the Indian situation. Like India, there was a demand by a section of the population for home-rule but unlike the situation in the Indian sub-continent there was opposition by Ulster loyalists and one of the forms of weakening the demand for home-rule was to enlist for the British war effort. John Redmond, the leader of the Irish nationalists, pledged support for the British Empire in the war. In doing so, he also employed the rhetoric of sacrifice. Rose argued that this language was appropriated exponentially by the ‘advanced’ nationalists before, during and after the Easter Rising of 1916, which, although a failure, galvanised support for the nationalist cause. Rose had less to say on the scholarship surrounding the self-awareness of Irish soldiers on the issue of sacrifice. She concentrated on the mystical concept of ‘blood sacrifice; its proponents and the similarities with the Indian situation, describing the Easter Rising as an Irish Satyagraha. In conclusion, Professor Rose underlined that, as in India, self-sacrifice was vital to the consolidation of nationalism, especially with the post-war mood of disappointment with progress towards home-rule. The discussion of Irish war service and sacrifice was not covered in as much depth as on Indian war service.

The discussion from the floor centred on the question of galvanisation and war experience. Was the experience of Indian and Irish troops so very different to dominion and British troops? Were all troops conscious that they were being ‘sacrificed’ and, if so for whose ends? Santanu Das argued from the floor that class interests had to be included in the discussion and another speaker argued that black consciousness had to be included also.

It would have been interesting to hear whether the choice of comparison between Ireland and India was made because of the similarities between the political frameworks or for other reasons. I also thought a discussion of the place of colonial ‘shock troops’ and whether Irish and Indian troops were viewed in this way would have been useful, although there was a brief reference to existing scholarship on the ‘martial races’ theory. Professor Rose’s seminar has added to the discourse on colonial war service and demonstrated that it is a field of growing global significance to our understanding of subjectivities.


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