The National Army Museum in London has opened a new temporary display that recreates the story of the Indian Army during the First World War, illustrated by photographs, illustrations of artwork, documents and medals from the museum’s collections.
‘British Indian Army: Soldiers of the First World War’, which opened this month and runs until November 5, is created in partnership with the United Service Institution of India in New Delhi.
The free display explains now the Indian Army was essential during the war as the imperial reserve both on the Western Front at the beginning of the war and during the Palestine campaign in 1918. Nearly 1.4 million men from India served in various theatres, making it the largest all-volunteer force the world had seen at the time.
During the First World War, six Expeditionary Forces were initially dispatched, lettered A to F, to France and Flanders, East Africa, Mesopotamia, Egypt and the Mediterranean, Force G was created in mid-1915 for Gallipoli and a later force went to Salonica.
On the Western Front, the 3rd Lahore Division landed at Marseilles from September 1914 onwards, followed by the 7th Meerut Division in October. Together with a cavalry brigade, later increased to two cavalry divisions, they formed the Indian Corps numbering 24,000 men. They made up 30 per cent of British forces by the end of the year. The Indian Corps went on to fight in the battles of Neuve Chapelle, Second Ypres and Loos in 1915. The infantry were withdrawn from the Western Front in December 1915 to reinforce the troops in Mesopotamia, with the two cavalry divisions remaining until 1918.
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Mesopotamia was the main theatre for the Indian Army. India provided over three-quarters of the force employed, three-quarters of the river craft and the entire railway material and personnel. The initial objective was to secure the oil supplies around Basra which was achieved at relatively little cost by April 1915. However, then mission creep set in as the Government of India increasingly fixated on the taking of Baghdad. The advance stalled at Ctesiphon in November 1915, when the 6th (Poona) Division under Major General Charles Townshend had to retreat to Kut al-Amara and surrendered on 29 April 1916. In 1916 General Stanley Maude was appointed as the new commander in Mesopotamia. He immediately reorganised and retrained the army.
A new offensive culminated in the capture of Baghdad on 11 March 1917 after three months of fighting. Of the 86 battalions comprising this force, India had contributed 73 and all but two of the 43 squadrons of cavalry.
In Palestine, a process of “Indianisation” from late 1917 onwards meant that British Army units were sent back to the Western Front and replaced by Indian Army units. By the end of campaign only two of General Allenby’s thirteen divisions had no Indian units. The Indian Army played the major role at the Battle of Megiddo and the ensuing pursuit of Turkish forces to Damascus and Aleppo.
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