Considering that the Indian Army, as it was inherited from the British period, was patterned generally on the system as evolved for India, and the fact that the present Indian Army has been built up on the foundations laid by the British, it would be useful at this stage to recapitulate briefly the history of the British Indian Army. In this Section, an attempt is made to cover broadly the birth of this Army, its growth and exploits during the British period including its participation in the two World Wars and ultimately its division into the two Armies of India and Pakistan.
The Indian Army developed from very small beginnings in the early part of the 17th century, to be one of the greatest volunteer armies in the world. Some of the European powers, namely, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the English, in pursuit of trade, established trading companies such as the East India Company in India, gradually colonised the country, and taking advantage of dissensions among the local rulers, ultimately conquered the whole country. To start with, they employed Indians as watchmen, messengers and guards. As time went on, they raised units, formations and even armies in some cases. In the early stages, the European powers fought among themselves, with the result that the Portuguese and the French were left with small territories on the West and East coasts, while the British conquered the rest of India during the course of the next two hundred years or so. The bulk of the forces for these internecine wars among the European powers were strangely the Indian troops that they raised, while there were also some elements of their own national forces (Europeans). In the succeeding paras only the development of the British Indian Army is covered.
The English East India Company was formed in 1600 under a Royal Charter, in order to trade with India. In 1608, Captain Hawkins landed in Surat and established a factory there. In 1611, a factory was established at Masulipattam and a Fort was built at Madras, named Fort St. George. Guards were employed for the security of these factories and the Fort. When King Charles II received the Island of Bombay as part of his wife’s dowry, he transferred it to the East India Company for administration in 1661; and to guard it he sent a small detachment of Royal Troops comprising five English officers and 200 men. In 1685, two companies of Rajputs, of 100 men each, and commanded by their own officers, but under the control of English, were raised to serve with the Bombay Garrison. This was the real beginning of the Indian Army. In 1697, Fort William was built in Calcutta and a small guard was raised for its protection.
With the expansion of the trading interests in all the three Presidencies of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta by 1708, the forces for their security were organized into three separate armies, each under their own commander-in-chief; and all three Chiefs were responsible to the directors of the East India Company in England. The Armed Forces comprised both English and Indian units; the latter being in majority, wore their own uniforms and were commanded by officers of their own nationality. In 1748, Major Stringer Lawrence, was appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of all the Armed Forces belonging to the East India Company in India. He is regarded as the Father of the British Indian Army. The three Presidencies’ armies were made liable for service in any part of the East India Company in India, i.e., in the Presidencies other than their own, also. During the period 1749-1757, when the English were at war with the
French in Europe, the side effects spread to India also; and French and English forces got involved in fighting in India, in order to gain dominance. The English forces led by Robert Clive defeated the French in the battle of Arcot in 1752; and this became the turning point for the British rule in India. After this, Clive introduced certain reforms. He formed regular Indian battalions, armed and dressed them on European lines and had a mixture of English officers and NCOS and Indian officers, NCOS and Other Ranks (English 1 Captain, 2 Subalterns, 1 Sergeant Major and a number of Sergeants; Indian 1 Commandant, 1 Adjutant, 10 Subedars, 30 Jemadars, 50 Havildars, 40 Naiks, 20 Drummers, 10 Buglers and 700 Sepoys). Each battalion had 10 companies. The English officers and NCOS formed the staff; and although the senior English officer was a Captain, on parade, the Indian Commandant had to follow him.
The first such battalion was known as the ‘Lal Pultan’. Clive felt that the system would be strengthened by these measures. In 1757, Clive defeated the local Indian ruler Siraj-ud-Dowlah at the battle of Plassey. It would be of interest to note that Clive, with about 3000 men, including one English regiment, defeated an Army of 50,000 fielded by the Indian ruler. After this battle, the English became the rulers of Bengal, besides being traders. Subsequently, the army was expanded and Clive introduced English Commandants and English Company Commanders in Indian battalions. Cavalry and Artillery were also raised. During the next 40 years, the English extended their territories particularly under Warren Hastings, the successor of Clive and Governor General, by a series of campaigns. These included the first and the second Mysore wars (1780 and 1790) resulting in the defeat of Tipu Sultan at Seringapatnam in 1799 and the first and second Mahratta wars (1775 and 1802) under Sir Arthur Wellesley (Duke of Wellington). Apart from these, by 1816 Gorkhas of Nepal were defeated by General Ochterlony, the Mahrattas were defeated in a final war in 1817, Sind was conquered in 1843 and the Sikhs, after fighting two wars (1845 and 1849) were defeated by Sir Huh Gough, under Lord Dalhousie the Governor General of India. An expedition was also sent to Afghanistan to counter Russian Penetration in 1839 and although it ended initially in disaster, in 1842 Kabul was recaptured by the English. It may be mentioned that, apart from these various campaigns, detachments of Indian troops also fought in Phillipines, Ceylon, Egypt, Mauritius and East Indies (Indonesia). At this time, the army comprised an English element consisting of 5 Brigades of Horse Artillery, 10 battalions of Fort Artillery, 6 Regiments of Infantry’; and an Indian element of 19 Regiments of regular Cavalry, 7 Regiments of irregular Cavalry, two Corps of Sappers and Miners, two Corps of Pioneers and 144 battalions of Infantry. The total strength was about 277,746. The proportion of Indians to English troops was about 6 to 1.
As a result of the progressive conquest of the various princely states in India by the British and due to their policy of divide and rule, great resentment against the British had built up within the country. Dalhousie’s policy of annexing states without any genuine cause, under his ‘doctrine of lapse’, further aggravated the situation, particularly with the annexation of Oudh and Jhansi. There were also other reasons such as dissatisfaction with pay and allowances, neglect of welfare of troops, weakness in leadership caused by the transfer out of better lot of officers, compulsory service in newly conquered areas under difficult conditions and so on, which had an adverse impact on the Indian elements of the Army. Then came the provocation for these soldiers of having to use greased cartridges (allegedly with cow and pig fat which they had to break, open with their mouths), which added fuel to the fire. Under these conditions, the Indian soldiers revolted against the British, starting with Meerut on May 10, 1857, and spreading to Delhi, Kanpur, Jhansi, Lucknow and so on. The Indian troops took control of the various garrisons and state capitals for a while and got Bahadur Shah to declare independence of the country.
However, after suffering a number of casualties, the British, by utilizing troops from the other areas and by taking stem repressive measures, put down what they called as ‘mutiny’. By and large, it was the troops of the Bengal Presidency Army that revolted, although some elements of the other two armies also participated in the revolt. After firmly dealing with the revolt, the British Crown took over the control of India from the English East India Company, under the Government of India Act 1858, for ‘better Government of India’.
A royal commission was appointed and certain re-organizational measures were taken under Sir John Lawrence. These included reduction of the proportion of Indian to British troops to 3 to 1, mixing up of various classes and castes in Indian Regiments, disbanding of Indian Artillery except mountain artillery, disbanding of 55 out of 70 infantry regiments of the Bengal Army, disbanding of all the Cavalry with the Bengal Army, raising of more infantry regiments from Punjab and Gorkhas, introduction of Summary Court Martial and so on. With the implementation of these measures, the British were able to regain full control over the Indian elements of their army in India. Soon thereafter, war broke out in China (1860), to participate in which six irregular regiments from Punjab were sent. Subsequently, Indian troops participated in expeditions/operations in Bhutan in 1864-1865, Swat in 1864, Abyssinia in 1867-1868, Afghanistan in 1878, Malta in 1878, Egypt in 1882, Burma in 1885, Hunza-Nagar and Chin and Kachin Hills in 1888-1892, Waziristan in 1894, Chitral in 1895 and so on. In 1895, the Presidency Armies with their separate organizations were abolished and four territorial commands were established, namely, Punjab, Bengal, Madras and Bombay in order to achieve better cohesion in the Indian Army.
Once again, Lord Kitchener, who was regarded as one of the great commanders-in-chief in India, reorganized the Army from 1903 onwards. The role of the Army was defined as, to guard the frontiers of India with special reference to the North West Frontier, the maintenance of internal security and the defence of other parts of the British Empire in general. 3 armies, namely, Northern (Punjab), Southern (Bombay) and Eastern (Bengal), and a Burma Command (old Madras army) were formed. Cavalry regiments and infantry battalions were re-numbered on all India basis. 3 of the 39 Cavalry regiments were made regular and 36 were kept on the old Sillidar system (whereby the man provided his own horse, weapons and military attire; and regular maintenance grant was given to him). British officers became Indian Army Officers. Some Indian Princes were given honorary commissions. Units and formations were re-located, in order to carry out the assigned roles in an efficient and speedy manner. For reasons of economy, the Army was once again re-organized in 1907, into Northern and Southern Armies. The composition of these armies as under, gives an idea of the deployment of the troops at the time, to meet the roles laid down:
- 1st (Peshawar) Division.
- 2nd (Rawalpindi) Division.
- 3rd (Lahore) Division.
- 7th (Meerut) Division.
- 8th (Lucknow) Division.
- and some Independent Brigades.
- 4th (Quetta) Division.
- 5th (Mhow) Division.
- 6th (Poona) Division.
- 9th (Secunderabad) Division.
- Burma Division.
- Aden Brigade.
At this time, the field Army had a strength of 152,000 and the troops for internal security numbered 82,000.
When the first World War broke out in 1914, an Indian expeditionary force of initially two divisions was sent to Europe, to participate in the war. These were the 3rd (Lahore) Division and 7th (Meerut) Division. These Divisions joined battle at the nick of time and saved the cause of the Allies. Others followed subsequently. For the first time, Indian troops fought against a first rate modern enemy, the Germans, and acquitted themselves admirably. A number of battle honours such as Neuve Chappelle, Messines, Ypres, Givenchy and so on were won. For conspicuous valour, a large number of Victoria Crosses (the highest award for gallantry in war) were awarded to Indian soldiers. Subsequent to the initial troops, further forces were sent and participated in different theatres of the war, such as Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Gallipoli, East Africa, Aden, North Persia, South Persia and Persian Gulf and so on; and earned a great reputation for their courage, discipline, devotion to duty and fortitude.
Sir John French, the Commander-in-Chief, placed on record his opinion, “the Indian troops have fought with the utmost steadfastness and gallantry whenever they have been called upon.” A total of 552,000 Indian soldiers served overseas; 36,696 gave their lives and 160,594 were wounded. It would be of interest to note that the strength of the Indian Army went upto 985,000 during the war. Apart from fighting overseas, Indian troops also had to keep peace on the North West Frontier. A number of useful lessons were learnt from the war, such as the need for some mechanization, converting the Cavalry to regular force as opposed to the Sillidar system, reorganization of infantry on a proper regimental system with a training battalion for each regiment, improvement of communications and enlargement of Indian Signal Corps, improvement of logistics including supply of reinforcements, maintenance of adequate reserves in peace, and so on.
After the First World War, certain reforms and reorganization were carried out in the Indian Army, based on the lessons learnt. Under the Government of India Act 1919, it was laid down that the control of the civilian and military would be under the Viceroy and Governor General of India, who was required to act under the orders issued by the Secretary of State for India (a minister of the King Emperor’s Government in Britain). The defence of India was to be an imperial obligation and if India were attacked, her troops would be supported by those of Great Britain. A Committee known as the Esher Committee recommended a number of reorganizational measures, which were implemented. These included the following;
- 4 Commands were set up, namely, Northern Command with Headquarters at Murree, Southern Command with Headquarters at Poona, Eastern Command with Headquarters at Nainital and Western Command with Headquarters at Quetta.
- Battalions were grouped into regiments and based on a Regimental Centre which trained recruits for the entire regiment.
- The Sillidar system was abolished and the 21 regiments of Cavalry were grouped like infantry battalions under three Regimental Centres.
- The Signal Corps was made permanent and enlarged.
- Departmental Corps were raised for other Services such as Ordnance. Logistics were overhauled.
- Troops were divided into Field Army (Strike Force), Covering Troops (NWF) and Internal Security Troops, according to their tasks in each command.
- Nationalisation was started though in a slow way, whereby Indian cadets were sent to Royal Military College Sandhurst, King’s commissions were given to Indians, preliminary training was organised at Dehradun and 8 regular units were Indianised.
- Later, the Indian Military Academy was opened at Dehradun in 1932, and Royal Indian Artillery Field Regiments were reformed in 1935.
After the First World War, Indian Army participated in a number of operations between the two World Wars. These included Mesopotamia 1921-1922, Shanghai 1927, Burma 1930-1932 and North West Frontier.
A Committee known as the Chatfield Committee recommended further reorganizational measures in 1938. These included mechanization of the Indian Army, production of small arms and ammunition within India, further improvement of logistic set up by raising different services, raising of institutions for developing leadership and so on. As these measures were under implementation, the Second World War broke out.
When the Second World War broke out on September 1, 1939, the Indian Army was undergoing a process of mechanization and modernisation. Once Britain joined the war on September 3, 1939, Indian troops were sent to different theatres of war at different times, to fight along-side British troops and other Commonwealth forces. 4th Indian Division was the first Indian formation to see action in Eritrea in December 1940. 5th Indian Division fought the epic battle of Keren and captured it on February 27, 1941 (as part of Wavell’s force), which resulted in the collapse of the Italian East African Empire. 10th Indian Division landed in Basra (Iraq) in April 1941 and made the supply route to Russia safe. 4th and 5th Indian Divisions saw continuous action against the German Army under Rommel in North Africa, in the spring of 1941. 4th Indian Division participated in the decisive battle of El-Alamein in October 1942, which was the turning point of the war in Africa. 8th and 10th Indian Divisions participated in the fighting in Sicily and Italy in 1943-1944 against the Italians and the Germans, and earned a fine reputation for themselves.
In the fighting against the Japanese in the East, a number of Indian troops were taken prisoner along with their British counterparts when Hongkong and Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1941-1942. Against heavy odds when Alexander’s army was withdrawing from Burma in the face of the Japanese advance, 17th Indian Division gave an excellent account of itself in the battle of Sittang, although it suffered very heavy casualties. By this, considerable time was gained, to prevent various facilities from falling into Japanese hands, including Port, Oil and communication facilities. By the time the troops reached the Indian frontier in May 1942, rains had set in and the enemy advance was held up. Indian troops played a useful role behind enemy lines, as part of Wingate’s Chindits in 1942. A number of Indian Divisions (14, 23, 26) participated in the Akyab Campaign. The determined attacks by the Japanese on Imphal and Kohima were repulsed with heavy casualties to the Japanese. The Battle of Kohima proved to be the turning point in the war with Japan. After this, 14th Army, which generally comprised Indian troops, advanced into Burma, captured Mandalay on March 20, 1945 and Rangoon on May 4, 1945. When the war with Japan came to an end, after the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the bulk of Burma was in possession of the 14th Army.
In the Second World War, Indian Army units were awarded a large number of battle honours on both the Western and Eastern fronts. A number of Victoria Crosses were also won by personnel of Indian units for valour. Commenting on the part played by Indian Troops, Field Marshal Slim said, “India was our base, and three quarters of everything we got from there. The best thing of all we got from India was the Indian Army. Indeed, the campaign in Burma was largely an Indian Army campaign. The bulk of the fighting troops and almost the whole of those on the lines of communication were soldiers of the Indian Army, and magnificient they were. India, too, trained and sent us our reinforcements.” It would be of interest to note that by the end of the Second World War, the strength of the Indian Army exceeded two million. During the war, a number of Indian cadets were given Emergency Commissions in the Army. Some of them got regular commissions later and formed the backbone of the Army. Further, as the war progressed, the Army kept modernising itself for the tasks in hand. After the surrender of Germans and Japanese, Indian troops were sent as Occupying Forces along with other Commonwealth and American forces to different countries such as Greece, Malaya, Indonesia, Japan and so on.