In the last week of October, the BEF’s commanders of its British corps from the Home Army admitted the tight spot they were in. Douglas Haig wrote that his I Corps, holding part of the left of the BEF line before Ypres, was ‘exhausted… 2 Brigadiers assure me that if the Enemy makes a push at any point, they doubt our men being able to hold on’. Also on the BEF left, Haig’s neighbouring British IV Corps commander Henry Rawlinson confessed, ‘We are hanging on only by our eyelids; we want men, and always more men.’ On the BEF right, the II Corps commander Horace Smith-Dorrien wrote ‘My poor troops are simply worn out.’ The BEF’s fundamental dilemma was one of averting fatal over-stretch–how to hold its 35-mile line into November with so few men who were so tired when the German attacks kept coming until mid-month.
The BEF was able to cling on because the Indian Corps arrived with around 22,000 Indian and British troops to hold a total of 12 miles, or about a third, of its line, principally on the right in France. In early November on the BEF’s left by Ypres, where the German onslaught fell heaviest, its original British corps avoided defeat on the narrowest of margins with French assistance and a few British Territorial home defence troops who had volunteered for France. For the BEF’s Home Army corps to have also held the right of its line without the Indian Corps’ assistance would have been too much for them: their British troops would have been spread too thinly to keep the Germans from breaking through. After First Ypres, Haig talked in private of how the Indian Corps had ‘saved the situation by filling a gap’, while his intelligence staff officer John Charteris acknowledged it had been ‘invaluable… when we had no other troops to put in’. And if the Indian Corps saved the BEF’s line from collapsing, it also saved the whole Allied line at First Ypres–of which the BEF held half–and therefore probably the Allied cause in the west in 1914.
Why, then, has Indian Expeditionary Force A’s part in the Allied story of survival in 1914 not loomed larger in the history of the First World War? One reason is that it was not general public knowledge at the time. By First Ypres the British press had moved on from celebrating the lifting of the colour bar [prohibiting nonwhites from fighting whites]–which was already yesterday’s news, there was only so far it could be celebrated when British African troops remained prohibited from fighting in Europe under their own colour bar. Rather, the press was eager for Indian battle stories, but British government censorship prevented much battle information on the Indians getting out. The story-starved British press generally turned to fantasy, inventing reports from First Ypres of Sikhs as superhuman slayers of 20,000 German troops in an afternoon, Gurkhas throwing khukuris through the air with deadly accuracy, and Indians shooting down aeroplanes with their rifles. Grains of truth were few and far between, some appearing in The Times, which described the BEF’s Indian troops at First Ypres as ‘long-service professional soldiers… fighting as steadily as the rest of the Army’. So little reliable news of Indian Expeditionary Force A reached India in November that the Viceroy, Charles Hardinge, said ‘people in India are wondering what has happened to the troops and where they have gone’. He was compelled to write to James Willcocks asking for private updates.
In British national memory, First Ypres came to be seen as the British Army’s ultimate moment of sacrifice of 1914, scarcely mentioning Indian Expeditionary Force A as the BEF’s lifeline. But the Indian factor should be included to recognise that the Indian Army was ready before the war to deploy fast to France, and to fight when it got there. The achievements of Force A at First Ypres become all the clearer in light of its sister Indian Expeditionary Forces’ experiences against the Germans in 1914–Forces B and C to East Africa. These cooperated in an ambitious attempt to capture German East Africa largely by themselves, yet unlike the Indian part in First Ypres, it was an utter fiasco.
10 February 2019
The Indian Corps Saves the Day, 1914
From Army of Empire: The Untold Story of the Indian Army in World War I, by George Morton-Jack (Basic Books, 2018), Kindle pp. 139-141: