The British Indian Army was one of the strongest armed forces in nineteenth-century Asia. Its origins lay in the consolidation of three forces—the Bengal, Bombay, and Madras Armies—created in the eighteenth century, when the English East India Company recruited soldiers to fight wars against local powers. The Bengal Army was among the first to coalesce into an impressive unit, with recruits coming mostly from Awadh (present-day Uttar Pradesh), the great nursery for the armies of British India. The concentration of Hindu upper-caste recruits from this area invested the Bengal Native Army with a sense of fraternity and it was not entirely coincidental that the Bengal Army played such a key role in the Revolt of 1857.
The Indian troops in the English East India Company's service were almost entirely infantrymen and were commanded almost exclusively by European officers. Each presidency, or territorial unit corresponding to each of the English East India Company's headquarters, had a number of European units—infantry and gunners who represented the core of its military strength. Between 1763 and 1805, the increase in the number of troops was substantial—the Bengal army grew from 6,680 to 64,000 men, the Madras army from 9,000 to 64,000, and the Bombay army from 2,550 to 26,500. Each presidency army had a commanding officer, and the officer who commanded the Bengal army was the commander in chief.
In terms of the command structure, what distinguished the Indian army throughout the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries was that the officer corps remained exclusively European. In 1895, the three armies were amalgamated and reorganized. The basic chain of command started with the European captain at the top, followed by subaltern sergeant majors (also European), under whom were subedars, jamedars, and havildar-naiks (recruiting agents). The sepoys (native soldiers) in each battalion were divided into ten companies that comprised one subedar, three jamedars, four naiks, two drummers, one trumpeter, and seventy sepoys. The formation of sepoys into regular battalions represented the first serious attempt to introduce a European-style organization in the sepoy army. The formation of sepoy battalions diluted the authority of the sepoy leaders, for the subedar was now subject to the command structure of the battalion. Whereas earlier the subedar had commanded an independent company, now his company became one among nine or ten that made up a battalion.
The British army for the greater part of the eighteenth century and the first quarter of the nineteenth century fought against indigenous powers—Awadh, Mysore, Marthas, and subsequently the Sikhs of the Punjab. In all of these encounters, the sepoys bore the brunt of casualties and their performance was by the end of the eighteenth century above reproach, as they learned to handle formidable opposition. Subsequently, however, the army was geared to launch expeditions along the frontiers against the Afghans as well as the Burmese, leading to the Burmese wars of 1825 to 1826 and the British Afghan Wars of 1838 to 1842. In the course of the Burmese campaigns, Indian troops suffered more than 15,000 fatalities and it was only their sheer superiority in numbers that enabled the British to sustain the campaign through two successive rainy seasons. The Afghan wars, on the other hand, were disastrous, forcing the British to stage tactical retreats.
It was the combination of these distant expeditions with the defective organization of the army that produced deep-seated resentment among its ranks long before the great revolt of 1857. The poor quality of the army's regimental subalterns, and the incompetence and senility of its senior officers, coupled with the constant poaching from regiments of talented officers for general staff and political posts, severely impaired its leadership. Added to this was the discontent and indiscipline among its native ranks, as a result of the system of promotion by seniority and of the pressures of distant and hazardous expeditions without adequate compensation in the form of increased pay or prestigious rank.
The rebellion of 1857 began within the sepoys of the British Army. By this time, the widespread resentment, largely concentrated in Awadh, interfaced with larger rural dissatisfaction that British expansion and rule engendered. The modernizing imperatives of British rule produced social fears of losing caste and religion. Consequently, many of the new institutions associated with the modernizing imperatives of empire-law courts, government offices, and Christian missionaries were targeted for attack.
The core area of the mutiny was the area surrounded by Delhi in the west and Ghazipur in the east, with the Jamuna acting as the southern boundary, where native regiments were stationed in Kanpur, Meerut, and Delhi. Other areas where native regiments mutinied were clustered around this core in central India. The mutinies started in Meerat on May 10, 1857, and thereafter spread within a couple of months to Delhi, Aligrah, Etawah, and Lucknow, where they interfaced with rural insurrection. Groups whose interests had been adversely affected by the New British Revenue Settlements joined the revolt providing leadership to the sepoys.
The Revolt of 1857 failed, but not without threatening the foundations of British rule in India. The British Empire faced its first formidable challenge, in that the authorities had to consider army reorganization in a manner that would ensure loyal and active service to the British Empire. Broadly speaking, three perspectives emerged. The first advocated a heterogeneous pattern of recruitment that would cut across all sections of society. The second position stressed the need to eliminate certain castes and classes altogether and to even consider recruiting Christians from Southeast Asia and Latin America. A third intermediate position argued that no class on principle should be excluded and that an attempt should be made to balance different ethnic groups. The third position seems to have prevailed and British recruitment policy in the 1860s was to divide the Indian army into four main elements, which were recruited from different areas. The army was composed of mixed groups and castes but not so consciously as to prevent the development of pan-Indian nationalism. The military commissions more than anything else, evaded the task of specifying in detail the composition of the army and concentrated more on organizational details.
Until the Burma War of 1887 to 1889, the Indian Army was seen primarily as an instrument of internal security. As a result, official policy following the recommendations of the Peel Commission of 1859, and subsequently of the Eden Commission of 1879, was informed by the sole consideration of making the army reliable. This meant that distinctive regiments were to be created and that recruitment was to be restricted to a specific territory. It was only after the Burmese wars and with the growing possibility of external conflicts that new notions of military security took precedence over considerations of balance and of the social composition of the military.
In 1895 the Army was thoroughly reorganized. In line with contemporary military thinking, four regional commands were created, each under a Lieutenant General: these were Punjab, west of the Yamuna River, commanding the Frontier Force as well; a truncated Bengal command; Madras (with Burma); and Bombay with Sind, Quetta, and an extension in Aden.
In 1902 to 1903 Lord Kitchener streamlined the system, making changes that finally resulted in the reforms of 1908 to 1909. He eliminated the military member of council interposed between the commander in chief and the political executive. What emerged from this decade-long turmoil was an expanded army headquarters, with a general staff branch and a director-general ordnance branch being added to the existing adjutant general and quartermaster general branches. Two territorial commands were created—the Northern and Southern—and the field army was subdivided into a field force and a group of internal security troops, totaling 152,000 (nine divisions and eight cavalry brigades) and 82,000, respectively.
Alongside this reorganization, there were major changes in recruitment patterns. Caste once more became an organizing principle in recruitment; the distinction between class regiments and class company regiments became a factor. Class regiments were composed entirely of the same ethnic or caste group, while class company regiments were mixed. Promotion of Indians to commissioned posts varied in the two types of regiments; in class regiments, promotion was based on a general seniority list encompassing all companies, but in class company regiments, promotion was made from the rolls of the particular class in which a vacancy occurred. No Indian officer of one class was allowed to command troops of another; this guaranteed that the link between a sepoy and his British commander would be an Indian commissioned officer of the same class as the sepoy was.
The second feature was the growing presence in the army of recruits from the Punjab. From 1892 to 1914, Punjabi troops increased rapidly in number, edging out other groups like Mahars, Brahmins, Gujars, and Ahirs. The emphasis was on homogeneity; particular units not only recruited, for example, solely Punjabi Muslims or Rajputs, but also recruited them only from a particular clan. This shift in recruitment is generally explained in terms of the resurgent martial race ideology—the belief that Indians from certain regions were more inherently militaristic—that held sway over certain sections of the policy-making class.
The British Indian Army, while possessing a highly competent officer corps, was adequate only for brief probing expeditions and as a line of defense for internal security. Its vulnerability was tied up with British recruiting procedures and with the fact that the high command was exclusively British, which meant that troops under their command were often more loyal to regional elites than to them. Further, the system was not receptive to technological innovations.
The Indian Army's combat strength at the commencement of World War I was 155,423, and swelled to 573,484 by the time the war neared its completion. During World War I the weakness of the Indian army came to the surface. The war effort exposed the obsolete state of technology and equipment as well as the narrowness of the recruitment base, and forced the authorities to try new classes as recruits. This new policy entered the debates that followed in nationalist circles about the need to Indianize the army. In 1919 to 1920, ten vacancies were reserved for "suitable" Indians at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. Indian political demands also impelled the British to set up the Indian Military Academy at Dehra Dun on October 1, 1932. World War II exposed the weakness of the army even more acutely; not a single unit of the Indian Army was mechanized to respectable standards. Motorization was selective, and the availability of standard and updated weapons was far from satisfactory. The Indian Army's contribution to the war effort came in the form of personnel, and the number of men that India gave to the Allied cause was impressive. The Army had 189,000 soldiers in its ranks in 1939, a number that rose to 2,644,323 in 1945, when the army was at peak strength.
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Omissi, David. The Sepoy and the Raj: The Indian Army, 1860–1940. Houndsmills, U.K.: Macmillan, 1994.
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Wickremesekera, Channa. "Best Black Troops in the World": British Perceptions and the Making of the Sepoy, 1746–1805. New Delhi: Manohar, 2002.