Gordon Corrigan was a soldier in the British army’s Royal Gurkha Rifles before embarking on a career as a historian and broadcaster. In 1999, he published Sepoys In The Trenches: The Indian Corps On The Western Front 1914-15, a detailed account of the Indian involvement and presence during the actions in France and Belgium. We spoke to Corrigan about the experiences of the Indian soldiers and their overall impact on the war. Edited excerpts:

What was an average day in the trenches like for a sepoy?

The average day in the trenches for Indian Army troops was very similar to that for British soldiers, except that Indian soldiers spent rather more of them. An Indian Army battalion was smaller than a British one at war establishment (753, all ranks, as compared to 997) so an Indian division had around 2,000 less infantrymen than a British division, but was expected to hold the same length of front.

This meant that rotation of men and units through firing line, support line and reserve line was less frequent for Indian units. A typical day would start with “stand to" half an hour before first light when every man was on the fire step, kit on and weapon ready to fire. This lasted for an hour and was a long-standing custom, originally because attacks tended to come in at first light and/or last light (when there was another “stand to"), but it gave platoon havildars, and platoon and company commanders, a chance to go round their men and see that all was well.

After that breakfast (usually tea and a chapati) would be brought up through the communication trenches carried by followers. Unlike in the British army, where tasks such as cooking, latrine cleaning, fetching and carrying were carried out by soldiers, in the Indian Army they were done by followers, civilians who were not paid a great deal but many of whom had served their regiments for generations, and did of course allow soldiers to get on with the business of fighting.

There are numerous tales of British officers’ followers going to extraordinary lengths to find bacon (the French don’t do bacon) and eggs for their sahebs. The rest of the day would be spent improving the trenches, repairing the revetting and the wire, resting and sleeping, and being briefed for night patrols into no-man’s land.

Lunch and dinner would be rice, chapatis, meat for meat-eaters (goat, mutton or chicken) and vegetables, washed down with large quantities of tea. A popular item was the rum ration—one tablespoonful of rum (diluted one part of rum to six parts of water) per man per day. It was insufficient to affect the man’s reactions, but a morale booster nevertheless.

Meals were eaten by half sections, that is, one half would eat while the other half remained alert, and weapon cleaning each day would also be done by half sections so that there would always be weapons that were assembled and capable of being fired. Much work was done by night so men usually slept during the day, provided they were not being attacked or shelled.

Under cover of darkness, patrols would go out to dominate no-man’s land, raids on enemy trenches would be carried out, communication and fire trenches would be extended and ammunition and trench stores carried up from the rear. Indian soldiers might be in the firing line for up to five days at a time (up to seven in early 1914) before being relieved. There would be long periods of boredom when nothing much was happening, brief moments of sheer terror when being shelled or, more so, when a mine was set off under a trench, and times of pure exhilaration as the adrenalin kicked in when they were attacked or were attacking.

How well did the soldiers and their British officers get along?

Gordon Corrigan.
Gordon Corrigan.

Of course the Indian soldier had to move some way towards the requirements of a modern Western and technological society, but the British officer was required to make a much greater move. He had to learn the language and be fluent in it, he had to understand the religion and culture of his soldiers and to conform to them (I, a Christian, have probably spent more time attending religious ceremonies in Hindu and Buddhist temples than I have in churches) and was required to trek in his soldiers’ homeland when on leave of absence (the exception was Nepal, a closed country until 1956).

Sikhs regard tobacco with abhorrence, so British officers in Sikh battalions were non-smokers in an age when just about everybody smoked. Conversely, as Sikhs drink as if prohibition was just around the corner, their British officers needed to have a strong head for alcohol. The bond was stronger, strangely perhaps, than it was between a British soldier and his officer, perhaps because there was no perceived class or social difference, rather Indian units were very much a “band of brothers", with the British commander being the father (even if he was very young).

Today we pay great attention to cultural diversity and a multi-racial society—the old Indian Army was exactly that, with the British being just one more race among the many (admittedly the British were in command, but the analogy is relevant nevertheless). What the Indian Army brought to the front was an ability to improvise—the British army had no trench mortars in 1914 so the Indian sappers and miners made some initially from wood bound with wire and then from steel tubing. They made improvised hand grenades when no factory-produced model was available. All this came from soldiering in inhospitable areas (like the North-West Frontier) where, if something was unobtainable and you couldn’t find it, you simply made it.

You’ve written about the western front in your book. But what about the other theatres? How important were the Indians?

General Ian Hamilton thought that if he had had more Indian Army units at Gallipoli he would never have been held up by the Turks. The only people who knew what they were doing at Gallipoli were the units of 29 Indian Infantry Brigade (at various times two Punjabi battalions, one Sikh battalion and four Gurkha battalions), but there were no more Indian Army units to send, they being heavily engaged elsewhere.

Moving the Indian Corps to Mesopotamia in late 1915 made sense as they were better able to cope with the climate and the terrain than British troops, and by then there were enough British and empire troops available for the western front. Palestine could not have been conquered without the Indian Army (and the Australians) and the Suez Canal could not have been held without the Indians.

Were the sepoys held in high regard by the enemy?

The Germans were well aware of the abilities of Indian troops and were frightened by them, sometimes going to extraordinary lengths to surrender to British soldiers rather than Indians. There were rumours that Indians took no prisoners (untrue), that they ate prisoners (even more untrue) and that they used expanding bullets (illegal under the Hague Convention and also untrue).

Overall, when you look at the Indian contribution in totality, how much of an impact did they really have?

Indian and other empire troops made a huge difference to the outcome of the war.

By 1918, the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) had 50 British divisions and 12 empire divisions on the western front, with Mesopotamia and Palestine mainly being left to empire troops. In 1914, the Indian Corps arrived in France in just enough numbers and just in time to plug the gaps around the Ypres Salient.

Had they not been able to do so, the Germans might well have been able to break through, in which case the French would have withdrawn to protect Paris and the British would have evacuated Europe. Germany would probably still have lost the war as long as France was not defeated, which was by no means a certainty. And the Royal Navy blockade would have starved the Germans out eventually. But without that timely injection of Indian troops, the war in the west would have lasted far, far longer.

It must have been quite a culture shock for many of the soldiers. Tell us a few of your favourite Indian Army anecdotes from the war.

Firstly there is the story of Rifleman Gane Gurung, 2/3rd Gurkha Rifles, at Neuve Chapelle. A British advance was held up by a house in the middle of the village which was fortified and strongly held by German infantry. Without orders, and in an example of suicidal stupidity (and bravery), Gane alone ran across the square and burst through the front door. Everyone assumed he would shortly be dead.

There was much shooting and shouting, then silence. The front door opened and out came a file of seven large Germans, hands in the air, followed by a 5ft, 2 inches Gane with rifle and bayonet. The village was captured shortly afterwards.

Then, at Orleans, Sikh battalions, seeing the statue of Joan of Arc, assumed she was a goddess of the goras and took to saluting her as they passed.

Finally a German officer in a dugout, when the Indians attacked at Neuve Chapelle, found himself on the wrong side of the line when the battle ended, and came out to surrender. He was found, in full uniform, by the military police 3 miles away. Asked what he was doing he said that the area was full of Gurkhas who all saluted him! At this stage of the war, neither side was totally correct in matters of uniform so the chap being a gora was assumed to be British or French.