Role of The British Indian Army in The Two World Wars

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The Indian Army in World War I

The revamped British army now became an essential part of British political planning.   Indian troops willingly fought for the crown overseas as well and played a significant role during World War I. They were part of Allies against the Germans in the battles in  France. They stood firmly against the German assaults in the famous trench warfare during the battles at Neuve-Chapelle, Loos, and Ypres.

Military historians now acknowledge the contribution of the British Indian army in the allies’ victory during World War I.  The Maharajah of Patiala wearing the uniform of a general visited the Indian troops fighting in Belgium and France and supported the war effort.

In the period between the wars the British Indian Army policed the North Western Frontier and also served in Malaysia and Singapore. Policing the North West Frontier was a tricky affair as the restive Moslem tribes needed adept handling, but the Indian army was successful in furthering the grip of the Raj.


At the beginning of 1939 the British Indian army numbered 270,000 men of which 64,000 were British.  With World War II on the horizon the Indian Army needed to be revamped.  The process of Indianization was extremely slow as in a force of over 200,000 only 577 Indians held commissions. The Acts of 1919 and 1935 had envisaged a greater officer participation in the army. This became a dire necessity after the fall of France in 1940.

In 1941 Japan mounted an assault on the British Empire in SE Asia and soon vast numbers of British and Indian troops were taken as POWs. This was a traumatic situation as the factor of the Indian national army and Subhas Bose appeared on the scene.  This led to many POWs joining Subhas Bose and for once the British felt that they could not rely totally on the British Indian army.

Indian Army in World War II

The rapid advance of the Japanese in South East Asia and Hitler in Europe left England with no choice but to expand the Indian army. Indians began to get commission as officers and recruitment was thrown open to other races and the Chamars, Biharis and Madrassis were also recruited…

However there was a plus side as the Indian Army modernized rapidly and troop levels reached 2.5 million by 1945.  Another plus point was that nearly 16,000 Indians were commissioned as officers and many British junior officers were commanded by Indian commissioned officers.

Western Theatre

The Indian army made its presence on the western front and faced the Wehermacht during battles in France and the Low Countries. Many were taken prisoner by Hitler’s army, and incorporated as the Indian national league to fight alongside the Germans. This was the brain child of Bose who was in Germany at that time

The British Indian army units also fought in the campaign in North Africa against the Italians and the defeats of the Italians and Rommel had the Indian army as a critical component.

Eastern Theatre

The battle in the East was a disaster as at the end of 1941 the Japanese had overrun the entire British colonies in the East. The poorly equipped Indian army retreated through Burma and decided to make a stand at Kohima, the gate of India.

By this time the British Indian Army was re equipped with better weapons and modernized and this resulted in the defeat of the Imperial army and recapture of Burma.


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