Over the past few decades, a number of books have reminded us that World War I was far from being an exclusively or even primarily European conflict. Scholars have pointed to the presence of non-white soldiers in huge numbers, including more than a million from the British Indian Army, and the broad geographical expanse across which they were deployed, from France to Gallipoli to East Africa to Mesopotamia.

In her new book, The Coolie’s War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict, 1914-1921, Radhika Singha expands our lenses even further. Singha, a professor of modern history at Jawaharlal Nehru University whose research has focused on the social history of crime and criminal law, tells us the stories of the more than half a million Indian non-combatants who played key roles in the war, providing the basic logistics and infrastructure that underpinned the victorious efforts of the British empire.

I spoke to Singha over e-mail about researching this complicated subject, how British ideas of categorisation changed over the course of the conflict, whether these Indians came back with different world views and political tendencies, and why military histories need to begin engaging with gender, caste and come out of its silo.

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Could you tell us a little bit about your background?
I’m not a military historian so it was only in 2004 that I learnt that in World War I, the largest contingent of Indians went to Iraq/Mesopotamia. There were protests underway at the time against a proposal to send Indian troops in support of the US occupation of Iraq.

In Indian history books, more space is given to the aftermath of World War I than to the war years themselves. The emphasis is on the mass political movements of 1919-21, which are attributed to war time inflation, disappointment with constitutional reforms, anger about French and British control over the sacred sites of Islam due to the dismemberment of the Ottoman empire, and the reaction against the extension of war-time repressive ordinances into peace-time.

There’s an assumption that the conflict was something taking place outside India. If we examine the long term pattern of sub-imperial drives across the land and sea frontiers of India, we get a more integral sense of India’s location in the landscape of World War I. Deaths directly due to combat did not impinge upon South Asia in the way that they did upon Europe, although in certain pockets this factor hit home very hard.

But we also have to look at the way the war filtered into everyday life. For instance at the close of 1917 small denomination paper currency of Rs 1 and Rs 2-and-a-half was introduced for the first time to India. With the outbreak of war, the middle classes rushed at first to withdraw money from post office savings accounts, but by the end of the war they had embraced the post-office savings certificate.

The war saw the introduction of the compulsory passport regime to India, in common with much of the rest of the world. The biggest impact of the war on India, although it was often seen as something disconnected from the war, was the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919, which took a toll of 14 million.

You said you’re not a military historian. How would you characterise your academic training?
My PhD focused on on the social history of crime and criminal law in colonial India. I then added the theme of identification technologies, and practices and how signatures, descriptive rolls, fingerprints and photographs entered into travel and identity documents as well into police surveillance methods. The mobilisation of human, fiscal and material resources from India for World War I became a third intersecting research track.

I wanted to build up an interface between military history and other sorts of histories as for instance, the history of law, labour, and population circulation. We need to have a deeper understanding of the way in which war and militarism have shaped Indian society and politics. That was my intent in this book.

The Coolie's Great War.

In the academic world, are these often treated as separate silos?
Yes. In the West, women make up a significant number of scholars working on various aspects of war and society. I found it difficult to interest my students in this theme, although research is picking up. Younger scholars like Pratyay Nath in Ashoka University are writing a much more plural and multi-faceted military history. Santanu Das has written beautifully on the literature of World War I and how we can recover the emotional and sensory world of the Indian soldier.

There is some wonderful work emerging on the impact of colonial militarism upon ethnography, environment, urban morphologies, livestock rearing, science technology and engineering, and gender relations. Military history is going to come out of its silo.

Having said that, we must admit that the older kind of military history has a very popular readership. People buy military histories to read about larger than life figures, comradeship, bravery, regimental traditions etc.

At the United Services Institute, where I did some of my research and was invited to World War I conferences, there was a willingness to allow various sorts of histories to co-exist. Of course service people can get upset about historians talking about things like desertion, or the terrible suffering of soldiers and labourers disabled by the war, or the political consequences in the Near and Middle East of the role which the Indian Army played on behalf of empire, and issues of caste within military service.

Turning to the The Coolie’s Great War, at what point did you know this was going to be a book? How did it come about?
I didn’t know it was going to be a book for a very, very long time. I had friends who ran the Association of Indian Labour Historians, so I began to contribute the occasional article on non-combatants in the Indian Army. I discovered that there was very little written on Indian military law, so I wrote an essay on why flogging and caning was retained as a punishment in the Indian Army Act right up to 1920, even if it was rarely inflicted on soldiers.

Then the centenary of the war came around, and I thought I could pull these essays together. But I’m a terribly slow writer, and I missed the deadline. Hurst, my publisher, let it pass, but then the Covid crisis intervened. However there is something to be said, as one reviewer pointed out, for a slow immersive approach – it certainly allowed me to keep picking up snippets of information from unlikely sources, and to visit regional archives.

The spread of material you’ve relied on certainly seems massive...
It was a very arduous exercise. Sometimes all one got was one-line entries in a war diary. I would wade through a huge file and find only a list demanding “24 dhobis, 40 sweepers, 10 cooks and 4 syces”.

One of my delightful discoveries was at Vidya Jyoti, a peaceful theological library in Delhi. Here in the periodical The Catholic Herald I found letters from two Jesuit priests from the mission at Chhota Nagpur (currently Jharkhand). They had gone along to France with two labour companies, and written about the journey and the sites where they were stationed, in the Ancre valley and around Nancy. Missionary holdings provided other bits and pieces of information about labour companies in France and Mesopotamia.

Radhika Singha, author of 'The Coolie’s War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict, 1914-1921'

Where else did you find your material? Was it mostly archives in India? In the UK?
In the UK the British Library had the correspondence of Lord Ampthill, former governor of Madras Presidency, who was put in charge of the Indian Labour Corps in France. Lord Ampthill was a die-hard conservative, but sympathetic to the Indian cause in South Africa. Gandhi asked him to write the foreword to his first biography, the one written by Reverend JJ Doke.

Ampthill’s papers and those of other colonial officials provided a rich resource. The National Archives at Kew Garden had war diaries for the Indian Labour and Porter Corps in Mesopotamia and Persia and France, made up largely of one line entries. However, some passages did give one a sense of the extreme environment in which roads were being built, irrigation channels widened and stores being unloaded in Mesopotamia. Spare repetitive entries from a medical diary gave me a sense of the high fatality rate from respiratory disease at Abancourt, a major supply depot in France. The Imperial War Museum has some great photographs, but the charges are prohibitive for scholars from India.

There was perhaps more literacy at the lower levels of command in some labour companies than in Indian combatant units. In those sent from the Lushai (Mizo) hills and the Khasi hills we find young men who had been to mission schools managing units of 30 men and 100 men. They sent letters home which were published in local periodicals and some wrote memoirs.

Professor Joy Pachuau at JNU gave me access to some of her translations. A young scholar, Yaruipam Muivah, allowed me to use a photograph of his grandfather and his friend who had gone to France in the Manipur Labour Corps. Because of the centenary of the war and the investment which people in the hill districts of North East India – Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, the Khasi hills – have in the sending of the labour corps to France, stories began to surface on the internet.

But what we have is a very uneven archive. Commemoration depended on political circumstances and on whether war experience found a local niche. The United Provinces and Jharkhand (Chhota Nagpur) sent so many labour companies to France, Mesopotamia and to the North-West frontier, but there is no official or popular investment in remembering this history. Nor do we have much on the labour companies recruited from Bengal or the Madras Presidency.

There was also a labour company recruited from the North-Western Frontier Province, now in Pakistan, but that borderland was seething and so the men returned from France under a cloud of suspicion and were bundled home unceremoniously.

The recruitment seemed to take place across vast spaces all over India, and the deployment also was over a much larger theatre than most people think about in the Great War.
Yes, once we look at non-combatant recruiting we get a wider social and spatial frame. However, contrary to the idea that martial caste recruitment was from the upper strata of village society, and non-combatant was from the lower-caste ‘menial’ strata, the two pools overlapped. There was less of an overlap when it came to stigmatised work, like cleaning latrines or working with leather or laundering clothes.

Non-combatant recruiting also reminds us that the war experience was made up of a variety of different timelines. Combatants and some categories of non-combatant labour had to serve for the duration of the war. And this was a war that went on and on. But in raising labour units, government often found itself having to offer limited contracts, for six months, for a year or two years. Personnel were leaving for theatres or war, but they were also continuously returning. And news about the war kept filtering out to remote corners of India.

I found it remarkable how, while of course some of the recruitment was coercive, there’s a much more complex interplay of incentives to convince labour to sign up, instead of choosing to go to say, a tea plantation instead. It’s not just the British forcing a bunch of Indians to go do labour work in France.
No, not at all. But the strategy used sometimes was to use the structures of unfree labour and then to promise emancipation as a reward for war service. In hill tracts officials would draw upon the begar, that is labour-tax lists, and upon the headmen who enforced this labour. Recruits would be offered an exemption from this compulsory labour on their return. Officials also drew upon jails, juvenile reformatories and “criminal tribe” settlements offering a remission of sentence or some relief from police surveillance after satisfactory service.

World War I had very complex effect therefore upon regimes of labour servitude. It could lead to an enhancement of labour servitude as for example the more extensive application of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1911 in Punjab and western India to secure work gangs for military needs within India. These communities were drawn upon to cut timber for railways and for theatres of war overseas, to build roads, and military barracks, to work in factories supplying blankets and woollen cloth for the army.

On the other hand we find that in Kumaon, Garhwal, Himachal and the Assam hills districts those who went overseas in the Labour Corps or as soldiers did secure an exemption from the labour tax on their return and they tried to extend this benefit to their families. But the result was that the burden increased for those who remained on the labour rosters and this led to protest movements.

Soldiers from Manipur with a British officer in France during World War I. Photo: National Library of Scotland / Flickr Commons

You mentioned your background in colonial criminal law, which is a lot about definitions, like the criminal tribes. The book covers this constant interplay of the British having to change their administrative definitions of the Indian people to support the war effort.
The colonial government held that in the West, anyone could be shaped into a soldier, but that in India only the “martial castes and tribes” could be tapped for the army. They also liked to believe that Indian sepoys and cavalrymen were drawn from the “yeomen” ranks, that is from substantial farmers.

This also allowed the Indian Army to argue that pensions did not have to be raised beyond a point because the Indian soldier could also count on income from the joint family farm. In contrast, in Britain, by the end of World War I, pensions for disabled soldiers had to be pegged to what was called a living wage.

The related assumption was that non-combatants were drawn largely from the kamin, or “menial” castes and so, to maintain rural hierarchy their service benefits had to be kept lower than for the sepoy. But in World War I, the list of the so-called martial castes began to expand. The dismissive term “Jharuas” used for certain communities such as the Koches, Kacharis, and Rajbansis was replaced by the label “Assamese” as they began to be taken into the Assam Military Police and the army. Mahars in Maharashtra, who from the 1890s had been pushed out of military employment began to be considered again for combatant units. But once World War I ended, the door closed again.

How did the idea of “primitive” tribes play into this? You referred to the importance given to recruiting “casteless coolies” for the Labour Corps.
The label “casteless coolies” for labour drawn from tribal populations has been explored by the anthropologist, Kaushik Ghosh, who notes that employers felt that tribal “coolies” would go anywhere, do any kind of work and eat anything. This was of course not the case. My book explores how tribal populations also attracted the eye of the recruiter in World War I.

The identity discs issued to Indian personnel had “H” for Hindu, and “M” for Muslim. but also “A” for animist. Chhota Nagpur and the Santhal Parganas contributed many Labour and Porter Corps, some of the men being picked up along the route of migration to Assam and Bengal. And then there were the so called “primitive hill-men” recruited for the Labour Corps from the mountainous regions of Assam and Burma.

However when it came to the commemoration of war service, the Government of India had a greater investment in the “primitive hill men” of Assam and Burma than in the “Santhalis” of Chhota Nagpur. The former had long been used as informal military auxiliaries in border-making along upper Assam and between Assam and Burma. There were plans now to recruit Nagas, Chins and Kukis more regularly for the military police battalions. Hence, despite the Kuki-Chin insurgency of 1917-19, in part sparked off by recruitment, the colonial regime knew it had to come to some sort of accommodation with the chiefs and headmen of this rebellious tract.

“Primitivity” posed certain problems for the colonial regime. Officials held that tribals were susceptible to millenarian movements, which promised a return to a golden age. This tendency was blamed for an uprising in 1917 in Mayurbhanj and for the Kuki- Chin rebellion of 1917-19. In France, Ampthill wondered whether “primitive” communities from North-Eastern India or Chhota Nagpur would make good workers. In fact, they had skills derived from road and railway building, forest work, craft-work and porterage and these skills began to reveal themselves in theatres of war.

On the other hand some long-serving British officials also had a romantic investment in the idea of “primitivity”. This arose from the feeling that industrialisation in the West had led to a loss of masculine vitality and a distancing from nature. Facing a rising tide of criticism from educated Indians, they claimed that the benevolence of imperial rule shone most brightly at its tribal fringes.

They argued that the readiness of the Assam hill men to rally to the service of empire proved the “success” of authoritarian and paternalist forms of rule in tribal tracts. This became a point in favour of keeping these tracts out of the system of representative government put in place by the Government of India Act of 1919.

You write that missionaries were active in the North-East, What role did they play?
The pace of Christianisation was actually very slow. In the Naga Labour corps and the Manipur Labour Corps there were hardly any Christians. There was a significant cluster in the Lushai (Mizo) and the Khasi Labour Corps.

One has to keep in mind is that there were some areas of conflict between the long term objectives of foreign missionaries and those of British officials. ICS officers like JH Hutton and JP Mills in the Naga hills wanted to co-opt traditionalist structures of rule to stabilise British rule. They felt that Naga culture was being eroded between the millstone of Christianity on the one hand and Hinduism on the one hand. Such officials also had an investment in re-shaping local warrior codes to the needs of colonial militarism.

What the missionaries wanted on the other hand was to build up self-supporting Christian communities. The two visions did not always fit smoothly together. For instance, there were certain dependent sections of Mizo and Naga village society who sought missionary help to emancipate themselves. Officials felt that this eroded the authority of chiefs and headmen.

Some points of disagreement also emerged in France, as for instance when the missionaries wanted Sunday rest for Christians. To cope with conditions of cold, fatigue and exhaustion, labourers were sometimes given opium. But missionaries and tribal evangelists protested that they had been trying to get people to kick the opium habit and that this was wrong. But their complaints were dismissed citing “medical reasons”.

In World War I, Christian missionaries wanted to show officials that Christianisation did not make “tribals” and Dalits lazy and insubordinate – that in fact it generated loyal subjects and productive labour. So they offered to cooperate in raising labour companies. But often it was not the foreign missionary but the evangelists, school teachers, and clerks drawn from these Naga, Khasi or Mizo communities who were more influential in getting men to enlist.

King George V inspecting Indian troops attached to the Royal Garrison Artillery, at Le Cateau | Photo: Imperial War Museum

It’s hard to generalise, but was there a sense that deployment far off led to Indians coming back with different worldviews?
War propaganda often focused on the figure of the returning soldier or labourer who was shown as coming back less superstitious, more receptive to modern medicine and sanitary living, more open to new ideas about farming. Firstly one has to look closely at the nature of the experience in different theatres of the war. The labourers who went to France, were housed in barracks, in remote, war-devastated areas in the north, with a lot of restrictions on their movement...

However, the journey to France itself was a major experience. Imagine a person from some remote village in the Manipur hills, going by road and river to Imphal, then walking 210 kilometres to the rail head at Dimapur. From here, many would have their first experience of a train journey which would take them to Gauhati. From here they would take another train, and travel across central India to Bombay where they would be put on an old creaky barely sea-worthy ship.

Then by slow cautious stages, in very cramped conditions, they would proceed across the Arabian Sea, up the Red Sea and across the Mediterranean to the port of Taranto in Italy and take the train to Franc. Some would be buried at sea or along the way and they would endure two quarantines. The journey to France could take over two months and it was an indelible part of the war experience for men of the Indian Labour Corps.

It threw them into the company of men from other parts of their own district, and from other parts of India and they would encounter white sahibs in new roles as for instance those working as sailors on board ship. Two labour companies levelling the ground for an aerodrome in Nancy were housed in villages, so they had some interaction with the French. What was more frequent were encounters with British military personnel and sometimes with Canadian and Australian units.

The army authorities wanted to ensure that soldiers and labourers returned to India with a better understanding of the reach and resources of empire and a feeling that they, their particular community, belonged to it. To indicate that they had benefitted from war service they had to be encouraged to save and to use their savings carefully

The YMCA used lectures and slide shows to inculcate these lessons. Among the themes taken up were better farming practices. But why would Indian soldiers and labourers brought up in traditions of careful cultivation need some missionary to advise them on manuring their fields or diversifying crops? Britain felt that after the war she would have to utilise resources of land, minerals and labour power in the colonies much more scientifically to recover her commercial position and to catch up with America and Japan. So in war propaganda we also see the glimmerings of a colonial developmentalist ideology.

A question I’m often asked is whether demobilised soldiers came back with a nationalist outlook and contributed to the mass movements which welled up in 1919-1921.

Shahid Amin has given a wonderful account of one of the participants in the Chauri Chaura riot who had served in Mesopotamia. And we see ex-soldiers in Khilafat meetings and they participated in the Akali movement of 1921-25. But I was having to search very hard for their presence. Then I realised that this was because many of them were either still serving or had been re-employed in this period.

Secondly empire had won, not lost this war, and soldiers, even if they disapproved of government’s policies, needed to consolidate the gains of war service. This was where an important shift took place.

Indian soldiers and labourers came back from the war with a sharper awareness of their importance to empire. They had been able to compare their service conditions with those of white soldiers as well with French colonial soldiers. They returned with more leverage and used it to demand a narrowing of the race gap between their service conditions and those for white soldiers: better food, clothing and barracks, better education facilities for their children, better pensions. Service issues are never entirely apolitical.

But they also returned with a sharper awareness of India as a nation among nations, and one which compared poorly with the west in terms of political autonomy, the economy, education and the like. Nevertheless, the choice for them wasn’t just that of following the Congress lead. There were a variety of political options which had opened out at the provincial level.

Montagu’s announcement in August 1917 that India was to be put on the path to self- government had given a hectic stimulus to associational life. Platforms emerged to demand separate representation for Muslims, Sikhs, the Depressed Classes, tribal groups and labour. There was the Akali movement, the Jat Mahasabha, the non-Brahmin movement in western and southern India, Associations sprang up for the Depressed classes, the Naga club emerged at Kohima, in Chota Nagpur the Unnati Samaj took shape. We have to give the soldier and the labourer credit for being able to think both in national and in local frames. He had a political perspective even it was not one always pitched in sharp opposition to government.

On the side of the British, the war seemed to have also changed their ideas of the value of labour and the relationship with the state...
In 1919, there were two things which made it necessary for both employers and the state to reconsider the value of labour. The first was the aspiration on the part of educated Indians for a swifter advance towards industrialisation. Secondly, in 1918 two deadly waves of influenza disrupted the labour market. An additional factor was that labour militancy went up in 1919-21.

The attitude to labour in the Indian Army was shaped by the fact that by 1917-18 there was an acute need for manpower in theatres of war, compounded by the shortage of shipping. The military authorities realised they would have to conserve non-combatant labour and to use it more rationally. So both within India and in overseas theatres of war, there was a realisation that to improve labour productivity you would have to reduce hours of work, improve nutrition, sanitation, and medical care. In the army conditions for non-combatants improved.

In Indian industry things soon went back to the way they were. However the promise of constitutional change in 1917 had dynamised associational life, and “labour” emerged as a distinct constituency demanding to be recognised.

The book is documenting, but also challenging all these notions – of the geography of the war, of the time period, of who was involved. Is that the broad takeaway?
Exactly. These are the three themes. In terms of the geography of the war I have pointed out that we have to look not only at labour and services provided from within India, but also at the labour and services provided by Indian men, women and children circulating around the Bay of Bengal. They worked on tea and coffee plantations in Sri Lanka, on tin mines and rubber plantations in Malaya, cut rice harvests and processed rice for export in Burma, manned merchant ships and kept dock works going all along this arc of movement. These goods and services were crucial to the provisioning of theatres of war and to the generation of export surpluses which Britain needed so badly

Secondly, instead of seeing the war as an external event we should look at the military construction complex which had been taking shape along India’s borders from the 1880s. The networks, skills and manpower which went into colonial border-making were repurposed for global war. With the declaration of war, men, hardware, information, and skills began to flow in circuits linking older conflict zones with new theatres of war. The frontiers of India began to collapse into this wider geography of conflict.

Frontier wars were not carrying on in some parallel geographical and chronological space. We have the Mahsud uprising in 1917 and then the Kuki-Chin uprising of 1917-19. Afghanistan made her bid for independence in 1919, and succeeded in wresting control of her foreign policy. This meant the Government of India had to tighten control over its side of the Pushtun borderlands which led to the much longer and hard- fought Waziristan campaign. At one point there were 30 Labour corps working in support of the Afghanistan–Waziristan wars,

Therefore we have to stretch the time line of World War I. Some historians argue that we should take the 1911 Balkan wars as the starting point and conclude in 1924 with the end of the civil war in Russia. I used the timeline 1914-1921 for my book. But I also pointed out that the duration of the war was experienced differently by different categories of Indian military personnel.

The Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918 and British and Dominion soldiers began to demand they be sent home. Indian troops were still posted in in Istanbul, in Syria, in Mesopotamia, in Aden, in Arabia and Persia. In Mesopotamia, Indian labourers were still working on the Inland Waterways and the Railways, and Indian personnel were manning the post and telegraph services. In the meantime, soldiers were also required within India to quell the unrest which was welling up.

So Punjab continued to be the recruiting ground of Empire, and it was partly for this reason that government extended war-time ordinances in the form of the Rowlatt Act. People who had put up with five years of heavy-handed executive authority now faced the prospect of having to put up with it for even longer. And all the while Indians were also being told that the constitutional changes introduced in 1919 had put the country on the path towards self-government.

Indian soldiers evacuate wounded officer on stretcher near Ginchy, France Photo: Australian War Memorial

What about how the political outlook in India changed afterwards, leading to the tumultuous years right after?
If we put together military history with the events of the year 1919-1920, and to this very tumultuous mix you add the influenza epidemic of 1918-19, we’ll agree even more that this was a watershed for India, but we’ll understand it in a multi-dimensional way.

Some of India’s leaders began to feel that India’s destinies had to be linked with struggles for autonomy, not only within India, but also in Afghanistan, Persia, Iraq, Arabia, Egypt and Syria. You had Tilak’s paper, the Maratha, saying that in addition to being known as a nation of coolies, India was in danger of being known also as a nation of mercenaries. But we have to keep in mind that for most of the war, Gandhi, Tilak and other leaders had felt that support for empire in this world-wide conflict would help to achieve Home Rule on the pattern of the Dominions.

The word “mercenary” for Indian soldiers starts floating around only in 1919-1920, when soldiers were used to suppress internal unrest and when there was opposition to the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Secondly as a result of continued military deployment, India was presented with four deficit budgets from 1919. So even the most moderate politician began to say enough is enough. Across the political spectrum there was a demand for Indian representatives to be given more of a say in military expenditure and in the deployment of the Indian Army

What other research would you like to see on this front?
There are younger scholars who are doing fantastic work. I think one area which is understudied is India’s material contribution to the war. Enormous quantities of timber and other forest products were extracted from western India for Mesopotamia and Salonika. Coal, mica, corundum and iron were mined more intensively for war needs...

What was the impact of this on the environment and on the local tribal and peasant communities who were being used to build access roads and were being deployed as forest labour and to work the mines?

We also have to look at changes which the war brought to everyday life. How did it compete for remembrance with other events of the time? Here biographies and autobiographies could be mined extensively.

The other area we need to work on is the issue of gender. Military history is so masculine that we don’t see the effect of war and of militarist ideologies upon women and children, as for instance the increased burden of work, the destruction of homes, the looting of grain and cattle, the “ringing” of trees to make them die out, in the course of punitive campaigns along India’s borders. Mortality during the influenza epidemic was higher for females than for men.

At the same time middle class women in India took a great interest in the new roles opening out for women in the West. Those who were drawn into war work, for instance in organising parcels for troops, visiting hospitals, knitting socks or collecting donations, realised that ‘social work’ gave them an acceptable path of entry into public life .

Why did so many die of influenza?

The arrival of the flu in 1918 coincided with drought across large patches of India and soaring prices Elsewhere in the world people caught influenza and survived, in India they died.

Were there surprises in the research?
Apart from a few trolls, I found that audiences in India responded with interest to a history which focused on Indian “coolies” and regimental “menials” instead of the valorous soldier. At the time of the war itself, educated Indians did not want to be associated in any way with the “coolies” who went overseas for work. They felt that these classes compromised their own respectability in empire.

Perhaps the democratisation of political life, has helped to give us, at least notionally, a sense of the value of different kinds of work. The emergence of feminist and Dalit publics has encouraged us to search for different kinds of histories. But my book only touches upon caste and gender issues, other scholars will have to take that story further.

What misconceptions – from fellow scholars, journalists or lay readers – do you find yourself frequently having to correct?
One is the belief that all the soldiers came back and got a pension and a land grant. There’s not enough of a distinction between war propaganda and what people actually got. You had to serve 10 years to get even the minimal mustering-out pension.

In a completely different direction there is the conviction that demobilised soldiers contributed to the seething political unrest which characterised India in 1919-21. Soldier presence in the Akali movement of 1921-25 to wrest gurdwaras from Hindu mahants was an important factor. But I found that it was really in 1927-31, as the depression set in, and the hunger for land grants grew, that veteran unrest became a significant factor, particularly in Punjab..

Some recommendations for what else to read?

  • Santanu Das, India, Empire, and First World War Culture: Writings, Images, and Songs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.
  • David Omissi (ed.), Indian Voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ Letters, 1914–18, 1999
  • George Morton Jack, The Indian Army on the Western Front: India’s Expeditionary Force to France and Belgium in the First World War (Cambridge Military Histories) 2014
  • Reversing the Gaze: Amar Singh’s Diary, A Colonial Subject’s Narrative of Imperial India. Edited by Susanne Hoeber Rudolph and Lloyd I. Rudolph with Mohan Singh Kanota. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002.
  • Gajendra Singh, The Testimonies of Indian Soldiers and the Two World Wars: Between Self and Sepoy, New York, 2014
  • Fawaz, Leila Tarazi, A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War, Harvard University Press, 2012.
  • Vedica Kant, “If I Die Here, Who Will Remember Me?”: India and the First World War, 2014