I began work in autumn 2016 with Tamasha Theatre and five of their playwrights, on a new project exploring loyalty and dissent in the First World War using our records. This will culminate in a performance of five short plays at the Rich Mix Centre on Friday 31 March.
I have become increasingly fascinated and intrigued – as are many others – by the motivations of the sepoys (Indian soliders serving under the British) who fought in the war. At the same time our records reflect the challenges posed to an all-powerful British imperial state and the tension that existed between soldiers and personnel ‘loyal’ to empire and those ‘dissenting’ voices that sought to agitate and fight to end imperial rule.
This blog intends to briefly explore some of these tensions as a way of providing an introduction to some of our records on these topics. I will look at some of the motivations, exploring ideas such as honour and shame, that tie in closely with ideas around ‘loyalty’. I will then contrast this with those voices of dissent that challenged the imperial state. I will then reflect on some of the challenges in researching and presenting material on these areas of history.
Honour and shame
On the eve of the First World War, the British army was ill prepared to create a mass army for a war in Europe. Trained soldiers were needed and the only ones available for immediate deployment were the Indians. Two Indian divisions that were scheduled to go to Egypt were sent to Europe under the command of General Sir James Willcocks.
At The National Archives we have a copy of the ‘order of the day’ signed by Willcocks that was written to rouse the troops in battle. It evoked the kind of emotions reserved for a powerful anthem, ending with:
‘You will fight for your King Emperor and your faith so that history will record the doings of India’s sons and their children will proudly tell of the deeds of their fathers.’
While the Indian Army under the British has often been portrayed as a mercenary force, looking more closely at their military service suggests that the recruits also made a deliberate choice after weighing the benefits and drawbacks of enlistment. What has been equally interesting is the question: what kept them fighting? This requires an examination of other forces, such as honour and shame, which sustained the Indian Army not only during war but also in peacetime. Continue reading »