|Saturday, November 4, 2000||
"When it was victory," remarked Field Marshal Wavell, "the cavalier claimed it outright, the gunner boasted of his calibre, the engineer and signalman publicised their worth, but the infantryman stood silent with victory at his feet." These words best describe the Indian Infantry that has a long and glorious tradition of exemplary valour and steadfastness.
"The least spectacular arm yet without them you cannot win a battle, indeed without them you can do nothing — nothing at all."
— Field Marshal, Montgomery
ALL through the ages, warfare has been one of man’s well- deliberated and resolute activities. Human beings being what they are, wars will continue to be fought in the future too. Be that as it may, it is noteworthy that the history of warfare can be traced back along the foot-prints left behind by infantry soldiers.
In the Vedic period of
ancient India, the duty of bearing arms had been assigned to the
Kshatriyas — the warrior class. They were proud of their birth and the
nobility of their profession, and were modest about their privileged
status in society. Wars were called Dharma Yudha, signifying righteous
and virtuous wars, and were essentially fought by soldiers on foot with
some charioteers riding alongside. It would be appropriate to digress
awhile to record that in a slightly later time frame, in the far off
Sparta, the mainstay of their famous army was none other than the
heavily armed Spartan infantryman. Similarly, Roman legions were
However, the Mughal army soon lost its professional orientation. Unlike Babar, his successors assigned insignificant and unsoldierly tasks to the infantry. The situation was no better in other princely states that copied the Mughals. In the absence of drill or discipline, and without organisation and order, the infantry of that time in India lost some of its combat edge. It must be stated emphatically that the soldierly qualities and the personal valour of infantrymen were never in doubt. When trained and led well — whether by Tipu Sultan, Shivaji or the Sikh rulers — they were outstanding.
India has a remarkable martial tradition that stretches back almost five thousand years. The Kshatriya or the warrior formed the ruling class in ancient India and was ranked second in the caste hierarchy. A Rig Vedic verse states — "May our priests and intellectuals be brilliant. May our warriors be brave and invincible in war." The Rig Veda records many battles. One Rig Vedic king was called the destroyer of a "hundred fort cities."
The continuity of our fighting traditions can be gauged from the fact that many of the fighting ethnic groups recruited into the present day regiments of the Indian Army find mention in the Mahabharata. For the Rajput it says, "Victory or death has been the religion of the Rajput from time immemorial. It is his character that he knows no fear". The Dogras are mentioned as the "Dogratas and Tigratas" valiant soldiers who gave the fiercest battle to Arjun. It mentions the soldiers of Mathura (Jats and Yadavas) and of Shaubir and Kannauj. It mentions the Maghadan troops of Bihar and the men of Kamrup (Assam) who were experts in handling war elephants. The great warrior Ghatotkach, incidentally, was the son of Hidimba — a Naga Queen. The name Dimapur interestingly, is derived from the word Hidimbapur. The Mahabharata mentions the unique characteristics of the Indian soldiers of the various regions of the subcontinent. War in ancient India had reached a very mature and complex form by the time of the Mahabharata. Sun Tzu’s Chinese epic Art of War mentions only two arms of the ancient Sinic armies — infantry and horsed cavalry. The Mahabharata mentions armies that were Chaturangi or "Four limbed." The four basic arms in the Mahabharata period were:-Ashwas — or horsed cavalry, Ratha — or war chariots, Gaja — or war elephants, Paditi — the foot soldier.
It was even then the basic and the largest fighting arm. It was designed to close in and destroy the enemy in hand-to-hand combat. They were armed with bows and arrows, spears and javelins, swords and daggers and the unique mace.
By the time of Chandragupta Maurya, war had reached a very sophisticated form in ancient India. The Mauryan army was one of the largest standing armies of the early historic period. It was professionally managed and well organised and had a staggering strength of 650,000 men. The bulk of these (some 600,000) were infantry troops.
The invention of gunpowder revolutionised the art of war. Babar, an Uzbek warlord, led his Mughal armies from Central Asia into Afghanistan and then into India. At the first battle of Panipat he routed the armies of Ibrahim Lodhi with his skilful and devastating use of cannons and cavalry. The Mughal empire succeeded in unifying almost the entire Indian subcontinent. The Mughal army was a huge army with a vast corps of elephants. Its forged cannons were its pride and ultimate weapon of war. It was slow and ponderous and moved with entire harems and tented camps. However, true to its Central Asian origins, it relied heavily on its horsed cavalry for reach and mobility.
The gradual break up of the Mughal empire unleashed a period of great flux, turmoil and uncertainty. This period witnessed a military revival of the ancient Indian ethnic groups. Shivaji led the rise of the intrepid Marathas. Guru Gobind Singh and Maharaja Ranjit Singh raised the Sikhs as a significant military force, the Rajputs and later the Dogras (led by Gulab Singh and Zorawar Singh) also made their mark after the decline of the Mughal empire.
It was into this confused cauldron that the British East India Company, along with the French and Portuguese entered India by the sea route. Europe was then transiting from the agricultural to the industrial era. The nation state had crystallised after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Centuries of non-stop warfare had led to the evolution of highly skilled and well-drilled European infantry armed with muskets and later rifles. The European artillery was far more mobile and lethal than the ponderous Mughal siege cannons. It was the well-drilled European style infantry that was to rout the Mughal-style cavalry in India. The triumph of the British lay in recognising the innate fighting qualities and traditions of the diverse Indian ethnic groups. They exploited these to the hilt to raise well drilled and superbly trained infantry units and regiments with the aid of which they conquered the entire Indian subcontinent.
Colonisation saw the spread of the European military system in India. The colonial powers were ready to share their skills and warring techniques for their own good. The French were the first to realise the potential of turning native Indians into soldiers. The British soon following suit, stole a march on the French, and went on to systematically raise an army that did them and the profession of soldiering proud.
As the East India Company established trading posts it became necessary for them to guard their factories and warehouses. To start with, in 1628, a few watchmen were employed at Armagaon on the east coast. However, it was in 1684 that Rajputs were first recruited as sepoys to raise two companies at Bombay. Incidentally, the word ‘sepoy’ can be traced back to the Persian word ‘Sipah’, which means army. The process of raising the company’s troops was slow and cautious till 1740. By then the British were at war with the French in Europe and in India. They saw a window of opportunity to expand and consolidate their colonial hold in India in the wake of the crumbling Mughal Empire. Philip Mason in his book ‘A Matter of Honour’ observes, "It is not surprising then that when the British began to take more seriously the need to win battles in India, they should put their faith in the infantry."
Things moved at a clipped pace after 1748 when Major Stringer Lawrence was appointed the first Commander-in-Chief in India. Moreover, in 1751-52, at Arcot near Madras, and in the battles that followed, Indian infantrymen under Robert Clive displayed exemplary soldiering. Then in 1758, the first infantry battalion consisting of nine companies including a company of Grenadiers — a select lot for hazardous missions — was raised in the Bengal Army. For smart soldierly looks these infantrymen were issued red jackets as uniform — hence the term Lal Paltan. It may be interesting to note here that all arms other than the infantry units were raised by the British only in 1760. Taking of the formal oath was introduced only in 1766. Infantry battalions of all the three Indian Presidencies were standardised later in 1824.
The British trained infantry units won a series of decisive battles against the French troops and other Indian rulers, thereby bringing Southern and Central India under the British rule. By the middle of the 19th century the infantry-dominated Presidency Armies had defeated the Sikhs, extending the British empire almost over the whole of India. Dressed in their stiffened red uniforms and other distinctive accoutrements, these infantry soldiers executed field manoeuvres with precision. Illustrious Indian infantry battalions became the mainstay of the British army. They were indispensable for the British to hold together their empire east of the Suez.
The First War of Independence (called the Great Mutiny by the British) represented the first stirrings of nationalism in post-Mughal India. The innate patriotism of theIndian jawan came to the fore. He was torn between his oath of loyalty to the company and his sense of nascent nationalism. The conditions in the Bengal Presidency Army especially were ripe for such a rebellion as the distance between the British officers and men had widened greatly and the attitude of racial arrogance was resented by the jawans. Mangal Pandey, who fired the first shots of the War of Independence on March 29, 1857, was an infantryman from the 34th Native Battalion of the Bengal Army stationed at Barrackpore. Almost 80,000 troops of the Presidency Armies revolted at various times. Had there been clear-cut central directions and had all the individual unit rebellions been coordinated, it would have led to the ejection of the British at that time itself. However, since the British Empire could not do without the Indian Army, it took many policy decisions in 1858 for its restructuring.
To start with, the Crown took over the reins of the country from the East India Company. The ratio of British to Indian troops, which stood at one in nine then, was improved to about one in two in the next fiver years. While some of the regiments — Gorkhas, Sikhs and Marathas for example — retained their single class composition, many others were mixed. However, in no case was the homogeneity of a company ever disturbed. Infantry units were soon equipped with the new Lee Enfield Rifles. The word ‘Native’ was dropped while redesignating infantry units. A few years later the term ‘Native Officer’ was replaced by the term ‘Indian Officer’. The aftermath of 1857 also led to the "Punjabisation" of theBritish Indian Army. Its recruitment base was thus shifted from Southern, Central and Eastern India to the North West. The myth of the martial classes was invented to justify this shift.
The amalgamation of the Presidency Armies in 1895 led to the regrouping of infantry units. It also saw the establishment of Depots in stations close to or within the recruiting zones of the regiments. Towards the turn of the century infantry soldiers wore Khaki uniforms and were issued with .303 rifles. More importantly, many measures taken by General Kitchener were to stand the infantry in good stead during the First World War. Kitchener believed that the Army’s main task was to guard the borders against external aggression rather than to support civil authorities to "hold India against the Indians." Kitchener instilled a feeling of esprit de corps amongst the units of the Indian Army. He emphasised good leadership in war and good training in peace. He ordered the re-numbering and designations of battalions and regiments. The new regiments retained the battle honours which had been won in the earlier designations. He converted the Indian Army from, "a number of small armies ... each
probably thinking itself superior to the rest", to a cohesive force with a feeling of loyalty towards the army in general and the regiment or battalion in particular.
Only some of these regrouped and re-equipped battalions had been blooded in the North-West Frontier Provinces (NWFP) before the war broke out. However, these infantrymen had not lost their fighting spirit or their instincts to adapt.
In diverse operational environments in East Africa, Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Palestine they fought some bloody battles despite a patchy logistics back up. It was in France that they were tested the most. Massed infantry attacks, supported by heavy artillery barrages, allowed little scope for tactical manoeuvres. In the fiercely fought trench warfare, close quarter battle was the order of the day. The costs of gaining objectives were almost prohibitive.
Indian troops were not used to the cold and wet weather either. Yet, every single infantry unit, new or old, withstood all hardships, took heavy casualties and went on to cover itself with glory.
On October 31, 1914, at Hollebeke in Belgium, an infantryman — Sepoy Khudadad Khan of the Ist Battalion, 129the Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis — became the first Indian soldier to win a Victoria Cross (VC). The Cross was presented to him on the battlefield itself. Besides, twelve of the seventeen VCs awarded to the Indian Army went to infantry units. It is noteworthy that only one of these, to Rifleman Gober Singh Negi of the 2nd Battalion 39th Garhwal Rifles, was awarded posthumously. The others had fought on to inspire their fellow soldiers. At the end of the war, 2/3 Gorkha Rifles had two living VCs in the unit. Incidentally, the Garhwalis were considered as the ‘find’ of the First World War. In recognition of their distinguished services the King Emperor conferred the title of ‘Royal’ on the Garhwal Rifles in February 1921.
The process of demobilisation after the war saw some more reorganisations. Those significant to the infantry were the authorisation of light machine guns and mortars to battalions. It must be stated here that in 1922, 20 infantry battalions of different regiments were amongst the first to commence the process of Indianisation. By then a trickle of King’s Commissioned Indian Officers started arriving in the units. The 1922 reorganisation was a result of the shortcomings noticed in World War I from 1914-18. In this, infantry battalions were grouped to form regiments on the basis of caste groupings. Today’s regimental system is a legacy of this reorganisation. It made training, recruitment and administration of these regiments easier.
Mobilisation for World War II made the Indian Army the largest volunteer army ever raised. The infantry component, its largest single combat
arm, which had a little less than a hundred battalions in 1939, increased more than two and a half times before the end of the war. During the war Indian infantrymen worsted the gritty Germans in the deserts of North Africa, in the mountainous stretches of Italy, and on the vast European plains. They also proved themselves superior to the determined Japanese in the teeming jungles of Burma. Field Marshal Montgomery had ‘healthy regard’ for them and Field Marshal Slim felt they were the ‘best in the world’. Perhaps they indeed were; how else does one account for 20 of the total 27 VCs of the Burma campaign going to Indian Infantrymen. Three of these to a single unit — 2nd Battalion 5th Royal Gorkha Rifles — two of which were earned within 48 hours. Two future Chiefs of the Army Staff, Thimayya and Manekshaw, had also earned their Distinguished Service Order and Military Cross, respectively, in Burma. It is not possible to recount the equally heroic deeds of many other individuals and units. Suffice it to say that throughout the Second World War Indian infantry soldiers, no matter whom they fought or where, they excelled and prevailed everywhere. Allied powers in general, and the British in particular, have much to thank them for.
Shortly after the war, British rule in India came to an end. Infantry units that had sailed out to far off destinations in Singapore, Indo-China, Thailand, and Malaysia (to accept surrender of the Japanese) were recalled. With independence also came the partition and the division of the forces. The experience was most painful for the infantry regiments. In some of these Hindus and Muslims had served happily together for generations. With a heavy heart they parted ways with some comrades and with an open heart accepted some others from across the border.
During the British era, infantry as an arm came a long way from the earlier days of feudal soldiering. It remained at war throughout the 18th and the 19th centuries and infantrymen shed a lot of blood in the two World Wars of the 20th century. It evolved a recruiting pattern to sustain its unique regimental system, had well established customs and traditions, and had a high reputation to live up to. Infantry units of independent India, were second to none in the world. As events were to show the infantry was destined to make a strong impact on the future of newly independent India. As per the guidelines of the Partition Council, the old India Army ceased to exist on August 15, 1947.
Excerpted from Infantry: A Glint of the Bayonet (Published by Lancer)