Imperial Indian Soldiers and their Depiction in British Children’s Books

This is the first of a series of posts by Joseph James, an M.A. student at McGill University, and a research assistant for the Raising Hope project.

By Joseph James

India, however, is not a British land peopled by men and women of British speech. It is a foreign land whose people speak several strange languages, and live in many ways quite different from ourselves. It is a land under our rule too, and the Germans say that if we are too busy to look after India some day, her people would turn against us. Well the Great War came and we were very busy indeed. But the people of India did not turn against us. Instead of this thousands begged to be allowed to fight for us; and those who could not fight for us went to their temples and prayed so that we might win.

Indian soldiers played a prominent role within the British Imperial army. Their exploits are now widely recognized, particularly in light of the centenary of the start of the First World War. And, indeed, at the time they were also widely recognized for their service to the Empire. This lead Indian soldiers, however, being to be presented within a very specific framework, one of orderly control and subservience to the Union Jack, with their otherness serving as a function of the range of power that the Empire was able to exert over the globe and the many different peoples whose land was coloured red on the map. These descriptions served to reaffirm to the viewer the power of the Empire and its sway over the territory it controlled, as the above quotation from the 1919 school pamphlet, Brother Britons, by Richard Wilson, suggests. The combination of the military and the exotic allowed for the combination of two of the arguably most prominent tropes in children’s literature, particularly when aimed at young boys. Considering the books were written at a time where literature such as Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book still shaped perceptions of the Orient it is not surprising that children’s authors would seek to incorporate some of the associated exoticism and wonder into their writings, as underscored by the reference to grateful Indians praying at their temples for British victory, enhancing the links between their otherness and their devotion to the Empire. So it went: not only will these strange people beg to fight for us, but they will pray to their strange Gods too.

There were also more direct references to the way in which the War did in fact bring the subjects of the Empire closer together. As Wilson mentions again in his book, “The Great War knit together all different parts of our Empire in one great brotherhood. The feeling of brotherliness had been there before the war had begun, but the fighting and the danger showed it up very clear to the world.” This is of course not an event exclusive to this particular context, with wars often serving as unifying forces for states or Empires. However the way in which it was manifested certainly was particular to the context, with descriptions of the soldiers serving to hone in on their otherness, as this quotation from Edward Parrott’s book The Children’s Story of the War written in 1916 shows, “In times of peace we maintain in India…a native army of about 160,000 men recruited from many castes and races. Chief among these are the Sikhs, a fierce warrior caste, whose home is the Punjab Long.” The passage then goes onto list the other types of soldiers in the native army, their homes and habits. This provides another example of how Indian soldiers are presented as elements in the imperial roster to be deployed against the Germans. By discussing their places of residence, ‘the Punjab Long,’ ‘The rugged tableland of Beluchistan,’ or the ‘mountains of Nepal,’ the author further highlights the soldiers otherness by evoking the mysterious and distant geography of their homelands, exoticising the soldiers and describing another group of people happy to submit to the Empire and loyally serve them.

James indian soldiers

If an image is a 1,000 words then this image serves as a compact way to finish this blog whilst showing a revealing story. Above we have a picture taken of Indian soldiers billeted in Saint James’ park, taken from Parrott’s second volume of his The Children’s Story of the War. Here we have Sikh soldiers, wearing their soldiers’ uniforms, showing their service to the British Empire, but whilst also showing their cultural difference, allowing for a physical representation of the varied cultures of the Empire contained within the overarching Imperial ‘uniform’. That they are also billeted in St James’ park speaks volumes to what seems to be the ‘domesticating’ of the exotic Indian soldiers by the Empire. Overall these depictions serve to reinforce in their young readers notions of the might of the British Empire by allowing the Indian soldiers to serve as an exoticised prop through which the young readers could feel pride in the war effort and the Empire more generally.

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