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  • Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British armies in World War II by Tarak Barkawi
  • Adam Prime
Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British armies in World War II
By Tarak Barkawi. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

In the summer of 1942, Quit India protests raged across India, campaigning against British rule and Indian involvement in the Second World War. Almost sixty army battalions were engaged in suppressing these protests, but these were not just British Army units. Battalions of Indians and Nepalese Gurkhas were also involved in the suppression of the protests—the then Viceroy of India, Linlithgow, likened the Quit India protests to the Great Rebellion of 1857. Yet, during the months of August and September 1942, as the Quit India protests turned violent, 140,000 new recruits joined the Indian Army. The question Tarak Barkawi asks is: Why? Why, in the face of increasing nationalism, did the men join the Indian Army and head to Europe, North Africa and East Asia?

Why armies fight is a question that has been regularly asked by historians and sociologists; perhaps the best-known work relating to this is Omer Bartov’s study of the German Wehrmacht.1 Barkawi couples this question with a second: How are soldiers made? To answer these questions, the author uses the fighting in Burma, where the British and Indian armies fought against the Japanese Imperial Army (IJA). The book is divided into three sections. The first of these sections, entitled “Colonial Soldiers,” looks at the army-society relationship. This section looks at how soldiers were moulded. Much of what is discussed in this section has been covered before by historians of earlier periods; topics covered include martial race theory, caste, religion, the regimental system and the officer-man relationship. Yet Barkawi welds these together crisply to generate a comprehensive explanation of how Indian soldiers were shaped, and his use of anecdotes and personal testimony support and add depth to the analysis. The challenge of the Quit India movement and the creation of the Indian National Army, a Japanese backed army of independence, are used by Barkawi as an acid test for the colonial army. The Indian Army continued to serve in the face of both.

The opening two years of the Second World War took their toll on the Indian Army. The professional army had to replace its losses, both privates and officers. The peacetime professionals could provide the backbone for this, but new recruits and raw officers were needed, and the second section unpacks this. A minor criticism of this first section would be a lack of engagement with the literature on the First World War—an odd criticism for a book on the 1939–1945 conflict, but reasonable in this case, as Barkawi regularly refers to the upheaval caused by the Second World War, in particular the manpower demands it put on the Indian Army, but fails to acknowledge that the Indian Army had had to go through a similar process between 1914 and 1918.

The second section, entitled “Going to War,” looks at the process of loss replacement and how the makeup of the Indian Army was altered because of this, before assessing the Indian Army in battle against the IJA in the jungles of Burma. Barkawi uses the First Battle of Arakan to assess the multinational conglomerate that was the Indian Army in battle, and indeed to highlight how it suffered after defeats in Singapore, Hong Kong and Burma. The First Battle of Arakan, which began in the autumn of 1942, was the ill-prepared Allies’ first offensive move back into Burma after having withdrawn to India in May 1942. An army filled with undertrained replacements, unprepared for the jungle warfare which it was about to face, saw its offensive halted by the Japanese. Desertion was rife, as was rape and looting in some areas, as soldiers abandoned their officers, or simply retreated without orders.

Barkawi follows his assessment of First Arakan by showing how the Indian Army, filled with raw recruits, was refashioned into an effective fighting force. The author covers drill, discipline, military education, fire control and spirit. Particular attention is paid to religion and morale: here Barkawi engages...


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