Malerk on Jarboe, 'Indian Soldiers in World War I: Race and Representation in an Imperial War'

Andrew Tait Jarboe
Tamala Malerk

Andrew Tait Jarboe. Indian Soldiers in World War I: Race and Representation in an Imperial War. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2021. 334 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-0678-7.

Reviewed by Tamala Malerk (University of South Florida) Published on H-War (November, 2022) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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In Indian Soldiers in World War I: Race and Representation in an Imperial War, Andrew T. Jarboe skillfully explores the complex role that Indian soldiers played in the First World War and its repercussions. He notes “two underlying premises” of the text: “Human beings encountered empire and rehearsed (or resisted) racist ideologies and policies in everyday spaces” and “World War I was in fact a period of intense (albeit temporary) intercontinental human migration” (p. 23). Jarboe utilizes a variety of sources and produces a detailed historiography of the war in the introduction, with sources dating as far back as the war itself. He also provides superb analysis of primary sources and the efficacy of their use through the explanation of using newspapers, testimonies, interviews, and letters to home from illiterate Indian soldiers penned by a “literate friend or officer” (p. 14), further adding to the analysis of the complicated position of the Indian soldier fighting in a war for the British Empire.

Indian Soldiers in World War I opens with an introduction, followed by eight chapters and a conclusion, with each of these beginning with a quote from a letter or a newspaper. Chapter 1 sets the stage by exploring the racial politics between Britain and India between 1857, the year of the Indian Rebellion (also known as the Indian Mutiny or Sepoy Mutiny), and the beginning of the war in 1914. During those years, the British did what they could to destroy the appearance of Indian masculinity and power, but World War I provided a rare opportunity for Indian men “to restore their masculine virility” (p. 39). This restoration made for many convoluted issues throughout the war, as Jarboe demonstrates in chapters 2-7.

The themes of race, culture, gender, class, and caste also appear throughout these chapters, which delve into the war itself. The British had to maintain a delicate balance of racial and cultural superiority while recruiting and fighting alongside Indian soldiers, who had to contend not only with enemy soldiers, but also with discrimination and “racial epithets” (p. 106).

Treatment of wounded Indian soldiers was dependent on who was treating them and where they were being treated. Hospital administration went to “great pains” to follow caste rules when treating Indian soldiers, but also monitored their movements with intense scrutiny (p. 127). Indian men could be punished solely on suspicion of having a relationship with a white woman, resulting in an uproar when it was learned that white female nurses were treating wounded Indian soldiers, challenging the racial and gender standards of the British Empire.

With memories of 1857 (as well as racist and cultural stereotypes), fear of rebellion was always on the minds of the British administration. Those in power worried that “traumatized Sepoys might forget their oath of duties” (p. 135). Germany capitalized on these fears by placing captured Indian soldiers in “propaganda camps” in an attempt to “convert” these soldiers to their cause, a campaign they ended in 1917 (pp. 153, 169).

Duty assignment and soldier ranking was also seeped in the ideology of white superiority. While fighting in a war is never easy, British troops were often sent over to the western front where rations and clothing were in “abundance” (p. 189), rather than Mesopotamia, where healthcare was lacking. Indian officers were never afforded the same rank as British officers, and there were “large amounts of Indian casualties due to British officer experience” (p. 86). However, despite all of this, Indian soldiers were able to win many victories vital to the success of the empire in the war.

Chapter 8 explores the immediate postwar repercussions in India. Indian nationalist supporter Mahatma Gandhi had supported the war, despite his antiviolence beliefs, because he believed that India’s support of the war would bring India closer to self-governance. Many soldiers felt this way. Unfortunately, they were wrong. In early 1919, the Rowlatt Bills (also known as the Rowlatt Acts) were passed, which ensured that anyone in possession of “seditious documents” containing writing inciting violence or rebellion against the Crown could be tried, or even sentenced without a jury. Rather than support any notion of allowing India some form of self-governance, the British doubled down on scrutiny, punishment, and imprisonment. The Indian population responded with a series of “hartals,” eventually leading to the infamous massacre of Indians by British and Indian soldiers in Amritsar in 1919, further complicating the role of the Indian soldier.

Jarboe focuses the first part of his conclusion on the treatment of Indian prisoners of war and how Indian soldiers who died during the war are remembered and commemorated. He ends his text with a reminder of the complexities of documenting and remembering the past. He emphasizes to his readers that “when in our effort to remember the past we begin regurgitating its propaganda, we are no longer commemorating history” (pp. 279-280), harking back to his analysis of primary sources in the introduction.

Jarboe writes in a scholarly language that reads as intelligent but is not overly loaded with academic or subject-specific jargon. While some background general knowledge of World War I would help, the variety of themes covered in the text and the style in which Jarboe writes make this a great book for anyone, from advanced scholars of World War I to those with even a slight interest in military (or race, class, or even gender) history.

Citation: Tamala Malerk. Review of Jarboe, Andrew Tait, Indian Soldiers in World War I: Race and Representation in an Imperial War. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2022. URL:

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