1900-1919 | India | Racism

General – ‘The Indian is simply not fit to lead his men’

Indian recruits practising bayonet fighting. General Sir James Wilcox refused to appoint Indian officers to lead his soldiers.
Indian recruits practising bayonet fighting. Copyright: © IWM ( Q 52697) .

31 January 1915

On 31 January 1915, despite the hideous casualty rate suffered by commissioned British officers in the trenches on the Western Front, General Sir James Wilcox commanding the India Corps, refused to appoint Indian officers to lead his soldiers. ‘The Indian,’ he explained, ‘is simply not fit to lead his men against Europeans. He will lead a charge or cover a retirement, but if he has to think he fails. It is the presence and instincts of the white man which the Indian officer can never replace.’1

As the war continued, however, the horrific slaughter meant that the shortage of officers became more acute and in August 1917 seven Indians were commissioned and, before the end of the war, a further two more.  This still amounted to no more than one in every 100,000 Indian troops who joined the ranks as cannon fodder.

Even this tiny number of Indian officers was seen as a problem by the all white membership of a committee set up under Lord Esher in 1919 to look into the modernisation of the Indian Army. They deemed the recruitment of Indians as ‘unsettling’ for white British officers who might have to serve under them and were consequently now reluctant to join up.2


  1.  Timothy C. Dowling, Personal Perspectives: World War 1, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara and Oxford, 2006, p41 and Piers Brendon, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997, Jonathan Cape, London, 2007.
  2. Gautam Sharma, Nationalisation of the Indian Army, 18885-1947, Allied Publishers Ltd., New Delhi, 1996, pp. 55-56.

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