National Geographic : 1946 Apr
India Mosaic BY PETER MUIR AND FRANCES MUIR ON THE EVENING of March 27, 1941, in Cairo, we first understood that India was actively and enthusiastically engaged in fighting by the side of Great Britain. That morning, supposedly impregnable Cheren, in Eritrea, had been captured from the Italians, and the success of the attack was due in large part to the 4th and 5th Indian Divisions. When the reports of the battle began coming in, we read such phrases as: ". . the Rajputana Rifles advanced on and cap tured Hog's Back . . . to the left the Mah rattas carried Flat Top . . . to the west the Sikhs were attacking . . ." Units of the Indian Army served on the Maginot Line in 1940 and were in the Dun kerque retreat. After Dunkerque they distinguished them selves, sometimes in defeat but more often in victory, in Eritrea, Ethiopia, the Western Desert, and Syria. They helped prevent enemy occupation of Iran, Iraq, and Cyprus. They threw the invading Japanese out of Assam, and the vast majority of troops that drove the enemy from Burma were Indian. Indians and Gurkhas in World War II won 23 Victoria Crosses, Britain's highest award for valor in action (page 445). Greatest Volunteer Army in History Fighting all over the world, the Indian Army numbered more than two million men, not one of whom was forced to serve. It was the greatest volunteer army history has ever known. Volunteers were so numerous that many acceptable recruits were turned away daily. In the summer of 1942, when invasion of India was threatened, about 70,000 enlist ments were accepted monthly; the average toward the war's end was 50,000. But why only 2,000,000 from a population nearly three times that of the United States? Why not total mobilization? The difficulty of providing equipment was one reason for limit ing the number of men enrolled; but more important was the almost impossible task of training, of welding this heterogeneous group into a smooth-running war machine. Differences of language and religion, primi tive agricultural methods, the caste system, and illiteracy were inescapable obstacles to rapid complete mobilization. In the United States, where the man from Florida can talk to a soldier from Oregon, and the Maine sailor knows the same jokes and slang as a Marine of southern California, it is hard to understand the language diffi culty involved in training men for the Indian Army. India has 23 languages, each spoken by a million or more people, and 250-odd dialects. Of the rural classes, farmers and laborers, who form the vast majority of Indian soldiery, few speak English, and with some exceptions this is also true of those from the cities. Therefore, a common language had to be chosen. It is one understood in large sections of India-Urdu. To avoid choosing between the Devanagari alphabet, in which modern Hindi as well as the Hindu classics are written, and the Arabic script of the Moslem invaders, still used in Urdu, the language of the Indian Army is now written in the Roman alphabet (page 447). The training period of a soldier was two years. Little wonder, when one considers that many had never worn shoes, and that men who had never seen a motorcar had to be trained as mechanics and as tank drivers. "The Indian Army," it has been said, "has the biggest organized system of adult educa tion in the world." The Army must educate its recruits, and, in doing so, it bears in mind that, since the soldier normally serves only part of his youth in the Army, it must also aim to return him to civil life a better man and a better citizen. Indian universities cooperated with the Government in providing military training courses, and large schools were opened for training boys so that when they reached army age they could join up immediately as fully qualified technicians. Perhaps the most fundamental reason for not applying all-out mobilization was the agricultural situation. The population would starve if the manpower were drained from the farms, for agriculture has never been mechanized. There are 45,000,000 holdings of a few acres each, and these are worked crudely by the owner and his family. From the small surpluses of these farms comes most of India's food supply. But of the many difficulties in increasing the Army from a prewar force of 182,000 to more than 2,000,000, caste and religious customs have been the hardest obstacles to overcome. In the first World War, certain sects would not sit down to meals with others.