The Martial Races

Since the late nineteenth century, the recruitment process in the Indian army was based on a ‘class system’. In the decades before the war, the British military had also recruited from the north and northwest of India, such as the Punjab, due to the belief that its people were more suited for battle. Among the reasons was the rugged terrain of the area, which may have made them more, prepared for the physical hardships of war?

By the start of the war, the ‘martial race theory’ had become an essential part of the recruitment process in India. In the decades before the war, a series of official Recruiting Handbooks, hundreds of pages long, had been written by British officers, which confirmed the importance of the martial race theory to the recruitment of Indian fighters. Handbooks contained sections devoted to each religion and caste.

‘Pressgang’ Methods

By 1916, the allies were in desperate need of more Indian soldiers. A new policy meant that Indian units would fight on the secondary theatres of war, leaving the main British army at the Western Front. Small offers of money began to be made to potential recruits, which increased those who came forward. The rules also became less stringent: usual protocols on height and weight were lowered, and recruiting officers began to venture into new districts that had been previously considered not ‘martial’ enough.

But there was also much forced recruitment, particularly in the Punjab. While conscription wasn’t applied, pressure was applied on Indian officials to fill huge quotas. As a result, recruitment methods began to include kidnapping. Women were even taken hostage until their male family members enlisted to the army.

Michael O'Dwyer

Michael O’Dwyer – image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

Michael O’Dwyer

Much of the unethical recruitment strategies were linked with Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab between 1913 and 1919. O’Dwyer had implemented martial law in the region, placing the military at the head of the state. He attempts to justify such actions in his memoir India as I Knew It but there is no denying that his decisions caused huge unrest in the Punjab region, leading to riots, and under his watch, the killing of hundreds of Indian civilians by the military. O’Dwyer, who played a significant role in recruitment for the war, has now become associated with brutality, racism, and as some have called it, ‘terrorist methods’ of recruitment, or ‘imperial terrorism’. In 1940, and back in London, O’Dwyer was assassinated by the Sikh nationalist Udham Singh.

Indian Noblemen

Much of the recruitment, particularly as the war prolonged, took place via noblemen and recruiting officers in India. Wealthy and influential landowners were promised commission and large chunks of land should they help recruit soldiers for the Allies. By the end of the war, a handful of noblemen had amassed large amounts of money and land as a result.

Mahatma Ghandi

Mahatma Ghandi

Mahatma Gandhi

One of the most famous recruiters was Mahatma Gandhi, who played a key part in recruiting thousands of soldiers in the Kheda region of India. Gandhi made a deal with the Viceroy at the time, writing to him in a letter: ‘I will be your recruiting agent for putting together an Indian army for the First World War’.


Warren Dockter, Churchill and the Islamic World: Orientalism, Empire and Diplomacy in the Middle East.

Omissi, Indian Voices of the Great War.

Tan Tai-Yong, ‘An Imperial Home Front’, Journal of Military History.

Tan Tai-Yong, ‘Sir Michael O’Dwyer and ‘Imperial Terrorism’ in the Punjab, 1919’, Journal of South Asian Studies, 2010, Vol. 33 (3).