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Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British Armies in World War II, by Tarak Barkawi

Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xviii, 322. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $24.99 paper. ISBN: 1316620654.

The Army of the Raj in its Greatest War

Dr. Barkawi (London School of Economics), who has written widely on colonial armies and small wars, examines Britain’s Indian Army during the Second World War, particularly in the protracted Burma Campaign. Although he covers military operations, Barkawi’s main interest is the internal economy of this force, which lacked the attributes usually considered vital to military effectiveness – ethnic, religious, cultural, and political unity – yet was among the most capable armies of the war.

Barkawi divides his subject into three parts: “Colonial Soldiers” deals with the training and military life of the Indian soldier, and the many unique characteristics of his service; “Going to War” addresses the military experience of the Indian Army, from defeat through reorganization – and “Indianization” – to victory; and “History and Theory” discusses how the experience of these soldiers was expressed and explained, and argues the need to reconsider “Western” notions of what makes military institutions work.

There’s a great deal in here about the complexities of organizing a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-racial army, some of which will come as surprises. Barkawi takes on the notion of the “martial races", problems of religious taboo and caste, and makes a case that even pre-war British officers, supposedly trained in the language and culture of their troops, often proved remarkably ignorant of their charges. Barkawi also offers examples of men bonding across seemingly unscaleable barriers of race, religion, and caste. In addition, he touches upon the experience of Indian troops as prisoners-of-war and the history of the “Indian National Army”.

An important read for those studying the Indian Army and the Burma Campaign, Soldiers of Empire will also prove of value for anyone interested in what makes armies fight.


Note: Soldiers of Empire is also available in several e-editions.


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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