The First World War at the palaces: the Indian Army camp at Hampton Court

Standing With Giants installation at Hampton Court Palace © Historic Royal Palaces

Armistice Day 2021 on 11 November at Hampton Court Palace is being marked with a special collaboration between Historic Royal Palaces and Standing With Giants, who commemorate the British soldiers who lost their lives in conflicts from the First World War to the present time using fields of silhouettes of ‘Tommies’. This year, Historic Royal Palaces is working with them to tell the almost forgotten story of the more than 1700 men of the Indian Army who joined in the Peace Celebrations following the end of the First World War in 1919 and were camped in Home Park, Hampton Court, during their stay in England.

One hundred and twenty-five silhouettes of British and Indian soldiers have been installed in the palace gardens and will be on display throughout November. This event coincides with the recent addition to our collection of a cache of ephemera from this exceptional visit, as well as others, by troops from the India of the time – now several independent nations – which reveal more of this meeting of East and West at Hampton Court Palace during the height of the British Empire.

Postcard sent from Paris showing men of the Indian Army contingent arriving for battle at Marseilles in 1914. Sent in 1915 this may in fact be a re-purposed photograph from the first Coronation celebrations for King Edward VII in 1902 © Historic Royal Palaces collection.

India goes to war

This card was sent by an Italian passing through Paris, who may have been intrigued by its unusual image. At the time, few outside government in Whitehall would have known the real story behind the entry of Indian Army troops into some of the very first, and bloodiest, battles on the western front during 1914 and ‘15. The British Expeditionary Force – some 100,000 soldiers along with the allied armies – were quickly stretched by the unexpected strength and preparedness of the German aggressors. The Prime Minister called for the army to be rapidly built up and turned to the British Empire to provide ready troops. Two Indian divisions were rapidly sent to Egypt to help defend the Suez Canal, the lifeline to the vast resources of its Asian territories. Yet even as they sailed, the swiftly changing situation led to them being redirected to Marseilles and on to the fields of Flanders. The unfamiliar sight of ‘les Hindous’ – in fact soldiers of differing religions and peoples of India – caused a sensation in France. They were rushed into battle still wearing tropical uniforms and under-prepared, to face a new industrialised warfare of vast artillery barrages, air reconnaissance, machine guns and – without warning or protection – poison gas. Yet in these first months of war, soldiers from regiments such as the Sikhs and Baluchi fought tenaciously to the last man and won military honours.

Nobody understood anyone else’s language: parties of Indians could be seen gesticulating and illustrating their wants by vigorous pantomime to sympathetic but puzzled Frenchmen. However, all in good humour and intense desire to help, so matters soon arranged themselves.

[JWB Merewether & F Smith, The Indian Corps in France, 1917]

It is very hard to endure the bombs, father. It will be difficult for anyone to survive and come back safe and sound from the war. The son who is very lucky will see his father and mother, otherwise who can do this? There is no confidence of survival. The bullets and cannon-balls come down like snow. The mud is up to a man’s middle. The distance between us and the enemy is fifty paces.

[Garhwali (39th Rifles?) in France to his father, 14 January 1915. From Indian Voices of the Great War/ Soldiers Letters, 1914-18 by David Omissi, 1999, 2014]

Lord Kitchener greeting senior officers of the Indian Army at the second coronation camp at Hampton Court in 1911. This image of imperial alliance was re-used as a postcard during the First World War, although it is unlikely such a scene ever took place in wartime England as Indian troops were sent directly to France and Kitchener died before the Peace Celebrations in 1919 © Historic Royal Palaces collection

Your country needs you? Britain and the Indian Army  

Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, had quite literally become the face of the army as he appeared across Britain on recruiting posters from late 1914 with the slogan Your country needs you. That same urgency had led to his diversion of two Indian divisions to the western front. As its former Commander-in-Chief, Kitchener understood the value as well as the concerns over the training, equipment and loyalty of the large Indian Army in the war effort.

Another key military figure in this story was Douglas Haig, who would soon become commander of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium. He pressed to create an imperial army to defeat the German threat and his career leading up to the war was spent modernising the Indian Army. He also opposed the racist ‘colour bar’ on selected non-white troops fighting in Europe, which was a general prejudice across colonial powers at the time.

It is hardly too much to say that in the days before the war Englishmen at home realized little more about that Army than that it existed.

[From Our Indian Army, A Record of the Peace Contingent’s Visit to England 1919]

Now, indeed, is the opportunity of showing your worth to the [British] Government. If you betray any cowardice, weakness or disloyalty, you will be forever dishonoured and disgraced. The man who fears the battlefield, or displays any pusillanimity, is sure to be killed. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

[Major Hara Singh (Punjabi Muslim) to Rustam Singh and Didan Singh, (41st Dogras), Kashmir, May 1915. From Indian Voices of the Great War/ Soldiers Letters, 1914-18 by David Omissi, 1999, 2014]

Postcard of ‘Typical Indian Troops’ sent to fight in Europe in 1914. Another re-purposed photograph, this may in fact show visiting Non-Commissioned Officers of the 18th Bengal Lancers taken at the coronation celebrations for King Edward VII in 1902. This seems not have deterred its publisher from letting fact get in the way of selling an appealing image © Historic Royal Palaces collection

From the plains of India to the fields of Flanders

The army the British established in India during its empire was made up of largely rural volunteers, led by British commanders and Indian officers. They came from all over the Indian subcontinent but were recruited from communities who had both proven their loyalty to the British and had a strong military reputation – the so-called ‘martial races’ of India. These were the regiments who were shipped over to serve on the western front as early as August 1914 and were represented at the coronation and peace celebrations of the time. The men photographed here are probably from the regiment which became the 18th King George’s Own Lancers, named after King George V (r.1910-1936). Ressaidar Amar Singh was sent for this regiment to England for the Victory Parade in 1919. Amazingly the lancers still fought on horseback (at times) in the First World War and were present at the horrendous battles of the Somme and Cambrai.

Although some commanders doubted the Indian Army’s reliability when it came to trench warfare, they could prove just as effective as their neighbouring troops from Britain, its other colonies and allies. Many won military honours including 25 Victoria Crosses, and some 50,000 gave their lives fighting across the globe for another country: Britain.

And our regiment has exhibited great bravery. The fame of the Garhwalis is now higher than the sky’s. One of the Garhwalis, a havildar, has won the honour of the Victoria Cross and having made the reputation of his family for three generations has arrived in Landsdowne [regimental base].

[Bigya Singh, 39th Garhwali Rifles to a friend at home from France, 15 March 1915. From Indian Voices of the Great War/ Soldiers Letters, 1914-18 by David Omissi, 1999, 2014]


Troops with camp ‘followers’ eating in a mess at the Indian Army’s camp for George V’s coronation at Hampton Court in 1911 © Historic Royal Palaces collection

At home in the Indian Camp at Hampton Court in 1919

There are surprisingly no images like this one of life in the peace celebration camp at Hampton Court in 1919, unlike those in 1902 and 1911 when the press and public had much greater access. This was likely a consequence of wartime security, but we know that the camp arrangements were repeated, and their commander commented that passes added considerably to the comfort of the men as it prevented the influx of a crowd of idle sightseers.

Between 30 July and mid-September some 1500 Indian and nearly 300 British officers and men were camped on the Golf Course in bell tents, very similar to their camps behind the front lines. Men of differing faiths were separated, with signs put up for Sikhs, Hindus, ‘Mahomedans’ – that is Muslims – and Gurkhas, as well as separate British and Indian officers’ tents. Learning from the terrible mistakes of the Indian Uprising in 1857, special provisions were made for the cultural and religious needs of the contingent’s varied peoples, including separate food, bathing and laundry arrangements. Conditions were otherwise typical for an army camp of the time. However, rations included everyday Indian food brought with them as well as local fresh produce, plus a hefty supply of cigarettes and tobacco – an essential for most soldiers in this war. Sadly, the visit was overshadowed by the deaths of five men from flu on the voyage from Mumbai and a further six deaths at a military hospital in nearby Epsom from unrecorded causes.

Special efforts were made to entertain and impress the soldiers with trips on red buses to attractions such as London Zoo and the Tower of London, as well as train journeys further afield to see demonstrations of Britain’s military might at Portsmouth dockyard, Sheffield and Glasgow. Most of the men would never have been to England before and this encounter between them and a grateful English people – at the time – must have been one of the more extraordinary of the war.

One of the most striking features of the Contingent’s visit has been the cordial welcome and friendliness with which it had been received throughout the Country both from its hosts and the public generally.

[Brigadier-General W.E. Costello, commander of the contingent, 1919]

… we were marching all the time through dense crowds of people whose numbers were beyond conception and who cheered us enthusiastically; men, women and children – they were all frantic … From morning until evening thousands of people assembled in front of our camp to see us.

[Sirdar Ali Khan, Punjabi Muslim to Malik Dost Mahomed Khan, written in France following Bastille Day celebrations in Paris, 6th August 1916. From Indian Voices of the Great War/ Soldiers Letters, 1914-18 by David Omissi, 1999, 2014]

Indian ranks marching from their camp in Home Park past visitors and residents in the Palace gardens, August 1919 © From the collection of John Sheaf

The Curators
Historic Royal Palaces

Further Reading
The Indian Empire at War by George Morton-Jack (2018)
The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire by David Olusoga (2014)
Indian Voices of the Great War/ Soldiers Letters, 1914-18 by David Omissi (1999, 2014)

Extracts from translations of Indian soldiers’ letters made by the army censor reproduced by kind permission of Dr David Omissi

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Further Reading