Book review: The Coolie’s Great War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict, 1914-1921

The Allied victory in the First World War was won on the back of the labour of non-combatant ‘coolies’, whose deployment allowed for swift mobilisation across fronts. A new book narrates the story of their struggles on the battlefields and of their neglect.

Radhika Singha, The Coolie’s Great War: Indian Labour in a Global Conflict, 1914-1921

Reviewed by Vipul Datta

Against the backdrop of the First World War centenary, commemoration efforts to honour the ‘soldierly sacrifice’ of Indians and Africans have come up short on acknowledging the non-fighting labour that kept the Allied war operations from collapsing. Tasked with maintaining transportation networks, upkeep of military equipment, cleaning up barracks and forced into a bevy of non-remunerative work including clearing human and draught waste, this labour was essential to enable swift mobilisation of troops and resources across multiple battlefronts.

Placed firmly in the fetid, smoke-filled trenches and desert wastes of wartime France and Mesopotamia (broadly present-day Iraq), Radhika Singha’s fabulous new book is a stirring account of the hapless lives of the ‘follower’ non-combatant ranks of the celebrated fighting arms of the Indian army which formed the largest voluntary expeditionary forces assembled in the War. It pieces together in painstaking detail the little known story of the dual struggles of countless coercively drafted labour and porter corps, who first kept the wheels of the war running and then ‘fought’ again in the vain hope of getting their work respected through the Raj’s financial munificence. Her narrative of the parsimonious financial and institutional support lent to the non-combatant personnel drawn from diverse areas from the Indian subcontinent offers a useful corrective to the idea of war being only a ‘combatant event’.

A new kind of war

As the 1900s rolled over, wars became more deeply enmeshed in the drift of larger geopolitical imperatives. European rivalries sitting atop a tinderbox of 19th-century imperial resentments radiated waves of cataclysmic disruptions that would punctuate the course of the 20th century….

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