Review: Sideshows of the Indian Army in World War 1 – Harry Fecitt

Sideshows in the Indian Army in World War 1 by Harry Fecitt was published in India in 2017.
For those who know Harry’s writing, the 28 chapters or essays in this publication follow the same style and format as his web and other articles. Harry assumes his reader knows the military terms and structures as well as the basic context in which the action is taking place, so anyone new to the Indian Army and its role in World War 1 would do well to read a little more widely of the theatres concerned to obtain some context.

These are accounts for the military-oriented person, but are of use to social, cultural and other historians and students for a quick overview, a list of significant people involved and those who received awards.

The book for me felt a little disjointed, a random set of essays thrown together. However, a close look at the dates in the titles, suggests the book follows a broadly chronological approach. However, given that the Indian Army was active on so many fronts simultaneously, I wonder whether a regional chronological approach would have made it a more coherent read – especially for those of us who prefer to read a book cover to cover rather than to dip in, as I imagine was the logic behind this publication’s structure. Operations cover Aden, the North West Frontier, Somaliland, China, Suez and Egypt, Persia, Macedonia, East Africa, the Bolsheviks, Sinai, Kamerun, Senussi and Burma.

Some might take umbrage at the use of the term ‘sideshows’. As with the African ‘sideshow’, the fighting and experiences of those caught up in the conflict was as intense as for those in the main theatres. Although some might not have known what they were fighting for, they knew who they were fighting for and had their reasons for doing so. One could even argue that India’s involvement on the Western Front was for India a sideshow, while the actions on the North West Frontier were not… nomenclature when dealing with the wider war has its own challenges. Similarly, others might be annoyed at the use of World War 1 rather than First World War – for those working cross culturally either is acceptable. Those who seem to have issue with the use of World War 1 seem to be mainly British military historians looking at conflict from a British perspective.

At the end of the day, Harry’s book covers a wide range of actions and is a start at drawing attention to India’s wider involvement in the war in a way which George Morton-Jack’s Army of Empire: The untold story of the Indian Army in World War 1 or The Indian Empire at War: From Jihad to victory, the untold story of the Indian Army in World War 1 (both 2018) and Alan Jeffreys’ The Indian Army in the First World War: New perspectives (2018) don’t. While Ian Cordoza in The Indian Army in World War 1, 1914-1918 (2019) gives a basic overview of the various theatres, Kaushik Roy’s Indian Army and the First World War, 1914-18 (2018), a more academic text, covers the same theatres Harry does providing a greater context and understanding of the Indian Army in the war and is probably the best current complementary text.

Review: To Complete the Jigsaw by Nicholas van der Bijl

To Complete the Jigsaw: British Military Intelligence in the First World War by Nicholas van der Bijl (The History Press, 2015) was a roller coaster read.

Having heard about the book, I eagerly waited its publication date – little has been written on military intelligence during World War 1 and even less mentioned East Africa. It’s an area I’d been thinking needs to be addressed and within months of the thought, a book was due to appear.

Opening the book, the ups and downs of the roller-coaster began.

New discoveries of the Western Front, Palestine and Mesopotamia. Of particular interest for me was the setting up of military intelligence and how it developed from the Crimean and Anglo-Boer Wars with not much done in the intervening years. However, there was a recognition that ascertaining what the other side had planned would prove invaluable during a war. How it came about and evolved during the war and around the different circumstances or contexts was fascinating.

Then came the downers. Although the discussion below my suggest they outweigh the uppers, don’t be mislead. This book is definitely worth reading and provides a valuable overview of military intelligence in World War 1. There are, however, a few aspects readers should be aware of.

The first is the poor editing of the book. A basic proofread seems to have been missed, and although generally not a problem, there are one or two instances where a significant word has been missed. Another challenge has been the structure of the writing/content. Thoughts/claims are strung together with no obvious link being made or context set. Where people feature in different parts of the war, no link is made to their other role – the obvious one being Meintertzhagen. The impression is that this is a book wich was put together and published in haste. The sad thing about the haste is that it detracts from what is a significant contribution to the historiography of First World War.

Closer to home, I was rather disappointed in what was written about intelligence in the East Africa campaign. It seemed out of date and a perusal of the books consulted, even Ed Paice’s excellent Tip and Run, proved they were. Much more first hand information is available – by those mentioned in the book – yet Nick has relied on second hand accounts rather than going to Weinholt’s The lion hunt (reprint of 1922 book) and Philip (not Pieter) Pretorius’ Jungle Man to name but two. In some ways, this is understandable. A book of this nature relies on overviews and even those take a long while to work through. To delve into each aspect in depth and detail would take years and would produce a very different book.

Nick has followed the mainstream, again not surprising given the (until very recently) little published on the Great War in East Africa. One of his main sources is Charles Miller’s Battle for the Bundu. Again, I’m not surprised given how many people rate the book. I, too, rate it as an  overview/starting point, but it is not enough anymore. With the information we have today, it is superficial, contains errors and is very Anglo-centric. It provides the basics.

Intelligence bridges the divide between the military, political and social spheres, and apart from chapters dealing with Mesopotamia and Palestine (and even then superficially) the political and social have been largely ignored – despite information having been available at the time the book was being written, albeit not that easy to identify.

My final issue is a related one – that of perpetuating myths. Unfortunately in a book such as this – an overview relying on secondary sources – myths have a tendency to be perpetuated unless challenged in a forthright manner such as Brian Garfield did about Meinertzhagen. I wonder how the narrative of To Complete the Jigsaw would have gone had Nick been aware of Lord Kitchener having completed the first thorough mapping of Palestine. Nick mentions the mapping in passing, focusing rather on the 1913 exercise but made no mention of Kitchener’s involvement in the first. Kitchener had also done his share of intelligence gathering – even allowing himself to be imprisoned as an Arab to obtain information and having to witness a colleague be tortured and killed once found to be a spy. Although Kitchener never spoke Hindi, he had learnt the language allowing him to follow conversations during his time in India before the infomation was translated into English for him. These are just a few points which provide a different image of Kitchener to that portrayed in To Complete the Jigsaw.

I have been overcritical – on areas I have some detailed knowledge. This is not meant to detract from what Nick has done but rather to spur others on to take this first stage further and to delve more deeply into specific areas so that a more complete picture can be put together of the role of intelligence during the First World War. Together with the 1914-1918 Online encylcopedia entry which looks at Europe and the Eastern Front we have the first holistic overview of military intelligence in World War 1.

Thank you Nick for identifying this gap in the historiography and for doing something about it. You’ve laid the foundation for others to build on.