A History of the First World War in 100 moments: The mutiny that sent a ripple of fear through the Empire

A revolt by a regiment of Indian troops in Singapore was nearly disastrous for Britain

When war broke out, Mohandas Karamchand “Mahatma” Gandhi, who a few years later would galvanise India’s struggle for independence, had exhorted his fellow countrymen to fight on the Allied side. “We are, above all, British citizens of the Great British Empire,” he told them. “Fighting as the British are… in a righteous cause for the good and glory of human dignity and civilisation… our duty is clear: to do our best to support the British.”

Hundreds of thousands of Indians flocked to volunteer for service. “We shall never get another chance to exalt the name of race, country… and to prove our loyalty to the government,” one of them wrote home to his brother from the Western Front. “We go singing as we march, and care nothing that we are going to die.” By the end of the war, more than one million Indians would have served overseas.

But others felt very differently. The Indian Mutiny of 1857, known in India as the First War of Independence, was only the most violent of hundreds of eruptions of resistance to British rule which punctuated the Empire’s history. And for Britain’s military strategists the Singapore Mutiny of February 1915 – six months after Britain’s declaration of war – was, in both its timing and its motivation, one of the most ominous.

The 5th Light Infantry Regiment of the Indian Army, which had been sent from Madras to Singapore in October 1914 to replace the Yorkshire Light Infantry (bound for the Western Front), was an entirely Muslim unit, made up of Rajputs and Pathans, two of the Indian ethnic groups which the British approvingly termed “martial races”. One month after its arrival it was announced that the regiment would be sent to Hong Kong. The same month, however, Turkey – responding to the prompting of its ally, Germany – declared jihad on Britain and its allies. Muslims around the world regarded the Sultan, Mehmed V, as their leader; and the Germans, aware that nearly half of the world’s 270 million Muslims lived under British, French or Russian rule, calculated that if they could foment rebellion among the Allies’ Muslim subjects, this huge fifth column could be devastating.

The Singapore Mutiny was an early sign that this strategy might bear fruit. As the day of embarkation approached, the rumour took hold among the sepoys that their actual destination was not Hong Kong but Turkey, where they would be thrown into battle against Turkish Muslims. At 3.30pm on 15 February, they mutinied, killing British officers who tried to restore order, seizing ammunition and exhorting German prisoners to join them.

With most of the Singapore Volunteer Corps on leave because of the Chinese New Year holiday, Singapore was practically defenceless. The mutineers surged through civilian areas, killing Europeans and locals at random, and laid siege to the bungalow of the regiment’s commanding officer.

Responding to British pleas for help, French, Russian and Japanese warships docked in Singapore on 17 February and their marines fought a fierce battle with the rebels. Many of the mutineers died, many surrendered, and the remainder fled into the jungle. By 22 February the mutiny was over.

Forty-seven mutineers were later executed by firing squad; 73 more were given long prison sentences. But no amount of retribution could mask the weakness that the mutiny had exposed. Indians hostile to the Empire began cultivating friendships with the Japanese, laying long-term plots for the overthrow of British rule. When war returned with the Japanese invasion in 1942, the Battle of Singapore culminated in the largest surrender of British-led troops in history.

Tomorrow: The Battle of Neuve Chapelle

‘Moments’ that have already been published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
people Ex-wife of John Lennon has died at her home in Spain
News
Lavigne performing in Seoul at the beginning of last year
people
News
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Barista

£6 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This person must also have exceptional a...

Ashdown Group: Development Engineer - Slough - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Development Engineer/ Sys...

Recruitment Genius: Software Support Analyst - Level 2

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of financial software so...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a security software com...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?