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
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