Chapter Thirty-One: A Crown Jewel Restored"Speaking in the name of humanity, I must criticise with all the force in my being the savagery committed by the British Empire in India, against noble freedom fighters seeking to revive a great and nationally conscious state. India has committed no crime and is merely justifying itself on the world stage, while England is showing herself to be the same warmonger careless of the lives of her colonial subjects. The massacre of Sindh was a greater crime than anything which the European continent has seen since the Thirty Years War!"
- Excerpt from Kaiser Wilhelm II's controversial Christmas 1917 message vituperating the British conduct during the battle for the Sindh city of Hyderabad
"Pakhtunkhwa is now under the safe and trustworthy control of the Pashtun state of Afghanistan. Great Britain need have no fear, for we will be a most responsible steward of the territory. It would be most unfortunate if reason failed to prevail and this was to become a point of tension."
-Emir Habibullah Khan of Afghanistan
"17 October. Another day, another damned dreary day in this foul city... Sergeant was killed today, took him away screaming, missing a leg. One can only wonder how long he lay there before it was all over, poor bastard. Phosogene gas and flames, the stench of blood, the ceaseless rattle of bullets, the roar of cannon and the shrieks of men as something hits home, it all gets to one. I do wonder when my turn will be- half an hour after this is written? Two days? I have fought in France and in Flanders and I tell you, there are few things as grisly as what this horrid city has to offer. When I think of what I could be doing, back home living the life of a civilised being, my stomach curdles."
- Excerpt from the diary of a British soldier giving a glimpse to the horrid conditions of the Battle of Hyderabad. The man would die the next day, killed when his own side unleashed a chlorine attack and he was caught without his mask.
Britain’s crown jewel had been cracked. Despite the rhetoric of everyone from George Lloyd to Lloyd George (1), the British regime in India had stared death in the face in the summer of 1917. With the south and centre of India dissolved into a myriad of warring factions, it seemed only a matter of time before monsoons and unrest swept away the last touches of British pink from the map. Yet… that hadn’t happened. A rump Raj had clung on in the north and in the cities, backed by the local princes, while the failure of the Independence Congress had demonstrated the Indian inability to coordinate their revolt into something larger and more dangerous. London had found the political will to defend its most important colony and had enlisted seventy-five thousand men to fight, added to the nearly quarter of a million troops already in the subcontinent. Britain had coerced Nepal, Bhutan, and even Tibet (2) into the fight, contributing a further 100,000 men. Nearly double that number of Gurkhas- native Indian warriors- also lay at the British disposal. All together, close to half a million men would be at the Raj’s disposal by the end of 1917.
It had taken longer and cost more lives and money than it ought to have, but the imperial counteroffensive was ready at last.
The Army of India spent September aboard Royal Navy troopships, slowly steaming past Italian Malta. Notions of Italian superiority received a blow when the garrison of Malta found a massive British flotilla steaming past their position; the Royal Navy fleet came very close to the spot where an Italian submarine skipper had felled HMS Queen Elizabeth in the last days of the war. The initial commander of the invasion was one Francis Maxwell (3), a veteran of the Western Front. He directed the Army of India to Oman- still nominally a British protectorate. The advantages of this were twofold: it served as a useful springboard for operations against the coast, and- like the passage past Italian Malta- it reminded the world that the British Empire was still king in the Persian Gulf.
From their base at Muscat, British troops landed in small numbers at Bombay and Chennai in the first week of October, where they received their baptisms of fire, going into action against rioters literally within minutes of disembarking. Others went to Calcutta for a (relatively) quiet bit of garrison duty, freeing up other soldiers to fight. However, 50,000 men of the Army of India had a unique role: they were to undertake the first strategic campaign of the war.
Sindh was long gone, broken off by a local warlord. This man had sent a delegation to the Independence Congress, but bitter rivalries with his Pashtun foe had caused him to recall his man early. The local warlord was isolated and weak and nipping him in the bud would show how very serious the British were about restoring their empire.
Fifty thousand men landed on the Sindh coastline on 3 October to get the point across.
Sindh has a lengthy coastline, but much of it is dominated by impassible mountains. While the British would need to comb these remote strongholds out eventually, immersing the men in fruitless duties straightaway would only whittle them down. Thus, the Army of India set foot in the Indus River Valley, where the low-lying terrain would make for smoother operations. This naturally scared the living daylights out of the local warlord who abandoned his capital in Karachi and fled to the hinterland. The local troops were none too well-equipped or trained, and the British sliced through them with ease. The ground was still swampy from the monsoon- the Indus floods every year, turning the countryside to muck- but the British made do. There were now two objectives which needed taking. To the west was the port of Karachi, the largest city in Balochistan, and to the north was the confusingly named Hyderabad. (4) Karachi’s extensive harbour meant it could play a key role in shipping troops to fight, but Hyderabad was in a more strategic direction- it lay just up the Indus River on the very route the British wanted to follow. Thus, the force split: fifteen thousand men were to lay siege to Karachi while the remaining 35,000 proceeded north.
Attempting to land directly outside Karachi- or God forbid, in the city’s port- would’ve been a nightmare; the broken and mountainous terrain is far from conducive for most military operations. Only two coastal villages were close enough to be useful for the British purposes: Keti Bandar and Kharo Chan. Neither contained more than a hundred people and the monsoon had left both swimming, but they made useful forward bases. It was a hundred kilometres from these settlements to Karachi; four days walk. The local warlord had already fled for the interior mountains and left but a skeleton force to defend his largest city. Deciding that they might as well do something while they used up coal, Royal Navy cruisers pounded Karachi for four days while waiting for the land army to arrive. The upshot of it all was that by the time the British reached Karachi on 7 October, the defenders had either fled or were willing to throw up their arms. A dozen Englishmen died in the Battle of Karachi; drowning and disease felled thirty in those four days. There was now little incentive for the British to move westwards, as only impenetrable mountains crawling with warlord troops waited in that direction.
Hyderabad was a far more promising target.
Apologies for the poor quality of the map; this was all I could find.
As mentioned above, the annual monsoons had swollen the Indus River. While this made life difficult for troops picking their way through the muck and anybody involved with logistics, it meant that troopships could go further upstream. Of course, transporting the earmarked thirty-five thousand men upriver would be difficult and would’ve left the British flank exposed. Thus, General Maxwell took two divisions to Hyderabad by water; the remaining forces would advance up the banks of the Indus, quelling resistance and doing what they could to grease the wheels of logistics… which often wasn’t much. Making their way across the soggy banks of the myriad tributaries, British troops reached the first town of note after five days, which glorified in the well-flowing name of Goth Rais Muhammad Qasim! A few troops of the warlord were present, armed with stolen Lee-Enfields. They took a few potshots at the arriving British troops before realising just how out of their depth they were; the lucky ones fled to the mountains, the unlucky ones never got the chance. The British were grateful to the defenders for using Lee-Enfields as the killed and wounded left behind perfectly usable ammunition. A similar story played out the next day on the opposite side of the river where the defenders of Chuhar Jamali decided that life was too short and ceded their stretch of riverbank to the British. Neither of these towns possessed key strategic importance, but the last thing anybody wanted was for the rebels to regroup and use them to cut off British supply lines, and so a hundred men sacrificed their lives to put them back under the Union Jack.
Aside from those two towns, there wasn’t much but nameless wilderness on the road to Hyderabad. As the British progressed inland, the terrain grew higher and higher, and soon the marshy coastlands were replaced by craggy mountains. The river grew too shallow for troopships, and so the British were forced to make do with rowboats. This wasn’t exactly the quickest way to transport men, and it posed many logistical issues, but it was still better than marching. British troops advanced northwards for three days, some in boats, others on foot, until they reached the next target of semi-importance: the Keenjhar Lake. This mountainous lake fed several tributaries of the Indus, and two villages close to the water would make useful staging points. By this point, everybody in Hyderabad knew fully that the British were coming, and they decided not to waste manpower in futile delaying actions. Neither village held more than a few hundred people and both surrendered on 16 October.
It was time to go after Hyderabad itself.
Hyderabad, Sindh lies mainly on the east bank of the Indus River, although the suburb of Kotri is built on the west. An impassible plateau some twenty kilometres long and eight wide lies to the south, effectively shielding it from attack from that direction. Going around the plateau would do unspeakable things to the British supply columns. All this to say: the defenders controlled the ground, and the British had only a small channel through which to advance. They were not idle, setting up what little artillery they had on the plateau and in the aforementioned suburb of Kotri, while digging trenches and even setting up barbed wire (5) on the east bank of the Indus.
The British were going to have to pay full price to get inside Hyderabad…
...or so the rebels thought.
A respectable naval contingent had accompanied the transports to Muscat, capital of Oman, and was now sitting in that city’s port. With the UK nominally at peace, there was no danger of a serious naval attack, and the Admiralty deemed it unwise to pull prestigious capital ships from the North Sea or the Mediterranean. This was more for show than security, to remind both the Ottoman Turks and the local princes that Britannia still ruled the waves; thus many of the vessels were frigates and destroyers. While they might not have done well against the High Seas Fleet, these small ships were perfect for more delicate operations… such as sailing up the Indus River to bombard Hyderabad’s coastal defences.
Word reached the British admiral in Muscat at midday on 18 October that he was to send his four Insect-class gunboats- HMS Glowworm, HMS Gnat, HMS Scarab, and HMS Cricket (6)- across the Persian Gulf and up the Indus immediately. Within forty-five minutes, the four ships were steaming off at their top speed- all of fourteen knots- on a journey that would ultimately take two days. Meanwhile, the battle for Hyderabad raged on. The 7th and 11th Volunteer Infantry Divisions, plus a “mini-division” of two brigades, advanced forward. As mentioned above, the defenders of Hyderabad had the terrain on their side and had no intention of giving way. “Tommies” advanced across broken terrain very different from the soft mud of Flanders, that vast plateau always staring up at them from the right. The Balochis had little artillery, but they were efficient with what they had, blasting boats carrying reinforcements or supplies straight out of the water. Englishmen were shot by well-concealed natives or got hung up on barbed wire stretched between rocks. The British troops fought valiantly, adapting to the terrain as best they could, but they were not specialised mountain infantry. Their military experience was in the flat plains of Ypres and the training camps of Salisbury Plain. Men screamed as bullets tore through khaki cloth, shredding their insides and spewing red gore onto the ground. The Indus River ran red with blood, and boat captains told grisly stories of oars pushing dead bodies out of the ground. Food rations ran short and men sometimes fought one another for drinking water, even drinking out of the bloodied Indus. Sunlight and heat pounded on the Englishmen, who were felled by heatstroke, not enemy bullets. The Army of India suffered these conditions for two days as they pushed their way into Hyderabad City.
War is the same monster regardless of where it is fought.
At long last, the gunboats turned up. General Maxwell was in his command tent some three hundred metres behind the front lines (7) when he received the news from downstream. Maxwell dispatched orders for a fresh push to begin in an hour’s time. The average Tommy, not knowing the support he was about to receive, was none too enthusiastic about this, and the typical response was a profane twist on “not this again!” However, a few minutes before one PM on 18 October, the four Insect-class gunships steamed up the Indus, brushing corpses aside, and unloaded their fire on the defenders. Their superior armament devastated the foe, sending shards of metal and soft brown flesh flying every which way. (8) Rebel artillery did its best to repulse them, but two days of fighting had left the guns depleted, and they didn’t have the strength to knock the ships out. HMS Cricket took a grievous hit to the stern and would later have to undergo repairs, but the mission was a success. Within half an hour, both the artillery on the plateau and the defences in front of Hyderabad had been dealt grievous blows. Taking heart, the British troops cheered and leapt out of their foxholes. The bombardment had left the defenders shattered, and they soon fell back. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, many residents of Hyderabad fled that afternoon, heading into the interior with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. By nightfall, the British had pushed the defenders back into the city itself, yet the battle would rage on for another three days. These men were fighting for their homeland- many had been born and raised in this very city- and so the fighting had an emotional aspect for them it lacked for the British. Shouting “allahu ackbar!”, they hid in upstairs windows and shot at British troops from relative safety. When white troops entered a house, they often found that the seemingly helpless woman knew how to wield a saucepan or carving knife. There were many instances of atrocities being committed, of British troops opting to burn a block of houses down rather than clear it with rifle, bayonet, and grenade. Fires ripped through much of Hyderabad, roasting innocent civilians inside their homes. Desperate civilians leapt into the Indus just to get it over with. Frustrated with their lack of progress, the British turned to chemical weapons after a day and a half, saturating the town with phosgene and chlorine. Deeply disturbing images survive from the wake of the battle of dead Sindhs, their flesh burnt by flame and their faces blue from suffocation.
The Sindh defenders were undeterred by their poor arms and training; raw determination, a sense that they couldn’t survive and might as well go out with a bang kept them going. All the carnage sickened these Great War veterans who, having escaped the worst war in human history, wanted nothing more than a quiet life in Blighty.
War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it. (9)
A British soldier takes aim during the vicious streetfighting in the Sindh city of Hyderabad
The fires of Hyderabad finally went out on the 22nd. Thousands of men had lost their lives and the city had been ruined. Taking the city had proven far harder than anyone had imagined, especially considering how simple the previous fighting in Sindh had been. No precise casualty figures exist, but perhaps thirty thousand Sindh civilians and soldiers combined lost their lives in the fighting. Nor were the British exempt; their losses dictated that the two-brigade “mini-division” be broken up; its component parts were fed into the other two units. Had it not been for those Insects turning up, the battle might well have gone differently. Despite the loss of life, the British had achieved something very real. The Sindh warlord had put the bulk of his forces into defending Hyderabad; as a result, he was now deprived of much of his organised strength. Recognising that he couldn’t beat the British in open combat, he gave orders for men to flee to the hills. If the foe took on the tedious task of garrisoning and feeding the major cities, the rebels could hide in the mountains for a long time.
While the Sindhs fled to their mountainous redoubts, the British prepared to continue the offensive. General Maxwell pulled units from their quiet garrison duty in Karachi and sent them to the front, where they formed a valuable reserve. November 1917 was a somewhat easier affair for the British in Balochistan, as they focussed on taking towns such as Bandin and Mirpur Khas. These places were relatively lightly defended, as the enemy had wasted too much manpower in Hyderabad to mount coherent defences elsewhere. “After the ordeal we had been through”, one British officer who’d fought at Hyderabad wrote to his wife in London, “the recent weeks have been quite a reprieve; dare I say almost like a holiday.” He was exaggerating slightly, but the point still stood. Fleeing the crater they’d made on the landscape, trying not to think about what they’d done, the Army of India pushed north. However, they soon got rather an unpleasant surprise.
Afghanistan was a British protectorate. Like Nepal, Bhutan, and to an extent Tibet, it owed its survival to that it was cheaper for London to let it live than to annex it… plus a desire to keep some healthy breathing room between the Russians and the Raj. However, like many states, Afghanistan was saddled with artificial borders, drawn up to meet the short-term needs of colonisers. Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group were the Pashtuns, and many of their kinsfolk lived on the British side of the border in the area known as the Northwest Frontier Provinces. Emir Habibullah Khan decided the time was ripe to “reunite with our brothers to the south”, and in mid-November 1917 sent the small Afghan army rolling across the border. Like Sind, the NWFP were in revolt. Afghanistan’s army was small and ill-equipped, but their foes were in no better shape. Within weeks, Afghan troops had occupied the region’s major cities. Many Pashtuns, seeing that the occupiers were of the same race as themselves, consented meekly enough to the new order; plenty joined the Afghan army to escape a dull life of goat-herding. Remarkably few instances of rioting or revolt took place. Despite this, Afghan rule was very thin, with bandits loyal to the warlord having virtual control over the countryside and free rein wherever Afghan troops weren’t directly present. The British walked into this situation in the first days of December 1917. Since Afghanistan was nominally an ally of London, they described their occupation as “relieving the load on our British allies by taking responsibility to secure the Pashtun area ourselves.” Protestations of loyalty seem irrelevant when one considers Afghanistan’s behaviour on the ground. British troops attempting to enter the NWFP found themselves “deterred” by armed Afghans none too intent on letting thousands of white troops pass through what they considered their territory. When General Maxwell met four times with representatives of the Afghan government in mid-December, talk of friendship was contradicted by the armed guards both sides took with them. London was none too pleased at how progress was stalling, but neither did it want to spark a crisis by pushing the Army of India through the NWFP and having Afghans fight Englishmen; the last thing Britain needed was yet another foe in India. Eventually, the British conceded. An accord was signed on 19 December promising to “determine the status of the Pakhtunkhwa region through future diplomatic channels”- code for letting the Afghans keep the region. The Pakhtunkhwa dispute would damage Anglo-Afghan relations for years to come, but neither side wanted war and so they accepted the status quo.
With Sind secure, the NWFP under Afghan rule, and Jammu and Kashmir being held down by Nepalese troops, western India was now mostly clear. To be sure, bandits still held out in the mountains and the region had a long way to go before real peace set in, but the time for military action was past. It was time to turn east, to the heart of the subcontinent. To the east lay the vast realm of Rajasthan, a federation ruled by different petty princes. The local rulers had sided with the British and nearly been deposed back in July, but like in many other places, the rebels had since lost steam. Three regiments were dispatched to help defend the status quo antebellum, but Rajasthan would not be a major target for the Army of India. Instead, Maxwell’s army turned to Gujarat, the coastal region east of Balochistan. A local strongman had cobbled together a respectable army in the province and didn’t look like he was going anywhere. Thus, it fell to the Army of India to hoist the Union Jack above the land once more. The men spent Christmas Day travelling down the Indus River valley, passing the battlefields on which their comrades had paid the ultimate price. There were no trees, no presents, no turkeys, just the endless barren landscape of these remote mountains, just the certainty that another battle was coming, that thousands more men would never kneel in church or stand in the pub again. Christmas spirit was rather low that year in the Army of India. However, unbeknownst to them, they weren’t quite forgotten.
Kaiser Wilhelm II had a Christmas message for them… it wasn’t to be the sort they’d appreciate, however.
The Kaiser loved an exciting adventure. His personality was naturally inclined towards grandeur, to the sort of story which found its way to the front page. There was nothing Wilhelm loved more than making some off-the-cuff statement which shocked the world and turned every head in his direction… after he’d waxed his moustache, of course. A year had gone by since the war, and some of the publicity had faded.
The German Emperor was determined to seize the limelight once more. (10)
As he always had, Kaiser Wilhelm addressed the German nation on Christmas Day. His speech was the usual mix of festivity and nationalism, congratulating the Conservative Party on its recent win and telling everybody how splendid they all were. Reporters and dignitaries, domestic and foreign alike, nodded along, bored to tears, before the Kaiser dropped a bombshell. When he spoke of “the savagery and aggression of certain powers which have tarnished this year”, everybody interpreted this as a reference to the Hungarian atrocities in Vienna and the Second French Revolution. Instead, with plenty of Britons present, the Kaiser lambasted “the savagery committed by the British Empire in India, against noble freedom fighters seeking to revive a great and nationally conscious state.” The “massacre of Balochistan”, as he termed it, “was a greater crime than anything which the European continent has seen since the Thirty Years War.” Every jaw hung open, the scratching of reporter’s pens the only sound in the room. People glanced at their copies of the speech and found no reference to the Indian revolt- this was an ad-lib on Wilhelm’s part. No one knew what he was going to say next, and one German diplomat years later remembered being terrified that the Kaiser was about to recognise an independent India or something equally daft. Fortunately, if incredibly, Wilhelm then completely changed topic, returning to the text of his speech. Not missing a beat, he went on a long, sentimental tangent about how the camel cavalry in use in Mittelafrika reminded him of the camels bringing gifts to the infant Christ.
In his latest bid to attract attention, the most powerful man in Europe had just trod on a lot of diplomatic toes.
Britain was predictably furious. David Lloyd George howled about the “grievous offence, the terrible injustice” of what the Kaiser had just said. Foreign Secretary Edward Grey, who only a year before had compromised with Germany at Dresden, privately muttered that His Majesty the King ought to publicly cheer on rebels in Mittelafrika, if that was how the game was going to be played. Victor Hay, the Earl of Errol and ambassador to Germany, lodged a formal protest. Nor were the Germans happy- Foreign Minister Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg viewed off-the-cuff remarks like this as incredibly dangerous for Germany’s foreign policy. Of course, this wasn’t the first time Wilhelm had run his mouth, but with the Great War only a year past, the diplomats wanted to tread carefully. Nobody had the gravitas to call out the Supreme Warlord to his face, but in the last days of the year both Bethmann-Hollweg and Chancellor Ernst von Heydebrand made public statements contradicting what their sovereign had said, and they made numerous apologies behind closed doors. Ironically, Kaiser Wilhelm’s words went mostly ignored in India- Germany was a long way off and couldn’t do much to help even if it wanted to. The astounding thing about this incident is that nothing came of it. Germany didn’t extend diplomatic feelers to the Provisional Government or ship arms to the rebels. Even though many didn’t understand it at the time, the Kaiser’s remarks were all bluster, all show and no substance. That said, the incident soured Anglo-German relations and for years both were convinced that the other was meddling with its empire. As for the Kaiser himself, Wilhelm seldom commented on the incident after the fact- one suspects that he was embarrassed by it.
Kaiser Wilhelm II’s unfiltered tongue had very nearly caused a diplomatic disaster.
Back in India, 1918 opened auspiciously for the British. Christmas and New Year’s festivities in the cities were of course cancelled, but the expected bout of terrorism never materialised. MI5 was working overtime to pre-empt any such activity, and Gurkhas patrolled the streets, their trademark long knives on full display. Some fighting occurred in the cities, but compared to the tumult of the summer it was manageable. After two truly idiotic agents provocateurs planted bombs in the Portuguese enclave of Goa a few days into the New Year, Lisbon dispatched a token force to aid their longtime British ally. Burma and Northern India remained quiet while the rulers of Rajasthan had consolidated their holdings. Only a chunk of the subcontinent from Gujarat to Madras remained under rebel rule… the clock was ticking…
Following the capture of Hyderabad and the failed attempt to advance into the NWFP, the Army of India had turned to Gujarat. General Maxwell had spent the holidays travelling with his men on horseback, drawing up plans on the go much as Alexander and Caesar had. With the war dragging on and costing millions of pounds, Maxwell found himself under pressure to end the thing as quickly as possible. His plan was a simple one: march through Gujarat, rendezvous with the embattled British pockets in Bombay and on the west coast, and advance from there to the Bay of Bengal. It could be done, he said, but he needed more men. Attrition had reduced the Army of India to about 40,000 men grouped into four divisions (the 7th and 11th Volunteer Infantry Divisions, the 15th Light Division, and the 10th Cavalry Division). That was enough to secure the Indus River Valley, but nowhere near enough to blaze a trail across the subcontinent. Thus, Maxwell agreed to withdraw a hundred thousand Britons from garrison duty in the north- their places taken by Gurkhas- and a second front would be added to the campaign. A fresh unit, six divisions strong and called the Eastern Army, was assembled at Calcutta for this purpose in January 1918. Royal Navy troopships shipped the Eastern Army to Sri Lanka, where it was reorganised to prepare for the big day. This pincer assault against southern India was dubbed Operation NOTTINGHAM and was scheduled to begin on 1 February. Exploiting their uncontested mastery over the waves, the British sent word of their plans to the remnant princely holdings on the west coast. The fleet docked at Muscat went to Colombo to be on-call should offshore bombardment be ready.
It was time to sweep up the pieces of the broken jewel.
One brigade of the 15th Light Division made the first move five days before NOTTINGHAM commenced. A barrier of marshland had separated the rebels from British Balochistan and neither side had tried to cross it; a policy of “live-and-let-live” had been the order of the day. Transporting forty thousand men across a vast swamp would challenge enough, but supplying them would be an absolute nightmare. Thus, that brigade was put to work establishing forward positions and building pontoon bridges across the marsh’s more impassible spots. One company was tasked with attacking the Gujaratis defending the area across from the marsh so as to keep them busy and conceal the actual intentions. The plan worked; surviving communications from the Gujarati defenders of the area to their higher-ups speak of clashes with “unusually well-armed patrols”.
They were soon to have their illusions dispelled.
Another bad map showing where the western part of NOTTINGHAM was conducted...
...and another, equally bad one showing where the eastern part was conducted.
Operation NOTTINGHAM commenced at six AM on 1 February 1918. British troops leapt forth from their swampy bridgeheads, dashing over pontoon bridges laid by their comrades in the preceding days. Horse-drawn light artillery crossed the marsh to drier ground, and by the late afternoon the Gujaratis found themselves under shellfire. Cursing the bloody fool who’d said that this was just an unusually well-armed patrol, the local commander fell back.
Once he started retreating, it was awfully hard to stop.
The success of NOTTINGHAM reminded many of pre war colonial adventures. The old maxim about machine-guns (11) held true, as the rebels found themselves on the wrong end of too much firepower. They might have been fighting for their homeland, but they couldn’t stand up to sixty thousand men far better-equipped than they. Mindful of what had happened in Hyderabad, both sides tacitly followed a policy of “open cities.” When, eleven days into the campaign, the warlord’s men were forced to abandon the town of Bhuj and the nearly 100,000 souls inside, they went around the city’s flank. Many in the town became refugees, but there was no drawn-out, bloody combat killing tens of thousands. Not that the British went out of their way to be moral; Sopwiths cut their way through the skies, strafing hapless refugee columns. By the middle of the month, Britain had reached Kutch Lake; they had conquered a third of Gujarat.
Meanwhile, the second part of NOTTINGHAM proceeded apace. Given that no British footholds existed on the east coast, the landings from Sri Lanka had to start from scratch. The Royal Navy had enough transports for the task, but moving six divisions by sea was no mean feat. Moving the first division from Columbo, Sri Lanka’s largest port, to the Indian mainland would take about ten hours plus the return journey. Thus, orders went to the men on 31 January that they were to go to bed early and were excused from morning parade; they were to sleep in so as to be fresh for the coming night. Few soldiers ever receive such an order in their careers and the men obeyed enthusiastically. At five PM, following an unusually good supper in the mess hall- plenty of people must’ve been reminded of the hearty meal eaten by the condemned man- the first division boarded the transports and off they steamed, destroyers providing escort. The fleet reached the tiny coastal village of Ervadi at three in the morning on the first. Naturally, the few civilians in town were asleep and so the British enjoyed the element of surprise. The handful of soldiers and policemen in town were surprised in their beds and led into the street, where they received a complementary blindfold, cigarette, and six grammes of lead. Ervadi was put under British martial law as the invaders set about expanding their beachhead. They’d moved with such speed that the people had been caught off-guard, and word hadn’t yet spread when the sun rose. Inhabitants of the nearby villages were concerned when they heard gunfire as they ate their breakfasts and said their morning prayers, and stunned when khaki-clad white men reappeared on their streets. This area had never been under the rule of a pro-British prince and so no one had any illusions as to how the British would govern. However, on that first day it was logistics which consumed the colonisers. Bringing rations, ammunition, and all the other things needed for a modern army ashore was more important than intimidating the locals and so people learned to keep their heads down.
2 February saw the troopships return and the beachhead expand, but it also saw resistance stiffen. By now, the world was fully aware of Britain’s two-pronged offensive against India and the local militant was ready to resist. With a stroke of a quill, he summoned the Madras Popular Militia from the abyss. Ostensibly “a gathering of all the region’s peoples to defend our hard-won identity against the monstrous invasion we now face”, it was in reality a massively unpopular conscription drive. The people may have vaguely preferred rule by a local strongman to rule from Calcutta, but they didn’t want to serve in a peasant army and they were tired of fighting. At any rate, Madras lacked the supplies to properly equip a conscript army and they couldn’t really hope to do much against tens of thousands of British. So NOTTINGHAM pressed on. This area was a good bit more densely populated than Gujarat and so the fighting moved slower- with correspondingly more civilian casualties, of course. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting took place, with khaki-clad men grappling with local warriors as factory-made bayonet and homemade knife collided. British artillery and machine guns cut down rebel soldiers and civilians indiscriminately. While the ultimate outcome was never in doubt- Madras stood no chance of repulsing the invaders- men still fought and died. They hardly knew where they were and knew little about the strategic or tactical reasons for being there- all they knew was that they were there and they had a job to do, even if that meant laying down their lives. The desire of Madras to assert its independence and the desire of Britain to restore the Raj were almost forgotten as it boiled down to “us” and “the enemy”. People fought and killed in the blazing equatorial winter without thinking about what they were doing, and they died scarcely knowing why.
All war is like this: no matter how noble the cause, it is all the same when one is in the thick of it.
Military historians do not pay the Indian revolt much heed. It was an affair of jungle warfare, of peasant armies clashing with first colonial militias hardly any more advanced than they, and then superior British troops with advantages they couldn’t dream of. Yet, there is one key aspect of Operation NOTTINGHAM which is a key moment in military history.
After three weeks of fighting, the British reached the city of Madurai. The place held religious significance for many Hindus and had been a thriving cultural and political hub before the revolt. Added to this was the fact that many defenders had an emotional connection with the land and were loath to give it up without a fight. Besieging the city would take too long, it was too large to circumvent, and storming it would be prohibitively expensive. All seemed lost…
... until some new weapons turned up.
In 1915, seeking a break from the deadlock of the trenches, the British had formed a “Landships Committee” designed to craft the perfect armoured breakthrough vehicle. Several prototypes had been built but nothing had come of it, and the events of spring 1916 indicated the supremacy of sharp infantry, not armoured vehicles. However, the idea had not been completely forgotten, and David Lloyd George had ordered research to continue in August 1917, as the Army of India prepared to ship out. Now, five experimental machines were ready for action. Equipped with a two-pound Vickers gun and a forward machine gun, these tracked beasts were put into action on 23 February, and scared the defenders quite literally to death. (12) Their official name was the Windsor-I Landship, named in honour of the royal family, but they became known as “bricks on wheels” to the British and lohe ke haathee (iron elephants) to the Indians. However, they bore a strong resemblance to water tanks and so that name eventually stuck. Regardless of what one called them, they were bloody effective. Bullets were deflected by their strong armour and the rebels didn’t have enough artillery to take them out with shells. Despite the fact that four of the five machines broke down within a day, the Windsor-Is provided the impetus needed for British troops to capture Madurai and push on.
Fighting carried on all throughout the spring as the two pincers of NOTTINGHAM pushed closer together. Both British armies took heavy losses from enemy action, malaria, and heatstroke. In every place the British left un-garrisoned, local unrest and banditry popped up, but still their armies moved forward, slicing through Madrasians and Gujaratis with equal force. Token numbers of Portugese troops landed in the west, fighting the local warlord to secure Goa. 16 April was a joyous day as forces from east and west met up at the city of Gulbarga. Fighting would stretch on into the summer but Operation NOTTINGHAM had done its task of securing southern India.
General Francis Maxwell was lauded for his skill in beating the revolt at long last. He was recalled to London and given a bar on his Distinguished Service Order medal as well as an Order of the Star of India. The British public, starved for heroic tales by the loss of the Great War, longed for a popular military figure to brighten up the papers, and Maxwell played that role to perfection. He spoke to veteran’s groups, Conservative political conferences, and launched an unsuccessful bid to become a Conservative MP for his Guildford constituency in the 1918 election. He would retire in 1922, and fell off his horse during a game of polo in 1927, dying instantly.
General Francis Maxwell, hero of the reconquest of India
Maxwell’s burst of fame raised public morale and obscured the bitter truth: the British Empire had been badly hurt in 1917. India, the heart of the empire, had been irrevocably shattered. The people had learned that they were capable of fighting their white overlords. Already, conspiracy theories were spreading in the subcontinent about why the great revolt had failed- none were true, but it showed how quickly anger spread at failure to defeat the British. Azam Jah sat on the Hyderabadi throne with Kishen Pershad pulling the strings, but did the people respect him? Of course not.
Pandora’s Box had been opened in the summer of 1917, and the British Empire would never be the same again.
- I had to, sorry. The now-deceased Governor-General George Lloyd, and Prime Minister David Lloyd George.
- Credits to @Sarthaka for telling me about Tibet.
- Seeing as how he died at Passchendaele IOTL, he’s still alive here.
- In this chapter, my references to “Hyderabad” means the city, not the princely state
- Stolen from the British, by the way- the Germans genuinely aren’t helping.
- Inspiring names.
- He loved to lead from the front and was killed doing so in OTL
- Posting this here so as not to break narrative flow: 2 × BL 6-inch Mk VII guns, 2 × 12-pounder guns, 6 × .303” Maxim machine guns (Source: Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Insect-class_gunboat)
- Nicked from General William T Sherman.
- Slightly off-topic: who had the bigger ego? Wilhelm II or MacArthur? Please share your thoughts…
- See what I did there? Maxim?
- These are more or less Little Willies with the mechanical kinks mostly sorted out.