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19 - Indian Contingent passing saluting dias, Victory Parade, London.jpg


How many Indian troops were fighting for Britain and its Allies in the two World Wars?

The total number of Indian Army troops who served in World War I was 1,440,437.  Of these, some 238,000 were Muslims.  Precise figures for the Royal Indian Marine are more difficult to determine but they crewed 13 principal vessels, some 40 smaller vessels and a sizeable number of shallow-draught rivercraft for use in Mesopotamia.  All were volunteers, though there are stories of pressure being brought to bear to enlist.

During World War 2 the size of the Army swelled from 195,000 in 1939 to over 2.5 million men by the end of the war.  All were volunteers.  

Out of a total recruitable Muslim population of 2.9 million, 44,100 were already serving in the Army when war started.  A further 551,619 were recruited during the war years, giving a final total for the war of 595,719.

The Royal Indian Marine had become the Royal Indian Navy on 2 October 1934.  Prior to the war it had numbered a total of 1,846 officers and ratings.  This was increased to 30,478 officers and ratings by the end of the war.  

The Indian Air Force was not formed until 1 April 1933 so did not exist at the time of World War I.  In October 1939 it numbered just 285 officers and airmen.  On 12 March 1945 the IAF was granted the prefix Royal and by the end of the war it numbered 42,782 officers, men and enrolled followers     but this figure excludes civilians and temporary followers.

2 - unidentified Muslim soldier by Harry Sheldon.  Shoulder flash shows North-Western Army

An unidentified Muslim soldier wearing the formation badge of North-Western Army (India), a castle gateway symbolic of the Khyber Pass gateway into India and featuring a white castle against three equal bands of red/black/red.’

Painting by Harry Sheldon, war artist.

The largest number of recruits for the Indian Army during World War I came from the Punjab with 349,688 combatants and 97,288 non-combatants.  Of the total number recruited throughout India, the Punjabi Muslim community provided the largest number at 136,126, followed by the Sikhs at 88,925, Rajputs (62,190) and Gurkhas (55,589).     The grand total recruited up to 31 December 1919 was 1,440,437 divided into 877,068 combatants     and 563,369 non-combatants.  

All were volunteers – there was no conscription – but there is now sufficient evidence to substantiate the fact that as the war progressed and casualties mounted, an increasing number were recruited under duress.  This involved ‘the entire muscle of the civil administration being brought to bear and supported by a network of notables and the rural elite.’

The predominance of Muslims in the Indian Army led to some early concerns about their willingness to fight their co-religionists once Turkey had entered the war on the side of the Central Powers – see the section Were any concerns ever raised about Muslims fighting their co-religionists from the Ottoman Empire?

With the approach of World War 2 those already serving in the Indian Army could be identified as the Hindu population, including Gurkhas, numbering 58,686, the Muslim community numbering 44,100, Sikhs 22,670 and others 4,010.  As expansion into the non-traditional recruiting areas picked up, so difficulties arose in providing sufficient trainers fluent in the relevant languages to teach the new recruits, and Viceroy’s commissioned officers and NCOs to lead them.  By the end of the war about sixty per cent of recruits came from areas not previously used for recruiting.  The Muslim community provided the second highest number of combatants at 595,719.  The combined Hindu communities, including Gurkhas, provided a greater number at 759,405.  Sikhs provided 128,673 while all other classes combined (including Christians and Madras Classes) provided 557,809.

Another factor affecting India’s contribution to the war effort was the lack of modern fighting equipment manufactured in country, so that units had to wait for equipment to arrive from abroad before they could take to the field.  


   Rana Chhina. The Eagle Strikes.  The Royal Indian Air Force 1932-1950. Delhi: Centre for Armed Forces Historical Research, United Service Institution of India (2006), p.xii

   No author.  India’s Contribution to the Great War.  Calcutta.  Superintendent of Government Printing, India (1929), Appendix C

   Fighting soldiers – infantry, cavalry and later, armoured corps




   Essential support – supply and transport, medical, veterinary, ordnance, engineers etc.


   Major General Syed Ali Hamid. The Darker Side of Recruiting from the Punjab during the Great War. The Friday Times, Features, Legacy, 23 October 2020.  Correspondence from the author to WWMMT 11 May 2021.



   Reorganization of the Army and Air Forces in India – Report of a Committee set up by His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief India (known as the Willcox Report after its chairman, Lieutenant General H.B.D. Willcox).  New Delhi: Government of India Press, 1945, Vol 2, Appendix C

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