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British Officers in the Indian Army

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Sadurian Mike
888624.  Thu Feb 23, 2012 2:20 pm Reply with quote

During the Second World War and period immediately preceding it, the Indian Army had British officers who generally outranked their Indian equivalents.

That is to to say that an Indian captain would be considered a lower rank than a British captain. This was down to British officers holding the King's Commission, but Indian officers holding the Commission of the Viceroy. They were consequently known as VCOs, or Viceroy Commissioned Officers and had a seperate Mess. British troops did not have salute VCOs (but were still well advised to take orders from them). As the war progressed, an increasing number of Indian officers were given the full King's Commission.

A British officer posted to an Indian regiment spent a year with an English regiment while he learned Urdu.* During this time he spent a short while with the fellow officers of his prospective new regiment. The idea was that the existing officers could decide whether the newcomer would fit in or not, this being important in a unit where the Mess may only have half a dozen members present at certain times (the hot season, for example, when leave was taken and training courses run).

The new officer was expected to spend considerable time with his men, learning about their customs and backgrounds. He was also taken under wing of a VCO, who gave the new officer a chance to learn even more about the culture of the regiment he was joining.

All in all, the popular image of the distant British officer who could not communicate with his men and cared little about their culture is largely false. No doubt a few such men would have existed, but the system definitely encouraged integration.

Source: Perret, B, Tank Tracks to Rangoon (Hale, 1978).

*The idea that British officers needed translators to talk to their Indian troops is false. British officers in Indian regiments learned Urdu or did not get in. Urdu was the lingua franca of the Indian army, it being composed of members of many different races, castes and religions.

T J Alex
888649.  Thu Feb 23, 2012 5:17 pm Reply with quote

I recall reading somewhere that junior officers when taking "In Country "leave weren't expected to idle there time away, or indulge in the fleshpots, but to do the equivalent of todays extreme sports, such as tiger hunting or similar pursuits.

I suspect that the lower status of Indian officers came from the time of the East India company,(Before the Mutiny) where officers of such were regarded as being of lesser status then British Army officers.

I am speaking of British men serving as officers in the E.I.C., not native Indians.

The British officers were called "Indians", and even when they became part of the British army were looked down on as lesser beings.

A famous example (and notoriously good horseman, also notoriously ugly, )was Captain Nolan of Light Brigade fame.

Sadurian Mike
888728.  Fri Feb 24, 2012 6:14 am Reply with quote

T J Alex wrote:
I suspect that the lower status of Indian officers came from the time of the East India company,(Before the Mutiny) where officers of such were regarded as being of lesser status then British Army officers.

The East India Company was dissolved following the Mutiny, but EIC officers were certainly a different breed before then. Afterwards, the British officers in the Indian Army all held the Queen's or King's Commission and were the equal of officers anywhere else in the British army (aside from the Guards and so on).

It was the native Indian officers who were VCOs, and thus held inferior rank. A commission given by the sovereign trumps one given by the viceroy of India. I imagine that a white person who was Indian would be in the same position as those with brown skin; only qualifying for VCO status. Conversely, a brown-skinned person who was British could have a King's commission, although contemporary casual racism being what it was, I imagine they would encounter some issues in the mess.

As I mentioned before, as the war progressed it was common for Indians to receive the King's commission. Not only was this in recognition of the part played by the Indian subcontinent (the largest volunteer army in the world, and essential for the British war effort), but also as part of the move towards giving India independence.

888827.  Fri Feb 24, 2012 10:41 am Reply with quote

QI SM after 1947 were any Indian VCOs taken into the British Army?

Sadurian Mike
888856.  Fri Feb 24, 2012 12:15 pm Reply with quote

I have no idea. They would probably have been better off staying put (or becoming officers in the Pakistani army) however, as the British Army was in a huge number-cutting phase following the war. It is certainly possible that some applied for the British Army, although they would have had to have good English and would probably have been reranked as warrant officers.

The VCO ranks, renamed JCOs (Junior Commisioned Officers), were actually kept in the Indian Army following independence, where they perform a function similar to the British Army's warrant officers.

889226.  Sun Feb 26, 2012 12:32 am Reply with quote

A little before, and during the early part of WW2 was when my father served in India with the RAF. I don't know if it was required, but he certainly learned Urdu and Hindi.

889339.  Sun Feb 26, 2012 10:26 am Reply with quote

Not the same service or the same continent, but when my father was in the Royal Artillery in East Africa during WW2, he was a gunnery instructor and he had to learn Swahili to instruct what were then called 'the native troops'. I still have the book he learned from, with his notes in it. This leads me to think it was common in various parts of the military for people to have to learn a local language.

Sadurian Mike
890490.  Thu Mar 01, 2012 7:54 am Reply with quote

The British Army had learned a lot of painful lessons about how best to lead native colonial troops. One major lesson was that the officers should actually be able to speak with their men and understand their culture.

Language instruction was a prerequisite for command in most foreign regiments, although great reliance was placed on bilingual (native) NCOs and the likes of the VCO system.

Sadurian Mike
890492.  Thu Mar 01, 2012 7:58 am Reply with quote

Burma and India seem to follow me around.

My maternal grandfather served in the Far East in the RAF. My ex-'s father had served in Burma in the RAF Regiment, and Jan's father was with the Leicesters in India, involved in the railway system.

My university dissertation is about the use of tanks in the Far East.


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