The Indian army at the palace

Reviewing the best military history exhibitions with Calum Henderson

On four occasions early in the last century, soldiers from the Indian Army camped in their thousands on the grounds of Hampton Court Palace in south-west London. They did so as part of the coronation celebrations of King Edward VII in 1902, George V in 1911, and again for George VI in 1937 – as well as for the peace parades after the First World War in 1919. A new exhibition at the palace explores the history of these camps, which, for many of the soldiers involved, marked the first time they had ever set foot in England.

The exhibition is housed in a former gift shop on the ground floor of the estate, overlooking the very gardens in which the soldiers once stayed.

A collaboration between the palace, members of the public, and community groups with connections to the Indian army in Britain, it is a well-designed and carefully curated exploration of an underacknowledged moment in the shared military history of the two countries.

The Indian Army was an imperial creation, which emerged in the mid 19th century as the British Empire’s rule over the subcontinent expanded. By 1902, at the time of the first encampment, this empire was at its zenith, with a newly crowned king ruling over many millions. Unquestionably part of a ‘show of power’, the camps were so successful that they were repeated on three further occasions, perhaps most significantly in the aftermath of the First World War, when the empire’s confidence in itself had been profoundly shaken.

The nick of time

The 1919 contingent consisted of nearly 1,800 troops from the Indian Army, who stayed at Hampton Court for two months across the summer. They took part in the victory parades, marching past the then newly inaugurated Cenotaph memorial in Whitehall before arriving at Buckingham Palace for a garden party, where medals were presented.

The camps themselves were vast, with streets separating the officers’ living quarters from other regiments. By most accounts, the army, which comprised largely Muslims and Sikhs (and of course some British soldiers) was exceptionally well treated. Tents were furnished with the likes of oriental rugs and bridge tables, while entertainment was provided in the form of a cinema and trips to central London. The palace also went out of its way to accommodate differences in caste, with separate kitchens, slaughter pens, and laundries to cater for an individual soldier’s customs.

Although in some ways a propaganda stunt, the camps – particularly in 1919 – were also a symbol of the respect with which the British viewed their Indian Army co-combatants. Some 500,000 soldiers from its ranks had fought during the First World War, both on the Western Front and in other theatres. Initial concerns about allowing British and Indian soldiers to fight together were soon discarded when demands for manpower increased. As Lord Curzon, a former viceroy of India, said in 1917, ‘The Indian Expeditionary Force arrived in the nick of time.’

Public interest

The camps generated significant public interest, and among its displays the exhibition has original press cuttings from the time. There are pictures, too, including stereoscopic images: a kind of elongated postcard that with the help of a viewfinder can project an image in 3D. This works really effectively on the original pictures from the camps, some of which are reproduced here in 2D.

Also on display are artefacts such as a charity pin badge, similar to those sold by Indian princess and suffragette Sophia Duleep Singh. Her story could make an exhibition in itself: the daughter of Maharaja Duleep Singh, Sophia was a grace-and-favour resident of Hampton Court who took up the cause of the Indian soldiers during and after the First World War, raising money for their welfare and visiting the wounded in hospital.

But the exhibition doesn’t shy away from the dark underside of imperialism. For instance, it includes a paper copy of the results of a notorious study, conducted during the first encampment in 1902, in which the measurements of the soldiers were taken for purposes of racial classification. It gave credence to a theory, very popular particularly after the Boer War, that only certain ethnic groups were worthy of military service.

In fact, for many Indian soldiers in the First World War, letters home revealed that those of different backgrounds all fought out of a strong sense of loyalty. This loyalty took many forms: for some it was to the army or the empire, for others it was to God. It was only as the war dragged on that they began to discourage loved ones from getting involved. ‘This is not war… it is the ending of the world,’ as one soldier wrote home to his family in January 1915.

Later oral histories also recorded that many in the Indian regiments had suffered discrimination, poorer pay, flogging, and other punishments during their service. This undoubtedly entrenched resentment, and, along with other incidents back in India such as the Amritsar Massacre in 1919 and the devastation wrought by the Spanish Flu, and unquestionably gave momentum to demands for India to be granted dominion status, and eventually independence. If nothing else, this would be a ‘reward’ for its sacrifice in the war.

Beyond the Tudors

The fourth encampment took place at Hampton Court in 1937 for the coronation of George VI. This was of course just two years before the outbreak of the Second World War, and a decade before India’s independence and the associated horror of partition, which sorely tested the loyalties of the Indian Army regiments. They had specific orders not to interfere as families and communities were torn apart in racial violence and upheaval. Unsurprisingly, the 1937 camp was the last.

Hampton Court Palace is typically associated with the turbulent history of Henry VIII and the Tudors. This excellent exhibition demonstrates that there are other, equally interesting stories from different periods of its history, which in their telling say much about the relationship between Britain and India, both in previous centuries and today.

The Indian Army at the Palace
Until 3 March 2024
Adult: £26.30; see website for admission times
Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey KT8 9AU
Tel: 0333 320 6000

All images: Historic Royal Palaces

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