Book review: Approach to Battle: Training the Indian Army during the Second World War

Approach to Battle is an excellent and meticulously researched narrative of pure vanilla military history. It explores the transformation of the Indian Army from a bloated, undertrained, and poorly led force during World War I and the early years of World War II into a fighting machine that gave the British Empire one of its most comprehensive military victories of WWII at the Battles of Kohima and Imphal during the Burma campaign in 1944. Breaking new ground and embarking on research that would otherwise seem dull for military historians who revel in writing about the heat and the dust of actual battle, Alan Jeffreys, an accomplished British military historian who specializes in the study of Britain’s colonial Indian Army, has probed the heart of any fighting force that goes into battle—its doctrine, training, and leadership.

Alan Jeffreys. Approach to Battle: Training the Indian Army during the Second World War

Reviewed by Arjun Subramaniam

Published on H-Asia (August, 2021) 

The book is neatly structured along two concurrent themes. The first theme is a chronological examination of the performance of the Indian Army during World War I, happenings during the interwar years, and the army’s transformation into a professional fighting force through World War II. The second theme offers deep insights into the circumstances, methodologies adopted, and the officers who were involved in the evolution of doctrine, tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs), with specific emphasis on desert, mountain, and jungle warfare. Much credit must go to the author for showcasing the steady evolution of an ecosystem that made it possible to disseminate these to the Indian soldier in the field in a way that improved their fighting effectiveness exponentially and sparked the revival of the Indian Army in several theaters from 1943 to 1945.

The core ethos of the Indian Army—Naam, Namak, aur Nishan (individual honor, integrity, and loyalty to the regimental flag)—emerged from the bloody battlefields of World War I and remains a defining benchmark for service in the Indian Army. Poorly trained, equipped and led, several Indian Army formations were hastily inducted into battle in large numbers across sectors in Europe with little or no acclimatization during the early years of World War I. Deployed initially in large numbers as an Indian Expeditionary Force after the initial reverses faced by the Allies in Europe, the Indian Army performed gallantly, particularly in the early battles of France and the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. However, it paid a heavy price in terms of casualties, particularly during fierce frontal battles and withdrawals until the tide turned at the Battle of the Somme.

While Jeffrey’s opening chapters are soft on the Crown and its callous use of Indian troops as cannon fodder during the First World War, beyond suggesting that the reputation of the Indian Army took a blow (p. 32), they offer excellent insights into how the processes of recruitment, training, and Indianization of the Indian Army gained momentum in the interwar years. Core issues such as retention, role definition, and responsibilities that were assigned to Indian Commissioned Officers, Viceroy Commissioned Officers (VCOs), and Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) are explained in great detail as a backgrounder to Jeffrey’s subsequent foray into the creation of institutions such as the Indian Military Academy and the Senior Officer Training School (pp. 43-47). Jeffrey suggests that the creation of these institutions with committed British officers of the Indian Army played a critical role not only in the creation of a new generation of well-trained Indian officers but also encouraged the development of a blueprint for training, exercises, and doctrine specific to the operational needs of the Indian Army (pp. 52-55).

The Indian Army of World War II, with approximately 2.5 million officers and men, was the largest volunteer army of all times. Nearly 50,000 Indian troops and officers lost their lives in the war.[1] Of the nearly 6,300 awards won by the Indian Army for gallantry during WW II were 31 Victoria Crosses, 4 George Crosses, 252 Distinguished Service Orders (DSOs), and 1,311 Military Crosses….