Note: For some reason WordPress won’t include the footnotes which give the source for all references. I’ll get them in as soon as I can!
The main theses of Gerald Horne’s book Race War! (2004) are that the European empires in twentieth century Asia were deeply racist, that the Japanese attempted to exploit this, and the very fact of the alien colonial presence itself, to win Asian support for their war against the British, Dutch and Americans, and that they had some success. He provides a detailed study of Hong Kong as the main illustration for his analysis of these processes. In a series of posts I’m examining the way he uses his Hong Kong sources to back up a theory that is not, in itself, either new or controversial. In this one I’m going to examine one particular claim to illustrate Horne’s generally superficial approach to his sources, his over-eagerness to find confirmation for his beliefs where caution in interpretation is required.
Consider this passage about the Rajputs, one of the five regiments defending Hong Kong on December 8, 1941. The quotation that starts this extract is from Barbara Sue-White, the historian of Hong Kong’s Indian communities.
(T)he ‘Rajputs suffered the greatest casualties of any of the defence forces in the battle for Hong Kong. A mammoth 65 per cent of the men of Rajput C Company became casualties, and ever single officer was lost.’ Such figures may confirm their patriotism to the crown; or it may confirm the opposing charge that these Indian troops were little more than cannon fodder. This latter allegation was confirmed by the debased status of Indians in prewar Hong Kong….
Horne’s argument is completely circular. There are two reasons for suspecting a disregard for Indian lives: the high casualty rate and the known racism of Hong Kong at that time – neither on its own would give any grounds for suggesting that the troops were being used as ‘cannon fodder’, so it’s not possible to take one of these two facts and say that it confirms what it only renders possible. Horne is substituting rhetoric and an appeal to prejudice for historical argument. If we probe more deeply his theory seems to hold good at first but ends looking decidedly shaky.
There is an obvious prima facie case for the claim that the disposition of troops on December 8, 1941 was in part due to the racist assumption that the lives of Indian troops were of less value than those of British. The probable cause of the high Rajput casualty rates might seem to have been the fact that they occupied a forward position twice: they were one of three regiments manning the front line in the New Territories (the others were the Punjabis and the Royal Scots), and, after the rapid evacuation of the mainland, they were, again alongside the Punjabis, positioned as the first line of defence against the Japanese landings on Hong Kong Island, ‘holding ‘the all-important north shore defences between North Point and Shau Kei Wan’. And, we might add, it was a Rajput contingent under Captain Mateen Ansari, one of the great heroes of the Hong Kong war, which covered the final evacuation from Kowloon’s Devil’s Peak peninsula.
At this point all seems clear: the two Indian regiments were kept constantly in the front line, and, bearing in mind that the Scottish were sometimes called ‘Scots coolies’ in pre-war Hong Kong, we might even think it’s no accident that they too were up in the New Territories facing the first brunt of the attack. The Middlesex, the only English regiment, were on the Island, alongside the local defence force, the Volunteers, most of whom were ‘’white’. The Canadians were there too, but these were largely untrained troops who had only just arrived (November 16) so it’s not so surprising that most of them weren’t sent to the mainland.
Now that’s already much more evidence than Horne provides in his purely verbal ‘confirmation’ of racism, and I haven’t made up my mind as to whether or not any racism was involved in these deployments, but the neat ‘proof’ of the ‘cannon fodder’ thesis collapses after a little more probing
First, of all, a minor point: one of the dead ‘C’ Company officers seems to have been British – the regiment was being ‘Indianised’ but this process was halted by the outbreak of war. At least two other dead officers have British names, but I don’t know what Company they were in. More significantly perhaps, the Rajputs took very few casualties in their initial deployment on the mainland: Tony Banham’s lists, the best available, have no deaths at all on December 8, 9, 11 and 12, and only two on December 10. In contrast, the Royal Scots, lost 29 men on December 11 alone (I remark in passing that shamefully the Royal Scots are denied the right to a Hong Kong battle honour). ‘Casualties’ usually means ‘dead and more than trivially wounded’ and we can assume that a small number of men were also wounded at this stage, but initial events do not bear out the ‘cannon fodder’ thesis. Evacuation was decided on before casualties became too heavy.
It was in defending the Island from the Japanese assault that the vast majority of the Rajput casualties were taken: 99 were killed on December 19 alone. However, in discussing this latter deployment, Tony Banham offers an alternative perspective, one that suggests it might have been due to the opposite of racism:
(I)t is no coincidence that Maltby’s two favourite battalions (the Rajputs and Punjabis) are holding the vulnerable north shore.
The overall commanding officer, Christopher Maltby was commissioned to the Indian Army in 1911, and he knew and valued these troops. He himself thought that the Japanese would try to land in Central/Victoria, but some of his staff officers favoured North Point, and that’s where he put men he trusted. And if we now look at casualty figures in more detail, the idea that Indian troops were used as ‘cannon fodder’ looks even more shaky. Barbara Sue-White is not responsible for Horne’s claim that Rajput casualties were caused by racism; but is her idea that this regiment suffered the most in the fighting true in the first place? Tony Banham considers Sue-White’s chapter on the war ‘poorly researched’ so it’s worth probing more deeply.
Firstly, the ‘mammoth’ Rajput ‘C’ Company casualties were matched by the Eurasian company of the Volunteers, who took 63.2% dead or wounded in their defence of Wong Nei Chung Gap. During the occupation the Japanese tried to claim that this was the result of the British disregard for Eurasians, but many accounts exist that show they took their casualties because they refused to retreat in the face of overwhelming odds not because the British didn’t care if they lived or died. Further, the next highest casualty rate amongst the Volunteers was First Battery at 60%. They took most of their casualties during the very fierce fighting on the Stanley peninsula in the last two days of the conflict. Judging by names, this was a racially diverse unit, which included the son of the Vice Chancellor of Hong Kong University. Again, several accounts exist of their actions in the grounds of what was to become Stanley Internment Camp, and it’s clear that they suffered their 60% casualties through their courage in some of the bitterest fighting of the war. So my first assumption would be that was why the Rajput ‘C’ Company experienced similar rates of loss – they fought bravely in the face of a powerful and well-conducted Japanese attack; that was indeed the conclusion of soldier and military historian Oliver Lindsay:
The Rajput forward platoons had fought very bravely, refusing to withdraw and inflicting considerable casualties on the enemy, but by dawn, the Battalion had virtually ceased to exist.
If we look at levels other than Company, we can find higher rates than 65%: Platoon 5 of the HKVDC suffered 100% casualties during these engagements. My point, of course, is not that the Rajputs weren’t courageous and committed – it’s obvious they were – but that citing isolated casualty figures and then crying ‘this must be racism’ is a poor way for a historian to proceed.
Finally, when we look at overall regimental casualty rates, the ‘cannon fodder’ thesis is even harder to sustain. The death rate for the Rajputs was about 16.3% while that of the Volunteers – who would, if anyone, have been protected on grounds of race and class – was about 15.8%., a shade more than the Royal Scots (just over 15.5). The (English) Middlesex suffered about 17.86% losses. These are figures for deaths – as ascertained by Banham’s meticulous researches – not casualties, and it’s possible when seriously wounded are added to these figures the Rajputs suffered disproportionately – unfortunately the only figures I have that include the ‘wounded’ category are Maltby’s immediate post-battle calculations, and these also include ‘missing’, with a particularly high figure for the Rajputs. As Banham, points out a number of the ‘missing’ undoubtedly surfaced later; nevertheless, as some of the bodies of the Rajputs who died defending the north shore were probably thrown into the harbour by the Japanese, it’s certainly possible that they did in fact suffer the highest rate of both casualties and deaths. I’ve not been able to get hold of a copy of Barbara Sue-White’s book, so I don’t know if she’s basing her claim that the Rajputs suffered more than any other regiment on Maltby’s figures or on something more reliable. In any case, the other Indian regiment, the Punjabis, suffered a death rate of 9%, which I believe to be lowest of any regiment. Again, many members of this regiment were wounded or are listed by Maltby as missing, and there is absolutely no suggestion that they fought any less bravely than the other units – they took more casualties on the mainland than the Rajputs, and their courage and effectiveness on the Island is obvious, for example, from the role played by ‘B’ and ‘C’ Company in the counterattack at Leighton Hill. My guess is that the main reason for their relatively low death rate was simply the fortunes of war, although it might be relevant that a number of the regiment were kept back to guard the British military headquarters – further proof of how highly Maltby valued Indian troops. As Tony Banham, who has done so much to dispel the nationalist myths that have bedevilled research into the Hong Kong war has said, ‘In the final analysis, casualty figures imply that all units fought with equal determination.’
None of this proves that the deployment of the Rajputs (and the Punjabis) was not based on partly racist considerations; the one thing a commander can be sure of is that troops in the front line (when it’s obvious where it’s going to be, as it was here) will be attacked first and when the enemy is freshest and are therefore at most risk, and two out of the three regiments in the Hong Kong vanguard were Indian. My point is not to exonerate the British army but to draw attention to Horne’s cavalier way with the evidence, setting the bar ridiculously low where his own favourite assumptions are concerned. To indict Maltby et. al. of racism in this instance one needs either to find a ‘smoking gun’ (a clear statement by one of the officers who made the decisions) or to analyse the evidence in the way I’ve done and come to a different conclusion. Horne merely declares the accusation ‘confirmed’ by a piece of circular reasoning. It seems that Banham’s seminal work on the fighting was not available to him – Race War! appears as published in 2003, 2004 and 2005 in different bibliographies. But, with all allowances made, it’s hard to understand why Horne is so confident about a conclusion based on statistics that cover only one of the two Indian regiments. He should have accepted that, at best, he had the evidence only to raise the question of the reason for the high Rajput casualties.
In future posts I’ll give more examples of his tendency to try to make the evidence say what he feels it should say rather than to subject it to proper historical analysis.