Urdu was the lingua franca of the Indian Army- with many different races and tribes making up the Indian Army of the Raj a common tongue was needed between officers and different men. Frank Brayne Adviser on Indian Affairs, Indian Army 1941-46 noted “Armies must have a common language and the Indian Army uses Urdu for all enlisted men whatever their home language”. Monier Williams in 1877 described Urdu itself as:
Urdu or Hindustani is the mixed and composite dialect which has resulted from the fusion of Hindi, the idiom of the Hindus, with the Persian and Arabic of the Musalman invaders. It is not only the regular spoken language of Delhi, Lucknow and at least fifty millions of persons in Central India, the North West Provinces and the Punjab, but is also the common medium of communication between Musalmans throughout all India
One of the requirements of all British officers in Indian regiments and all civil servants in India was to learn Urdu and pass it to a proficient level. We looked at a pair of textbooks back here, and tonight we are looking at a military English-Urdu dictionary from 1928:The book is a pocket sized volume, with blue card covers, inside on the back of the front cover is a list of outlets selling Indian Government publications; the facing page has the name of the book’s original owner a Sergeant Pugh:Turning to the title page we can see that the dictionary was published in Calcutta in 1928:The majority of the book is a dictionary, listing useful military terms and how to pronounce them in Urdu:It is interesting that many of these have been closely copied from the English- making it much easier for an officer to remember and communicate with his troops. Most of the book is just a list of words, however there are a couple of diagrams, this one showing the correct Urdu terms for elements of trench construction:And this one for tree types and military vehicles:Presumably this was so an officer could show soldiers what an object they had never seen before looked like- tanks being pretty rare on the ground in 1920s India!
The process of learning Urdu was explained by Lieutenant Bruce hay in a letter to his father from Landi Kotal in 1898:
The Quartermaster’s clerk of the 9th Gurkhas is teaching me Urdu now. I’ve had him about a week so far and hope to go up for the lower standard the next exam in Peshawar–the beginning of October
Not all military communication in British India was in Urdu, as Alan Shaw explains:
Signal messages would normally be sent in English written in Roman capital letters. The language of the Indian Army was Urdu, written in Roman script with which the signallers were familiar. English was thus sent and received as if in code.