War history: European soldiers didn’t have the monopoly on bravery in the Great War - the role Indian soldiers played in the battle

An Indian cavalry regiment in France in the spring of 1917

An Indian cavalry regiment in France in the spring of 1917 - Credit: Archant

Four years of conflict... lives thrown into confusion for thousands of people at home and abroad... horror that was unimaginable... With all that going on, it was easy to overlook aspects of the First World War. Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, looks at the role played by the men of the Indian Army in 1914

Machine-gunners of the 2nd Rajput Light Infantry in Flanders during the winter of 1914-15.

Machine-gunners of the 2nd Rajput Light Infantry in Flanders during the winter of 1914-15. - Credit: Archant

Last week’s column highlighted some of the myths that surround the Christmas Truce of December, 1914. One of the other very common misconceptions that I regularly encounter out and about on battlefield tours is the belief that only armies of white European soldiers fought the First World War. Nothing could be further from the truth, and this week I look back 100 years to the autumn of 1914 and the arrival in France of the Indian Army Corps.

The first Indians began disembarking from ships in Marseilles on September 26, 1914, just six weeks after Britain’s declaration of war. Once disembarked, the men of 3rd (Lahore) Division moved north to Belgium by train.

It is interesting to read accounts of the first impressions of Europe, not least the weather conditions compared to their native India. Due to a shortage of shipping, the rest of the corps ? in the shape of 7th (Meerut) Division and the 4th (Secunderabad) Cavalry Brigade ? would follow on some weeks later. The troop trains carried the Indians to the Ypres Salient, where they were desperately needed to reinforce the battered British Expeditionary Force. The first Indians were pushed forward into the frontline trenches just two weeks after their arrival in “Wipers”.

The Indian Army traditionally recruited from the so-called martial races: the Sikhs, Pathans, Dogras, Jats, Rajputs, and of course the Ghurkas from Nepal. While all private soldiers were from the Indian sub-continent, the majority of officers were British, as were some of the non-commissioned officers (NCOs). There were also British battalions included in each of these Indian formations.

Indian bicycle troops on the Somme, in France, in the summer of 1916.

Indian bicycle troops on the Somme, in France, in the summer of 1916. - Credit: Archant

There were problems almost straightaway. The Indian troops were dressed in lightweight khaki drill uniforms: tropical clothing that was ideal for the plains of India, but totally inadequate for the bitterly cold Belgian winter. It would take until the end of 1914 to overcome this logistics problem and issue the more suitable British Army khaki battle-dress that was made of a heavy serge material.

Initially this lack of suitable uniform and the unfamiliar weather conditions did make a dent in Indian morale, but not for long: the Indian soldier was renowned for his resilience and physical stamina.

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Many regarded their deployment to Europe as a great adventure and were extremely proud to be taking part. Their morale had been further buoyed by this message from the King-Emperor George V himself:

“I look to all of my Indian soldiers to uphold the Izzat of the British Raj against the aggressive and relentless enemy. I know with what readiness my loyal and brave Indian are prepared to fulfil this sacred trust on the field of battle, shoulder to shoulder with their comrades from all parts of the Empire. Rest assured that you will always be in my thoughts and prayers. I bid you go forward to add fresh lustre to the glorious achievements and notable traditions, courage and chivalry of my Indian Army, whose honour and fame are in your hands.”

A postcard of the 15th Sikh regiment that landed in Marseilles in September, 1914. The wording says

A postcard of the 15th Sikh regiment that landed in Marseilles in September, 1914. The wording says Gentlemen of India marching to chasten German Hooligans - Credit: Archant

It would not be long before the Indians would have the opportunity to prove their martial prowess. The first military engagement took place south of Ypres after nightfall on October 25, 1914. In fighting between Wytschaete (White-sheet to the British Tommy) and Messines, the Indians successfully repelled a determined German attack. During the fighting, Sepoy Usman Khan earned the Indian Distinguished Service Medal. The first attack by the Indian Corps took place the next day and fighting continued over the next few days. Nine officers (five British and four Indian) and more than 200 men were killed.

The next engagement involving the Indian Corps was an attempt to seal a breach that the Germans had created in the British line just south of the village of Neuve Chapelle. On October 28, Indian troops initially succeeded in entering the village itself, but within hours, after fierce hand-to-hand fighting, were forced out by a strong German counter attack. Fierce fighting continued for a week, resulting in the loss of 25 British and more than 500 Indians, with a further 1,450 wounded.

The Indians were back in action again to the south of Ypres at Festubert. On November 23 the Germans launched an attack across a snow-covered no-man’s land. They succeeded in breaking into the Indian trenches, where vicious hand-to-hand fighting raged for hours. As a result of their bravery that night, two Ghurka soldiers were later awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal.

The German assault had succeeded in driving the Indians out of a number of trenches. The Indians counter-attacked the next day and re-took their positions; pride was restored. In recognition of their bravery during the Festubert fighting a British officer, Lieutenant FA De Pass, and an Indian Naik (corporal), Darwan Singh Nedi, were awarded the Victoria Cross; the former posthumously.

I always make a point of visiting the Indian memorials and cemeteries whenever I am nearby. If you are planning to come on one of our Galloway tours of the Ypres Salient before Christmas, you will have the chance to learn more about these extraordinary men. Our next day excursion goes to Ypres on November 15 – details available on our website, or visit one of our Galloway shops for information.

For more from Mike Peters, see our First World War page here

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