100 Year Anniversary: Sikhs in WW1 ~ Part 2

The story of the British Indian army on the Western Front starts on 6th August 1914....

 

The arrival of Sikh soldiers in Marseilles, Sep-Oct 1914. Gentlemen of India marching to chasten German hooligans.

Maharaja Duleep Singh Trust, London

 

Editor's note: This is a continuation from a previous article, Part 1 of the same title. Click below to read Part 1:

100 Year Anniversary: Sikhs in WW1 ~ Part 1

 

Thousands of miles away from home, in completely different surroundings, and inadequately adapted to the dreadful weather conditions, the Indian troops fought for a cause they hardly understood. I have already emphasized the particular relationship between the British officers and their Indian rank and file.

When a lot of these officers died in the first fights, many Indian soldiers felt dazed and left alone without those officers who understood them and knew their culture, their habits etc. Indian companies of which the commanding officer was lost, were brought under command of British units where no one understood them. Also, it was hard for the Indian troops to cope with some of the modern technologies. In the first weeks they fired at every airplane to be seen in the sky, no matter if it was friend or foe. They could not believe that such a flying monster could have anything but bad intentions. After a while an airplane was no longer a novelty and they hardly looked up when one was flying over.

In early November, the Ferozopore Brigade was moved to the Indian sector between Givenchy and Neuve-Chapelle. On 7th December 1914 the Sirhind Brigade arrived from Egypt, together with reinforcements from India. Mid-November saw the arrival of the 1st Indian cavalry division, one month later followed by the 2nd Indian Cavalry division. By the way, these two cavalry divisions would remain on the Western Front until the end of the War, while the rest of the Indian Army Corps was moved to Mesopotamia in late 1915.

In December 1914, there was heavy fighting in the Indian sector - a sector known for its bad trenches and, on 10th March, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle was fought, truly carnage for the British Indian troops. This explains why the beautiful Indian Memorial to the Missing is to be found in that small French village. The losses after the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle were so heavy that the Indian Corps had to be reorganized. From then on, every brigade consisted of two British and three Indian battalions.

On 22nd April 1915 at 5 p.m. the 2nd Battle of Ypres began with the first successful gas attack in history. Again the British Indian Corps - not yet recovered from the terrible Battle of Neuve-Chapelle - was called upon to fill a gap in the line. On 23rd April, the 1st Army, to which the Indian Corps belonged, received the order to prepare the Lahore Division for a move at very short notice. The next day the division marched northwards.

 

Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala with Belgian Generals on the frontline of the Belgium in April 1915.

-Photo couresy of Belgian Army Museum, Brussels

 

In the evening, HQ was installed in Godewaersvelde, called Gertie-wears-velvet by the British Tommy. The main part of the division was in Boeschepe on the French-Belgian border. In the early morning of 25th April 1915, the column arrived in Ouderdom, a hamlet between Vlamertinge and Reninghelst. Father Van Walleghem is even more precise:
The Indians are staying on the farms of Maerten, Lievens and Desmarets.

Upon arrival in Ouderdom, the men were exhausted having marched for a fortnight over slippery cobblestones (because of the rain) through hilly countryside. Only in Boeschepe had they had a short rest. The Lahore Division was now under command of the British 2nd Army of Smith-Dorrien. Among the British Indian troops the warning was spread that, in case of the use of gas, a handkerchief (or the pagri-dastaar) was to be placed over the mouth. It was recommended to soak the handkerchief (or pagri) in urine.

After the gas attack, the Germans had gained a considerable portion of the northern part of the Ypres Salient. Now the British, together with the French troops, wanted to make a counter-attack in order to force the Germans to withdraw from this new position. On the morning of 26th April 1915, the Lahore Division assembled between the Ieper-Langemark road on the left and Wieltje on the right, some 600 yards north of la Brique. The Ferozepore Brigade moved to its position through Vlamertinge, but the Jullundur Brigade went to Wieltje by the road winding along the Ypres ramparts. There they were caught in a heavy bombardment.

Most of the shells dropped in the water of the moat or exploded against the heavy walls of the ramparts. Sometimes the men shouted when a shell fell into the water. Nevertheless, one heavy shell fell in the midst of a company of the 40th Pathans, resulting in 23 casualties. As soon as the division was deployed in the fields near Wieltje, they were shelled with tear gas. German airplanes were doing recce flights above the heads of the Indian troops while nothing was done against them. Not a single allied aircraft was to be seen. On the other side of the Ieper-Langemark road, French colonial troops were deployed, on the right side of the Lahore Division, the British Vth army Corps. The Ferozopore Brigade took a position to the left, the Jullundur Brigade to the right. The Sirhind Brigade was in reserve near Saint-Jean with the Divisional HQ in Potijze.

After a preceding bombardment of only 40 minutes, at a quarter past two in the afternoon on 26th April 1915, the order to attack was given. Two officers per unit had been sent forward for a reconnaissance of the ground. None of them had returned. There was no information at all on the exact position of the German trenches, nor on at what distance they were (actually they were at a distance of 1500-2000 yards).

The rank and file of the Lahore Division were exhausted after a heavy march and their position was exactly localized by the enemy as the German planes had been able to scout without any obstacle. Moreover, the troops first had to cross open ground, varying from several hundred yards to almost a mile before reaching the first German line and thus the real line of attack. The relief was not favorable either, as the ground first rises slightly over a few hundred yards, then over another few hundred yards it declines slightly before rising again towards the German frontline. The British and Indian artillery was ineffective as they did not know the precise location of the German lines either. Once out of the trenches, every sense of direction was gone and the various units in the attack were mixing up, French, Moroccans, British and Indians. After the first gentle slope, they arrived in an inferno of gunfire, machine gun fire and shells, among which also tear gas shells. The men fell by the dozen and very soon the attack was stopped. The reinforcements did not arrive.

It is obvious that the number of casualties was extremely elevated. The 47th Sikhs, which was in the first line of attack, lost 348 men from a total of 444, or 78 % of the battalion! It was almost annihilated. In total the attack resulted in almost 2000 casualties in the two brigades. During this attack, Corporal Issy Smith of the 1st Manchesters, which belonged to the Jullundur Brigade won a Victoria Cross. Amidst heavy shelling and continuous gunfire, he had ceaselessly evacuated the wounded.

Also Mula Singh and Rur Singh of the 47th Sikhs distinguished themselves by saving many lives. Bhan Singh, a Sikh of the 57th Wilde's Rifles, was wounded in the face early during the attack. Nevertheless, he stayed near his officer, Captain Banks. When Banks fell, Bhan Singh thought just of one thing, bringing Banks back, dead or alive. Weakened as he was, he stumbled on with Banks' body under heavy fire until he was completely exhausted. However, he did not return without first saving Banks' personal belongings.

None of the attacking troops managed to reach the first enemy line. Moreover, every attempt to consolidate the positions reached, failed when the Germans reopened the gas bottles at 2.30 p.m. When the gas reached the Indian troops, an Indian havildar was heard shouting: "Khabardar, Jehannam pahunche", which means "watch out, we have arrived in Hell". In no time the ground was filled with men being tortured in a terrible way.

Although all the attacking troops were touched by the gas, it were mostly the Ferozepore Brigade and the Moroccans to the left of them who were touched. They withdrew in the biggest chaos, leaving the dead and the dying in no man's land. Nevertheless, a small party, led by Major Deacon, could resist a German counter attack and was able to stand in no man's land. Jemadar Mir Dast of the 55th Coke's Rifles, attached to the 57th Wilde's Rifles stayed in no man's land when all officers were dead or wounded. He assembled all the men he could find, among whom many who were slightly gassed, and kept them together till sunset. Only in the dark did he return, bringing a lot of wounded with him. He also helped by searching and bringing back many other wounded Indians and British although he was wounded himself. For this deed, he received the Victoria Cross.

The award of the VC to jemadar Mir Dast for his actions on the night of 26th - 27th April, was of more than usual significance. Mir Dast had a brother, jemadar Mir Mast. On the night of 2nd - 3rd March, Mir Mast was in command of a section of the firing line near Neuve Chapelle when he deserted to the Germans, taking with him two havildars, two naiks and two sepoys.

But let's get back to the night of 26th -27th April 1915 when the chlorine gas was to be smelt the whole night. Only late that night could the remnants of Major Deacon's party be relieved. The Ferozepore and Jullundur Brigades were withdrawn to the Brieke while the Sirhind Brigade replaced them in the first line. Men of the 34th Sikh Pioneers did try to consolidate the difficult position when Major Deacon did manage to keep a stand.

Later, two men of that unit, sappers Jai Singh and Gujar Singh, were awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal because they had established communication lines under constant fire. On the three following days, the attack was repeated again and again, but never with any result for the North Africans, British and Indians. The Germans opened the gas cylinders time and again and, on 27th April, the first "gas masks" were issued. Shortly after 1 p.m. on 27th April, the Moroccans, the Sirhind and the Ferozepore Brigades went again in attack, now supported by the Canadian artillery.

The two Gurkha battalions, the 4th London and the 9th Bhopals led the attack and suffered the highest number of casualties. When it was discovered that the barbed wire in front of the German trenches was untouched, the action was called off.

During the night of 29th -30th April 1915, the Jullundur and Ferozepore Brigades were withdrawn to their billets in Ouderdom. Because they were also under frequent bombardments there, the men preferred to stay out instead of sleeping in their huts. A shelling in the early morning of 1st May made the beasts of burden of the 47th Sikhs panic and escape from their compound and had to be chased over a wide area.

 

Sikh Soldiers performing kirtan in the yard of a Flemish or French farm, 1914-15.

-Maharaj Duleep Singh Trust London

Finally, after a last desperate attempt to break through the enemy line, the Sirhind Brigade left the firing line and rejoined the rest of the division in Ouderdom on 2nd May. The next day, the Lahore Division marched off to rejoin the Indian Corps near Neuve-Chapelle. Between 24th April and 1st May , the Lahore Division had lost 3889 men, or 30 % of the troops it had employed.

It was the last time that the Indian troops were deployed on a massive scale in the Ypres Salient. This does not mean that with regular intervals, British troops were to be seen in the Flanders Westhoek. In June 1915 father Van Walleghem writes in his diary that Indian soldiers had been around for a few weeks already.He observed all strange troops who passed through or settled in his area. His diary notes are still worth reading, not only on the people he describes, but just as much on the author's own mentality. His diary entry dated 6th June 1915 details the Indian soldiers:
Several Indian soldiers are also staying at the parish closest to Vlamertinghe. Their skin is dark, their army dress typically British apart from a turban which they have artfully wound around their heads. They speak English, some even French. They are very curious and ask and talk a lot. They would walk for half an hour to get some milk, stand around watching your every move as you serve them,

They get their Indian money out, called the rupee (2.80) and get mad when people refuse to accept their currency. They do not (or not to) understand the value of our money. By and large they are friendly and polite, yet their curiosity often gets the upper hand as they take you in from head to toe. They especially like to take a peek through the windows of our homes. They bake some type of pancakes and eat a type of seed with a very strong taste.

After May 1915, the Indian Corps saw action near Aubers Ridge, Festubert and Loos. After the Battle of Loos (25th September 1915) it was decided to send the Indian Corps to Mesopotamia. Earlier that month, the highly appreciated commander of the Indian Corps, General Willcocks, had resigned. There were different reasons for his resignation. Willcocks' constant interest in the morale of the troops, his frequent protests against a bad employment of the corps, his concern regarding the large number of casualties and the difficulties met in replacing these casualties, his indignation on the fact that the public in India did not hear anything from the exploits of the Corps because of the very strict, often irrational censorship and the impossibility to send his men on leave - all these factors had roused peevishness with his superiors, and especially with Douglas Haig.

During the preparation for the Battle of Loos on 6th September 1915, there was an open conflict between Haig and Willcocks. Haig had lost all sympathy and patience with the Indian Corps and so General Willcocks took his conclusions and left. Later, in his book "The Indian Corps in France", published shortly after the war, the general defended the Indian Corps - often in sharp and bitter wordings.

By the end of 1915, the Indian army Corps had left Europe. In 14 months it had lost 34,252 men. However, there were always some Indian battalions at the Western Front, for example, during the battle of the Somme.

Apart from the dreadful conditions in which the Indian troops had to fight, the two main problems they had to face were the lack of reinforcements (from India) and the large number of casualties among the British officers. The corps did arrive in France with 10 % reserves for the Indian units but these reserves were already used in replacing the sick and the unfit even before arriving at the front.

The reserve system was totally inadequate and a large number of the Indians arriving in Marseilles as reinforcements, turned out to be unfit for active service being too old, too weak, having bad health or lacking any training. The large number of victims made the problem acute. A solution was found in sending complete Indian units from India to Europe, without searching for new recruits. This, in turn, caused problems in India itself.

The replacement of British officers in the Indian Army was also a big problem. The special relationship between the British officer and his Indian rank and file has been taken into account earlier. It is evident that the arrival of new officers who did not understand anything of the Indians, did not know their background, and had problems in communicating with them, were not positive for the morale at all.

After the Indian Corps left, the Indians were no longer present in large numbers on the Western Front. However, this does not mean that there were no Indian units at all anymore. At Lijssenthoek Cemetery, Poperinge for instance, a Sikh is commemorated, a cavalryman killed on 2nd November 1917.

For the Belgian population, the Indians were an experience. Young Oscar Ricour:
There were Sikhs in het hellegat and in the fire-wood. They were baking those large pancakes. One time, as I was passing by, some of them were sitting down on the ground, with open legs; around a bucket.When it was getting dark, they sang songs in their manner.

Maurits Liefooghe:
In 't hellegat, it was full with men from India, men with turbans.Sikhs they were called. They ate all kind of pancakes, a kind of thick pancakes. We went to look at them from time to time as they were making these pancakes. They were not there for warring, to fight. They were there to transport the ammunition to the guns.

 

Sikh Soldiers exchanging gifts with local boys in Flanders, 1914-15.

-MDST London

At the end of the war and in the first post-war years, there were also units of the British Indian Labor Corps active in the Flanders Westhoek. They were not military, but civilians working for the British army. The labor they did was repairing roads, clearing of the ruins etc. In September 1919, the much feared chinks (coolies) were replaced by the Indian, much to the relief of the returned population. To end with Father Van Walleghem:
These Sikhs were somewhat curious and loved to look around everywhere, but they were not mad.

Regiment Informations:

9th Bhopal Infantry (-): 2 Sikhs, 2 Rajputs, 2 Moslims, 2 Brahmins
15th Ludhiana Sikhs (Multan): 8 Sikhs
34th Sikh Pioneers (Ambala): 8 Mazbi en Ramdasia Sikhs
40th Pathans (Sialkot): 2 Orakzais, 1 Afridis, 1 Yusufzais, 2 Dogras, 2 Punjabi Moslims
47th Sikhs (Rawalpindi): 8 Sikhs
57th Wilde's Rifles (Dera Ismail Khan): 2 Sikhs, 2 Dogras, 2 Punjabi Moslims, 2 Pathans
59th Scinde Rifles (Kohat): 3 Pathans, 2 Sikhs, 1 Punjabi Moslims, 2 Dogras
125th Napier's Rifles (Nasirabad): 4 Rajputana Jats, 2 Rajputana Rajputs, 2 Punjabi Moslims
129th D. of C.'s Own Baluchis (Karachi): 2 Punjabi Moslims, 3 Mahsuds, 3 other Pathans
15th Lancers (Cureton Multanis): 4 eskadrons Multani Pathans and Moslims from the Dejarat and Cis-Indus.

Ranks

First Battle of Ieper, Belgium
In October 1914 (Comander in chief: Lieutenant-General H.B.B. Watkis)

Infanterie

Ferozepore Brigade (Comander: Brigadier-General R.M. Egerton)

1st Connaught Rangers (Brits)
57th Wilde's Rifles (Frontier Force)
9th Bhopal Infantry
129th Duke of Connaught's Own Baluchis

Jullundur Brigade (Comander: Major-General P.M. Carnegy)

1st Manchesters (Brits)
15th Ludhiana Sikhs
47th Sikhs
59th Scinde Rifles (Frontier Force)

Sirhind Brigade (Comander: Major-General J.M.S. Brunker)

1st Highland Light Infantry (Brits)
1/1st Gurkhas
1/4th Gurkhas
125th Napier's Rifles

Divisional Troops

15th Lancers (Cureton's Multanis)
34th Sikh Pioneers

Second Battle of Ieper, Balgium
In April 1915 (Comander in chief: Major-General H. D'U. Keary)

Infanterie

Ferozepore Brigade (Comander: Brigadier-General R.M. Egerton)

1st Connaught Rangers (Brits)
4th London (Brits)
57th Wilde's Rifles (Frontier Force)
9th Bhopal Infantry
129th Duke of Connaught's Own Baluchis

Jullundur Brigade (Comander: Brigadier-General E.P. Strickland)

1st Manchesters (Brits)
4th Suffolks (Brits)
40th Pathans
47th Sikhs
59th Scinde Rifles (Frontier Force)

Sirhind Brigade (Comander: Brigadier-General W.G. Walker)

1st Highland Light Infantry (Brits)
4th (King's) Liverpool Regt (Brits)
15th Ludhiana Sikhs
1/1st Gurkhas
1/4th Gurkhas
125th Napier's Rifles

Sikh History and World War I and II.

<><><><><>

Sikh soldiers of 15th Sikh regiment ( Multan ) landed in Marseilles -
France on the 26th of September 1914 for the 1st time.

This year 2014 is being remembered as the arrivals of the Sikhs in Europe as well as the
year of the beginning of World War I. Also the Sikhs had their first action
against European country that is Germany on 26 October 1914 near
Hollebeke - Belgium where a Sikh Monument stands since 3rd of April 1999, built
by the City of Ieper and inagurated by Panj Piaras to mark the 3rd
Century of the birth of the Khalsa. That means these historical event are
being celebrated throughout the world and in Europe by the Sikhs and
Europeans together.


Fans of Flanders - Sikhs in World War I
https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=eSamFuXDdRI

Governor of Flanders and Deputy Mayor of Ieper - Belgium releases "Sikhs in World War I"
http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=OSYFUhm57N4


5 Sikh Monuments of WW I & II
World War I - Belgium
Hollebeke - Belgium on 03-04-1999

Wijtschate - Belgium on 09-11-2008
http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=G7_R6-SR_bs
http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=cx2Fk-_dGxM

World War II - Italy
Forli - Italy on 13-08-2011
http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=If_tpEVb0eY

Marrade - Monte Cavallara, Italy on 19-05-2013
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VI7HsZb_xOE

Sikhs in World War 1 release by President of SGPC, Amritsar at Ramgarhia Girls College, Ludhiana 14-08-2013

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oe-YakTMNeE

Sikhs in World War I, launched by Gurwara Maan Sarover Sahib, Amsterdam - Europe

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHG4dsnNTqo

About WWI and II in the House of Commons, UK (Special Program)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kQCf_oXjGjw


In Novellara City on 25-04-2014, 3rd Monument of the Sikh Soldiers of WW2 was inaugurated by
World Sikh Shaheed Millitary Yaadgari Committee, Italy and City of Novellara R,E.

 

 

Sikh Soldiers exchanging gifts with local boys in Flanders, 1914-15.

-MDST London