Home Land War Britain and Allies The Indian Army on the Western Front

The Indian Army on the Western Front

Introduction

One and a half million volunteer soldiers from the Indian continent served in the Great War, 850,000 overseas. Of these 72,000 (5%) died - 50,000 (3%) were killed in action - of which 7,000 died on the Western Front.

When the war was declared, the native rulers of India gave their strong moral support to the British Government's war aims and generously contributed money to aid the British in fighting the war. Notably, the Nizam of Hyderabad gave 60 lakhs of rupees = £400,000, and the Maharajah of Mysore 50 lakhs = £333,000; a huge amount in those days. They also supported the sending of Indian troops overseas.

The Indian Army contingent - the Indian Corps - that served on the Western Front, consisted of two Divisions of infantry, namely the 3rd (Lahore) Division, and the 7th (Meerut) Division, along with their support troops of pioneers, artillery, and one Brigade of cavalry, the 4th (Secunderbad) Cavalry Brigade.

Although nominally under the authority of the Indian Government, once these troops arrived in an area under British operational control - eg The Western Front - they came under full British military authority.

Whilst all private soldiers (called sepoys from the Persian word for soldier = sipahis) were from the Indian sub-continent, the majority of the officers were British, as were some of the non-commissioned officers (NCOs).

The Indian troops were recruited in India from the so-called martial races, e.g. Sikhs, Pathans, Dogras, Jats, and Rajputs, not forgetting the Gurkhas from Nepal.

Indian Army arrives in France

These troops landed in Marseilles, France, on 26 September 1914, less than six weeks after the declaration war on Germany by the British. From there, they moved north by rail to the Ypres Salient where they were issued with the standard British Army Lee Enfield rifle. Within two weeks some elements of the India Corps moved into the Front Line. Their headquarters was located at Béthune.

The Indian troops arrived dressed in khaki drill - a lightweight tropical material - so were not best clothed for the ensuing winter. It was only by the end of 1914 that they were fully fitted out with the more suitable British Army khaki battle-dress that was made of a heavy serge material. This failure to provide adequate clothing was a reprehensible lack of foresight by the British High Command and it definitely had some affect on the morale of the Indian troops. (The word khaki is derived from the Hindi word for 'dust' or 'dusty', as found on the plains of India).

Into action

The first military engagement of the Indian troops took place south of Ypres after dark on 25 October 1914, between Wytschaete (White-sheet to the British Tommy) and Messines, where they successfully repelled a German attack. During this attack Sepoy Usman Khan earned the Indian Distinguished Service Medal.

The first offensive attack by the Indian Corps took place the next day in the same area, and over the next few days nine officers (five British and four Indian) and over 200 men were killed.

Their next engagement included an attempt to seal the breach that the Germans (under General Erich van Falkenhayn) had created in the British Line just south of Neuve Chapelle. On 28 October the Indian Corps initially succeeded in entering into the village of Neuve Chapelle itself, but, within hours, after fierce hand-to-hand fighting, was driven out by a strong German counter attack. Further fighting continued for a week with the additional loss of 25 British and more than 500 Indians killed, with 1,450 wounded.

The next major action was at a snow-clad Festubert 60km south of the Ypres Salient where, on 23 November 1914, the Germans broke into the Indian Corps trenches and hand-to-hand fighting raged; several trenches being lost to the Germans. Two Gurkha soldiers were later awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal for bravery in this action.

After an 'at all costs' order by the Indian Corps commander, Lt.-General Sir James Willcocks, the trenches were recaptured on 24 November and held despite further German attacks. A British officer, Lieutenant F A De Pass, and an Indian naik (corporal), Darwan Singh Nedi, were both awarded the Victoria Cross; the former posthumously.

In December 1914, in ever worsening winter conditions, the Indian Corps moved to the Givenchy area south of Neuve Chapelle. On 16 December they went forward to attempt the capture a German front trench line, but without success, losing 54 men killed. This raised the total number killed to that date to over 2,000. A second attempt was more successful, at least initially.

The Germans used various ruses to entrap the relatively inexperienced and unsophisticated Indian troops with mixed success. Amongst these were spurious white flags, indicating a willingness to surrender. Subsequently, orders were issued to the Indian Corps, from the highest levels of the British High Command that all white flags should be summarily fired upon.

With the onset of winter proper, the conditions on the battlefield progressively worsened, and the lightly clad Indian troops suffered particularly badly in the quagmire that the trenches quickly became. They even found it difficult to keep their weapons serviceable due the clogging effect of the all-pervading mud. Indeed, so bad were the conditions in the trenches that a retreat was ordered. This coincided with the firing of a mine sapped from the German lines which completed obliterated one whole company (around 200 men) of the Indian Corps, without trace.

New offensive in 1915

On 10 March 1915, elements of the Indian Corps participated in a British attempt by IV Corps (under Sir Henry Rawlinson) to break the German lines at Neuve Chapelle that was intended to capture the village, close by, called Aubers. Following on from an intensive 30-minute barrage by 345 guns, ranged by British reconnaissance aircraft, the British and Indians attacked along three kilometres of front. The water table was so high here that the Germans had partially resorted to above ground fortifications. Neuve Chapelle fell, as did four lines of the German trenches.

However, due to a transportation failure in getting the British guns moved in time to cover the advance on the Aubers sector, the troops there went in without covering fire and almost 1,000 were completely wiped out. Other equally futile attacks were ordered that day by the British 1st Army commander, General Sir Douglas Haig, with similar tragic results.

On 12 March the British and Indians repelled a German attack and almost immediately followed it with a counter attack. This was brought to a halt after two hours with very heavy losses. Haig then called up as yet uncommitted elements of the Indian Corps, and the British IV Corps, and gave them another 'at all costs' order. The Indian Corps commanders, already concerned about the wasteful losses the Corps had incurred, queried the feasibility of the order, finally cancelling it with Haig's presumably reluctant assent. However, the British IV Corps, led by their apparently unquestioning commanders, did mount an attack. But due to the state of exhaustion of the troops, from their unremitting exposure to German gunfire whilst in the reserve trenches, the British were unable to make much progress. The attack fizzled out and with it the Battle of Neuve Chapelle came to an unsatisfactory close.

At the cost of 7,000 British and 4,000 Indian troops a small salient of about 2sq. km. (1.3sq. miles) was created. Any thoughts by the Indian troops that final victory over Germany would be quick, and cheaply obtained, were firmly and finally crushed by this lesson in the realities of the Great War.

In April 1915, a joint British and Indian counter-attack near Langemarck in the Ypres Salient - site of the first two German attacks using the toxic gas chlorine dispersed from high-pressure cylinders - was launched on 24 April 1915. It went disastrously wrong. As the British and Indian infantry advanced across No Man's Land, they were mown down by artillery and machine gun fire. The attack failed even to reach the first German trench line and hundreds of the British and Indians were killed and wounded.

Despite personally-presented pleas against further attacks by General Sir Horace Lockward Smith-Dorrien, commander of 2nd Army, General John Denton Pinkstone French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), insisted that another attack take place.

On the following morning - 25 April 1915 - the Indian Corps had its first full exposure to toxic gas warfare, when 15,000 British and Indian troops went into action with heavy artillery support. Out-gunned by the German artillery, and once again caught in withering machine-gun fire, the Indian troops in the centre faltered and went to ground in shell holes. At this judicious point the Germans released toxic gas, trapping the Indians in the shell holes and preventing any further advance. The disaster was further exacerbated by French colonial troops from Senegal refusing to undertake a diversionary attack, killing their French officers, and retreating through their own lines to run amok in the rear areas.

It was around this time that a serious decline in morale occurred in the Indian Corps. It was largely fostered by the enormous casualties that the officers and men had suffered in less than a year, exacerbated by the difficult climatic conditions of Flanders and Northern France. Moreover, the heavy losses of experienced British Indian Army officers in the fighting were keenly felt by the Indian troops. Even more so as many of their replacements did not speak the Indian soldier's languages, and had little understanding of the traditional Indian Army ways. No doubt the news of the mutiny by Indian Sikh troops in Singapore in February 1915, and the subsequent execution by shooting of 47 of them, had also unsettled the Indian troops, in particular the numerous Sikh component of the Indian Corps.

Wisely, it was decided to withdraw the Indian Corps infantry from the Western Front and relocate them in areas to which they were more suited climatically and this took place in the latter months of 1915. Two Indian Cavalry Brigades remained on the Western Front until the end of the war, both serving with distinction.

The other British theatres of the Great War where Indian troops served, including some of those who were withdrawn from the Western Front, were: Egypt, Palestine, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and East Africa, as well as Aden and Bahrain. The vast majority of the troops in Mesopotamia campaign were from the Indian Army.

Finally, mention should be made of the sterling service given by the Indian Labour Corps. These men performed essential tasks behind the lines, but within the range of the enemy guns, such as baking, laundry, tailoring, etc., thus providing invaluable support to the fighting troops.

The graves of Indian Army officers, soldiers and members of the Indian Labour Corps are to be found in military and communal cemeteries all around the battlefields where the Indian Army fought. Notably at the unique Chinese and Indian Cemetery at Ayette south of Arras on the Somme. There is also an Indian Army Memorial at Souchez, northwest of Arras and at La Bombe, near Neuve Chapelle. It has an oriental-styled Indian Memorial to the Missing with 4,843 names.

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Last Updated ( Saturday, 25 July 2009 06:32 )  

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