France and Flanders

Empire & Commonwealth: Western Front / National Army Museum / CC-BY-NC-ND

Indian Expeditionary Force ‘A’

Background

At the outbreak of the First World War, the only professional army on the allied side were the British Army and the British Indian Army which comprised of Indian troops led by British officers.

The Western Front was a formidable theatre of war. It was the German’s backyard and at the time the ally’s enemies were considered the best in the world. The British Army which was also known as ‘Old Contemptibles’ was already stretched thin and desperate for further reinforcements. The help came in piecemeal from Indian troops who were not the best equipped in an alien culture fighting for their colonial masters in a hope that it will help the independence struggle back home for their political masters.

Arrival

It was no secret that the Indian troops while passionate about the cause were not equipped in the same manner as their British counterparts. It was part of the Colonial policy, which stemmed from the 1857 uprising, where weapons of Indian soldiers was a generation behind.

Further, the troops arrived in the harsh cold reality of Europe in their tropical khaki uniforms. Nevertheless, the troops adapted adequately and fought with discipline, bravery and honour.

The locals from Marseilles gave them a warm welcome. They were showered with flowers, wine and tobacco amidst loud cheers before they went into the front line.

The Battles

First Battle of Ypres

The First Battle of Ypres in Belgium was where the Indians first fought as part of the Western Front. It was 57th Wilde’s Rifles and the 129th Baluchis Battalions who came to the aid of the allies. The 129th Baluchis was the first Indian unit to carry out an attack on 26th October 1914 on the Western Front. It was here where the fitst Indian Victoria Cross was won by Sepoy Khudadad Khan of the 129th Baluchis on 31st October 1914.

Neuve Chapelle Attack

On 28th October 1914, the 47th Sikhs, 9th Bhopal Infantry and the 20th and 21st companies Sappers and Miners fought in the small village of Neuve Chapelle in France which was later also the scene of a major battle in 1915.

Battle of Festubert, November 1914

This was the first time where the Indian troops fought collectively as the Indian Corps. There were heavy losses. The Commander of the Indian Corps Sir James Wilcocks, realised the significance of this battle to his Indian troops who was determined to push forward to recover the lost trenches from earlier battles.

The Battle of Givenchy, 16-22 December 1914

There were more heavy casualties in Givenchy where the Indian Corps was ordered to go on the offensive and held on to the German trenches in appalling conditions. The Germans retaliated with detonating a series of mines followed by hand to hand combat on 20th December. Indian troops fought for around thirty hours non-stop before reinforcements arrived two days later.

Battle of Neuve Chapelle, 9-10 March 1915

The Meerut Division of the Indian Corps and IV Corps was the first planned British offensive in March 2015. More than 2000 bodies were counted in front of the Meerut Division alone.

Poison Gas and ‘Second Ypres’, 22 April 1915

At the second battle of Ypres which began on 22nd April was the first time when poison gas was used in the war. Heavy losses were sustained by the 3rd Lahore Division during an attack on 26th April. Although the troops fought with great gallantry, none managed to actually reach the German trenches. The exact location of the Germans was unknown and it was later found that the Indian troops were too far to charge.

Jemadar Mir Dast who was attached to the 57th Rifles was awarded the Victoria Cross as he rescued eight of his wounded comrades despite being wounded by the effects of gas himself.

Battle of Aubers Ridge, 9 May 1915

Around 2,093 troops were killed during this battle where the strategy was to carry out a surprise attack by two separate forces to were to meet at Aubers Ridge to cut off German forces in the triangle Neuve Chapelle-Aubers-Fauquissart.

Battle of Festubert, 15-25 May 1915

It was the Meerut and Lahore Divisions who took part the Battle of Festubert on 18th May. Lieutenant John Smyth of the 15th Sikhs was ordered to take a bombing party and two boxes of bombs from the old frontline to the captured trench over open ground with ten Indian volunteers. By the time they reached their objective only one man was left with him, the rest being either killed or wounded. Lt Smyth was awarded the Victoria Cross and all those who were with him were awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal (IDSM).

Action at Piètre, 25 September 1915

This was the last battle for the Indian Corps on the Western Front, one of four holding actions that took place at a distance from the battle of Loos.

Departure of Indian Infantry Units

By the end of 1915, it was decided to break up the Indian Corps and dispatch all Indian infantry regiments on other fronts. Two cavalry divisions however, remained in France till early 1918. The war dead are mostly commemorated on the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chapelle, some on the Menin Gate Memorial in Belgium or buried in cemeteries in France and Belgium.

Casualties

Total killed, wounded or died 9000 (approx.)
Total Sick 18,000 (approx.)
Total casualties 33,000 (approx.)

Battle Honours

Battle Honours are awarded to military units as official acknowledgement of their achievements in specific wars or battles of a military campaign. These honours usually take the form of a place and a date and are emblazoned on the colours of the units that are so honoured. Artillery units, which traditionally do not carry colours, are awarded honour titles instead. Units take great pride in their Battle Honours and specially hard-earned honours are commemorated annually by the celebration of selected “battle honour days”.

Battle Honours awarded to the Indian Corps in France and Flanders:

  • France and Flanders, 1914-18
  • France and Flanders, 1914-16
  • France and Flanders, 1914-15
  • France and Flanders, 1915
  • France and Flanders, 1916-17
  • La Bassee, 1914
  • Armentiers, 1914
  • Messiness, 1914
  • Ypres, 1914-15
  • Gheluvet
  • Festubert, 1914
  • Festubert, 1914-15
  • Givenchy 1914
  • Neuve Chapelle
  • Ypres 1915
  • St Julien
  • Aubers
  • Festubert, 1915
  • Loos
  • Somme, 1916
  • Bazentin
  • Delville Wood
  • Flers-Courcelette
  • Morval
  • Cambrai 1917

 

Honours and Awards

 

Victoria Cross - 6

 

  • 4050 Sepoy Khudadad Khan, 129th Baluchis, 31st October 1914 at Hollebeke, Belgium
  • 1909 Naik Darwan Sing Negi, 1/39th Garhwal Rifles, night of 23rd-24th November 1914, Battle of Festubert, France
  • 1685 Rifleman Gabar Sing Negi, 2/39th Garhwal Rifles, 10th March 1915 at Neuve Chapelle, France
  • Subadar Mir Dast, OBI, IOM, 55th (Coke’s) attached 57th (Wilde’s) Rifles (Frontier Force), 26th April 1915 at Wieltje, Belgium
  • 2129 Rifleman Kulbir Thapa, 1/3rd attached 2/3rd Gurkha Rifles, 25th September, 1915, south of Mauqissart in the Battle of Loos, France
  • 2008 Lance Dafadar Gobind Singh, 28th Light Cavalry attached 2nd Lancers (Gardner’s Horse), 1st December 1917, east of Peizières in the battle of Cambrai, France

Source: CAFHR-United Service Institution of India

A French farmer

A French farmer showing some of his farm implements to Indian troopers (British Library : Girdwood Collection )

An Indian Cavalry Brigade signal troop at work in France, July 1915 (British Library : Girdwood Collection )

An Indian Cavalry Brigade signal troop at work in France, July 1915 (British Library : Girdwood Collection )

An Indian Cavalry escort to the Commander in Chief, August 1915 (British Library : Girdwood Collection )

An Indian Cavalry escort to the Commander in Chief, August 1915 (British Library : Girdwood Collection )

Lieutenant Smyth

Lieutenant Smyth, VC (At right, holding book) of the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs with his men at a French village (British Library : Girdwood Collection )

Casualty arriving at a Field Ambulance (British Library : Girdwood Collection )

Casualty arriving at a Field Ambulance (British Library : Girdwood Collection )

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