Sikh sacrifice in Belgium

From SikhiWiki
Jump to navigationJump to search
Sikhs soldiers off-duty presenting a gift to local boy

this article with thanks to: Bhai Bhupinder Singh Holland

Battles of Ieper, Belgium (1914-1915)

As soon as the war broke out in early August 1914, both British and the French were mobilizing their respective empires. Soldiers and labourers from all over the world were brought to the Western Front. More than 30 different nationalities were engaged in the Ypres Salient.

We must not forget that it is very difficult to define a nationality. For instance, Belgians include Walloons and Flemings, French includes Bretons, Occitans and Flemings, who were often unable to speak or understand French. The British includes of course, English, Scots, Welsh, Irish, Channel Islanders, and I might have even forgotten some.

I’ll just mention some nationalities apart from the main warring nations such as the British, German, French and Belgians. At a later stage in the war there were Americans and Portuguese troops. Further on there were Danes and Poles in the German army, as well as Russian and Italian P.O.Ws who were forced to work on the roads for the Germans. In the French Army, one would find Moroccan, Algerian, Tunisian, Senegalese, other West Africans, and troops from French Guyana as well as labourers from Indochina - the Ammanites.

The British and Colonial contributions in World War I


The British forces were, however, undoubtedly composed of the world’s greatest ever empire in 1914. Firstly, there were the Dominions; Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa in addition to the crown colonies of Newfoundland and, of course, our main subject today - Sikhs from British India. It is quite obvious that even here a uniform sense of nation remained blatantly absent.

The New Zealand contingent counted a Maori pioneer battalion amongst their ranks. The CEF boasted both French-speaking Canadians as well as native Americans, often deployed as scouts. Some units were comprised exclusively of Japanese troops. The South African Expeditionary Force consisted of white soldiers (in the brigade) and separate black labour units such as the Cape Coloured Labour Battalion, and the South African Native Labour Corps.

The then troops of the British Indian army or British Indian Labour Corps would, in our present day and age, be hailing from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Burma or Nepal. Even some smaller constituent parts of the British Empire sent their sons to Flanders’ fields, Egypt (Egyptian Labour Corps), BWI (the Caribbean and mainly Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados) and Bermuda, the Fiji Islands (Fijian Labour Corps). Then again, the British army itself counted amongst their ranks white Rhodesians.

The universally renowned coolies - the locals called them chinks - were, in fact, hired Chinese labourers who served in three armies - the British, the French and the American. There was even a Russian labour corps present in the British army. This enumeration is, without any doubt, incomplete. I have restricted the list to those nationalities whose presence in Flanders during the Great War is undeniably proven by evidence of written documents, testimonials or material and facts.

But let’s get back to our main subject of this talk, the Sikhs in the British Indian army and its presence in the Ypres Salient. This means that I will hardly mention Neuve-Chapelle, the main British Indian sector on the Western Front. Though only 25 miles south of Ypres, Neuve-Chapelle is not part of the Ypres Salient. In fact, the British Indian Army Corps was only deployed twice in the Salient, but each time at very crucial moments, at the end of October 1914 during the 1st Battle of Ypres, and at the end of April 1915, during the 2nd Battle.

Sikh soldiers in Marseille, France (September, 1914).

But first of all I need to give a short introduction on the British Indian army. The Indian army was organised in a similar way as the British army but there were some significant differences. First of all, it had it’s own military law. Secondly, in the British Indian Army a regiment equals a battalion, although there are some exceptions to this rule. This means, for instance, that the 15th Sikhs does not mean the 15th battalion of the Sikhs regiment, but the 15th regiment!

A British Indian infantry division was composed of three brigades with four battalions (after the battle of Neuve-Chapelle in April 1915, five battalions). One of these four battalions was British, among other reasons as an element of controlling the Indian troops. A British Indian battalion consisted in theory of 13 officers and 750 rank and file - less than its British counterpart.

In my story, only one division is involved - the Lahore Division - the other division of the Indian Army Corps was the Meerut Division. I give you the composition of the Lahore Division in October 1914:

Lahore Division

Ferozepore Brigade: 1st Connaught Rangers
57th Wilde’s Rifles
9th Bhopal Infantry
129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis
(April 1915: + 4th London)
Jullundur Brigade: 1st Manchester
15th Ludhiana Sikhs
47th Sikhs
59th Scinde Rifles (Frontier Force)
(April 1915: - 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, + 4th Suffolks, + 40th Pathans)
Sirhind Brigade 1/ Highland Light Infantry
1/1st Gurkhas
1/4th Gurkhas
125th Napiers Rifles
(April 1915: + 4/(King’s) Liverpool Regt, + 15th Ludhiana Sikhs)
Divisional Troops
15th Lancers (Cureton’s Multanis)
34th Sikh Pioneers
20th and 21st Companies Bombay Sappers and Miners 5th, 11th, 18th Brigades, RFA
109th Heavy Battery
Field Ambulances
111th, 112th & 113th Field Ambulance (Indian)

There were ethnic mixed battalions, such as the 57th Wilde’s Rifles (8 companies, of which 2 Sikhs, 2 Dogras, 2 Pathans, 2 Punjabi Muslims) and ethnic homogeneous battalions, such as the 47th Sikhs (only Sikhs). It was a clear policy of the British to ensure a spirit of competition between the different peoples. It is common knowledge that Sikhs and Gurkhas were considered to be martial races.

There were two types of officers, British and Indian with the British always commanding the Indian. The higher ranks had the same names as in the British army, but there were some specific ranks such as subadar major (cf major), subadar (cf captain) & jemadar (cf lieutenant - commanding a platoon).

At the level of the NCOs, Indian terms were used: havildar major (sergeant-major), havildar naik (corporal) and lance naik. A private was a sepoy. The cavalry had its own ranks such as risaldar (captain), woordie-major (Indian adjutant), kot daffadar (sergeant major) etc. A trooper was a sowar. It is also important to emphasise the very particular relationship that existed between the British officers, their Indian NCOs and the rank and file. The British officers did speak the local languages and the relationship towards the Indian troops they were commanding is best described as paternalistic. There are numerous accounts of mutual respect from the officers towards the Indians and vice versa.

Western Front

Maharaja of Patiala Bhupinder Singh, an Honorary Lieutenant Colonel in WWI, with Belgian Generals on the frontline, Belgium (April 1915).

The story of the British Indian army on the Western Front starts on 6th August 1914. On that day, the War Council asks the Indian government to send two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade to Egypt. The divisions chosen were the Lahore and the Meerut Divisions, later followed by the Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade which together formed the Indian Army Corps.

On 27th August the British Government decides to send the Indian divisions to France in order to reinforce the B.E.F. that had recently been forced to withdraw after Mons. Meanwhile, the Lahore Division was already on its way to the front. Its new destination was Marseilles, where it arrived by the end of September.

On its way to France, the Lahore Division left one of its brigades near the Suez Canal, and, as some units of the Jullundur Brigade only left India by the end of September, it was only the Ferozopore Brigade that was at its full strength.

Marseilles must have been a colourful sight in those days as it was also the port where most of the French colonial troops arrived. The British officers compared the behaviour of their troops with those of the Algerians, Moroccans, Tunisians and Senegalese. During the 14 months that the British Indian Corps stayed in Europe, Marseilles was the Indian base port. The Indian troops were enthusiastically received by the French population.

For the British Indian troops, Europe was a totally new and a strange experience. They did not understand the language and were not understood and their culture was completely different. The Indians and the French or the Belgians looked upon one another with strange eyes. Nevertheless, the Indians were well received by the French population.

From Marseilles the Indian troops went north, over Orleans. When the 47th Sikhs were moving up to the front, they were billeted in a large monastery near Saint-Omer on 20th October 1914 and were well received by the monks. However, the curious troops continually scrutinised the statues of the twelve apostles in the main corridor of the abbey. Finally, they accepted their British officers’ explanation that these were images of Christian gurus!

Indian Troops reach Belgium

On 22nd October 1914, the Ferozepore Brigade arrives in the “new-born” Ypres Salient. They are sent to the trenches between Hollebeke in the north and Messines in the south. The trenches were not an uninterrupted line then, but was more a series of loose trenches, without the complex system with saps, communication trenches etc. that we are to know later in the War.

The 1st Connaught Rangers - the British battalion that belonged to the Ferozepore Brigade - were the first to have their baptism of fire. The first Indian battalion that had to go into the firing line was the 57th Wilde’s Rifles in the vicinity of Wijtschate - Oosttaverne.

Sepoys from that unit are depicted on a famous picture taken in front of Café ‘t Nieuw Staenijzer in Wijtschate around that date. The photographs are from the IWM. However, the caption in the IWM is wrong. It says that these are soldiers from the 129th Baluchis. The mistake is made again and again. Strangely enough, (as it is clearly readable) the shoulder badge of the sepoy in the front is “57” and not “129”. No doubt the mistake was made because Khudadad Khan VC, belonged to the 129th Baluchis.

On that day, 22nd October 1914, we also see the first Indian war casualty of the Western Front; Naik Laturia of the 57th Wilde’s Rifles, commemorated on the Menin Gate. The arrival of the Indian troops went on and on. Father Achiel Van Walleghem, priest of Dikkebus, writes in his war diary that, during the whole night of 22nd -23rd October, the Indian troops are brought in by London double decker buses.

According to Van Walleghem, it was also the first day that the War could be clearly heard in his village. The next day, on 23rd October, the 129th Baluchis entered the trenches at Hollebeke while the last battalion of the Ferozepore Brigade, the 9th Bhopal Infantry, was arriving. The Connaughts and the Wilde’s Rifles were placed under command of the 1st British Cavalry Division, the Baluchis under command of the 2nd cavalry division. The rest of the Lahore Division, now without two of its three brigades, was deployed on the other side of the French border.

Indian troops attack the Germans

On 26th October, a grey and misty day, the troops of the British Indian army attacked the German trenches near Gapaard, a hamlet of Messines. It had rained the whole night and the trenches were full with mud and water. Remark: trenches were considered as being very temporary and thus they were no more than shallow ditches. As mentioned, there was not yet a continuous line of defence. Here and there were “big gaps” between the different positions through which it was easy for the enemy to infiltrate in the lines.

Above all, it was more difficult to distinguish an enemy trench from an old trench abandoned by their own troops. The result of the attack on 26th October 1914 was several hundred yards but as the initial position was by all means more favourable than the new line, the troops were withdrawn again to their first positions. This caused much incomprehension and even disenchantment among the Indian rank and file.

On 30th October, after a heavy initial bombardment, the Germans attacked the Indian troops from the ridge of the Zandvoorde. The Indian and British troops were by far in the minority, had little ammunition and sparse artillery support, so it was obvious that it would be very hard to stand to. Two companies of the 57th Wilde’s Rifles withdrew to Messines, where they were dispersed in the streets of the town. There was one officer there to point out the direction of HQ in Wijtschate, but some got lost and arrived in Kemmel, some 2.5 miles wrong! Other units of the 57th Wilde’s Rifles were also forced to withdraw. Thus, a Sikh company had to take a new position in the neighbourhood of a battery near the mill east of the Wijtschate-Messines Road.

Another company did not get the order to withdraw as all means of communication were cut or lost. When the message finally came through, it was too late as they were completely surrounded by German troops. The Baluchis too, in the neighbourhood of the chateau on the other side of the canal and the railway, had very difficult times when standing.

The battle raged on until the next day. After a bombardment that lasted the whole night, Messines was stormed by nine German battalions. They overwhelmed the trenches of the 57th Wilde’s Rifles and many units of this battalion were literally annihilated. Jemadar Ram Singh was the only survivor of his platoon.

Another Sikh, jemadar Kapur Singh, kept on fighting until everyone else was out of action, except for one wounded sepoy. As he did not want to surrender, he committed suicide with his last bullet. All British officers of the 57th Wilde’s Rifles, present on this part of the front, were killed. On that same day 31st October 1914 in the vicinity of Hollebeke, the action took place for which, some months later, Khudadad Khan of the 129th Baluchis was going to be the first Indian to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

Many losses are suffered

During the night of 30th-31st October, the Baluchis had lost a position near a farm because they were unable to discern German from French soldiers. So they saw too late that they were approached by Germans and not by the French, who were holding the line, to the left of them. Khudadad Khan belonged to the company operating one of the two machine guns of the battalion. He himself got heavily wounded during the fights later that day, but nevertheless kept on operating the only surviving machine gun. Just before, the other machine gun was lost through shrapnel fire, the British officer wounded and five men of the unit were killed. Finally, when the Germans were getting close, he destroyed his machine gun and pretended to be dead. During the following night, he crawled through the enemy lines and was able to rejoin his company.

The losses of the 57th Wilde’s Rifles and the 129th Baluchis were great during the last two days of October 1914. The Wilde’s Rifles lost 300 out of 750, the Baluchis had 240 men killed, wounded or taken as POWs.

During these events, the Jullundur Brigade was just on the other side of the border, in the vicinity of Neuve-Chapelle - soon to become the Indian sector. There too the British Indian troops were thrown into the firing line from upon arrival. From 29th October 1914, the complete Meerut Division did arrive there. But as I will limit my talk to the Ypres Salient, I will not focus on that.

Once again, I want to emphasise that the whole of the Lahore Division was not deployed during 1st Ypres. Battalions, half battalions and even companies, were separated and deployed separately in support of diverse British divisions. All this happened while the British Indian troops at least expected to stay together. On 29th October 1914, General Willcocks wrote in his diary:

Where is my Lahore Division?

Sirhind Brigade: left in Egypt,
Ferozopore Brigade: somewhere in the north, divided in three or four pieces,
Jullundur Brigade: the Manchesters in the south with the 5th division, the 47th Sikhs half with the one or the other British division, for the other half somewhere else.
The 59th and 15th Sikhs: in the trenches…

It is clear that this was not really favourable for the morale of the Indian rank and file.

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 emphasised 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.

More troops move in

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 reorganised. From then on, every brigade consisted of two British and three Indian battalions.

Sikh soldiers using gasmasks while defending Ieper in April, 1915.

On 22nd April 1915 at 5 p.m. the 2nd Battle of Ypres began with the first succesful 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.

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.

German make gains after the Gas Attack

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).

Heavy Fighting despite the use of Gas

The rank and file of the Lahore Division were exhausted after a heavy march and their position was exactly localised 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 favourable 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.

Bravery awards earned for courage

Sikh soldier

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.

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.

Action in other parts of Europe

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 any more. 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.

At the end of the war and in the first post-war years, there were also units of the British Indian Labour Corps active in the Flanders Westhoek. They were not military, but civilians working for the British army. The labour 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.

Sikh soldier memorial at Hollebeek

The monument at Hollebeek where Sikh soldiers were deployed in 1914 was unveiled on April 4, 1999. To honor 300 years of Khalsa and the sacrifice of Sikh soldiers during World War I, the City of Ieper together with the European Sikh Community organized a Celebration of Peace on Sunday 4 April 1999 at Cloth Hall in Ieper, Belgium.

Regiment Information:
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 Muslims
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.

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

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, Belgium
In April 1915 (Comander in chief: Major-General H. D’U. Keary)
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
  • Photo Credit: Ieper War photos

See also

External Links