Contribution of the British Indian Army in WW1
World War 1 was a time of great patriotism in the British Colonies. Many members of indigenous populations considered themselves to be as British as anyone born in the British Isles. Several paid their own travel costs and made great personal sacrifices to join the fight against what they saw as a common enemy. Men (and in some cases, women) from all parts of the British Empire (now the Commonwealth) took an active role in World War 1 and it is undoubtedly true to say that without their significant contribution the outcome of the war could have been very different.
Troops from Australia and New Zealand (ANZACs), Canada, West Indies, Africa (present day Zimbabwe, Malawi, Kenya, Ghana, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Uganda) and Nepal fought alongside the British and her allies. They fought on the Western Front (France and Belgium), Mesopotamia (modern Day Iraq) and in East Africa. They also contributed valuable supplies and money to the allied cause. The West Indies, in addition to men, gave sugar, rum, oil, lime, rice, cotton, clothing, wood and enough money to buy and maintain 9 aircraft and 11 ambulances; in all they contributed £2m to the British Government and various charities, (a huge sum in the early twentieth century) supplies and money they could ill afford to give.
By far the largest contingent of colonial troops came from the Indian sub-continent (present day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) totalling about 1.5m. The first Indian troops, both native and their British officers, arrived in France in September 1914, only one month after the declaration of war. By October 1914 they had won their first Victoria Cross (Britain’s highest military award). The Indian troops suffered greatly in France, not just from the fighting conditions but from extreme cold and damp. This was not helped by the fact that their uniforms were only suitable to wear in hot climates. Their misery was further compounded by the fact that a large proportion of their British officers were either killed or wounded. These officers had a special relationship with their men, speaking their languages and being familiar with their traditions and beliefs. Finding replacement British officers at short notice with the same intimate knowledge of the Indian troops was impossible. In all, approximately 700 officers were killed and 1,500 wounded.
140,000 troops (23 Indian infantry battalions and 14 cavalry regiments) saw active service on the Western Front and fought in every major campaign. They compromised half the attacking force at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915. Of the combatants 8,557 were killed and 50,000 wounded, many crippled for life. 5,000 of those who died were either never found or never identified.
700,000 Indian troops were sent to Mesopotamia (Middle East) to fight against the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), the largest contingent to serve in any of the WW1 theatres of war. Whilst climate was perhaps more to their liking, the conditions certainly were not and rivalled France in terms of suffering. 3,000 Indian troops took part in the infamous Gallipoli campaign, alongside those from Australia and New Zealand. 1,624 were killed, a loss of more than 50%. The Turks besieged the key British stronghold of Kut-alAmara, Iraq, capturing 11,800 British and Indian troops who were forced to march to Aleppo, Syria. Only 4,250 survived the journey.
The total number of Indian casualties during the war was: 62,000 killed in battle, 67,000 wounded, some of whom died from their wounds. In all at least 74,200 died during WW1. Many wounded colonial troops were sent to England to receive treatment and to recover from their injuries. Several were sent to the Royal Pavilion Hospital in Brighton which, during WW1, was used as a military hospital. 53 Hindu and Sikh soldiers who died from their wounds were cremated on the South Downs in accordance with their religious beliefs. 19 Muslims were buried in a cemetery close to the mosque in Woking.
Many British and Colonial troops displayed acts of immense courage and bravery in battle. There are too many to name them all and so this article concentrates on, and is dedicated to, those members of the British Indian Army, both native and their British officers, who between them won 14 Victoria Crosses. In total Indian troops won over 13,000 awards for gallantry.
As part of the centenary commemoration of the outbreak of World War 1 the people of the UK marked their gratitude to troops of the British Indian Army by presenting a bronze memorial plaque to their home countries (India and Pakistan), inscribed with the names of Victoria Cross recipients. There are their stories.
Khudad Khan was born in 1888 in the village of Dab, Punjab province, British India (now Pakistan). He was a sepoy (private) in the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Balchus. During the first battle of Ypres in March 1914 the German army tried to capture the ports of Boulogne, France and Nieuport, Belgium used by the British to import food and ammunition from England.
He was part of two machine-gun teams defending the ports. The members of both teams were killed and he was severely wounded. Despite this he continued to fire his gun. Left for dead he managed to crawl back to his regiment. His actions gave time for British and Indian reinforcements to reach the ports. For this matchless feat of courage and gallantry he was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first awarded during WW1. He was the first Moslem to be awarded a VC (approximately 400,000 Moslems fought on the side of the British in WW1). Khudada was promoted to subedar (captain). He died at his home in Pakistan in 1971.
Darwan Singh Negri
Darwan Singh Negri was a naik (corporal) in the 1st Battalion 39th Garhwal Rifles. On the night of 23/24 November 1914 near Festubert, France he was part of a team retaking and clearing the enemy from their trenches. Despite having two head wounds and another in the arm, he was amongst the first to enter the trenches in the face of close range heavy fire and bombing. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallantry. He was sent to Royal Pavilion Hospital, Brighton for treatment. Following his recovery he returned to his battalion and eventually retired with the rank of subedar (captain). He died in June 1950. The regimental museum of The Garwhal Rifles in Lansdowne, Uttarakhand, India is named The Darwan Singh Museum in his honour.
Mir Dast, an Afridi Moslem, was born in 1874 in the Maiden Valley, in present day Pakistan. He enlisted in the British army in 1894 and joined the 55th Coke’s Rifles. With the rank of jemedar (lieutenant) he was sent to the Western Front in January 1915 where he was attached to the 57th Wilde’s Rifles. During the 2nd Battle of Ypres in April 1915 he and his comrades were the victims of a chlorine gas attack. With no gas masks or suitable cover the allied troops were forced to withdraw. Although severely affected by the gas and slightly wounded, Mir rounded up survivors and kept them under his command, there being no British officers left. After dark he risked his life again to rescue British and Indian officers. He was promoted to the rank of chief officer and awarded the Victoria Cross for this selfless act of courage. He was gassed and wounded again on 13 May and. Like Darwan Singh Negri, was evacuated to the Royal Pavilion Hospital in Brighton where he was awarded his medal by George V. He never fully recovered from his injuries and was invalided out of the army in 1917. He died in Peshawar, Pakistan in about 1945. In 2016 a blue plaque to Mir’s memory was erected in Brighton City centre.
Shahamad Khan was a Muslim born in 1879 in Takhti, Nr Rawalpindi (Pakistan). He was a naik (Corporal) in the 89th Punjabis. On the evening of 12th/13th April 1916 on The Tigris Front in Mesopotamia he was in charge of a machine-gun section in an exposed part of the battleground. The team beat off three enemy attacks and Shahamad worked the gun single handed after all the men, with the exception of two belt-fillers, were either killed or wounded. They held the position for three hours at which time his gun was destroyed and the continued to defend using rifles until they were ordered to withdraw. Taking three men with him, Shahamad returned to the gun position and brought back his gun, ammunition and one severely wounded man. Finally he returned alone and removed all remaining guns and equipment with the exception of two shovels. He was awarded the Victoria Cross and the citation read: ‘But for his great gallantry and determination out line must have been penetrated by the enemy.’ He finished his army career with the rank of subedar (captain). He died in 1947.
Lala was born in 1876 in Kangra, Himachel Pradesh, India. He was a lance-naik (lance corporal) in the 41st Dogras. On 21 June 1916 during the First Battle of Hanna in Mesopotamia, he rescued five wounded men, tended their wounds and built a makeshift shelter. He heard the adjutant from his own regiment calling for help close to the enemy lines. Lala went to his aid and offered to carry the injured man on his back to safety. This offer was refused and so he took off his clothes to keep the officer warm and stayed with him until dark. He then carried another wounded officer from the temporary shelter to the main trench and returned with a stretcher to rescue his own adjutant. For saving the lives of these men, he was awarded the Victoria Cross. He died of polio in 1927. His last words were reported to have been ‘We fought true.’
Gobind Singh was born in Damoi Village, Rajasthan in 1887. He held the rank of lance-daffadar (a cavalry rank equivalent to lance corporal) in 28th Light Cavalry, attached to 2nd Lancers, Gardner’s Horse. On 1 December 1917 during the Battle of Camrai his regiment was surrounded by the enemy. It was vital that a message be taken to Brigade Headquarters informing them of the situation. Gobind volunteered to undertake the dangerous mission of taking a message to HQ, a distance nearly two miles, on three separate occasions. He succeeded each time although he had to finish each journey on foot because the horse he was riding was shot. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his courageous action. He survived the war and died in 1942.
Gobar Singh Negri
Gobar Singh Negri was born in 1895 in Chambra, Uttarakhand, India. He was rifleman in the 2nd Battalion, 39th Garwhal Rifles. At the age of 21 he was part of the attacking force at the Battle Neuve Chapelle. He was part of the bayonet party that entered the German main trench. He led the way through the trench helping to drive back the enemy until they surrendered. He died from his wounds and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He is commemorated on the Neuve Chapelle Memorial to those who died in the battle and have no known grave.
In 1971 in his home town of Chambra, the Garwhal Rifles erected a memorial in his honour and each year in April the local population hold the Gobar Singh Negri Fair as a way of paying their respects for his bravery.
Chatta Singh was a Sikh born in 1896 in Cawnpore, Uttar Pradesh, India. He served as a sepoy (private) in the 9th Bhopal Infantry. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his action on 13 January 1916 during the Battle of Wadi, Mesopotamia. He left cover to rescue his Commanding Officer, treated his wounds and stayed with him in the open under heavy fire for five hours. He dug cover with his entrenching tool to provide some shelter and under cover of darkness went for assistance resulting in the safe rescue of the officer. Part of the citation tells that he was awarded the VC for ‘conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty.’ He was promoted to havildar (sergeant) and died in Tilsara, Kanupur, India in 1961.
Bidlu Singh was a Hindu Jat born in 1876 in Dhakla, Punjab. He served as a risaldar (captain) in the 14th Murray Jat Lancers attached to the 29th Lancers. HE was initially sent to France but was then transferred to Palestine. On 23 September 1918 at Kh. Es Samariyeh, Palestine his squadron charged a strong enemy position on the west bank of the Jordan. Bidlu realised the squadron was suffering heavy casualties from fire coming from a small hill occupied by 200 enemy infantry with machine guns. Together with six others he charged and captured the enemy position. He was mortally wounded at the top of the hill whilst capturing the machine guns single-handed. All surviving enemy surrendered to him before he died. He was cremated where he fell. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross which is part of the Lord Ashcroft Collection in the Imperial War Museum. His name is inscribed on the Heliopolis Memorial at the War Cemetery in Cairo, Egypt.
The following are details of British officers serving with the British Indian Army who were awarded a Victoria Cross.
William McCrae Bruce
William McCrae Bruce was born in Scotland in 1890 and educated in Jersey, CI. He served as a Lieutenant with the 59th Sinde Rifles. On 19 December 1914 near Givenchy, France, he was in command of a small group of soldiers that captured an enemy trench. Despite being severely wounded in the neck he walked up and down the trench for several hours encouraging his men to hold their positions. He continued to do this until he was killed. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for ‘conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty.’ His Victoria Cross was bought by his old school, Victoria College, Jersey and is on display at the Jersey Museum. His name is recorded on the Neuve Chapelle Memorial.
John Smyth was born in Devon in 1893. At the outbreak of WW1 he was a Lieutenant serving with the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs. During the Battle of Festubert he led a bombing party of ten men towards the enemy position. Together with two men (the other eight having been killed or wounded) he took several bombs to within 200 yards of the enemy. In order to successfully complete the mission he had to swim a river whilst being exposed to heavy and sustained enemy fire. He was awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions. John Smyth was an interesting character and a highly decorated soldier during both World Wars and the intervening years. He was awarded the Military Cross whilst serving on the North West Frontier and was also recommended for a ‘Bar’ to his VC (in other words a second VC). Eventually reaching the rank of Brigadier he retired from the army in 1942 on health grounds. He was elected MP for Wandsworth Central at the General Election in 1945 and retired in 1966. He was made a Privy Councillor in 1961. In 1955 he was created 1st Baronet Smyth of Teignmouth and died in 1983 at the age of 89.
John Alexander Sinton
John Alexander Sinton was born in Victoria, British Columbia in 1884. His family were Irish Quaker linen manufacturers. Together with his family he returned to Ulster in 1890. He joined the Indian Medical Service in 1911. At the outbreak of the war he was a Captain. On 21 January 1916 at Orah ruins, Mesopotamia, although wounded in both arms and side, he remained on duty treating the wounded until daylight faded. On this and three other occasions he displayed a total disregard for his own safety and was awarded the Victoria Cross. In 1921 he was transferred to the civil branch of the Indian Medical Service where he remained until 1936. In 1943, during WW2, he was recalled as a Reservist with the honorary rank of Brigadier. He did valuable research into the spread and treatment of malaria and has the dubious honour of having three species of mosquito named after him. He died in 1956.
George Godfrey Wheeler
George Godfrey Wheeler was born in 1973 in Chakrata India. He was a Major in the 7th Hariana Lancers. At Shaiba, Mesopotamia on 12 April 1915 he led his squadron in an attempt to capture the enemy’s flag. He and his men attacked the enemy infantry and then retreated enabling the Royal Artillery guns to launch an attack. On 13 April he led a further attack during which he was killed. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his bravery under fire.
Frank de Pass
Frank de Pass was born in London in 1887 and attended Rugby School. He was a Lieutenant in the 34th Prince Albert Victor’s Own Poona Horse. On 24 November 1914, during the Battle of Festubert, France, he entered a small enemy trench (known as a ‘Sap’) and partly destroyed it, also rescuing a wounded soldier. On 25 November in a second attempt to capture the sap, which had been reoccupied buy the enemy he was killed. He was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. He was the first Jewish recipient of a VC and the first Indian Army Officer to receive one.