Home Articles A Portrait of Courage: The Sikh Regiment in France & Flanders: 1914-15

A Portrait of Courage: The Sikh Regiment in France & Flanders: 1914-15

by nishaan@magazine

The first troops to land in France were, in fact, the XV (Ludhiana) Sikhs, part of the 8th (Jullundur) Brigade, themselves part of the 3rd (Lahore) Division, whose other battalions were the 47th Sikhs, 59th Scinde Rifles (Frontier Force) and 1st Manchesters.

They were on the convoy which had reached Marseilles on 26 September 1914, the Indian Corps disembarking the same day and proceeding to camp. This was the first time Indian troops had stepped ashore on the European continent, and they were greeted by the local population with great cheers and enthusiasm.

As reported in The Times, “the arrival of the Indian Corps at Marseilles was a landmark in history. No episode in this extraordinary war was more remarkable or, for Britons, more inspiring than the presence of Indian troops on the Continent of Europe. For India, the event was, if possible, of even greater significance. The march of her sons through the streets of Marseilles was kind of an initiation. A phantom had been laid that shadowed her prestige. Invisible barriers had been broken down. New vistas of honour were opened out before her.

Throughout the forenoon while the troops were landing, excitement had been steadily rising in the city, and the dispatching of the British and Indian soldiers through the streets in the afternoon en route to their camps was a signal for the whole of Marseilles to turn out en fete — gaily-dressed streets were packed with a seething mass of humanity.

First came a detachment of Sikhs, for the greater part head and shoulders above the spectators. They received the Plaudits of the crowd with the imperturbable smiling composure so typical of their race. The police guarding the road were swept aside, the ranks were rushed, men and women shook the Sikhs by the hand, and young girls showered flowers upon them, pinning roses in their tunics and on their turbans. Tricolours were distributed with prodigal favour, old ladies with bitter memories of 1870 pressed forward the better to admire these handsome, bearded men, and it would be difficult to conjure up anything more touching than the sight of those frail women patting the bronzed giants on the back and calling down blessings on their heads.”

At Marseilles, the Indian troops were re-equipped with new high-velocity rifles and given some practical firing practice, albeit briefly. Entraining on 30 September, the Jullundur Brigade arrived at Orleans two days later, proceeding to camp where they were organised in accordance with the new platoon establishment and the 1914 drill was adopted.

The Lahore Division camped at the Champs de Cercettes, about 6 miles from Orleans till 18 October, the period being utilised in completing transport detail, getting reserve ammunition, warm clothing etc. but many difficulties were encountered as supplies were short.

On that very wet day, the Division entrained for Argues and Blendercqnes, where they arrived on 20th October, the Indian troops getting their first experience of billets. The Jullundur Brigade arrived at Witzemnes, going into billets near the GHQ at St. Omer and on the following day proceeded on a long march to Meteren, now truly experiencing field conditions, establishing outposts in heavy rain with no rations issued till the late evening. Several aircraft were observed in the sky, the Brigade’s heavy baggage wagons had yet to arrive and heavy firing was heard from the direction of Lille.

The Lahore Division marched to the area around Wallon Cappel and Lynde on the 21 October, the day the German Army commenced a very strong offensive along the whole line from La Bassee in the south to Menin in the north, the B.E.F. being pinned to the defensive. The position was critical, for the Allies were outnumbered and outgunned by the German army, making desperate attempts to break through but these were frustrated by the dogged fighting ability, indomitable courage and tenacity of the allied officers and men.

At 0450 hours on the 23rd orders were received for the Lahore Division to march at once to Estaires.

La Bassee was held by the Germans under the Crown Prince of Bavaria as also the La Bassee — Leele canal and country immediately to the south and east. The British II Corps had been facing the onslaught for 10 days and after continuous fighting, were wilting under the strain. Fortunately, the Lahore Division under Lt. General Watkis had arrived, albeit with just the Jullundur Brigade. The Jullundur Brigade were at once utilised on the left of the II Corps, taking over the ground held by the Cavalry who were then moved north.

The Commander-in-Chief, General Sir John French was in the market square at Estaires when the 15th Sikhs, 34th Sikh Pioneers and 59th Rifles (F.F.) of the Jullundur Brigade marched past him in column of route, which continued down the La Bassee Road to Rouge Croix where they went into billets. The Sikh Company of the 59th took up an outpost line beyond Rouge Croix and enemy shelling was now first encountered, many British wounded being passed and the road crowded with French refugees streaming back from the front. The 1st Manchester’s and  47th Sikhs were relieved by the 59th Frontier Force and 15th Sikhs at dawn on 24 October and dug themselves in at once, under enemy shelling. At dusk that day the 59th moved forward to take over the line occupied by French Cavalry piquets. Anew line of trenches was dug and it is interesting to record that this line, established by the 59th, was to remain virtually unchanged in British and Allied possession till it was lost, in 1918, when held by a Portuguese Division.

The rushing in of Indian troops into battle without proper plans or equipment was an indication of the desperation of the situation but could hardly be considered an auspicious beginning, with troops split up and pushed in piecemeal by battalions, by half battalions and even companies, in totally strange environment, completely isolated from their own Commanders and brigades, in appalling weather conditions and facing terrible fire and attack from superior odds.

For over a week, till 1 November, the three battalions were fated to undergo a harassing experience, outnumbered and outgunned, without the bombs, grenades and other munitions freely used by the enemy. The 15th Sikhs were on the right and in touch with the Gordon Highlanders (8th Brigade). The 59th Rifles (FE) carried on the line to the left where one company of the 34th Sikh Pioneers took over an advanced post from the French and linked up with the 59th. This detachment was attacked within an hour of their relieving the French and engaged in severe fighting but the defence was ably carried out till the evening of the 26th October by Subedars Sher Singh and Natha Singh after the British officers Captain Bailey and Lt Browne had been wounded.

On the 26th, the Germans took up strong entrenched positions opposite the Jullundur Brigade and a heavy attack developed against the 59th centre, which was reinforced by the 15th Sikhs. A vigorous fire fight ensured but after an hour, the Germans were beaten back to their trenches all along the line. On the 28th, two more attacks were launched but were beaten off and a night attack repulsed on the following night.

In spite of heavy artillery bombardment on the 59th, 34th and 15th, the line had been held and, in fact, reinforced by two Companies of the 47th Sikhs, which were a very welcome addition as the situation was ‘rapidly becoming critical.

The weather was extremely trying, very wet and cold and the Jullundur Brigade had been fighting without sufficient food and with little or no sleep for two days, soaked to the skin. Snipers were worrying the Brigade and so patrols from the 15th Sikhs carried out house-to-house search. Further attacks were repulsed with the aid of machine guns and artillery. On the 27th evening, the 15th Lancers were sent up as reinforcement, representing absolutely the last available reserves. Fortunately, the Germans had taken a severe mauling, too and there were no further attacks. On 1 November, the battalion were relieved by the other units, one of which, the 47th Sikhs, had meanwhile been heavily engaged in the attack on Neuve Chapelle and covered themselves with glory.

Messages poured into the Jullundur Brigade from Lord Kitchener, Sir John French, GOC II Corps and the GOC Lahore Division congratulating the troops “for the splendid courage and endurance in battle… and the fighting powress they have shown… giving the enemy a severe blow, successfully frustrating all their efforts”.

On 26-October, the Germans had managed to gain a footing after a violent struggle on the north-east side of Neuve Chapelle, having advanced under cover of the Bois du Biez woods which were slightly to the east.

During the 27th, desperate hand-to hand fighting took place for possession of the village and inspite of vigorous counter attacks by the 7th and 9th Brigades of the 3rd British Infantry Division, the Germans still clung to their hold. Heavy German reinforcements were brought up and British troops, fighting the greatest valour, were forced back and the entire village taken by the Germans.

Neuve Chapelle

The German salients had created a dangerous situation and it was imperative to rectify this without delay. At 1700 hours on 27 October, the Germans broke to the south of Neuve Chapelle forcing the West Kents, Wiltshires and South Lancashires to retire. The danger of a gap being created between the 3rd and 5th British Divisions could seriously affect the entire position of II Corps. The 9th Bhopal’s were ordered at once to counter attack in the direction of Pont Logy in order to outflank the Germans, now advancing west of Neuve Chapelle. Confused fighting took place in the hamlet south of Neuve Chapelle and during the chaotic fighting, many casualties were suffered. By now, the two Companies of 47th Sikhs and Nos. 20 and 21 Companies Sappers and Miners, under Major S.R.Davidson, had moved into line on the left of the Bhopal’s but considerable gaps remained. Frequent attacks were made throughout the night by the Germans but were repulsed while heavy machine gun fire, with searchlights from Neuve Chapelle, were sweeping the front and trenches all night.

A brief description of the village of Neuve Chapelle and the area immediately around it would be pertinent. It lies in a flat, marshy, dyke chequered country, but close behind it to the east the ground begins to rise gently towards a ridge, which comes westward in two spurs. At the end of one spur is the village of Aubers, at the end of the other is the village of Lillies, both places were within the German lines. Beyond the junction of the spurs the ridge runs away north-east, from Fournes to a point two miles south-west of Lille; and along this ridge is the road to Lille, to Roubaix and to Tourcoing, three of France’s chief manufacturing towns. Possession of the ridge was so important a step towards the possession of Lille that its occupation was regarded as almost implying the capture of that town. Neuve Chapelle formed the gateway which gave access to this ridge. The capture of Lille would indeed have been of the highest importance. It would have placed the Allies in a fair position to move against the Germans between that point and the sea. For this the capture of Neuve Chapelle was a necessary preliminary.

The village, although it occupied a considerable area, was of a straggling character; the population being quite small. A little river, the River Des Layes ran behind it, to the sourth-east; and behind the river, a good half mile from the village, was a wood, the Bois du Biez. On the west, almost at right angles to the river, the village was skirted by the main road from Estaires to La Bassee. At the north of the village was a triangle of roads, where were a few big houses, with walls, gardens, orchards. Here the Germans had established a strong post, which flanked the approaches to the village from that side. Their trenches at this point were only about 100 yards from those of the British. In other parts of the line, however, the distance was much greater, and therefore a much large space of open ground had to be covered by the attacking forces before they could reach the enemy’s lines.

Behind this area the Germans had established a post with machine guns at a bridge over the river, and one a little further up at the Pietre mill. Lower down the river, at the junction of a road into the village with the main La Bassee road, they were fortified in a group of ruined buildings known as “Port Arthur”, whence a great network of trenches extended north-westward to the Pietre mill.

The Germans were also established in Bois du Biez, and in shattered houses on its fringe. They were well and strongly placed, though their forces just here were not large. For the German method at that time was to man their front trenches thinly, and keep large reserves in readiness to go where wanted, by means of their excellent lines of communication.

The British-Indian line now ran in a curve round the village, with the German’s closest at about one hundred yards distant. It was held from right to left by the 1st Royal West Kents, 21st Company S & M, two Companies of the 47th Sikhs, 20th Company S&M, the 4th Royal Fusiliers and 1st Lincolnshire.

Sir John French, the C-in-C had visited II Corps headquarters and directed it to maintain and strengthen its position but also to seize every opportunity for vigorous local offensive. The condition of II Corps, owing to the heavy losses and the fatigue of every battalion of both the 3rd and 5th Divisions was such that the C-in-C met Generals Smith—Dorrien and Willcocks at Merville and worked out arrangements for the relief of II Corps by the Indian Companies.

The operation orders for 28 October, issued by General Smith — Dorrien at 2300 hours on 27 October directed that, whilst other troops remained on the defensive, the 3rd Division should counter attack the Germans at Neuve Chapelle. The Indian troops west of Neuve Chapelle were placed under command of the Division whose 7th Brigade, the 14th Brigade of the 5th Division and the 2nd Cavalry Brigade were tasked to support some units of the 6th Division, the French chasseurs and cyclists of General Conneau’s Corps and the Royal Scots were also detailed to support the attack. However, in the event most of the troops were too exhausted by the previous day’s fighting to co-operate, except by fire.

Gallantry of the 47th Sikhs

Fog and mist prevented an early advance and it was not until 11.00 a.m. that a short general bombardment of the positions was begun by four British and nine French batteries. At 11.15 a.m the artillery lengthened five hundred yards and the Infantry should have moved forward. However, no properly combined movement between the units of the three different nationalities involved resulted, and the attack on Neuve Chapelle was carried out solely by four companies — two of the 47th Sikhs, with the 20th and 21st Companies of the Sappers and Miners on either side of them — with the greatest of gallantry. Their right was to have been protected by the 9th Bhopal’s but as the unit advanced, it came under very heavy fire and halted, and only continued to fire from a trench they had reached. The Sikhs and Sappers went on. Covering the seven hundred yards of open ground between them and Neuve Chepelle by rushes alternating with fire, as if on a training ground, the four companies reached the ruins of the village. Casualties were numerous but the excellence of their fire control saved much heavier loss. The Sikhs drove out the Germans (battalions of the famous 16th Bavarian Regiment) by dose hand-to-hand fighting.

 “When our men were about 100 yards from the outskirts of the village, the Germans in the front trenches began to bolt, pursued by the gallant Sikhs and Sappers with the bayonet, a few being killed and others captured. The Indians then tore on into the village, Sikhs and Sappers mixed together, and worked in parties up the streets, under a furious fire from the roofs of buildings.

By degrees, the houses were cleared after desperate hand-to-hand fighting in which a soldier of the 47th Sikh captured 3 Germans out of 8, having previously killed the other 5. From another house, the 47th recovered a wounded British soldier and 2 wounded Germans. The latter were searched, and one of them lifted his voice and wept bitterly, evidently thinking that our men were feeling for a soft place in which to insert a bayonet, until comforted by a stalwart Sikh who patted him kindly with the words “Be not afraid”.

On reaching the cross roads in the centre of the village, the troops came under frightful machine gun fire. Captain McCleverty, always in advance, cheering on his men just as he had cheered on the regimental hockey team, dashed across the roads, the rest following close on his heels, but he was shot dead at a corner by a German concealed only a few yards away. A PM of the Sappers soon stalked the German and killed him on the spot. Losses were rapidly becoming serious from enemy rifle fire in the houses and several machine guns posted outside Neuve Chapelle which swept the main street. The Indian -troops had even penetrated to the eastern and northern borders where they were met by heavy shell and machine gun fire and counter-attack after counter-attack was launched against them.

 “The blood of our men was up and nothing could stop them. After a prolonged and ferocious struggle, the whole of the main street was captured”.

The Germans held on like a vice and each house turned a small fortress which had to be stormed before further advance could be made. The Sappers & Miners were also taking terrible losses, especially their officers, charging with impetuous valour ahead of the men.

The fighting went on, counter-attack following counter-attack, the German’s using the bodies of their own dead as cover. Major SR Davidson of the 47th Sikhs was collecting his men for a final charge when the Germans came on in overpowering numbers from the North and East and at the same moment, the machine gun fire re-doubled its fury down the main street Without immediate reinforcements, the position of the 47th was now quite untenable as their losses had been very heavy. Thus Major Davidson was compelled to give up all he had won at such fearful cost, and retire, the line lying over some 500 yards of open ground, exposed to a tornado of shell and machine gun fire and the bodies of the gallant Indians soon lay thick on the ground. Eventually, the remnants of the two Companies of the 47th got back to comparative safety, —but only 68 out of the gallant 289 actually collected on the La Bassee road.

The troops were suffering terribly from want of water and were already dead beat but the Germans were counter-attacking all along the front and every man was required. Major Davidson was ordered to collect at Rouge Croix as many of the 47th Sikhs as were left with a view to holding the cross roads, which were almost certain to be attacked.

 “He asked his men whether they could do it, exhausted as they were, and to his delight, found that they clearly resented such a question. Off they marched again towards Rouge Croix, but were met by orders to go into billets”.

Such was the spirit of the Sikhs and it is on record that during the retreat from the village, under a fire described as hellish, the men were laughing and joking with each other and Captain Brown, afterwards killed at Neuve Chapelle, stood up at the halts to fire, his example being followed by many of the men. Major Davidson had throughout this confused and dingdong fighting shown the highest qualities of bravery and leadership and was awarded a brevet Lt. Colonecy in recognition of his services.

In the end, the 20th Sappers & Miners were left with just 20 men in the centre of Neuve Chapelle. Lt.Rait-Kerr, leading some reinforcements, was wounded but Sapper Dalip Singh stood over and kept up rapid fire to deter several parties of Germans from advancing, incredibly charging a party of 20 Germans who simply turned and fled. He then carried his officer back to safety. Another officer Lt. Nosworthy displayed an incredible example of bravery combined with an irrespressible love for fighting!

As recorded in official war history “The attack (on Neuve Chapelle) was magnificently carried out and was within an ace of success. It is probable that, had reinforcements been available, the 47th Sikhs and Sappers would have held the village which they took with such superb elan and at such a heavy cost”.

The magnificent conduct of the troops was recorded for posterity by Field Marshal Sir John French who, in his despatch dated 20 November 1914, recorded “On the 28 October 1914, especially the 47th Sikhs and the 20th and 21st Companies of the Sappers & Miners, distinguished themselves by their gallant conduct in the attack on Neuve Chapelle, losing heavily in officers and men”

As General Sir James Willcocks later wrote,

“The 47th Sikhs were raised in 1901 and have no battle honours on their colours. Throughout its service in France, this magnificent Regiment never failed to answer all calls. Its reputation would be secure and its right to fight shoulder to shoulder with the best British troops would be established, if based only on the record of Neuve Chapelle, but this action was only one of many in which the 47th Sikhs distinguished themselves”.

Pushpindar Singh

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