Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

The Indian Army Arrives on the Western Front

Indian Memorial Ypres

By Dominiek Dendooven, Flanders Fields Museum

The Indian Army‟s involvement on the Western front started on 6 August 1914. That day, the War Council in London requested two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade from the Viceroy's government to be sent to Egypt. The two selected infantry divisions were the Lahore Division (3rd India War Division) and the Meerut Division (7th Indian War Division). Together they formed the Indian Corps. The Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade was added later. On 27 August 1914 the British government decided that the Indian divisions had to be sent immediately to France, as reinforcement of the British Expeditionary Force, which had already suffered heavy losses in the Battle of Mons.

Part of the Lahore Division had since left. Its new destination was Marseille. It arrived in late September 1914. Along the way, the Lahore Division had left one of its brigades, the Sirhind Brigade, behind in the region of the Suez Canal. Because some of the units of the Jullundur Brigade did not leave India until the end of September, only the Ferozepore Brigade was at full strength.

To the Indians, Europe was a completely new and very strange experience. They did not understand the language, and the culture was completely different too. The Indians and the French or Belgians were puzzled by each other. Still, the Indians were given a friendly welcome by the French population, especially at the start of the war. From Marseille they traveled north via Orleans.

Arriving on Double-Deckers

In the meantime, the First Battle of Ypres had started. That battle—which according to official nomenclature would rage until 22 November—was the ultimate attempt by the Germans to end the war to their advantage in 1914.

On 22 October 1914 the Ferozepore Brigade entered the freshly dug trenches with the 1st Battalion Connaught Rangers—the British battalion that belonged to the brigade—first undergoing its baptism of fire. The first Indian battalion to be deployed in battle was the 57th Wilde's Rifles.

On the very same day, the first Indian casualty of war on the Western Front fell. He was “Naik Laturia, 57th Wilde‟s Rifles (F.F.)—55th Coke's Rifles (F.F.), son of Phehu, of Tikar, Hamirpur, Kangra, Punjab” and is now commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing in Ypres. The Indian troops continued to be brought in. Achiel Van Walleghem, priest in Dikkebus, writes in his diary that, for the whole night from 22 to 23 October, the Indian troops were brought in with English double-decker buses.

Marching to the Front

On 26 October 1914, a grey and foggy day, the troops of the Indian Army attacked the German trenches. It had been raining all night and the trenches were full of mud and water. Moreover, they were really not much more than shallow ditches, and there were large gaps in the defense line allowing infiltration by the enemy. The result of the attack on 26 October 1914 was a few hundred meters of land, but as the start position was better from all perspectives than the new line, the men had to retreat to their original positions—to the great incomprehension and even disappointment of the Indian troops.

After heavy fire on 30 October 1914, the Germans attacked the Indian troops. Indians and British were the minority and had little ammunition and little artillery support. Two companies of the 57th Wilde's Rifles retreated to the town of Messines, where they spread in the streets. Other units of the Wilde's Rifles also had to retreat.

A Sikh unit had to take up new positions in the proximity of a battery near the windmill east of the
Wytschaete-Messines road. One unit did not receive the order to retreat because all means of communication were cut off. When the message finally got through, it was already too late and they were surrounded by German troops. The Baluchis in the region of the chateau of Hollebeke, on the other side of the canal and the Ypres-Comines rail track had a particularly hard time to stay standing.

Quartered with British Troops

That night and in the morning of 31 October 1914, an action took place near Hollebeke for which Khudadad Khan of the 129th Baluchis would be awarded the Victoria Cross a few months later, the first Indian ever. On the night of 30 to 31 October the Baluchis lost their position in a farm because they could not distinguish German soldiers from the French. They therefore noticed too late that they were being approached by Germans—and not by the French who were fighting to their left. Khudadad Khan belonged to the unit that operated the two machine guns of the battalion. He was badly wounded later that day, while still operating the only remaining machine gun for as long as possible. Earlier the other machine gunner had been lost when a shell struck, the British officer had been wounded and the other five men of the unit were killed. As if by magic, Khudadad Khan managed to join his company after disabling his own machine gun.

The battle continued the whole day of 31 October 1914. After incessant fire overnight, Messines was attacked by nine German battalions. They overran the trenches of the 57th Wilde's Rifles. Various units of the battalion were killed to the last man: Jemadar Ram Singh was the only survivor of his group. Another Sikh, Jemadar Kapur Singh continued fighting until everyone was out of action, with the exception of one wounded soldier. Because he refused to surrender, he committed suicide with his last bullet. All the British officers of the 57th Wilde's Rifles located in that part of the front were killed. The 57th Wilde's Rifles suffered many losses in the two last days of October 1914: no fewer than 300 of the 750 men of the battalion were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. There were 240 losses in the 129th Baluchis.

Deployed on the Messines Ridge

During the events described above, another brigade of the Lahore Division, the Jullundur Brigade, was stationed just across the French border in the area of Neuve-Chapelle that would soon become the Indian sector. There too, the Indian troops were thrown into battle almost immediately. From 29 October the complete Meerut Division would arrive there too.

In early November 1914 the Ferozepore Brigade was also transferred to the Indian sector between Givenchy and Neuve-Chapelle (in France). On 7 December 1914, the Sirhind Brigade also arrived there from Egypt, together with reinforcements from India. The Indian 1st Cavalry Division had also arrived, in mid November, followed by the Indian 2nd Cavalry Division a month later. Those two divisions would stay on the Western Front after the rest of the Indian Corps left for Mesopotamia in late 1915. There was heavy fighting in the sector of the Indian Corps in December 1914, and on 10 March 1915 the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle was fought there, with unparalleled level of casualties for the Indian troops.

Winter 1914–15: the Joys of Trench Warfare

For the Indian military, the deployment in Ypres in 1914 and 1915 was very important. It had its baptism of fire during the First World War while simultaneously fighting for the first time on European soil. Probably even more important was the fact that the Indian Army faced brutal confrontation with war on an industrial scale in which heavy artillery played a decisive part and in which airplanes were used. In late April 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, the Indian military were among the first to be exposed to chemical warfare. The deployment in Ypres not only represents a symbolic important moment in the history of the Indian troops, it must undoubtedly also have been a hard learning curve.


  1. An important account. Thank you for sharing.

  2. I wonder if Britain ever said Thank You for the help or just expected and demanded it?