This Article is From Aug 02, 2023

Blog: India-France: United By Valour, Sacrifice Since 1914

The Indian tri-services contingent marched in Paris to the tune of "Saare Jahan se Achcha" on the occasion of Bastille Day, France's National Day. It is not the first time Indian troops were in France; over 100 years ago, during the Great War or the First World War, the Indian Expeditionary Force under British rule was deployed in France to stop German expansion on the Western Front. However, this valuable contribution has largely gone unrecorded and has been left to just footnotes.

Recently, the army shared a picture of Indian soldiers from 1916 marching in France, with a woman pinning a flower on a soldier's uniform. A similar scene unfolded in this year's Bastille Day parade when a French woman pinned a flower on the uniform of an officer from the Punjab Regiment - one of the oldest infantry regiments of the Indian Army.


These two images serve as a powerful symbol of the enduring connection between the two nations, forged during the tumultuous "war to end all wars."

The Ministry of External Affairs and the United Service Institution of India (USI) have documented the role of Indian troops in France and Flanders during the Great War.

War in Europe and Order of Battle

The political insecurities in Europe dragged Indians into a war they had nothing to do with. The British Expeditionary Force was suffering heavy casualties, and on 6 August 1914, the War Council in London ordered the mobilisation of two divisions - the Lahore (3rd India War Division) and Meerut division (7th India War Division), and a Cavalry brigade for deployment in Egypt, which was later changed to Europe. The gallant efforts of soldiers from undivided India were pivotal in several key battles in Ypres, Nueve-Chapelle, Givenchy, Festubert, Aubers Ridge, Loos, etc.

Indian Expeditionary Force 'A' In France

The troops from the Lahore division were the first to land in Marseilles, a French town, followed by the Meerut division in September 1914. Indian soldiers received a warm welcome from the locals of the French town, as documented by a historian of the 47th Sikhs. The 129th Baluchis and the 57th Wilde's Rifles (FF) from the Lahore Division were sent as reinforcements for the Alleby's Cavalry Corps at Ypres, where the Indian soldiers would undergo their baptism of fire. 

After the fall of Antwerp, the defence of Ypres, for both British and French forces, was vital to ensure the safety of Allied forces' supply lines to the ports and the defence of the British lines to the rest of Europe across the English Channel.

"Race To The Sea" - The Battle Of Ypres

The First Battle of Ypres began in late October, and Indian soldiers were about to witness the horrors of trench warfare. Trenches were defensive fortresses spread across miles and were separated by a dangerous strip of ground called the "No Man's Land." For troops to attack and capture the enemy position, they had to leave the safety of the trenches and cross the open "no man's land" to take the enemy position.

"Hell is not fire. Hell is mud." read a French journal, Le Bochofage, in March 1916.

On 26 October 1914, the brave soldiers of the 129th Baluchis left their trench shelters and advanced 600 yards to attack the German position east of Hollebeke. They had to cross muddy open fields and a small watercourse before reaching the enemy position. The two machine gun positions of the Baluchis were attacked by the Germans on October 31, and the post was overrun except for one sepoy, Khudadad Khan, who ensured the guns kept blazing to stop further advancement. Khan, despite being wounded, kept firing until he couldn't.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the first Indian to receive Britain's highest gallantry award. Before the World War, Indian soldiers were not eligible for the VC and were given the Indian Order of Merit.

The second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 witnessed the use of chemical weapons for the first time, and Indian soldiers were among the first to suffer the apocalyptic effects of chlorine gas on humans. Indian troops were ordered to close the gap in the line at Ypres, and troops from the Lahore division were sent.

A detailed account of the Battle of Ypres, published by the Indian Embassy in Belgium, notes that the soldiers were warned about the possible use of chemical weapons. They were advised to put a handkerchief or a flannel over their mouths and soak the handkerchief in urine.

According to the entries in War Diaries from the 39th Garhwal Rifles, the success in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle is credited to the accurate artillery fire coupled with the element of surprise the British had with the Garhwalis by their side. The personal account of the commanding officer of 2/39 Garhwal rifles reveals their remarkable acts of bravery. During one of the bayonet charges, Rifleman Gabar Singh took on the enemy one by one, demonstrating an act of bravery "usually seen in officers".

The objective of the battle was to capture the German trenches and advance to secure Neuve Chapelle and gain control of the original British line.

Battle Honours were awarded to the Indian troops as an acknowledgement of their efforts. These Honours are intrinsic to a regiment's identity and its history. 


Naik Darwan Singh Negi of 1/39th Garhwal Rifles was awarded the Victoria Cross for his gallant action in the Battle of Festubert in France. Rifleman Gabar Singh Negi of the 2/39 Garhwal Rifles also received the VC in the Battle of Nueve-Chappelle, France. Lance Dafadar Gobind Singh of the 28th Cavalry, attached to 2nd Lancers, was awarded the VC in the east of Peizieres in the Battle of Cambrai, France.

A total of 11 Victoria Crosses were awarded to Indian soldiers in the Great War. Over 1.1 million Indian soldiers participated in Europe's war. The victory of the Allied forces came at the cost of over 74,000 Indian soldiers who died on various fronts.


Letters To Families

Some of the letters of Indian soldiers to their families were released by the British Library, giving a sense of the feelings of the troops in France and Flanders. Defending the paltan's izzat was paramount, and coming back home without fighting was not an option. In a letter to his family in Ludhiana, a soldier writes, "Don't be grieved at my death because I shall die with arms in hand, wearing the warrior's clothes. This is the happiest death that anyone can die. I am very sorry that I have not been able to discharge my obligations towards my family because God has called me already."

In another letter, a soldier in Garhwali writes to his father, "It is very hard to endure the bombs, father. It will be difficult for anyone to survive and come back safe and sound from the war. The son who is very lucky will see his father and mother, otherwise, who can do this? There is no confidence in survival. The bullets and cannonballs come down like snow. The mud is up to a man's middle."

"Our people have many lice in their clothes, and they bite terribly. They are worse than rifle bullets. But there are no mosquitoes or other creatures which bite mankind, and no snakes or scorpions at all," said another soldier describing his experiences in a trench in France.

The contribution of the soldiers, who fought for the paltan's izzat, forged a strong bond between the two democracies.

(Divyam Sharma is a Senior Sub Editor at NDTV)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.