Today is the centenary of the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle, the first major British assault of the Great War. It was not the first attack on the German lines as the trench war had begun in late 1914 and in December there had been several localised attacks. But these had been small scale affairs compared to Neuve-Chapelle which saw more than 40,000 British and Indian troops make a major assault on the village. The Indian Army had taken part in First Ypres and much of the fighting in late 1914 but with the Indian Corps now accounting for a sizeable part of the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders this was one of their major battles of the Great War on the Western Front.
The Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial was designed by Sir Hubert Baker and unveiled in October 1927. It commemorates more than 4,700 Indian troops who fell in France who have no known grave and today, one hundred years on from the battle, it will be the seen of commemorations largely by the Indian community who are rightly using the WW1 Centenary to ensure the deeds and sacrifice of the Indian Corps is not forgotten.
Following the fighting on the Western Front in 1914 the war became stalemate and both sides dug in. The Indian Corps spent that first winter in cold and wet conditions that they struggled to cope with and many men became casualties of the elements as much as of the enemy. Although the Indian Corps took a leading role at Neuve-Chapelle and also the diversion for the Battle of Loos in 1915, another bad winter was feared and so gradually the Indian units were pulled out and moved to Mesopotamia or Palestine. A few cavalry units stayed behind but by 1917 Indians returned in large numbers with the formation of the Indian Labour Corps. By this stage of the war Britain had realised that infrastructure and a large available labour force was a key to victory, and so recruited foreign labour from every corner of the Empire, including India.
This image shows men of the Indian Labour Corps on the battlefield sometime in 1918. Trenches cut in chalk are visible behind the group, probably placing this near Arras or on the Somme. The presence of a bell tent would indicate this is some distance from the fighting, however. The white British soldiers are likely to be the NCOs in charge of the unit, as was common practice with all foreign labour units. The Indian Labour Corps was very active on the Somme front in 1918, their men assisting in the post-war clear up as much as the more famous Chinese Labour Corps.
As Indian units began to engage on the battlefield in Flanders and Northern France in 1914 they suffered casualties. The dead were cremated or buried on the battlefield according to religion and when that was possible, and the wounded were evacuated to Britain for treatment in a number of hospitals. One of the best known was the use of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, which were rapidly turned into an Indian War Hospital in the autumn of 1914. Indian soldiers died here and those whose beliefs dictated it were cremated on the Sussex downs above Brighton. Today the Chattri remembers them and is the scene of an annual service of remembrance for the men of the Indian Army.
This image I purchased in a Brighton junk shop more than thirty years ago. The old man who sold me it remembered the Indians as a boy in the town, and like other parts of Britain there was great local interest in these Indian warriors; stories of them filled the local newspapers. In this photograph walking wounded are out in one of the local Brighton parks and local people have come out to see them, including the young boy in front, dressed in a soldiers uniform just as no doubt his father was at the front. Men of these men in the photograph were back in the trenches a few months later taking part in the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle.
One of the lesser know units of the Indian Army was the Bikaner Camel Corps. Formed before the Great War these men used camels as their mounts, not horses and as such could not be sent to France in 1914. Instead they were posted to somewhat warmer battlefields and played a key role in the defence of the Suez Canal in 1915 when they routed Turkish troops in one of the few camel cavalry charges of the war. The unit later fought in Palestine and some of its personnel became part of the Imperial Camel Corps formed later in the conflict.
The Indian Army of 1914 marched into battle on the Western Front with a long history of service and representing a wide range of proud Indian regiments, and all the social and religious backgrounds in the India of that period.
This image from a French source shows “Hindoo troops” (a common phrase they use for all Indians) and was part of a series of postcards produced in 1914 as the French were equally as fascinated with the arrival of Indian Army Troops in France, as Britain was in her own homeland.
What it does show is that when the men of the Indian Corps began to assemble in France in 1914, they had come straight from India wearing their thin Khaki Drill uniforms. These were fit for purpose in the hot climates of India but would prove unsuitable for a European autumn and winter, resulting in large numbers of Indian casualties from sickness. Within a few weeks of this photograph being taken these men were in action during the First Battle of Ypres.
By 1914 the Indian Army had a long and well established fighting reputation and consisted of a formidable fighting force of infantry, cavalry, artillery, engineers and all the support troops necessary. Indian Divisions based on the military districts of India had been formed and as the war in France and Flanders increasingly looked likely to continue beyond 1914 the Indian Army was mobilised for service on the Western Front. Troops were despatched to the battlefield and others moved to Britain to establish bases to allow re-enforcements and training if the war continued.
This image shows Indian troops settling into temporary quarters in the New Forest in the early Autumn of 1914. The arrival of these men caused quite a stir as it was the first time that large numbers of Indian troops had been present on British soil and images of them filled the popular press. At this stage, as the photo shows, the Indian troops slept in tents but they would remain in the New Forest well into 1916. Two Indian hospitals were established in the area and the tents later replaced by wooden huts.
Many of the 1914 images show the Indian troops cooking – while Indian food today is very much a national dish it was largely alien to the generation of WW1, unless they had seen service in India themselves.
Portraits of Indian soldiers are seemingly rare; in decades of collecting WW1 images I have only ever found a few. It could be that having a portrait taken was not part of the culture of soldiers from India or that more likely it was a matter of pay; that they had better things to spend their money on. There could of course be thousands in junk shops across India!
This photograph shows Lance Corporal Venkatasami of the 2nd Queen’s Own Madras Sappers and Miners. This Indian unit fought in France, Mesopotamia, Egypt and Palestine during the Great War and provided Engineer support to Indian formations in these campaigns. Venkatasami survived the war and this photograph was taken in Egypt in February 1919.
He is wearing the typical uniform of Indian troops in these theatres of war; Khaki Drill tunic and shorts, and on his left sleeve are Long Service and Good Conduct stripes indicating twelve years in the Indian Army; not untypical for Indian servicemen of that period.
These images come from an album compiled by an officer of the 1/5th Battalion Royal Scots who survived the war. He fought with this unit as part of the 29th Division in Gallipoli, the 1/5th being one of a number of Territorial units attached to what was a regular division. Against orders the officer had packed a camera into his kit and took a number of shots of life at both Cape Helles and ANZAC where the battalion fought, as well as during training in Egypt.
It is hard to believe when looking at the photo above that this is an officer of the battalion; to say he is dressed casually is an understatement but it gives a good insight into how the heat and conditions at Gallipoli forced the British soldiers who fought there to have a complete rethink. Behind him is the dugout occupied by the officers of his company.
Below another officer of the battalion talks to Indian labourers attached to the unit to carry out labouring tasks close to the battlefield; this may have been anything from carrying up ammunition, food or water, to assisting in trench and dugout construction or repair.
There were no official photographers at Gallipoli so we rely on illicit collections like these for our visual insights into the campaign; given the number of such albums known to exist, this officer of the Royal Scots was far from unique but his photos are perhaps the only pictorial record of the Royal Scots in the Gallipoli campaign.
This image comes from an album owned by an officer of the Army Service Corps who was attached to one of the Indian Divisions in France 1914/15 and then in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) for the remainder of the war. Although private cameras were prohibited by the British Army this was a generation for which personal photography was in its infancy and the number of private albums I have come across indicates that many flouted the ruling. This particular officer took about 150 images while on active service showing some unique insights into service in two theatres of war and had them printed onto high quality paper and placed in an album. Sadly he forgot to caption them, but over the years I have been able to identify many of the locations; and images from the album will feature in future posts.
This particular image shows an Indian soldier fatigued by active service sat catching a short sleep near his charges, two mules who are pulling a British water cart. Water was a vital commodity in Mesopotamia – ‘Mespot’ to the troops – where the heat and lack of safe water supply meant that any clean water was in some respects as valuable as the munitions needed to feed the guns. Temperatures could rise above 120 degrees in the desert and to give an indication of the problem of sickness caused by issues like bad water more than 12,000 died of disease in Mespot during the war. The water cart in the picture could hold 120 gallons of water, which although sounds like a lot, the two mules would need 6-8 gallons each per day. It had its own filtration system and in terms of the technology of the day was quite an advanced piece of kit.
Like the best of images it is an informal shot and captures a moment in time giving us an insight into life in a sometimes forgotten Theatre of War