A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

The contribution of imperial troops to the Allied war effort is often overlooked. But the Indian Corps made a dazzling debut in the European theatre of war

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The Independent Online

It was the moment when the Western Front burst open.

The previous few months had been largely static. Germany’s frustrated attempt to encircle Paris, the inconclusive race to the sea, the First Battle of Ypres (at which the Germans were barred from seizing Calais but clung to their positions) – all this early, dynamic action had quickly wilted into entrenched attrition. As the winter of 1914-15 closed in, the two sides had hunkered down in the mud to sit it out.

Then, at the end of February 1915, with the first hint of spring, the British-led forces went on the offensive. According to the memoirs of Sir James Willcocks, commander of the Indian troops: “Sir John French” – British commander-in-chief – “had come to the happy decision… to attack the enemy at some selected point… The centre of the objective was to be the village of Neuve Chapelle… It was the good fortune of the Indian Corps to be in this line.”

There was nothing feigned about the Indians’ joy at being ordered to attack. Soon after war was declared, the fighting men of the Raj – Rajputs from Rajasthan, Pathans from the North West Frontier, Gurkhas from Nepal and many more – had been embarked at Bombay and Karachi, bound for Marseilles.

Present too were a clutch of the native princes – the Maharajahs of Jodhpur, Bikaner and Kishengarh – whose loyalty was the bedrock of British rule. And now, after surviving the First Battle of Ypres, then enduring a freezing baptism in the brutal, static nature of modern European warfare, they were finally in action.

It started brilliantly. Painstakingly prepared thanks to maps provided by the Royal Flying Corps, the assault began with an aerial bombardment of railways and German reserves followed by a combined British and Indian artillery assault which destroyed the German barbed wire. Then, at just after 8am on  10 March, sepoys of the Garhwal Brigade, commanded by Brigadier-General Blackader [sic] no less, stormed the German lines, pouring across 200 yards of no-man’s-land and overwhelming the German infantry. Without waiting for the planned softening up by the artillery, they rushed forward and seized Neuve Chapelle village, taking  200 German prisoners and five machine guns.

It was a dazzling demonstration of the Indians’ fighting spirit. As Willcocks, who had spent all his long career in India and spoke several Indian languages, wrote: “The Garhwalis… were being tested for the first time… [They] did splendidly…They suddenly sprang into the very front rank of our best fighting men.”

But this brilliant opening was quickly eclipsed: in their enthusiasm the troops had targeted a section of the German defence which had not been bombarded by artillery, and many of them were killed or wounded as they stormed through. Consolidation required a quick follow-up, but within days the British forces sustained a heavy German counter-attack, while bombardment further back destroyed telephone lines, wrecking co-ordination. The hopes of smashing the winter-long stasis and driving the Germans back where they had come from were shattered. It was, as the French commander concluded bleakly, “un succès sans lendemain” – a victory that went nowhere.

For the Indian troops it was a fresh instalment in their long and painful discovery of what war meant in Europe. Back at home they had been employed to punish tribal rebellions and incursions across the frontier, attacks by fierce but ill-organised men with simple weapons, skirmishes that could only end in one result, given the Raj’s withering firepower.

Nothing could be more different from the Western Front. The nature of the war was terrifyingly alien: they were decimated by grenades, machine-gun fire and high explosives, weapons of which they had no experience. And the chaotic fighting of the war’s early months meant that the units in which they had arrived were quickly broken up; British officers under whom they had served for years and who spoke their languages were killed one by one, leaving them under the command of new officers who knew nothing about them and cared less.

So the first hours of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle were a brilliant dawn – but a false one. News of the successful offensive reached Willcocks, waiting anxiously behind the lines, by telephone. “‘Hurrah!’ I shouted,” he later recorded. This was “the birth of a new life for India… Indians, led by British officers, could drive Germans from their own carefully selected entrenchments… Trusting in the inviolable word of England’s King [they] had inaugurated a new era in the history of Hindustan.”

The euphoria was understandable. But both the war and the history of “Hindustan” were to take very different turns.

Tomorrow: The fall of Przemsyl

‘Moments’ that have already been published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar