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

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
News
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Director / Operations Director

£50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an incredible opportunity for a ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Administrator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: EWI / IWI Installer

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'