A good friend from India asked questions about details of 14 Sikhs in WWI and role of Indian Medical Service (IMS); not much written about IMS. There were some other questions about Sikh recruitment in British Indian army especially caste issue. Following piece was consolidation of answers of these queries. My digging of military archeology is only for those interested in history. I personally have a lot of fun doing this though quite tiring.
14th Ferozepore Sikhs
14th Ferozepore Sikhs was raised in 1846 after First Anglo-Sikh War from demobilized soldiers of Sikh army. It was raised by Captain G. Tebbs and recruits came mainly from cis-Sutlej area. Regiment recruited local Sikhs and Punjabi Muslims. Initially, Oudh Rajputs from other regiments were posted to the regiment. In 1852, Tebbs died and Captain T. E. Colebrooke took command. In 1857 Mutiny, regiment was in Mirzapur. Few days before the uprising about four hundred men under the dynamic command of Lieutenant Jeremiah Brasyer were sent to Allahabad and few days later they were instrumental in saving the fort. Brasyer was the founding father of the regiment. He spoke Punjabi and in 1846, he toured cis-Sutlej area and was instrumental in encouraging Sikhs to join the new regiment. He was an amazing character. He was a gardener and enlisted in Bengal artillery. Few years later he was appointed Sergeant Major of 26th Bengal Native Infantry. He fought in First Anglo-Afghan War of 1842 and First Anglo-Sikh War of 1846. He was given commission and appointed Ensign at the age of thirty-three and served as interpreter during the raising of 14th Ferozepore Sikhs. The regiment was later known by his name as Brasyer’s Sikhs.
During mutiny, with the breakdown of general order, soldiers of 14th Ferozepore Sikhs got hold of all the liquor from cantonment and city of Allahabad. They periodically got drunk and discipline was seriously compromised. British position was still precarious and they have to act tactfully. They bought all the liquor from Sikhs at asking price and later transferred them from the fort to a nearby building. During Mutiny, regiment joined Henry Havelock’s relief of Cawnpore and Lucknow. In the hot weather, soldiers discarded their regular uniform and donned red turbans. British officers including their commander Brasyer also wore red turbans. In honor of this service, regiment was allowed to wear red turbans and later the whole Sikh regiment adopted the red turban; a tradition still continued in Sikh regiment of Indian army.
Regiment participated in many expeditions on North West Frontier. In 1863 Ambela Expedition, regiment under the command of Major Ross and Subedar Major Sikandar Khan participated in some sanguine battles. In 1877, regiment participated in Jowaki Expedition operating in Bori valley. In 1878, regiment participated in Second Anglo-Afghan War under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Williams. Regiment was decimated not by enemy fire but by an epidemic of typhoid fever killing 200 men. In 1881, regiment participated in Waziristan operation. In 1884, Lieutenant Colonel George Nicholas Channer V.C. took command of the regiment. He was originally from 1st Gurkha Rifles. Channer family had long association with Indian army and especially Sikhs. His father Colonel George Girdwood Channer served with Bengal Artillery. His brother Colonel Bernard Channer DSO served with 2nd Native Infantry and Rajput Light Infantry. Bernard’s three sons served in Indian army. Guy Channer DSO served with 14th Sikhs and commanded the battalion in 1918, Bernard Gordon with 54th Sikhs (later 4/12 Frontier Force Regiment and now 6 Frontier Force Regiment of Pakistan army) and Keith Francis with 30th Jacob’s Horse. In 1888, regiment fought in Black Mountain expedition under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ellis, Chitral expedition in 1895, Tochi Field Force in 1897 and went to China in 1900 during Boxer rebellion.
In 1866, Punjabi Muslims were phased out and regiment became a single class regiment of Sikhs. It is important to understand Sikh recruitment in British Indian army. Sikh religious and social transformation in nineteenth century resulted in retreat of Khatri and rise of Jat Sikhs. There is no caste system in Sikh religious doctrine and all are considered equal. However, in reality there existed a clear class hierarchy in descending order of Jat, Khatri, Arora, Lobana, Ramgarhia and Ahluwalia. Jats were sitting on the top of the pyramid and didn’t mingle with other classes. British had to consider this during recruitment therefore only Jat Sikhs were recruited for single class regiments as well as class companies. Other Sikh castes were recruited in separate regiments.
Lobana Sikhs were recruited mainly in pioneer regiments (48th Pioneers) as well as some Punjab regiments. British policy of insisting on strict adherence to Sikh religious code for its military recruits resulted in solidification of Sikh identity. This also helped in significant conversion of Lobana Hindus to Sikhism with resultant marked reduction of Lobana Hindus in Punjab. Twin benefits of military service and allotment of agricultural lands helped in upward social mobility of Lobanas. Due to their first class performance in First World War, in 1922 reorganization, it was decided to have at least one company of Lobana Sikhs in each pioneer battalion. In 1932, when pioneer regiments were disbanded, Lobana Sikhs were recruited in mountain batteries of artillery as well as constituting machine gun platoons of some infantry regiments. Some Lobanas from disbanded pioneer regiments were transferred to Bengal and Bombay Sappers & Miners.
Low caste Sikhs called Mazhabi and Ramdasia (M & R) Sikhs were at the bottom ring of the social ladder and they also looked towards army for upward social mobility. They were mainly recruited in 23rd, 32nd and 34thPioneers. A very small number served with Royal Bombay Sappers & Miners. Pioneers were a specialized infantry that was extremely useful in frontier expeditions. 34th Pioneers earned the ‘Royal’ title for their stellar performance in First World War. In 1932, when pioneer regiments were disbanded, only a very small number of M & R Sikhs remained in army. About 320 M & R Sikhs were transferred to Bengal and Bombay Sappers & Miners. Initially, all Sikhs were mixed in Sappers & Miners regiments but problems between high and low caste Sikhs especially the tricky issue of M & R Sikhs attending Jat Gurdwaras of the regiments resulted in segregation. All Jat Sikhs went to Bengal Sappers & Miners while Lobana and M & R Sikhs to Bombay Sappers & Miners.
In Second World War Mazhabi & Ramdasia (M & R) Regiment was re-raised from elements of earlier disbanded pioneer regiments. Several old British officers of disbanded pioneer regiments were instrumental in raising M & R regiment. 1st M & R regiment was raised in Jullundur in October 1941 by Lieutenant Colonel C. H. Price. Price was from 32nd Pioneers and after disbandment went to 2/12 Frontier Force Regiment. Second in Command Major E. P. F. Pearse was from 34th Pioneers and had gone to 3/2 Punjab Regiment. Subedar Major Jewan Singh was from 32nd Pioneers. 9/15 Punjab Regiment and 7/17 Dogra Regiment provided initial lot of native officers and other ranks for the raising of the regiment. 1st M & R fought in Burma theatre. Later two more M & R battalions and some garrison companies were raised. M & R Regiment was later re-named Sikh Light Infantry (SLI).
In First World War, 14th Sikhs served in Gallipoli and Mesopotamian theatres where battalion suffered heavy casualties. In Gallipoli, 14th Sikhs was part of 29th Indian Brigade (other battalions were 69th and 89th Punjabis and 1/6th Gurkha Rifles). Lieutenant Colonel Philip C. Palin was CO, Lieutenant Cremen Adjutant, Lieutenant Meade Quarter Master and Lieutenant Matthew Machine Gun Officer. Indian officers included Subedar Major Jaswant Singh and Subedars Thakur Singh, Prem Singh and Kartar Singh. Battalion’s Medical Officer was Cursetjee and sweeper Channi. Battalion suffered heavy casualties in the Third Battle of Krithia in June 1915 with over three hundred and seventy killed and wounded. At one time, all officers were killed and wounded and only Second Lieutenant Reginald Arthur Savory remained unscathed and took temporary command of the battalion (he was wounded later and at Lt. Colonel rank commanded the battalion by then renamed 1/11 Sikhs and retired as Lieutenant General). Battalion was reinforced with two double companies of Patiala Imperial Service Infantry, drafts from India and from other Punjabi regimens and Burma police battalions. Battalion earned the distinction of winning 35 Indian Distinguished Service Medals (IDSMs) in Gallipoli campaign.
In Mesopotamia, battalion guarded line of communications of I Corps and served with 51st Brigade. Commanding Officer was Lieutenant Colonel Earle and Subedar Major Sham Singh. They were succeeded by Major Guy Channer and Subedar Major Narain Singh. Battalion suffered 61 killed in action and 250 wounded. Among the wounded was Captain George Francis Bunbury whose father Lieutenant Colonel W. E. Bunbury (originally from 28th Punjabis) had commanded the battalion from 1902-6. Influenza epidemic decimated the battalion killing 300 men; a de ja vu of 1878 when Typhoid fever took more toll than enemy’s bullets. Battalion has a unique distinction of having winners of gallantry awards even among its medical officers. Battalion’s Medical Officer Captain Cursetjee won a DSO while Sub Assistant Surgeon Bhagwan Singh won Indian Order of Merit (IOM) in Mesopotemia. Heerajee Jehangir Manockjee Cursetjee was awarded DSO in 1918 for gallantry and devotion to service when he attended to wounded soldiers despite being wounded himself. He retired as Major General.
Indian Medical Service (IMS) was the first branch of Indian army that opened its doors to Indians as King Commissioned Officers. One the eve of First World War, many Indian officers were serving with IMS. In addition to Cursetjee, two other IMS officers; Captain (later Colonel) Phirozshah Byramji Bharucha and Captain (later Lieutenant Colonel) Nilkanth Shriram Jatar also won DSO in Great War. Jatar is the most decorated IMS officer. He won his first DSO in June 1917 in Mesopotamia when serving as medical officer of 16 Cavalry. He won bar to DSO during Waziristan operation in 1920 when serving as medical officer of 2/76th Punjabis. He was severely wounded at Kotkai (in 2008 Pakistan army fought battle at the same location. In fact, Pakistan army and paramilitary scouts fought many battles with militants at almost all previous battlefields of frontier warfare a century ago) during the withdrawal and lost his leg. IMS officers introduced their young children to military life and children of many of these pioneer officers of IMS joined Indian army. Jatar’s three sons joined armed forces; Major General Sudhir Jatar, Brigadier Arvind Jatar (Central India Horse) and Air Vice Marshal Jairam Jatar. Children of another IMS officer Lieutenant Colonel Mohamed Abdur Rahman also opted for army after their education in England. Atiq ur Rahman ‘Turk’ joined 4/12 Frontier Force Regiment, opted for Pakistan in 1947 and became Lieutenant General in Pakistan army. Turk’s brother Attaur Rahman after serving with a Frontier Force Regiment battalion joined Indian Foreign Service. He decided to stay in India and served as Indian ambassador to several countries.
In 1922 reorganization, 14th Ferozepore Sikhs was designated Ist Battalion of 11th Sikh Regiment. Ist, 2nd and 3rd battalions of 11th Sikh Regiment were single class Jat Sikh battalions while 4th, 5th and 10th battalions were composed of two Jat Sikh and two Punjabi Muslim companies. In 1945, Naik Nand Singh of 1/11 Sikh Regiment won Victoria Cross (VC) in Burma.
In 1947, Indian army was divided between India and Pakistan. Most battalions were composed of class companies or squadrons and they were exchanged between two countries. Ist Battalion of Ist Punjab Regiment was assigned to Pakistan and it consisted of Sikh A Company, Hazarawal Muslims B company, Punjabi Muslims C Company and Rajput D Company. Sikh and Rajput companies of the battalion went to India. Sikh A company was assigned to 1/11 Sikh then stationed at Gurgaon. In the terrible times of communal hatred when Muslims and Sikhs were killing each other, it is amazing to note that the regimental bond was still vibrant and solid as a rock. Former Commanding Officer of 1/1 Punjab Colonel Sher Ali Khan Pataudi was in Delhi waiting to go to Pakistan to join Pakistan army. Battalion’s former Subedar Major Feroz Khan was also in Delhi. When they came to know that the Sikh company of 1/1 Punjab was in Gurgaon in the process of joining 1/11 Sikh, they decided to visit their former comrades. While their fellow co-religionists were killing each other Pataudi and Feroz were entertained by Sikhs of 1/1 Punjab with the farewell dinner and karha parsad (a sweet offering to visitors as a sign of hospitality) and many wet eyes.
1/11 Sikh played crucial role in securing Kashmir for India in 1947-48. Pakistani tribesmen and some regular troops had captured the town of Baramula and were on the doorsteps of Srinagar. On October 26, Indian leaders decided to send Indian troops to Kashmir. 1/11 Sikh was the first battalion air lifted to Kashmir. Commanding Officer Lieutenant Colonel Dewan Ranjit Rai was informed to bring his troops to Palam air filed in Delhi for air lift on early morning October 27. Two companies of the battalion were on internal security duties. Rai took C and D companies along with battalion headquarters with instructions that remaining two companies follow later. Rai had no idea about the task and at the airfield he was given operational orders. Ground situation was very fluid with very limited information and no one even knew the extent of Pakistani advance. Rai was instructed to land at Srinagar airport and secure the airfield. In case, there was no response from Srinagar tower or if it had already fallen, then he was to go to Jammu and grab any kind of transport and try to go as close to Srinagar by road.
On landing at Srinagar, Rai sent C company under the command of Captain Karamjit Singh towards Baramula and it reached Mile 32. D Company under Major Harwant Singh did a flag march in Srinagar and then sent reinforcement to C company. Rai had no communication with his troops as the plane carrying battalion’s signal platoon developed a problem and had to divert to Jammu (signal platoon joined three days later). Faced with this dilemma, Rai decided to join his forward troops. At Mile 32, tribesmen failing to dislodge the Sikhs outflanked them and tried to cut off their rear. Rai arranged for the extrication of his troops and was killed in action. Major Harwant Singh took temporary command and later Colonel (later Lieutenant General) Harbkhash Singh (originally from 5/11 Sikhs) took command of the battalion. Rai was a firs rate officer originally commissioned in 5/11 Sikhs. He was from the Pakistani town of Gujranwala. His grandson Shivjit Shergill and great grandson Fareed Shergill served in Indian armored corps (Central India Horse).
In December 1947, battalion lost its Victoria Cross (VC) winner Jamadar Nand Singh in Kashmir. His body was never found. He was awarded Maha Vir Chakra (MVC) posthumously making him the most decorated soldier of Indian army. 1 Sikh was instrumental in saving Srinagar for India and rightfully earned 59 gallantry awards. Their valor was acknowledged by declaring October 27 as ‘Infantry Day’ for Indian army. In 1962 Indo-China war, 1 Sikh fought in Towang sector. Battalion had over 170 casualties including 132 killed in action. Among the dead included their Commanding Officer (CO) Lieutenant Colonel B. N. Mehta and Subedar Jogindar Singh. In 1965 Indo-Pakistan war, 1 Sikh was in Titwal sector of Kashmir and involved in some minor operations.
In 1979, Mechanized Infantry Regiment was raised and many old infantry battalions were converted to mechanized infantry and allotted new numbers. 1 Sikh became 4th Mechanized Infantry regiment. Mechanized Infantry regiments are mixed class and 1 Sikh lost its all Sikh character on its re-incarnation as 4th Mechanized Infantry. 1 Sikh traded its red turban for black beret in transformation to 4th Mechanized Infantry regiment; however it is carrying on 170 years of traditions.
- The 14th, King George's Own Sikhs : the 1st Battalion (K.G.O.) (Ferozepore Sikhs), the 11th Sikh Regiment, 1846-1933 by Colonel F.E.G. Talbot, 1937
- 1st King George V's Own Battalion, the Sikh Regiment. The 14th King George's Own Ferozepore Sikhs. 1846-1946 by Lieutenant-General P. G. Bamford, 1948
- M & R: A Regimental History of the Sikh Light Infantry 1941-1947 by J. D. Hookway.
- The Sikh Regiment by D. S. Sandhu, http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/MONITOR/ISSUE3-6/sandhu.html
- The Story of Soldiering and Politics in India and Pakistan by Major General Sher Ali Khan Pataudi, 1978
February 28, 2014