Monday, April 14, 2014

Sikhs (15th Ludhiana infantry) save Sahibs

In all the talk we hear about how advantageous it was for India to have been a British colony (no one doubts that) we never hear how Britain benefited enormously from having an Indian colony- as it marched to victory in the World Wars on the back of Indian soldiers. There will be no reparations but even a few words of gratitude (and a few paragraphs in British history books) is still better than nothing.

An Indian soldier, immortalized by his act of selfless heroism and valor while fighting for the British armed forces in World War I has come in for heavy praise from UK Prime Minister David Cameron.

Cameron has also floated the proposal that British children must be taught "in the years to come about the role that the 1.2 million soldiers from the Indian subcontinent played in World War I".

The soldier Cameron was referring to was Manta Singh, who served with the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, an infantry regiment of the Indian Army who was seriously injured during the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 - one that saw a large number of casualties for the Indian Army - over 4000 in just three days.

During the battle, Manta Singh witnessed an English comrade Captain Henderson who had suffered. Singh himself was hit by machine gunfire in his left leg but that didn't stop him from rescuing his fellow officer Captain Henderson. Manta pushed him to safety in a wheelbarrow he found in no-man's land.

Singh and his wounded comrades were later shipped to Brighton's Royal Pavilion which was turned into a hospital for Indian soldiers. Here, his wounds became infected with gangrene. He was told his legs would have to be amputated to save his life, a thought which filled him with despair. He died from blood poisoning a few weeks later.

Remembering the soldier, Cameron said "This year, as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of WW1, it is also perhaps worth saying something specific about how British Sikhs have served in our armed forces with so much devotion, bravery and courage over so many years".

Cameron added "Stories like that of Manta Singh, who fought at The Battle of Neuve Chapelle, that massive battle on the Western Front in 1915, and when his English colleague was wounded alongside him, he picked him up, carried him, took him to the dressing station while being wounded himself, and then sadly, tragically died afterwards. Stories of heroism, stories of valor - the Sikhs have always had this extraordinary courage and bravery, and it's been demonstrated so often in the British Armed Forces".

Interestingly Manta Singh and the injured man he rescued, Captain Henderson, had become firm friends as well as brothers in arms.

When Manta Singh died, Henderson ensured that Singh's son Assa, was taken care of. He encouraged him to join the Sikh Regiment too. Throughout the Second World War, Assa Singh and Henderson's son, Robert served together, in France, Italy and North Africa.

To this day, the Singh and Henderson families remain close friends.

Assa and Robert have passed away but their sons Jaimal and Ian are in regular contact.

Singh was born in 1870 near Jalandhar and as soon as he left school he joined the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs.

At the start of WW1, the regiment was sent to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force fighting in France. By late autumn of 1914, one in every three soldiers under British command in France was from India. After long months of trench warfare, in March 1915, Manta Singh's regiment prepared to engage in the first major British offensive on the Western Front, the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle. Half of the Commonwealth fighting force, 20,000 men were Indian Army soldiers.

General John French, commander-in-chief of the BEF in France at this time, planned to take the village of Neuve-Chapelle, which formed a German salient (bulge) in the British line.

On March 10, four divisions, comprising 40,000 men, gathered on a sector of the front which was only three kilometres wide. The infantry attack was preceded by heavy but concentrated shelling from 342 guns. In 35 minutes, the bombardment consumed more shells than the British Army used in the whole of the Boer War 15 years earlier.

While the British and the Indian Corps advanced rapidly through the lightly-defended village, the Garhwal Rifles suffered heavy losses as they attacked a part of the German line left untouched by the bombardment.

After an initial success, in a matter of hours, the British became paralyzed by poor communications and a lack of munitions, and their advance ground to a halt.

It was in this chaotic field of battle that the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs fought.

Records say "Fighting ceased on March 13 with British gains limited to an area two kilometres deep and three kilometres wide for a loss of 7,000 British and 4,200 Indian soldiers, either killed or wounded. The Germans suffered similar losses and 1,700 of their soldiers had been taken prisoner".


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