The Indian Army arrives in France

100 years ago today, the first Indian Army troops had landed in France and would soon be thrown into the fighting on the Western Front.  They had arrived in Marseilles dressed in khaki drill uniforms – clothing not suited to the European climate. They wouldn’t be equipped with standard British Army battledress until the end of 1914.

Image © IWM (Q 28789) - Band of the 40th Pathans playing in a meadow beside a French village watched by men of the regiment and French civilians.

Image © IWM (Q 28789) – Band of the 40th Pathans playing in a meadow beside a French village watched by men of the regiment and French civilians.

Perhaps within that context, it’s no great surprise that the Indian soldiers were only issued the Lee Enfield rifle – the standard British Army infantry weapon – once they’d arrived in the Ypres Salient.

Image © IWM (Q 4070) - Men of Indian Hotchkiss Gun Team practising near Querrieu, 29 July 1916.

Image © IWM (Q 4070) – Men of Indian Hotchkiss Gun Team practising near Querrieu, 29 July 1916.

The Indian troops fought at Wytschaete and Messines, Neuve Chapelle, Festubert and Givenchy. They suffered terribly in the cold and muddy conditions. The Germans also attempted to take advantage of their relative inexperience, sometimes falsely flying white flags to make the Indian soldiers believe they were surrendering. This led to a command being issued that all white flags should be fired upon. Eventually, conditions became so bad that a retreat was ordered. At the same time, the Germans fired a mine they had dug beneath the Indian positions. An entire company – 200 men – were lost without trace.

In just a matter of weeks, the Indian troops had lost well over 2,000 men killed, along with numerous casualties.

Image © IWM (Q 53348) - A group of wounded Indian soldiers walk across the cobbles of a French village.

Image © IWM (Q 53348) – A group of wounded Indian soldiers walk across the cobbles of a French village.

The Indian soldiers continued to fight bravely on during 1915, with further heavy losses. Morale declined dramatically. Replacement officers did not speak the language of their troops and often had no understanding of the traditional Indian Army culture. Reinforcements to the ranks were also drafted from any regiment and had no cultural affiliation to their new units. The structures the soldiers operated within broke down.

Finally, during the latter months of 1915, the Indian regiments were withdrawn from the Western Front and went on to serve with great distinction in other theatres. Two Indian cavalry brigades did remain, fighting until the end of the war with great bravery.

You will shortly be able to follow the stories of these troops – the National Archives have finished digitising a number of the Indian Army war diaries and we look forward to loading them into Operation War Diary for tagging in the very near future.

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2 responses to “The Indian Army arrives in France”

  1. Marymn says :

    comment by writer of 3 INDIAN (LAHORE) DIVISION: 112 INDIAN FIELD AMBULANCE (1 AUG 1914 – 31 DEC 1915) WO/95/3920/4 Page 20 of 132 this writer observed that 75% of wounds to upper extremity were to the left hand and comprised 50% of the total wounds received. I wonder if this picture is of these men as all three have injuries to left hand/arm?

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