On the 26th of April, 1915, the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs were assembling ready to move up into the Ypres Salient. Shortly after they moved off, the march was halted due to enemy shelling. All non-essential transport was left behind and the Sikhs continued onward by companies, leaving a three minute gap between each. Around them was absolute chaos – heavy traffic in both directions, transports full of wounded, groups of refugees, other bodies of infantry. They pressed on.
‘The spires and towers of Ypres soon came in sight and simultaneously the whistling and screaming of shells followed by loud explosions as they fell into the unhappy town.’
Imagine the sight – endless salvos of shells slamming into this ancient and beautiful town, history being undone right before their eyes.
The Sikhs left the main road then, passing north of the town, where comparatively few shells were falling. The diary author notes that it was still sufficiently unpleasant to keep them from dawdling on the way.
It was here they came under fire from 42cm shells for the first time. Probably fired from a Big Bertha howitzer (a super-heavy mortar) these enormous shells tore through the air with a noise…
‘…best compared to that of an express train’.
Enormous columns of debris and smoke were thrown 300ft into the air. You can almost sense the diary author’s awestruck horror and, just for a second, imagine the hellish noise and destruction they must have been marching through. Have a look for yourself; the links to the diary pages are below:
This episode is just one of many where the dry, official tone supposed to be adopted by diary authors gives way to something much more personal. It’s difficult for us to imagine exactly the things these men experienced, but as their personalities and feelings start to find their way into their words, it’s possible to feel a connection to a human being, rather than an historical account. One hundred years might separate us from them, but it no longer seems like quite such a long time. Josie Pegg, the Citizen Historian who first came across this account finds it…
‘…very moving to read accounts that reveal poignant details and the emotions of the men involved. I originally started tagging the diaries as an interest when I retired and was lucky to be able to start with the 11th Leicester Pioneer battalion as my Great Grandfather served with them. The many small incidents and asides that are mentioned in most of the diaries have been fascinating. It has also become apparent that life for the average soldier was mostly mud, boredom and waiting around, interspersed with moments of horror.’
Why not join Josie and the rest of our Citizen Historians in preserving these links to the men who chronicled the First World War? With your help, their legacy will live on for many generations to come. Get involved at Operation War Diary.
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.
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.
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.
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.