From Bombay to the Western Front

On Tuesday evening, I attended a commemorative event at the Imperial War Museum North. It had been organised to reflect on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, which was the first major offensive to involve the British Indian Army.

Among the speakers at the event was Dr Santanu Das, of the English department at Kings College London. Dr Das, who is an expert in the culture and literature of the First World War, made the argument that while the First World War is often defined as the ‘clash of empires’, it could equally be defined as a watershed event in the history of cultural encounters in Europe.

Dr Das has been leading an international and interdisciplinary team of researchers and a number of cultural institutions across Europe to illuminate and examine this question during the centennial years of the war’s commemoration.

In this film we see how Dr Das has partnered with Imperial War Museum, London, In Flanders Fields Museum, Ypres, and the Museum of European Culture, Berlin to scour their (and many other) vast archives for letters, photographs, literary texts, sketches, artefacts, newspapers, and audio recordings. We see how all these sources are being brought together to be examined side-by-side, in order to piece together a fuller picture of the experience of the Indian troops and labourers, and the Europeans who they came into contact with.

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle, March 1915

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle was the first of the British spring offensives in 1915, when the Allied commanders were keen to escape the static conditions that had emerged and break through the German lines. They had planned simultaneous French and British attacks but when the British commander, Sir John French, requested reinforcements he was given territorials rather than regulars. This, and a sense that they were already over committed, prompted the French commander to call off his troops’ involvement, leaving the British on their own. Sir John decided to press on in any case (partly to impress the French following British failures to take ground in December 1914) and announced that the attack would take place at the ruined village of Neuve Chapelle in the Artois region of northern France and that Sir Douglas Haig would lead troops from the First Army (the IV Corps and the Indian Corps) in an effort to break through at Neuve Chapelle and capture the village of Aubers.

British and Indian wounded at Neuve Chapelle, on the way to the hospital base, 1915. One of the British is wearing a German helmet. Shows a group of wounded Germans, British and Indians next to a hospital train. (National Army Museum)
British and Indian wounded at Neuve Chapelle, on the way to the hospital base, 1915. One of the British is wearing a German helmet. Shows a group of wounded Germans, British and Indians next to a hospital train. (National Army Museum)

The German lines at Neuve Chapelle formed a salient, upon which Haig intended to converge his troops, the IV Corps (commanded by Lt. Gen Sir Henry Rawlinson) on one side, the Meerut and Lahore Divisions of the Indian Corps (commanded by Lt. Gen Sir James Willcocks) on the other. It would also be one of the first examples of the use of air power in warfare, with eighty-five aircraft conducting aerial reconnaissance, photography and cartography to aid the artillery bombardment.

On the morning of the 10th March 1915, following a thirty-five minute bombardment from hundreds of guns, the infantry launched their attack. A further barrage of artillery fire was committed behind the German trenches to prevent reinforcements from joining after the British attack. Sepoys of the Garhwal Brigade rushed across no-mans-land to seize Neuve Chapelle, taking 200 German soldiers prisoner. The village itself being taken less than an hour after the start of the assault and five of the eight assault battalions achieved their objectives with minimal losses. Many battalions were almost unscathed. In some areas the fighting was hand-to-hand. In the initial phase of the attack, everything seemed to be going in the British favour.

However, the commanders were unable to secure the breaches they had made in the German lines and were hampered by poor communications and the loss of field commanders, leaving poorly-briefed NCOs in charge of some units. Further progress and made the remaining push difficult and uneven. In particular, the northern sector, closest to Aubers itself, had managed to escape the British bombardment and the German lines remained intact. Every one of the thousand troops that advanced towards it was killed. Two German machine guns managed to kill hundreds of soldiers of the 2nd Scottish Rifles and the 2nd Middlesex, while other British troops lost their way in the confusion. Poor communication meant that the artillery couldn’t be informed of the situation in the front and were unable to respond, leaving the advancing troops to the mercy of the German guns. The battle went on for several days. On the fourth day, many of the surviving troops had to be roused ‘by force’ from sleep, a task made all the more difficult because they lay among corpses, indistinguishable at first glance from the sleepers.

Several problems emerged from the battle. The push took the infantry further away from their supply lines, isolating them and pushing the Germans further into their own territory. The more the British pushed, the worse they found things and, in terms of supply, the better things were for the Germans. Crucially, the push towards German lines took the British away from their lines of communication. They could lay telephone cables as they went, but these were easily cut by bombardment. Pigeons, flags and runners were ineffective and easily cut down. Relaying information to command, five miles behind the front, and back again to the advancing troops took eight or nine hours, meaning that effective, fluid commands were impossible. In addition, the men who led the attack were exhausted by the time they got to the German lines, making follow-throughs difficult. Reinforcements were difficult to supply, not least because of the poor communications.

The Outcome

A small salient, 2,000 yards wide by 1,200 yards deep had been taken and 1,200 German soldiers captured. 40,000 Allied troops took part during the battle and suffered 7,000 British and 4,200 Indian casualties. Similar losses were suffered by the Germans, setting the pattern for the slow, attritional nature of trench warfare.

  • The 7th Division had 2,791 casualties
  • the 8th Division 4,814 casualties
  • the Meerut Division 2,353 casualties
  • the Lahore Division 1,694 casualties

Ten Victoria Crosses were awarded for conspicuous bravery in the battler. Among the recipients was Gabar Singh Negi of the 2nd/39th Gharwal Rifles. His entry in the London Gazette reads: For most conspicuous bravery on 10 March, 1915, at Neuve Chapelle. During our attack on the German position he was one of a bayonet party with bombs who entered their [the German] main trench, and was the first man to go round each traverse, driving back the enemy until they were eventually forced to surrender. He was killed during this engagement’. His name is among those recorded on the memorial at Neuve Chapelle. He was nineteen.

The Aftermath

Had the aim of the battle simple been to restore the British reputation in the eyes of the French, it would be considered a success. Perhaps even more coldly, the experience exposed the British commanders to some of the realities of trench warfare, giving them information that they could use in the development of new strategies and tactics. Reviewing the battle in his despatch to the Secretary of State for War, Sir John French attributed the success to ‘the magnificent bearing and indomitable courage[of] the troops of the 4th and Indian Corps’. Willcocks, who had served for many years in India and could speak several Indian languages, wrote that the Garhwalis ‘suddenly sprang into the very front rank of our best fighting men’. However, the impact of the losses took its toll, breaking up long-established units and, in some cases, killing officers who had worked with Indian troops and who knew and understood them, and leaving them to the care of men to whom the Indians were alien. In proportional terms, the Meerut Division lost 19 percent of its Indian soldiers d 27 percent of its British officers, while, with 575 casualties, the 47 Sikhs lost 80 percent of their fighting strength. These losses meant that, although not the last time that Indian troops would see action, Neuve Chapelle would be the last time that they were used as a striking force. It set the template for much of what was to follow. General Charteris wrote of the experience ‘I am afraid that England will have to accustom herself to far greater losses than those of Neuve Chapelle before we finally crush the German Army’.

Letter from a wounded survivor from the Meerut Division, recovering at hospital in Brighton, describing the battle (Subterranean Sepoys)
Letter from a wounded survivor from the Meerut Division, recovering at hospital in Brighton, describing the battle (Subterranean Sepoys)

The personal impact of the battle was recorded by the survivors in letters home. The historian David Ommissi has collected some of the letters sent by Indian soldiers. Their comments testify to the almost indescribable bloodshed:

  • ‘The death of a human being has become as of much account here as the death of an insect’ -Nanak Singh, 6 Cavalry, France to Gaur Singh, Jhelum district, 6th March 1917
  • ‘God has made them fowls of the air, dragons of the earth and poisonous crocodiles of the sea and he has given them such skill that when we encounter their deceitful bayonets they set light to some substance which causes a suffocating vapour and then they attack. How can I describe this?’ South Indian Muslim, hospital ship to friend, India, 9th February 1915
  • This is not war. It is the ending of the world.-Wounded Rajput to relative, India, 24th January 1915

The Memorial

The memorial at Neuve Chapelle was erected by the Imperial War Graves Commission (now the Commonwealth War Graves Commission) in 1927. It is especially dedicated to the Indian soldiers who died in the battle and was designed with Indian culture and architecture in mind.

The Neuve Chappelle Memorial. 4703 names are inscribed on it. (Commonwealth War Graves Commission)
The Neuve Chappelle Memorial. 4703 names are inscribed on it. (Commonwealth War Graves Commission)

Mutinies and Death Sentences in the Foresters, 1914-18

Foresters
The Sherwood Foresters, pictured here in 1916

Now this looks like an interesting project. The Nottingham Radical History Group have used their long-standing experience of investigating and remembering radical moments from history to examine the cases of the 103 Sherwood Foresters who were sentenced to death or sentenced on mutiny charges during the First World War.

The project was deliberately chosen because of the high profile nature of the centenary. The group’s researchers soon realised the scale of their task and that their investigations would require them to familiarise themselves with the often arcane legal and organisational landscape of the military.

They have documented their approach in a brilliantly detailed initial pamphlet, which covers their work and the pattern of their investigations. It’s a fascinating example of the historical process and is written in an engaging and, at times, necessarily angry manner with footnotes that are as lively as they are informative.

The second in the series of pamphlets is also available. This begins the case study approach that the group has selected and focuses on the story of Private W. Harvey, who was sentenced to death for desertion in February 2015 (a sentence later commuted to two years’ hard labour).

As with the best works of history, this core story expands to examine the situation and context that surrounds it. Consequently, the pamphlet includes material on the lives that the soldiers left behind when they went to war and the experiences that the regiment offered once they had done so.

More information, and copies of both pamphlets, can be found on the People’s Histreh site

 

The Trench

Movie portrayals of warfare can be very powerful, even when the war is not the central focus. Michael looks at an example from the 1990s51-jS45YczL._SX342_

William Boyd’s 1999 film The Trench depicts a fusilier section during the 48 hours leading to the start of the Battle of the Somme.

The soldiers’ accents suggest a group drawn from different parts of the country, apparently in pairs with shared peacetime backgrounds. The putative lead, the Lancastrian Private Billy MacFarlane (Paul Nicholls) is partnered with his brother Eddie (Tam Williams) while a private dispute emerges on the part of the two Glaswegian soldiers over the issue of one’s clandestine engagement to a girl of their shared acquaintance. Lance Corporal Victor Dell (Danny Dyer) is a Cockney and Privates Ambrose (Ciaran McMenamin) and Rookwood (Cillian Murphy) Irishmen. Fusilier Colin Daventry (James D’Arcy) is evidently of a higher social class than his comrades and the likely beneficiary of a grammar school education (he has at least a smattering of German and has to pointedly moderate his latinate vocabulary to make himself understood even by his fellow Anglophones). He is, nevertheless socially inferior to the naive section commander, Second Lieutenant Ellis Harte (Julian Rhind-Tutt) who numbs his sense of being out of his depth with repeated slugs of whisky and private deferrals to his Sergeant, Telford Winter (Daniel Craig), the sole professional soldier in the unit.

The film’s action is almost entirely contained within the titular trench, creating an intentionally claustrophobic atmosphere that recalls a stage production. The young cast, mostly drawn from recent graduates of drama school is a reminder that the men who populated the trenches would, in other circumstances, be regarded as boys, a point emphasised by their scripted eagerness to participate in demonstrations of petty bravado, earning one lad a ‘blighty’ or in acts of barrack-room possessiveness over contraband photographs of nude girls.

Sgt Winter and Pte MacFarlane
Sgt Winter and Pte MacFarlane

Indeed, it is this matey comradeship (that includes minor rivalries) that is most impressive about this film. Take away the scenery and the uniforms and these lads could really be anywhere. Anywhere that raising your head too high might get you shot, that is. The effect of the scripting and the, let’s be honest, less than perfect nature of the performances (the young leads have all developed their acting skills since this film was made), lends The Trench a human quality that reminds us that the young men who fought in the real trenches were young, inexperience, scared and human.