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In Faraway French Commune, Ceremonial Send-off For Two First World War Indian Soldiers

Coffins of the two brave heart martyrs of 39 Garhwal Rifles at the French war cemetery.
Snapshot
  • Himself from the Indian Army’s Garhwal Rifles, the author writes about the events and other facts related to the discovery of the mortal remains of two Indian soldiers of the 39th Garhwal Rifles of the Indian Expeditionary Force in the faraway battlefield near Neuve-Chapelle, France, where the regiment did service during the Great War.

Less in print but much more on social media, a fascinating news story is doing the rounds. It is of the burial ceremony on 12 November 2017 (a day after Armstice Day), near La Gorgue, France, of the recently discovered mortal remains of two Indian soldiers of the 39th Garhwal Rifles (39 GR) who were martyred for the cause they fought for in the Great War (First World War). There was a solemn ceremony with attendance too by personnel from the Indian Army's Garhwal Rifles.

The story is related to India’s fascinating military heritage. The official version told through a Press Information Bureau report has this to say – On 20 September 2016, during excavation work on southern side of the village of Richebourg near Laventie Military Cemetery, approximately 230 kilometres away from Paris, two human remains were found. On examining their belongings, they were identified as casualties of 39th Garhwal Rifles.

The office of Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWWGC), which is curator of the graves of these unsung heroes, in mutual consultation with the French Government and the Indian Embassy in France decided to hold a burial ceremony at Laventie Military Cemetery, with full military honours for these martyrs alongside the Annual Memorial Service to commemorate the Indian soldiers, who sacrificed their lives in France and Belgium.

The soil in two urns, from the final resting place of the two brave heart martyrs at Laventie Military Cemetery was formally presented to the Raksha Mantri by the Army Chief General Bipin Rawat during a solemn ceremony in New Delhi on 14 November 2017. The urns and the national flags shall be interred suitably at Lansdowne the home of the Garhwal Rifles.  The soil in two urns, from the final resting place of the two brave heart martyrs at Laventie Military Cemetery was formally presented to the Raksha Mantri by the Army Chief General Bipin Rawat during a solemn ceremony in New Delhi on 14 November 2017. The urns and the national flags shall be interred suitably at Lansdowne the home of the Garhwal Rifles.

The Indian Army was represented by a delegation comprising the Commandant and the Subedar Major of the Garhwal Rifles Regimental Centre (GRRC), two bagpipers from the Garhwal Rifles Regimental Pipe Band and Colonel Nitin Negi, grandson of late Naik Darwan Singh Negi, Victoria Cross (VC), the gallant hero of the battle of Festubert. They were nominated to attend the ceremony. In a symbolic gesture, the soil from the graves of these soldiers would be brought back to their homeland.

The dots in history which join together to tell us the fascinating story of the battles in which these unknown brave hearts were martyred, in the cause for which they fought, need to be retold. But first, something about the Indian contribution to the British cause in the Great War. A total of 1,100,000 Indian soldiers served overseas although the strength of the Indians in uniform is known to have been as high as 1,400,000. An estimated 72,000 soldiers gave up their lives for the cause they fought for. A total of 9,200 decorations were won including 11 Victoria Crosses. The first contribution was in Western Europe, where the Indian Expeditionary Force proceeded headlong into battle with the marauding Germans.

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The Garhwal Rifles has been through an evolution of different titles. Its troops come from the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand. Until 1887, there was no separate regiment comprising just Garhwali troops. They formed part of five different regiments of the Gurkhas. It was only on 5 May 1887 that the Garhwalis got a regiment of their own on the basis of their proven fighting capability. This was done on the orders of none other than the iconic Jangi Laat Field Marshal Sir Roberts of Kandahar, VC who led the British effort in the Second Afghan War and was later Commander-in-Chief. Legend has it that he was so impressed with the soldierly qualities of his ethnic Garhwali ADC, Laat Subedar Balbhadra Singh that he had this to say – “A nation which can produce men like Balbhadra Singh Negi, must have a Battalion of their own”.

The first unit was raised at Almora but then shifted to a ridge in the Garhwal Himalayas called Kaludanda, where it set up a camp. It is around this camp that the hill town of Lansdowne (named after Viceroy Lord Lansdowne under whose pen the orders for the raising of the regiment were given) came into existence. To support the ever-increasing size of this garrison, as it expanded into more units, the habitation of Kotdwara (near Najibabad) close to the Rohilkhand plains also came up along with a rail connection and a metalled road. Lansdowne became the home of the Garhwalis even as another unit was added in March 1901.

A painting of Naik Darwan Singh, VC, at the battle of Festubert, November 1914 A painting of Naik Darwan Singh, VC, at the battle of Festubert, November 1914

As the Great War commenced in 1914, the two Garhwali units carrying the regimental title, 39 Garhwal Rifles, formed part of the Garhwal Brigade under the Meerut Division. It was one of the first Indian formations, along with the Lahore Division, which sailed to France to stem the impending German onslaught in the autumn of 1914. Almost immediately they were in action at the First Battle of Ypres. Here, the Garhwal Brigade was involved in the war's first trench raid on 9-10 November 1914. On the night of 23 November 1914, four months after the First World War broke out, Naik Darwan Singh Negi of the 1st Battalion of 39th Garhwal Rifles, twice wounded in the head and once in the arm, pushed on to recapture trenches lost to the Germans in Festubert, France. He was awarded the VC. His citation read:

For great gallantry on the night of the 23rd–24th November, near Festubert, France, when the regiment was engaged in retaking and clearing the enemy out of our trenches, and, although wounded in two places in the head, and also in the arm, being one of the first to push round each successive traverse, in the face of severe fire from bombs and rifles at the closest range.

On 5 December 1914, Naik Darwan Singh was driven from the battlefield to receive the British Empire’s highest military honour for valour, at the hands of King George V thus becoming the first Indian soldier to receive the VC at the hands of the King Emperor in the field itself. The particular significance of the Battle of Festubert was that it was a defensive operation in which the recapture of lost trenches was accorded great importance as a contributing factor to the projection of resilience and reputation of the Indian Expeditionary Force. Naik Darwan Sigh’s heroic action in which he was also wounded was thus a great display of the Indian fighting prowess, which helped cement their reputation.

The Garhwal Brigades’s saga of valour continued through 1915. In a second instance of extreme valour, Rifleman Gabar Singh of 2nd Battalion the Garhwal Rifles, on the night of 10 March 1915 fought a spree of battles with the bayonet in the stretched trenches at Neuve-Chapelle. He was posthumously awarded the VC. An excerpt from his citation read:

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During an attack on the German position Rifleman Gabar Singh Negi was one of a bayonet party with bombs who entered their 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.

Laventie, the little township eight kilometres north of Neuve-Chapelle, is the location where the mortal remains of the two brave hearts were recently found. However, not much can be said whether these were specifically men of the 1st Battalion or the 2nd Battalion. The Indian Army Headquarters on its part despatched a team comprising a Commandant and a Subedar Major along with two bagpipers of the Pipes and Drums Band, all from the GRRC.

Adding novelty to the solemn occasion of the burial ceremony at the Laventie Military Cemetery was the presence of Colonel Nitin Negi currently a serving officer of the Garhwal Rifles. He is the son of Colonel Balbir Negi (retired) also from the Garhwal Rifles. Colonel Balbir Negi is the third son of Naik (later Subedar) Darwan Singh Negi, VC, the iconic hero of the Battle of Festubert. Colonel Nitin Negi surprised many in India when they saw his photograph at the ceremony adorning the medals of his grandfather on the right of his chest. This is a long forgotten practice but authorised for beneficiaries of the ‘Passing it On’ tradition whereby those in uniform display their parental campaign medals on the right while displaying their own on the left of the chest (see photograph). The purple ribboned VC is among the rarest of rare medals on display on any chest.

Colonel Nitin Negi, grandson of Naik  Darwan Singh Negi, VC. He is the third generation Garhwali soldier. His father, Colonel Balbir Negi  is the third son of Naik Darwan Singh, VC. Colonel Nitin Negi, grandson of Naik  Darwan Singh Negi, VC. He is the third generation Garhwali soldier. His father, Colonel Balbir Negi  is the third son of Naik Darwan Singh, VC.

With focus on valour of the Indian Army and the path-breaking role of the Garhwal Rifles, it will be in order to bring to light some aspects of the regiment to public notice. The regiment went on to win its third VC at the Battle of Kotkai in North Waziristan on 2 January 1920. Lieutenant (Lt) W D Kenny of the 4th Battalion the 39th Garhwal Rifles gave the regiment the honour of all its three battalions being adorned with a VC each (rarest achievement). An extract from his citation read:

Repeatedly attacked by the Mahsuds in greatly superior numbers for over four hours this officer maintained his position, repulsing three determined attacks, being foremost in the hand-to-hand fighting which took place, and repeatedly engaging the enemy with bomb and bayonet. His gallant leadership undoubtedly saved the situation and kept intact the right flank, on which depended the success of the operation and the safety of the troops in rear.

Lt Gen Sir James Willcocks, commanding the Indian Expeditionary Force in France had this to say about the Garhwalis in his book With the Indians in France – "The 1st and 2nd Battalions both did splendidly on every occasion in which they were engaged... the Garhwalis suddenly sprang to the very front rank of our best fighting men... nothing could have been better than their elan and discipline"

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Not surprisingly, in 1921, 39th Garhwal Rifles was adorned with the title 39th Royal Garhwal Rifles and given the honour of all its units wearing their scarlet lanyard on the right shoulder. The lanyard is colloquially called ‘The Royal Rassi’ by the troops, who are affectionately referred as Bhullas (younger brothers). On completion of their training at GRRC Lansdowne, the young recruits are attested at an impressive Attestation Parade, where they take their oath on the Gita under the swirl of the National Tricolour; they then ceremonially wear the Royal Rassi in one of the most impressive ceremonies of the Indian Army.

Since we are into some forgotten aspects of Indian military heritage and tradition, it may be worth recalling an odd anecdote. The Lansdowne Ghost too is related to the battles in France and Flanders. Major W H Wardell of the 1/39 Garhwal Rifles was the Adjutant (Dandpal in Hindi) of the regiment at Lansdowne before the battalion embarked on its journey to Europe. He was known to be a stickler for turnout, correct order and form in everything, besides the white charger he rode distinguished him apart from all others.

Unfortunately, in one of those endless bayonet charges in the labyrinth of trenches in West Europe, he was killed and his body was not recovered. On the very night of his death, he appeared riding his white charger on the desolate roads of Lansdowne which first saw electric lighting only in 1962. Turning out the guard at the Regimental Quarter Guard and ticking a soldier for a loose button he rode on with instructions to the soldier to report to the Adjutant next morning. A white charger has been often sighted in Lansdowne and many a yarn is spun by old time officers, who claim to have seen Major Wardell, adding to the plethora of ghost tales of Lansdowne.

Regimental War Memorial of the Garhwal Rifles at Lansdowne. Regimental War Memorial of the Garhwal Rifles at Lansdowne.

The heritage of the regiment’s valour and other deeds are all enshrined in the Darwan Singh Sanghralaya (museum) at Lansdowne and is definitely a veritable delight for those who appreciate military heritage. The regiment has also made major contributions to the ecology of Lansdowne to restore its green cover and bring to life the hundreds of drying springs through construction of check dams and rain water harvesting. These efforts have won it the Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar.

In the post-Independence period, the Garhwal Rifles (the earlier numerals 39 and later 18 were subsequently removed) has excelled in operations of different kinds. In the 1947-48 operations in J&K, its 3rd Battalion was awarded the battle honour of Tithwal having also won a Mahavir Chakra (MVC) and 18 Vir Chakras (VrC). In the Sino-Indian Border War 1962, its 4th Battalion was awarded the battle honour Nuranang, the only such honour given to a battalion on the eastern front. The unit also won 2 MVCs and 7 VrCs besides many other medals. In the Indo-Pakistan conflict in 1965, three of its battalions, the 1st, 6th and the 8th won the battle honours of Gadra Road, Phillora and Butur Dograndi respectively.

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The 1971 operations saw its 5th Battalion win the battle honour, Hilli. In 1987-90, as many as six units of the Garhwal Rifles participated in Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka. Its achievements in Siachen, J&K militancy/terror and the North East have been equally impressive. During the Kargil operations in 1999, 17th and 18th battalions won the theatre honour, Kargil. The 18th Battalion also won the battle honour Dras. The Garhwali Rashtriaya Rifles unit 36 RR has four Army Chief Citations and two Army Commander’s Appreciations to its credit for its outstanding achievements in counter terrorism operations in South Kashmir.

Today the regiment contributes the maximum strength to the senior ranks of the Indian Army. Its Colonel of the Regiment (Head), Lt Gen Sarath Chand is the Vice Chief of the Army Staff (VCOAS), while it also has one Army Commander, two Corps Commanders and a number of division commanders doing service at different locations. At the pre-commissioning academies, it remains one of the most popular regiments in the choice of newly-commissioned officers.

Prime Minister presenting a silver replica of the Garhwal Rifles War Memorial after his visit to the Neuve-Chapelle War Memorial in France.   Prime Minister presenting a silver replica of the Garhwal Rifles War Memorial after his visit to the Neuve-Chapelle War Memorial in France.  

The discovery of the mortal remains of two soldiers of the former 39 Garhwal Rifles and the ceremony involving their ceremonial burial in France has once again provided the occasion for remembrance of the supreme sacrifice made by Indian soldiers for the cause they fought for. It would be in fitness of things to mention that when Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the famous Neuve-Chapelle War Memorial in France, he chose the silver replica of the Garhwali War Memorial at Lansdowne as a ceremonial gift to his hosts. The replica symbolises the Unknown Soldier, who is ever ready to go to battle and even sacrifice his life in the service of the motherland. Incidentally, not known among many, it is only personnel of the armed forces who take an oath of duty unto death.

(The writer was also Colonel of the Garhwal Rifles. His father, also a General Officer of the Indian Army, was commissioned to 1/39 Royal Garhwal Rifles, the unit to which Naik Darwan Singh, VC belonged, and served 16 years, before he raised 4 Garhwal Rifles. The writer belongs to this unit.)

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