On August 8th, 1914 two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade of the Indian Army were ordered to prepare for overseas service, following a plan devised by then-Maj. Gen. Sir Douglas Haig in 1910. Units of this ‘Indian Expeditionary Force’ began arriving in France in September and at the end of October they were rushed up to stop a German advance during the First Battle of Ypres in Belgium. It was here that Sepoy Khudadad Khan (1888 – 1971), of the 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis, performed the act of gallantry for which he later received the Victoria Cross, becoming the first Indian-born soldier and the first Muslim to be so honored.
The 3rd (Lahore) and 7th (Meerut) divisions of the Indian Corps fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the first year of the war. At Neuve Chapelle in March 1915 Indian soldiers made up half of the attacking force and despite taking very heavy casualties succeeded in capturing important sections of the German line. The Corps further distinguished itself at St. Julien in the Ypres Salient in April 1915, at Aubers Ridge and Festubert in May, and at Loos in September. In December all of the Corps except the cavalry was withdrawn and replaced by New Army divisions. The infantry went to the Middle East while the cavalry remained behind until the spring of 1918, when they were also sent to the Middle East. Starting in 1917, Indian labor companies performed important and sometimes dangerous logistical work in France, continuing well after the Armistice.
The Western Front was a grim place to be in 1915, but the Indian soldiers faced some additional hardships. The Indians were assigned stretches of front of the same length as British units, although a full-strength Indian battalion was about 200 soldiers smaller than a British one. The Indian soldiers arrived with inadequate clothing, particularly winter gear, and older obsolescent weaponry.
It was a constant challenge for supply to satisfy Indian dietary requirements. Indian units were short on British officers as all those on home leave in the fall of 1914 had been stripped off as cadre for the New Army. The British army wasn’t tolerant of religious, linguistic and ethnic distinctions, or of caste rules and vedic medicine. Even in the field, Indian units had civilian ’followers’ who performed tasks for the soldiers according to an intricate scheme which made little sense to the British.
India sent more than 140,000 men to the Western Front – 90,000 soldiers and about 50,000 non-combatant laborers. They represented a diverse range of religious, linguistic, and ethnic groups. More than 8,550 died and about 50,000 were wounded. Indians missing on the Western Front are commemorated on the Menin Gate at Ypres (Ieper) and at the Neuve Chapelle Memorial. Indian Army missing in the Salonika Campaign are honored at Monastir Road in Greece, those lost at Gallipoli on the Helles Memorial and all the missing from elsewhere are listed on the India Gate in Delhi.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Memorial to the Missing at Neuve Chapelle is located near the village in France of the same name, on the site of the battle of the same name, which was waged from March 10th to March 13th, 1915. The memorial commemorates 4,742 Indian soldiers and civilians who died on the Western Front and have no known grave.
There are some atypical aspects to this site:
- The only soldiers commemorated are from the Indian Army,
- It also commemorates Indian civilian followers and
- No cemetery is attached, so there is no Cross of Sacrifice or Stone of Remembrance.
The memorial was designed by Sir Herbert Baker KCIE FRIBA RA (1862 – 1946). He also designed the Tyne Cot and Loos Memorials and his pedigree is detailed here. The two tiger sculptures were the work of Sir Chares Wheeler KCVO CBE PRA (1892 – 1974) who frequently collaborated with Baker and whose pedigree is also explained at the same link above.
The CWGC provides the following description: ‘The memorial is characterized by Indian architectural styles with a circular enclosure centered on a tall column that is topped by a Lotus capital, the Imperial British Crown and the Star of India.
The column in the foreground of the enclosure stands almost 15 feet high and was inspired by the famous inscribed columns erected by the Emperor Ashkora throughout India in the 3rd century BC.
On either side of the column two carved tigers guard this temple of the dead. The column and the tigers are supported by a “podium”, on the near side of which is carved: “INDIA 1914-1918”, while on the far side are the Battle Honours of Indian Army units on the Western Front. From the ends of the podium a pierced stone railing extends half-way round the circle, and the ends of the semicircle are marked by two small domed “chattris”, situated roughly East and West.’
On the lower part of the column the words:
GOD IS ONE, HIS IS THE VICTORY,
are inscribed in English, with similar texts in Arabic, Hindi, and Gurmukhi (the Sikh language).
The far semicircle is enclosed by a solid wall on which are carved the names of the missing. Also engraved on the memorial is the following inscription:
TO THE HONOUR OF THE ARMY OF INDIA WHICH FOUGHT IN FRANCE AND BELGIUM, 1914-1918,
AND IN PERPETUAL REMEMBRANCE OF THOSE OF THEIR DEAD WHOSE NAMES ARE HERE RECORDED
AND WHO HAVE NO KNOWN GRAVE
At the dedication ceremony on October 7th, 1927 French Field Marshal Ferdinand Foch said;
‘Return to your homes in the distant, sun-bathed East and proclaim how your countrymen drenched with their blood the cold northern land of France and Flanders, how they delivered it by their ardent spirit from the firm grip of a determined enemy; tell all India that we shall watch over their graves with the devotion due to all our dead. We shall cherish above all the memory of their example. They showed us the way, they made the first steps towards the final victory.’
On April 11th, 2015 the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, laid a wreath at the Memorial. In his address he said:
‘I am honored to pay homage to the Indian soldiers here at the Indian Memorial at Neuve Chappelle. Our soldiers who fought in foreign lands in the Great War have won the admiration of the world for dedication, loyalty, courage and sacrifice. I salute them.’