Now that the whole world is talking about the sacrifices made by soldiers during the First and the Second World Wars, should we Indians also not shed some silent tears of remembrance for the brave Indian soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the freedom of France during the First World War?
Few recall the sad chapter of the bravery of Indian soldiers, who died defending France almost a century back at Neuve Chapelle in France during the World War I, and only a lone memorial erected there pays them silent homage.
The memorial at Neuve Chapelle, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, was unveiled in 1927
Ever since I came to know that there is a memorial to over 4,700 Indian soldiers in France, who died during the war, I had a keen desire to visit this place, and to know more about it. This wish got fulfilled when I was in France a few years back.
I found out that the place was near the big French town of Lille, on the France-Belgium border. I got in touch with the tourist office of Lille, which was prompt and helpful, and told to my dismay that there was no way of reaching the memorial except by road, and that there was no public transport connecting that village. You may consider taking a taxi from the railway station, the tourist office added helpfully. Having come so far, a few extra euros were not going to get me off my path, I said to myself.
So I took France’s prestigious fast train, the TGV from Paris, and reached Lille, located about 255 km away in just about an hour. From the station I took a taxi, and set out on my journey. Unlike the image of French people as being reserved, the taxi driver was a nice, friendly and talkative fellow. He complimented me on trying to speak in French, and there was a thaw. “Is one of your ancestors mentioned in the list at the memorial,” he asked. “No,” I said, and then added they were all Indians.
I was keeping an eye on the meter of the taxi, and discovered that as against the 25 km mentioned on the Internet and the tourist office, the distance from the Lille railway station to the memorial turned out to be 37 long and increasingly expensive kilometres. Anyway, I thought I would have to ration my time at the memorial in order to economise on the waiting charges.
We reached the village of Neuve Chapelle, and stopped at a caf`E9 to find directions to the memorial. The driver suggested that while in the caf`E9, we might have a quick coffee. Oh yes, it is just about a few hundred metres from here, said the man behind the counter, pouring hot coffee for us. We finished the coffee, and the driver insisted on paying, saying that “after all, you have come from so far away.”
The village of Neuve Chapelle is around 5 km north of La Bassee, and 20 km west-south-west of Lille. The memorial is 800 metres south-west of the village. One of the roads leading from the crossroads, the Rue du Bois, finds a mention in Alexander Dumas’ Three Musketeers.
At the memorial I almost automatically bowed my head and touched the ground in reverence to those brave sons of India who found bravely and died there.
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 graves.”A plaque in the memorial reminds the visitors that the memorial was constructed and is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Just next to the memorial is another one — dedicated to the Portuguese, who died in the same battle there.
In 1964, a special bronze panel was designed to add to this memorial the names of 210 servicemen of undivided India, who died during the 1914-1918 war, whose graves at Zehrensdorf Indian Cemetery, East Germany, were considered “not maintainable.” Incidentally, although this plaque still remains, these graves were reinstated following the renovation in 2005 of the German cemetery.
This site also contains the Neuve Chapelle 1939-1945 cremation memorial. In 1964 the remains of eight Indian soldiers (including two unidentified) were exhumed from Sarrebourg French Military Cemetery and cremated. The names of the five identified solders are engraved on panels at the Neuve Chapelle memorial, together with the following inscription: “1939-1945 — In honour of those soldiers who died in captivity in north-west Europe, and whose mortal remains were committed to fire.” Thirtynine members of the 1914-1918 Indian forces were commemorated here, who are now known to have been cremated at Patcham Down, Sussex.
At the Memorial I almost automatically bowed my head and touched the ground in reverence to those brave sons of India who fought bravely and died there.
The Memorial is in the form of a circular enclosure, in the foreground of which is a column nearly 15 metres high, recalling the pillars of Ashoka, surmounted by a Lotus Capital, the Star of India and the Imperial Crown. 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 units on the Western Front.
Various Indian symbols can be seen depicted here – peacock, rhino, camel, elephant, bow & arrow, snakes etc.
Four inscriptions are engraved on the column in four different languages and scripts. The inscription in English is ‘God is one. His is the victory’, in Urdu ‘Bismillah ir Rhman ir Rahim’ (In the name of God the most gracious), in Hindi ‘Om, Bhagwatey Namah’ (Every word is a holy name of God) and in Punjabi ‘Ek Onkar- Sri Waheyguru ji ki fateh’ (God is one- Victory belongs to God).
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’, roughly East and West. The far semicircle is enclosed by a solid wall on which are carved the names of over 4,742 soldiers of the Indian Army.
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.”
A plaque in the Memorial reminds the visitors that the Memorial was constructed and is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Just next to the Memorial is another Memorial- to the Portuguese who died in the same battle there.
A Memorial register, listing out the names of these brave Indians lies respectfully in a safe at the site.
Incidentally there is a poignant epitaph on the subject ‘Neuve Chapelle’, written by H.W.Garrod 1919, which reads:
Tell them at home, there’s nothing here to hide:
We took our orders, and asked no questions, died.
It reminds one of the Greek poet Simonides’ (550-450 B.C.) famous epitaph for the dead at Thermopylae as translated by William Golding: ‘Stranger, tell the Spartans that we behaved as they would wish us to, and are buried here.’ Another equally moving epitaph is at the Kohima Cemetery in India, which reads:
When You Go Home,
Tell them of Us and Say,
For their Tomorrow,
We Gave Our Today.’
A book published in 1916 and recently republished in 2009, “From Mons to Ypres with General French: A Personal Narrative” by Frederic Abernethy Coleman gives some chilling details of the battle and the formidable fighting by the Sikhs:
“On the 28th, the newly arrived Indian contingent attempted the capture of Neuve Chapelle, which had been taken over by the enemy the day before. The Indians faced the German shells for the first time. The 2nd Cavalry Brigade was in support. The 47th Sikhs bore the brunt of the work. The 9th Bhopal Infantry was in the fight and two Companies of the Indian Sappers and Miners.
The Sikhs charged magnificently. They got into the town, and the houses were the scenes of many a hand-to-hand fight. One Sikh brought back three prisoners. He had cornered eight Germans in a room, he said, and went for them with the cold steel. Five of the enemy were killed outright. Asked why he stopped, he naively explained that his arm had tired, so he spared the remaining three and brought them back as evidence of his prowess.
Close quarter fighting and individual conflicts in the buildings of the town scattered the Sikhs. Soon the Germans brought back a couple of machine-guns into play at the end of a street mowing down the big black fellows in squads as they came within range. Their officers were down save one or two. No cohesive body could be formed to take the quick-firers, so back the Sikhs came straggling and demoralised, the effect of their splendid charge largely nullified by their inexperience of this kind of warfare.” (pages 266-267)
The number of identified casualties was 4742. I looked at one name at random- it was Amar Singh. I found the list to contain 20 Amar Singhs from India who died in the battle of Neueve Chapelle. Further checking revealed that 11 out of the 20 were Sikhs and 9 Grwhalis. Besides there were two Amar Bahadurs from Nepal! The next name I saw was of Channan Singh and found a list of 6 Chanan Singhs who fought to death at that ground. One of the Indian soldiers whose name is engraved there was Rifleman Gobar Singh Negi, of 2nd /39th Garhwal Rifles, hailing from Manjaur in Tehri Garhwal, the then United Provinces, who was awarded the Victoria Cross, “For most conspicuous bravery on 10th March, 1915, at Neuve-Chapelle.” There are names of soldiers coming from Rajasthan, Maharashtra, the undivided Punjab and Nepal. They all fought side by side and died side by side.
A number of questions came to my mind? What were these soldiers, coming from different parts of India fighting for in that far away land? Was it their War? Were they defending their own country or were they trying to conquer new territories for their country? The answers to all the above are sadly depressing.
Photos text and copyright: K.J.S.Chatrath 2014