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Heroes of the Great War by  G. A. Leask

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SOME INDIAN V C. HEROES

[254] THE noble and spontaneous response of every part of Britain's far-flung Empire during the great conflict has been the subject of admiration and wonder. We have seen how splendidly Australia, New Zealand, and Canada answered the call to service, and how these dominions sent many thousands of brave troops to fight for the Motherland. India, the great Asiatic Dependency, also gave most generous help. Prince and peasant vied with each other in contributing not only money but personal service in order to assure victory for the Empire to which they are so proud to belong.

The military assistance of India has been no small thing. The exact number of troops she has dispatched to the various battle areas cannot yet be stated, but it is known that the Native Army consists of 2,751 officers and 101,085 other ranks. There are also 35,700 [255] reservists, while, in addition, many rulers of the Native States placed their military forces at the Empire's disposal. To enumerate all the large financial and personal assistance given by India, the hospital ships, equipped and maintained by natives of all ranks, and the other valuable contributions from the same sources, cannot be attempted here. It must suffice to say that these efforts demonstrated the firm determination of all classes and creeds to take their share in fulfilling all the positive duties of Empire citizenship.

The fighting races of India—Sikhs, Pathans, Gurkhas, Jats, Mahrattas, and Rajputs have fought in the trenches side by side with their fellow-citizens from other parts of the Empire. In Gallipoli, as well as in France, the hardy Gurkhas distinguished themselves by their amazing fearlessness, and many stories are told of how these plucky little men, creeping silently out of their trenches by night, with their famous kukri knives in their mouths, have crawled up to the German trenches, and then, with blood-curdling yells, hurled themselves on the foe. The superb Indian cavalry—some of the [256] finest horsemen in the world—was also in France, and it was confidently expected that they would ride through the vaunted German Uhlans when the fighting again took place in open country. The trench warfare, however, did not give the opportunities for which they yearned, ere in December 1915 it was announced that the Indian troops had left the Western Front for 'another field of action.'

The following striking tribute by one of our soldiers to the courage of the Indian troops is worth recording:

"Everybody is wild about the Indians, and the way they behave themselves under fire is marvellous. One day we were close to them when their infantry received its baptism of fire. When they got the order to advance, you never saw men more pleased in all your life. They went forward with a rush like a football team charging their opponents. They got to grips with the Germans in double-quick time, and the howl of joy that went up told us that these chaps felt that they were paying the Germans back in full for the peppering they had got whilst waiting for orders."

[257] He goes on to say that the Indians are very proud of being selected to fight with the British, and behave with amazing coolness under shell-fire. "They make light of wounds, and I have known cases where men have fought for days with wounds that might have excused any man dropping out."

This is the first war in which it has been possible for a native to win the Victoria Cross. This honour was one of the boons granted by the King-Emperor to his Indian subjects at the Delhi Durbar of 1912, and already several brave Indian soldiers have won the coveted reward.


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The first native soldier to gain the V.C. was Sepoy Khudadad, 129th Duke of Connaught's Own Baluchis. He is one of the heroes of the famous first battle of Ypres. On October 31, 1914, the Germans made a determined attempt to break our line at Hollebeke, and the Indians had 'to go through it.'

One of two machine-guns had been put out of action by a shell. The position became serious, for the Baluchis were holding a weak part of our line. Sepoy Khudadad realized [258] the danger, and although he himself was wounded he stuck to his post at the second gun. Something told this hero from the sunlit land of the East that on that day his King-Emperor demanded his services to the last drop of his blood. With true Oriental determination and grim courage he continued to work the gun, although shells fell around him and he was struck by splinters. In the end Khudadad was able to hold up the advancing Germans, and he thus saved his particular portion of the line.


*   *    *    *    *

The second Indian V.C. hero of the first year of the war was also one of the bravest. Naik Darwan Sing Negi, 1st Battalion 39th Garhwal Rifles, gained his reward for great gallantry on the night of November 23-24, 1914, near Festubert.

"The 1st Battalion 39th Garhwalis," says a writer, "are recruited from that portion of the Himalayas lying within territory immediately west of Nepal, known as Garhwal; and Naik, like most of the sturdy recruits drawn from this neighbourhood, spent his boyhood herding his father's sheep and goats on the [259] bleak uplands and glacier valleys, often alone for weeks on end." One would like to know more of the romantic life-story of this hero, but it is difficult to get these silent men to speak about themselves. They prefer to let their deeds speak.

One of the fiercest battles of the war took place around Festubert in the La Bassée district. On November 23rd the Germans made a determined attack upon some trenches near Festubert, held by the Indian corps. A counter-attack was organized during the night of the 23rd-24th, as our men were very hard pressed. In this great onslaught the 39th Garhwal Rifles, all hardy warriors like Darwan Sing Negi from the northern hills, took a leading part. They leapt over the parapet with fixed bayonets, their faces set and grim. With irresistible dash they advanced to the captured trenches and drove the enemy off with terrible loss.


[Illustration]

NAIK DARWAN SING NEGI CLEARING THE TRENCH.

Darwan Sing Negi received two severe wounds in the head and in the arm, but refused to give in. He led the way round each successive traverse, and we can imagine the terror he [260] inspired in the hearts of the Germans when they saw this tall, fierce Indian hero, with white turban gleaming in the darkness, his eyes afire, advancing upon them with the bayonet. Although fired at by bombs and rifles at the closest range, nothing could daunt this fearless fighter. With lightning rapidity his bayonet flashed in the air, and German after German fell to the ground. By his splendid courage and powerful arm he practically cleared the trench himself and so saved a serious situation. The fighting went on all next day, but the heroic deed of Darwan Sing Negi on the previous night had averted the worst of the danger. He was decorated by the King just before his Majesty left France on December 5, 1914.


*   *    *    *    *

During the year 1915 three more Indians were awarded the Victoria Cross. One, Gobar Sing Negi, won his at the famous battle of Neuve Chapelle, and the account of his great exploit will be found in the chapter which describes the V.C.s of this engagement.

The next month, April, saw the winning of another V.C. by a gallant Indian officer, [261] whose heroic feat is now described. He was Jemadar Mir Dast, of the 55th (Coke's) Rifles. It is interesting to note that at the time he won his distinction, Mir Dast was attached to the 57th (Wilde's) Rifles. Both the 55th and 57th Rifles are attached to the Indian Frontier Force, which preserves our great Eastern Dependency from attack by turbulent tribes.

The jemadar—a native officer ranking next below a subadar, and corresponding to our lieutenant—had already distinguished himself before coming to Europe to fight for his King-Emperor. He possesses the coveted Indian Order of Merit for gallant services on the Indian frontier while acting as guardian of our northern boundary.

During both battles of Ypres our Indians fought magnificently. At the second battle, when Mir Dast won his V.C., they had their first experience of German asphyxiating gases.

After the enemy's poison-gas attack had made a temporary dent in our line in the Ypres area, Sir John French ordered the Lahore Division of the Indian Corps, to which Mir Dast's regiment was attached, to be moved [262] up and placed at the disposal of the Second Army.

A few days later this corps, supported by British cavalry, were pushed up into the front firing-line. The time had come for the British to assume the offensive. Fighting with the French on one of their wings, the Indians were successful in pushing the enemy back some little distance toward the north. Again the Germans let loose their poison gas, and rendered further advance impossible. Such was the position on April 26th.

The Indians fought with grim determination during their last attempt to carry the German positions. A formidable series of trenches had to be assaulted in order to dislodge the enemy and so relieve the pressure on the rest of the line. Jemadar Mir Dast got his men ready, and was awaiting the order to advance. It had not been found practicable in the limited time to reconnoitre the ground in a satisfactory manner.

Our Indian troops knew that the Germans were strongly entrenched on the opposite ridge. When the order was given to dash [263] from the trenches, Mir Dast found himself detailed off to remain with his platoon in reserve. The others, advancing by short rushes, reached the crest of the first slope without a check, although a number fell by shell-fire. On reaching the crest, however, the line came under a terrific machine-gun and rifle-fire. Whole swathes of men fell as if a scythe had been drawn across their legs. In spite of this, the line pressed on.

Then came the dramatic and awful sequel. The Germans suddenly released their gas. Although the French Colonials were the chief sufferers, our Indian troops were affected by it. The poor fellows were totally unprovided with any form of protection against this devilish device, and were falling fast, being, at the same time, under a hail of machine-gun fire. No troops could have withstood the terrible conditions, and the line was forced to give way.

Jemadar Mir Dast, from his trench, had seen the oncoming poison cloud, and noticed the retirement of a part of our line. He had one of two alternatives presented to him. Either he must retire in conformity with the rest of [264] the troops, or endeavour to get his men to stand firm and resist the inevitable German attack under cover of their poison cloud. Mir Dast decided to remain.

Under cover of dense volumes of gas and a ceaseless point-blank fire the Germans approached nearer and nearer. Undaunted in the trying ordeal, Mir Dast remained firm, and collected all the men available, among whom were many who were slowly recovering from the effects of the gas. So many British officers had been killed that there was no one left to lead but himself. He therefore assumed command of the forces he had collected, and kept the men together until ordered to retire, all the while holding up the oncoming Germans with rifle-fire.

After dusk Mir Dast left the trench with his small force. During this retirement he picked up many men who were in the successive lines of trenches by which he passed, and brought them to safety.

Throughout the attack the resolute and gallant conduct of Mir Dast was beyond praise. As the little band wended their way [265] to the rear he encouraged each man individually by his cheery words and courageous example. He saw an officer lying wounded, and at great risk went and brought him to cover. A few yards farther on he made out the writhing figure of a gassed Indian officer. In spite of a hot rifle-fire the intrepid jemadar made for him, and, with assistance, got the suffering officer out of the zone of fire. Then a second British officer was observed. The jemadar, heedless of the risks he ran, and knowing every minute was precious if he himself was to escape the fire and gas, stopped once again to perform his heroic work of rescue.

In this way during the retirement the gallant Indian soldier brought in no less than eight wounded British and Indian officers. He was exposed in doing so to a very heavy fire, and was himself slightly wounded. Had he not shown such conspicuous bravery these eight men would have died on the field. Mir Dast not only received bullet wounds, but was rendered very weak through the effects of the German poison gas.

The gallantry of Mir Dast, as well as the [266] behaviour of the whole division at the second battle of Ypres, added yet another brilliant page to the record of our gallant Indian army.

The jemadar, when well enough to be moved, was sent to England, and while being nursed back to health at the Indian Hospital at the Brighton Royal Pavilion, he received from the hands of the King-Emperor the V.C. he had so deservedly won.

He was much affected by the King's kind and generous remarks, and said afterward that it was the proudest day of his life. "What did I do?—nothing, only my duty; and to think that the great King-Emperor should shake me by the hand and praise me! I am his child."

On the following day Mir Dast wrote home to India an account of his never-to-be-forgotten interview with his Emperor. "This is a great and good Government," he wrote to his regimental friends at home. "Service under the Government is very good. I have been given the Victoria Cross. You come, too, and you may get it."

It was on the occasion of this visit to his [267] wounded Indians that King George made his spirited speech of thanks for their devotion and heroism, and delighted all the wounded, who gave ringing cheers for the head and symbol of the great Indian Dependency of which they had proved themselves such loyal and valiant children.


*   *    *    *    *

The last Indian hero selected for notice here is Rifleman Kulbir Thapa, 2nd Battalion 3rd Queen Alexandra's Own Gurkha Rifles, who gained the distinction at the famous battle of Loos. His regiment was engaged in operations against the German trenches south of Manquissart. Kulbir Thapa was wounded in the attack, yet showed the most conspicuous bravery.

After he had reached the German first-line trenches he noticed a badly wounded soldier of the 2nd Leicestershire Regiment lying on the ground. He at once sat down beside him, and in so doing risked his life, for the Germans were counter-attacking in order to regain their lost trenches. From their second-line trench came a steady stream of machine-gun and rifle bullets, which narrowly escaped hitting [268] the intrepid rifleman. The brave British soldier realized the danger his Indian comrade was incurring for his sake, and repeatedly urged him to save himself. Kulbir Thapa stoutly refused, and remained with the wounded man all day and night.

On the early morning of September 26th the brave Indian decided to make an attempt to save the British soldier. It was misty weather, and this was of great help. Thapa lifted the wounded man and cautiously made his way under the barbed-wire entanglements in front of the German trench. To reach the British lines then was not possible, as he would have had to traverse open ground, and would in all probability have been shot. Noticing a little hole near by, he made for it, and placed the wounded man there in comparative safety. Then he went back to the German lines and daringly brought away two wounded Gurkhas, one after the other, enabling each to reach the British lines.

After seeing his countrymen safe he decided to return and complete the rescue of the Leicestershire soldier whom he had left in the [269] hole. To do this he had to take very great risks. By this time it was broad daylight, and the mist had completely vanished. Kulbir Thapa, however, was not the man to fear the deadly bullet, and he showed an utter contempt for the missiles which were directed at him from various points. He succeeded in reaching the wounded man, stooped and lifted him in his arms. Thus he braved the enemy's fire and staggered back with his burden to the British trenches, to receive the warmest congratulations for one of the most heroic rescues of the war.

From what has been said it will be seen that in daring, resource, and self-sacrifice the gallant Indian troops proved themselves fit comrades of their brothers from other parts of the glorious British Empire.


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