1917′, a film directed by Sam Mendes premiered in London, on 04 December 2019, and drew rave reviews. It won a host of awards and has been nominated for the Oscars where it is expected to do well. The plot is drawn from stories that Director Sam Mendes had heard from his grandfather who had been an infantry soldier in World War I. The film portrays the journey of two soldiers Lance Corporals Will Schlofield and Tom Blake – tasked to deliver an urgent order to a Regiment which is cut off. This letter from General Erinmore is to stop an attack in which this Regiment – 2nd Devons –
has been lured into and thus save the lives of 1600 men.
The film is currently showing in India and is a brilliant piece of direction and cinematography. Having seen it, I was reminded of a true ‘1917’ Indian story, that of Lance Daffadar (L/Dfr) Gobind Singh, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for a not too dissimilar act. Coincidentally, that too was in 1917. Could this actual act have been adapted as a background for the film ‘1917’? For this, there is a need to narrate what happened on 30 November and 01 December 1917. It was during the Battle of Cambrai in France and an Indian Cavalry Regiment, the 2nd Lancers (Gardner’s Horse) was surrounded by an enemy brigade. Communications were cut off and the situation very serious. The Brigade Headquarters was about one-and-a half miles from the village of Épehy where 2nd Lancers was besieged.
The Battle of Cambrai in 1917 is known as one of the first great tank offensives. There are graphic accounts of swords and lances being pitted against guns. The Battle of Cambrai, which began in November 1917, was an attempt to break through the Hindenburg Line, a German defensive position on the Western Front. Casualties were high with the Germans suffering the overall losses of approximately 50,000 and the British 45,000. At the heart of the action on 1st December, midway through the bloody battle, was the Mhow Cavalry, a brigade of the Indian Army, which ‘advanced under heavy machine gun fire from the flanks’ but ‘most gallantly continued towards its objective’ of capturing a German position. The report in the diaries on the cavalry’s role on December 1 adds:
“Too much cannot be said of the spirit and conduct of all ranks of the Central India Horse throughout the day.”
They had been ordered to ‘endeavour to push forward’ despite the non-arrival of 14 tanks which were supposed to be supporting them – and ‘galloped up to the trench and crossed it, pretending not to see the Germans, who let them go by. They then turned about and galloped back under the heavy machine gun fire.”
The report tells how on that day, December 1, some horses passed through a gap in a barbed wire fence, while others jumped it, then ‘a few men led by Lieutenant Broadway chased some retreating Germans. Lt Broadway had already killed two Germans with the sword when he was treacherously killed by a revolver shot by a German officer, who raised one hand in token of surrender keeping the other behind his back. The German officer was immediately killed by a lance thrust from a man following Lt Broadway.’
Having succeeded in helping to capture the outpost, the cavalry came under renewed attack, they were cut off and surrounded.
Volunteers were called to carry a message giving the position of 2nd Lancers to the Brigade Headquarters, which was on the outskirts of Pozieres. Out of the volunteers, L/Dfr (Lance-Daffadar, the equivalent of a corporal) Gobind Singh Rathore (then 29 years old) and Sowar Jot Ram were selected and given duplicate messages with two different routes.
Both started immediately at a gallop. Sowar Jot Ram was killed as he tried to make his way through the valley. Gobind Singh was given the open, more difficult route, which was under constant enemy fire. He had travelled about half a mile of the lower slopes when his horse was killed by a machine gun fire.
For some time, Singh lay still close to his horse and played dead. Then judging that he was no longer being watched, he got up and began to run. There was an immediate burst of machine gun directed on him. He shook and pretended as if he had been shot and fell down. He then waited before getting up again and running. By repeating this process and crawling along the ground, Gobind reached the Brigade Headquarters.
A return message now had to be sent from the Brigade Headquarters to 2nd Lancers. Gobind Singh volunteered for this as well. He was given another horse and started back taking the high ground south of the valley until he reached the German post. Using the ground along a sunken road he had covered two thirds of the distance when his horse was shot. He thus had to make the rest of his way on foot amid a hail of machine-gun fire.
An hour later another message had to be sent from 2nd Lancers. Although exhausted and wounded, Gobind Singh came forward once again. He was told that he had already done his share of duty. This intrepid warrior, however, in keeping with cavalry tradition, insisted that it was a privilege and that he knew the ground better than anybody else.
The Victoria Cross
On the strength of this assertion, the Adjutant of 2nd Lancers allowed him to go. For this ride, he started from the lower end of the road, turned right and passed ‘Catelet Copse’ into an artillery barrage in Village Épehy. By this time the Germans had started heavy shelling and soon his comrades saw a shell land right behind Gobind’s horse, cutting it into half.
Gobind Singh disappeared in a cloud of smoke and was presumed dead. Miraculously, the shell had only killed the horse and thrown Gobind off. Covered in blood and dust he soon got up and ran on. Using field craft he eventually got into dead ground and the re-entrant which led to the valley. Thence he made his way out of the sight of the enemy to the Brigade Headquarters in Poizères. Thoroughly exhausted and badly wounded, he arrived there at 11.55 am on 1 December 1917.
He volunteered to make the journey a fourth time but was not allowed to do so because that would have been a certain death. For his conspicuous bravery and unwavering devotion to duty in saving his Regiment and fellow men, Gobind Singh was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest gallantry award in the Commonwealth.
His citation explains further: “For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in thrice volunteering to carry messages between the regiment and Brigade Headquarters, a distance of 1.5 miles over open ground which was under the observation and heavy fire of the enemy. He succeeded each time in delivering his message, although on each occasion his horse was shot, and he was compelled to finish his journey on foot.”
Gobind Singh received his medal from the King on 6 February 1918, at Buckingham Palace and following his investiture he was presented with a silver plate and a gold watch at a reception given in his honour. Those present at the reception included two officers of the Indian Cavalry, who were visiting London as guests of the nation, as well as General Sir O’Moore Creagh VC, who had earned his VC in an action at Kam Dakka, on the Kabul River, in 1879, during the Afghan War and Lt Gen Maharajah Sir Pertab Singh.
Gobind Singh survived the war. After the war he was promoted to Jemadar in the 28th Cavalry and served in the army until 1934. He passed away two days after his 55th birthday, on the 9 December 1942, at Nagaur, and his body was cremated in his home village of Damoi.
Besides the Victoria Cross, Rathore was awarded 100 acres of land in Punjab. After Partition, the land fell in Pakistan. By then, Gobind Singh and Amar Singh had passed away. Amar Singh’s son Tez Singh petitioned the Indian government to give them an equal measure of land in Rajasthan.
Gobind Singh’s grandson Col Rajinder also recollects his grandfather studying up to Class V after the war. “He never went to school. After he got the Victoria Cross, he wanted to study. His commanding officer agreed and arranged for his study till Class V,” he says.
Gobind Singh’s son Ganga Singh joined the same Regiment, i.e. 2nd Lancers and rose to the rank of Brigadier. Brig Ganga Singh’s son, Rajendra, too joined 2nd Lancers and is a serving Colonel. The family has gifted the Victoria Cross to the Regiment where it is a treasured possession. The legend of Gobind Singh thus lives on and inspires the future generations.
Six men from India received the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry during the First World War. As a part of the Centenary Commemorations the people of the United Kingdom marked their gratitude to those courageous men by presenting a bronze memorial plaque to their home country engraved with their names.
Having seen 1917 and the increased advent of Bollywood into films like Uri and The Forgotten Army, is it not time that the saga of L/Dfr Gobind Singh finds a suitable portrayal!