There are simply no “good wars”. Once the strains of the ultimate Last Post from the war zone are played out, and in the deafening silence that follows dawns the truth of the enormity of the gore of battles fought which in reality were the ugliest manifestations of cruelty dealt out by man upon fellow men. Recorded history of WW I has it that India alone lost 78,187 all ranks killed and another staggering 67,000 wounded in action, many of whom too were destined not to survive; yet that dreadful carnage was wiped clean from mankind’s conscience a mere 21 years later, to jump into WW II terminating in the nightmare of nuclear Armageddon visited upon Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Today, as we pull down curtains on the yearlong, sombre commemorations of WW I Centenary, we do so in hope that the last war was indeed the means to banish armed conflicts of all shades from the psyche of Nation States, for all times to come.
When the news of the Great War had reached India in August 1914, bulk of the Army was in and around the NW Frontier and in the words of a subaltern of the 15 Ludhiana Sikhs (from his autobiography, ‘The Only Enemy,’ Brigadier Sir John Smyth, Bt. VC, MC, MP, published 1960) “it seemed to most that we should be stuck where we were for the whole war… missing out on active service in Europe”. But forty-eight hours later they had orders to mobilise and get down to Karachi, within fifteen days. In almost all cases this seemed “an impossible task… our outposts were stretched over sixty miles and we had to march another eighty miles to railhead… I was sent out with a bag of rupees to hire every donkey and camel I could find… the loyalty and fighting spirit of the battalion was more than ever manifest by the way every sick man formed up and tried to persuade me he was fit to go.”
The subaltern has left an endearing account of Sepoy Harnam Singh who was bedridden with malaria but “three days later, towards the end of a particularly trying march, I looked around at the men and thought I saw Harnam Singh black with sweat… but swinging along jauntily… when we got into camp later I asked the Indian Officer if I had seen aright… how has he possibly marched all this way?” Smyth was amused to learn “Oh, opium — he’s non-opium eater and the effect of opium on him is therefore very great… we give him a little before the march and put him to bed as soon as it is over and then do the same next day”. Harnam Singh managed to get to Karachi and went through a year of trench warfare in France!
At last the battalion was reassembled at Loralai and “what a scramble that day was!… packed and stored all heavy kit and household effects, sold my ponies and got all my field service kit ready. That night we dined as guests of Hodson’s Horse. Amid cheers and good wishes, with the band playing, very weary but stimulated by champagne and excitement, we set out for the war”. But the troop-ships were not ready at Karachi and the “kind residents treated us to an orgy of farewell parties… just before we were due to sail, we were invited to dinner by the members of the Gymkhana Club… the evening was a very hilarious one… Next morning I woke with a throbbing head and suddenly noticed that the officer in the next bed had his heads swathed in bandages. I turned over and to my horror saw that the officer on the other side had his arm in a sling. I put my head under the bedclothes, counted three and then looked at the bed opposite. The inmate of that had his leg bandaged and slung up on a pulley… apparently the regimental bus had skidded… and gone into a deep ditch… luckily no bones were broken…”
The 15 Ludhiana Sikhs were among the first Indian troops to disembark at Marseilles and that being their first venture outside of India, there was bewilderment as they marched for several days through an environment totally alien even to imagination. As they wended their way through towns and villages, the marching columns were thronged by cheering crowds and “one could just see the heads of the men bobbing about amid an excited sea of French faces”.
There was little by way of logistical support as we understand today. And “The Sikh is a cleanly creature and gets under a pump at every opportunity no matter how cold the weather or the water. After the dusty march they took down their hair and beards and set about having a good wash. This absolutely brought the house down and there were delighted shrieks of “Voila les femmes Indiennes!” After a while this curiosity, good natured no doubt, became rather embarrassing and the battalion were glad to arrive at the live battle zone”.
The battalion had mobilised in cotton uniforms and one blanket per head. “However, the men soon got an issue of one warm vest and one long- john… They didn’t quite understand the underclothes at first and, on the day were issued, I came out of my tent just in time to prevent the Subedar Major “walking out” clad in a thick pink vest and pink long-john!”
On 24 October 1914, the battalions were ordered to deploy in a “gap in the line… we had a Scottish battalion on our right and some French on our left. It was of course very difficult for the Indian soldier at first to distinguish between French and Germans… I quite appreciated this difficulty and borrowed a French soldier and a German prisoner and paraded them slowly round in front of eachCompany. Nevertheless, I regret to say that the first people we shot in the Great War were undoubtedly French…”
Shortly, the battalion was truly battle-blooded on 18 May 1915, when Lieutenant Smyth leading ten volunteers in a near suicidal mission emerged with a VC and ten IDSMs (Posthumous) for his comrades (including Harnam Singh, probably of the opium episode) in the same mission. And two days later, The Czar conferred on Smyth the exceptional George Cross for “the most valorous deed” of the year. A few days later, “we had a message to say that an Indian Maharaja (of Tikari) was coming to spend a few days inour trenches. He rolled up in a smart uniform and beautifully polished boots with an orderly carrying his kit. He was given a dugout and retired to sleep. Early next morning, clad in a pair of blue silk pyjamas, he came and asked if he could have a place to snipe from. I gave him a little cul-de-sac where he would be in no one’s way, told him to be careful as the German trench was only forty yards from ours and then started off on my rounds and forgot about him. Shortly afterwards, I heard some dull clangs followed by roars of rage from the German trench. I peeped over the top and saw that six of their steel loop-holes had been knocked out. This seemed rather queer as the.303 bullet generally used to ping off them. I suddenly thought of the Maharajah and went along to see what he was at. There he was in his lovely pyjamas with a 500 Express Elephant rifle (strictly against every convention of war) chortling with joy and methodically knocking out every Boche loophole within range. I hated having to stop him but we had to go to ground in any case as the Boche put over an angry mortar concentration to register their disapproval.”
Smyth was given a five days leave before the battalion embarked for Egypt. As he prepared to board a return train at Victoria Station, he was accosted by the wives of two newly- weds of the 15th, who asked if they could come along with me. With the feckless assurance of youth I said yes. Never mind the squabbles with the railways and dodging the military police in France “but I enjoyed the whole thing enormously until we got to Marseilles and I had to report to the CO.“Well boy,” he grunted “had a good leave?” Yes Sir… but I have a confession to make… I got the biggest telling-off…the CO I knew was susceptible to flattery… I managed to blurt out “They thought you might be able to fix it for them, Sir” and I saw a gleam in his eyes… and he said “But tell me this. Just how the bloody hell does a Subaltern— even a Subaltern of the 15 Sikh— manage to bring two women right across France in the middle of a World War?”
I had read this book in 1960 but could not discover who the Maharaja of the silk blue pyjamas episode was. Now in the 1990s, one frequent visitor to our home was from the Kapurthala-familyand she traced out that the unsung hero of that episode, from that most lethal battle field, was Gopal Saran Singh of Tikari. But where is Tikari? Again by chance, I had acquired the latest Oxford School Atlas in 2003 and lo and behold, Tikari showed up, not far from Bodh Gaya! But why had the man sought out 15 Ludhiana Sikhs only, on the Western Front? His grandson Robin Tikkari has no clue, either; I have a hunch but that is another story!
Robin tells me that the Tikari Jagir was conferred on the family by Ali Vardi Khan, the Mughal Governor of Bengal for loyal services rendered in battle skirmishes with the East India Company! And that the gentleman in blue silk pyjamas on the battlefield was at the time an Honorary ADC to Field Marshal Haig. And in recognition of material help during the War, post armistice, he was appointed an Honorary Captain in the Indian Army at a ceremony in St James Palace, on 19 September 1919. The family has that parchment signed by The King.
Finally, as we relive moments from WW I of soldiers’ grit and valour against fearful odds, driven solely by their intangible commitment to “Honour, Oath of Fidelity and Loyalty to Comrades” even in the midst of visible carnage all around and hence it becomes a sacred moment for all of us to unequivocally rise in salute to all soldiers of the world.
Commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in July 1956, Lt Gen. Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM, retired on 31 July 1992 after 36 years of distinguished service. A keen sportsman, accomplished writer and noted environmentalist, he is an active promoter of Conservation of Nature, more so within and by the ArmedForces