MARATHAS IN WORLD WAR 1 – At the outbreak of the First World War (WW-1), there were just six Maratha units (then known as Mahrattas) which had campaigned for over a hundred years. These units had earned as many as 14 Battle Honours within the Indian subcontinent and as far as China in the East to Abyssinia in the West. However, these laurels still didn’t put the Mahrattas on the map. Many factors were responsible for the relative obscurity of the regiment before 1914. By comparison, the Bombay Army grew at a much slower pace than the Presidency Armies of Bengal and madras and their experience in combat was limited to engaging with ill-organized forces such as pirates of west coast and Pindarees within India. That aside, a certain amount of distrust also lurked in the minds of British rulers who had previously fought the Marathas for territorial supremacy. The prejudice continued throughout the 19th century, as a consequence of which each Mahratta unit had all classes till 1895 and later on each of those units had a subunit of Deccani Mussalmans.
WW-1 was the first global conflict in which Indian soldiers fought against well organised and well trained forces of the Turks and the Germans. While the Marathas did not participate in France and Flanders, they carved a unique niche in Mesopotamia (Land between Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, today in Iraq). By 1919, Marathas came to be recognised as a formidable force.
In Mesopotamia, 103rd (1 Maratha LI), 110th (3 MARATHA LI) and 117th (5 MARATHA LI) Mahrattas, as part of General Townshend’s 6th Poona Division, fought all along the Tigris River in battles of Qurna, Es-Sinn and Ctesiphon. In second stage of campaign the 105th and 114th (MARATHA LI Regimental Centre) units of the Maratha regiment distinguished themselves in the operations beyond Baghdad. The 105th were further instrumental in the grim fighting that was part of General Allenby’s brilliant campaign in Palestine. The116th (4 Maratha LI) unit served for full four years in the Mesopotamian theatre and also skilfully dealt with difficult situations in South Kurdistan. In fact, such was their reputation that once a senior British officer was asked, “Who do you think were pick of your lot?” “The Mahratta”, came the unhesitating reply. “I would always like to have a Maratha with me in any scrap.”
The Marathas served in different locations across the globe during the First World War. An account of some of their most famous battles is as under.
117th Mahrattas, as part of 16th Poona Brigade landed at Sanniya. 110th Mahrattas as part of 18 Belgaum Infantry Brigade followed right behind. The Turkish Force was reported to be moving from Basra to attack Sanniya camp. After fending off Turkish attacks, the Expeditionary Force counter-attacked the Turks at Saihan. The Turks then moved orthwards and held Qurna at the junction of Tigris and Euphrates. In an outflanking movement, 110th crossed Tigris River, followed by other unit and on 9th day of the operation they captured Turkish garrison at Qurna.
By January 1915, the Turkish forces had concentrated in South West of Shaiba. This was a dangerous situation since it could potentially cut off all British forces in Basra and north. So the Shaiba garrison was reinforced with a divisional size force and the 110th and 117th Mahrattas earned the Battle Honour ‘Shaiba’.
The general strategy of the Turks was to delay British advance and force deployment over extended lines of communication through difficult and hostile country. Their aim was to lure the British forces to a ground of their ownchoice. The Turks, led by the formidable Nur-ud-Din, were deployed south of ‘Kut-al-Amara’ along a frontage of 5 miles across Euphrates, holding both banks with well-fortified defences. Their strength was estimated to be about 12,000 whereas the British force consisting of 2 divisions had about 20,000 personnel. In the battle that lasted over a week, the 103rd, 107th and 110th units together lost two Indian and one British officers and 322 other ranks while seven British and two Indian officers along with 222 other ranks were grievously wounded.
By 30th September 1915, the Turks had carried out a complete withdrawal. General Townshend had ordered pursuit by cavalry on land and infantry on river rafts. By 3rd October air reconnaissance revealed that Turks had occupied prepared positions at Ctesiphon. The Turks had organised their defences at Ctesiphon in two lines with four divisions, well supported by artillery; whereas British forces had only one division consisting of 10,200 rifles, 1,000 cavalry and 30 guns.
By then, all three Mahratta units had lost many British and Indian officers and men and so were filled with new recruits. While the British captured some part of Turkish defences, General Townshend soon realised that his troops were not only outnumbered but also tired and running out of supplies. The attacks were called off and the force retreated to Aziziya followed by Turks in pursuit. All the three Mahratta units were bestowed with Battle Honour of ‘Ctesiphon’. General Townshend remarked, “Never in any war in modern military history have troops been more highly tried than in Ctesiphon operation; yet never was there a murmur, never a slightest sign of demoralisation or insubordination. I hope history will call this also anhonourable retreat.”
Siege of Kut-al-Amara
Upon retreating from Ctesiphon, General Townshend deployed his Poona Division at Kut-al-Amara to keep the Turks from accessing river Tigris. At Kut-Al-Amara, the Poona Division consisting of 4 brigades, 16th, 17th, 18th and 30th was completely surrounded by a Turkish force whose strength was estimated to stand around 30,000 men and 83 guns.
The siege commenced on 05 Dec 1915 and the gallant defenders held out heroically till 29 Apr 1916, when out of sheer helplessness General Townshend was authorised to negotiate surrender. Subedar Ramchandra Rao Mohite, father of Lieutenant Colonel Amrit Rao Mohite attained martyrdom while carrying out a spoiling attack on the Turks along with his platoon. The unit lost 4 British officers, 1 Indian Officer and 307 other ranks were either killed or wounded and died of disease.
110th Mahrattas, which was part of 18th Brigade was deployed to defend the southern section including the town of ‘Kut.’110th had 7 British officers, 11 Indian officers and 330 other ranks at the beginning of siege. During the siege they lost 2 Indian officers and 153 other ranks. 117th Mahrattas were deployed as part of 16th Brigade to hold the northwestern section of the first line of defences. Having faced heavy casualties in earlier operations, the unit could muster a meagre 225 other ranks at the commencement of the siege.
North West Frontier. In April 1914, the114th unit was at Dacca and from where it was moved to Jhelum in October. It joined 4th Infantry Brigade at Bannu. The brigade was instrumental in quelling potential problems that could have been caused by tribesmen.
In August 1914, the 116th unit was at Jhansi and proceeded to Bannu in October. In November the same year, they were deployed at Tochi valley to stop intruders from Afghanistan. They spent the remainder of 1915 and most of 1916with Miranshah Field Force until they received orders to mobilise for field service in Mesopotamia.
The 114th unit left Jhelum and proceeded to Mesopotamia in December 1915. The unit was deployed at Nasiriya in January 1916 where they were instrumental in dealing with the local tribesmen while undertaking a rearguard action while treating to Nasiriya from Bhutania. The unit lost 3 British officers, 1 Indian Officer and 72 other ranks killed and another 24 wounded. Since August 1914, the 105th unit was retained as a reserve of Maratha group in India. After carrying out protection duties for important railway communications in Central India and 5 month stint at Dacca, they moved to Lahore. Finally, in July 1916, they were moved to Mesopotamia and reached Basra in August 1916. As part of 3rd Lahore Division they carried out daring offensive action in the Battle of Sanniyat.
PRE INDEPENDENCE WARS
They were deployed to recapture Kut-al- Amara and undertook very important holding operations near Turkish defences.
The 114th unit attained glory in the battle of Sharqat. There were only 3 British officers in the unit: the Commanding officer, The Adjutant and Second in Command. All companies were commanded by Indian officers. Despite heavy casualties the Marathas pressed forward their attack relentlessly and finally captured the objective. The 114th unit holds the record for highest number of awards ever received by a single unit. It is yet to be equalled by any other Indian Army unit till date.
While returning to India, the unit was sent to quell the Arab revolt in Samawa on Euphrates River. It was here that Havildar Raghunthrao More, was awarded the IOM and was also Mentioned- in-Despatches, four times. The unit returned to India after 5 years of strenuous service in field.
Till November 1917, the 116th unit was deployed at Baghdad and later placed under the command of 55th Brigade as part of a new raising – the 18th Division. After the fall of Turks in Mesopotamia, the Kurds were suspicious about the intention of the British and revolted. Initially, the supreme ruler of Kurds requested for military and diplomatic assistance from British. However, he changed his attitude and started inciting his levies, who were trained by British, to revolt against the British. Following the conflict, in August 1919 the unit wasdeployed to assist in breaking siege of Rumaitha where the 114th was deployed.
Palestine and Persia
In the spring of 1918, the British Government decided to strengthen the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) with two Indian divisions, 3rd Lahore and 7th Meerut. They were ordered to move out of Mesopotamia and join EEF. While 114th and 116th units were fighting along Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Mesopotamia, two other Maratha units (105th and 110th) were engaged in operations in Palestine as part of EEF. The situation in Persia remained highly unstable throughout WW-I. By the end of 1917, German influence in Persia was enough to set off anti British risings in many locations. In October 1917, the 117th unit reached Borazum and defeated the force commanded by Khan Gazanfar. In February 1921 the unit returned to India and was bestowed with the title “Royal” for its outstanding operations in Mesopotamia. As a mark of this honour, the unit still wears the Royal Blue Lanyard on the right shoulder.
The end of WW1 ushered in a new era in the history of Indo-British relationship. Increasing strength of nationalist movement and India’s magnificent contribution to war efforts in various theatres forced Britain to recognise India as an equal partner in the Commonwealth of Nations. Recommendations of the Montague- Chelmsford Report set India on the path of achieving Dominion status. Those noble sentiments found full expression in the transfer of power to Indian Hands in Provincial Governments and also in the structure and organisation of the Indian army. For the Marathas, this entailed many mergers and ultimately the forging of a new identity: the Maratha Light Infantry.
Maratha Honours and Awards – Battle Honours in WW1.
Several battle honours have been conferred on many Maratha units for their outstanding operations during WW-I. These include:
- Defence of Kut-al- Amara,
- Mesopotamia (1914- 1918),
- Persia (1918),
- North West Frontier (1914-17).
Maratha Units Awards in World War 1.
Different units received various awards for their services in World War 1.
- The 103rd unit was awarded 6 IOMs and 2 Croix-de-Guerre.
- The 105th unit received 3 DSOs, 4 MCs, 3 IOMs and 5 IDSMs.
- The 110th unit was bestowed with 1 Companion of the order of St Michael and St George (CMG), 1 DSO, 3 MCs, 1 OBI, 6 IOMs, 7 IDSMs besides 1 Kara Georgevitch (Romania) and 1 Crown of Romania.
- The 114th was awarded 2 DSOs, 4 MCs, 6 IOMs, and 12 IDSMs while more than 50 officers were mentioned in despatches.
- 116th unit was the only one to be bestowed with 1 Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE). Additionally, the unit also received 2 DSOs, 2 MCs, 1 OBI, 5 IOMs, 14 IDSMs, 1 French Croix-de-Guerre, 1 Belgian Croix-de-Guerre and 1 Order of El Nadha.
- 117th unit was awarded 1 MC, 2 OBIs, 6 IOMs, 18 IDSMs, 6 IMSMs (Indian Meritorious Service Medals), 2 French Croix-de-Guerre, and 1 Medaille Militaire.
Maj Gen C D Sawant commanded 6 Maratha LI, was GoC of an infantry division.