In August 1914, Skinner’s Horse (also known as 1st Horse) was at Meerut, when the First World War broke out. 7th Meerut Cavalry Brigade, which the Regiment was part of, received orders to mobilise on 24 October 1914. Following two days filled with medical and veterinary inspections, the Regiment was able to report that it could mobilize at full field service strength, plus ten percent first reinforcements without demanding a man or a horse from another unit, and that too after it already been called upon to supply various drafts of both men and horses. On the evening of the 13th Nov 1914, the Regiment entrained at the Meerut city station for Bombay. The intervening time had been spent drawing mobilisation stores and collecting winter clothing all over India.
The Embarkation to France began on 17 November 1914. Two hired transporters- the Rajah and the Rani, were allotted to the Regiment. They were the slowest ships in the convoy, but to the men their names appeared as a good omen. On 19 November, the convoy consisting of 32 transporters escorted by a French light cruiser, Duplex, set sail. On 3 December 1914 the convoy reached Suez Canal and the next day was spent sailing up the canal which was held by Indian troops. The Regiment reached Marseilles port in France by Midday 15 Dec 1914.
The European Sector
The Regiment was in France from December 1915 till August 1916. The Indian Cavalry Corps was held as mobile reserve and later the Corps took over a sector in Thiepval, which was one of the a fortress villages in Somme held by the Germans opposite the “Leipzig Redoubt”. Skinner’s Horse saw extensive action in many parts of France and was awarded the battle honour ‘France and Flanders’ for its fine performance in this theatre of operations. A detachment of the unit was sent to Mesopotamia as part of 7th Merrut Cavalry Brigade Headquarters. The Machine Gun Squadron which was tasked for this operation did a commendable job and Jamadar Amir Lal Bahadur of this Squadron was awarded the Military Cross. For his service in command of the Regiment in France, Lieutenant – Colonel Wall was awarded CMG, Risaldar Major Balwant Singh received the order of British Indian, 2nd class for distinguished service in the field and was promoted three years later to the 1st class. The Regiment was ordered to Rawalpindi where it finally concentrated on the 6th Aug 1916 for operations in Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan Sector Baluchistan Province of British India was a large but thinly inhabited territory that bordered southern Afghanistan, south-east Persia and the approaches to the Straits of Hormuz leading into the Persian Gulf. The Province was administered directly by the Indian Political Service, as was the North-West Frontier Province immediately to the north. During the Great War both of these Provinces were targeted by German agents positioned in neutral Persia who used gold and intrigue to spread disaffection against British rule.
The Marri tribe of eastern Baluchistan had a history of resistance to the British. The tribesmen were long-bearded and long-haired and lived in a remote, barren area that was relatively untouched by economic progress or the war. In 1917 Marri chiefs had travelled to Quetta for a visit by the British Viceroy and there probably they had been led to believe by other more devious chiefs that there were no British soldiers left in India as all had gone to the war. Then, when the British Political Agent asked for Marri recruits for a tribal levy, this caused anger and the Marris swore to refuse this British request. In February 1918 this anger was translated into action and an attack was mounted on Gumbaz Fort.
The Attack on Gumbaz Fort
Thirty men from the 3rd Skinner’s Horse were garrisoning Gumbaz Fort when news of trouble brewing in the Marri region was received at regimental headquarters in Lorelai. On 17th February 1918 Major J.R. Gaussen CMG, DSO was despatched with 50 more men to reinforce Gumbaz, and this group arrived at the fort the following day. The fort and surrounding area appeared quiet and the resident Political Officer, Lieutenant Colonel F. McConaghey, was living in his bungalow some distance away. However towards evening Gaussen sensed impending violence and he persuaded the Political Officer to move into the fort.
Gaussen’s appreciation for the defence of the fort with just 80 men had made him decide not to attempt a perimeter defence but to concentrate his men in the two flanking towers; he commanded one tower and Lieutenant H.B. Watson (Indian Army Reserve of Officers attached to 3rd Skinner’s Horse) commanded the other. At 2300 hours on 19 December several hundreds of mainly sword-wielding Marris suddenly attacked, scaled the fort walls, and then hurled themselves against the towers.
Mullahs had promised the tribesmen immunity from infidel bullets and the Marris were fearless. The intensity of the fighting can be gauged from the citations for the two Indian Orders of Merit (2nd Class) that were later awarded.
No 786 Dafadar Lal Singh, 3rd Skinner’s Horse
This non-commissioned officer showed the greatest gallantry and power of command in action on the night of 19th-20th February 1918. He exposed himself continually to fire, directing fire and rallying his men, till severely wounded. When the non-commissioned officer who had charge of the key of the magazine had been cut down, and the key lost, he at once volunteered to go down and force open the magazine, ammunition being needed. When wounded, he was placed under the little cover available but a second bullet inside the post struck him in the brain and killed him.
No 1334 Lance Dafadar Khem Singh, 3rd Skinner’s Horse
When his post was attacked from the rear, he at once rushed out to the head of the ladder and resolutely defended it from a mob of Marris, shooting down several and holding the ladder unaided until the attack was beaten off.
The first assault was halted but minutes later fresh waves of Marris vigorously attacked again until they too were driven out of the fort by rifle fire. A third and final attack was mounted at 0200 hours 20th February but this also eventually withered under the intensive rifle fire of the defenders. As they departed the Marris showered curses on their infidel foes and carried away some of their own casualties, but even so 200 dead or wounded tribesmen were found lying in and around the fort as dawn broke. This had been a very intense action and it was later included in the Official List of Battles and Actions of the Great War.
Data obtained from the archives of
the Skinner’s Horse