The forgotten role of valiant Indian troops in the First World War – The Battle of Neuve Chapelle ends on this day in 1915

13th March 2017

On this day in 1915, British and Indian forces ended their three-day assault on the German trenches near the village of Neuve Chapelle in northern France, the first offensive launched by the British in the spring of 1915.

Some eight hundred thousand Indian troops fought in the First World War, and not just on the Western Front, but also in places like Egypt, Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and Palestine.

Initially the British perception of Indian troops was that they were second class troops, says archivist at the Black Watch Museum in Perth, Richard McKenzie. Not that they were second class themselves, they were just not seen as being as effective as European soldiers. But that perception changed very quickly at the start of 1915 when the Indians were involved in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.

The main battle that Indian troops were involved in was the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March 1915, Richard says. Over half the attacking force came from the Indian army, and they performed valiantly. As a consequence, the respect of the British officers rose dramatically. Overall, sixty thousand Indian soldiers were to die in the First World War.

The intermingling of Scottish regiments – such as the Black Watch – and Indian troops led to many cultural crossovers: Indian regiments became enamoured of the bagpipes. And for their part, British troops adopted Indian words such as ‘blighty’ and ‘cushy’ into their everyday speech.

For all that, Richard McKenzie believes we don’t recognise sufficiently the contribution played by not just Indian troops but all of those soldiers who came from across the British Empire to aid the Allied effort:

We concentrate too much on the British troops and the British commanders. Sixty thousand Indian troops died and yet their memorial at Neuve Chapelle is the least visited of all the memorials on the Western Front. Why is that? I don’t know. As archivists, we have to make people understand it wasn’t just the French and British armies fighting on the Western Front. Many other peoples were fighting with us, and their sacrifices and the challenges they overcome need to be understood and remembered.

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History of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle began on March 10, 1915, at 8:05 a.m., when British forces attempted to break through the German trenches at Neuve Chapelle and capture the village of Aubers, less than a mile to the east. In the opening assault, 342 guns barraged the trenches for 35 minutes, partially directed by 85 reconnaissance aircraft flying overhead. The total number of shells fired during this barrage exceeded the number fired in the whole of the Boer War (a conflict fought in South Africa between British forces and South African revolutionaries in 1899-1902) a frightening testament to how much the nature of war had changed in less than 15 years.

Following the opening barrage, British and Indian infantry forces immediately moved in to attack the German trench line along a 4,000-yard-long front. Though the troops in the center moved swiftly and successfully forward, taking the front line within 10 minutes and capturing the village of Neuve Chapelle itself before 9 a.m., the artillery had been less effective on the left, and nearly 1,000 advancing soldiers, not knowing the enemy trenches had been left undamaged, had been immediately mowed down by German guns. Lead units on the right were told to halt and await further instructions, as they faced being isolated if they moved forward. Meanwhile, the Allied command, receiving news of the early gains in the center, ordered a general advance. The slowness and inaccuracy of communication between the front lines and the corps headquarters: the army had no wireless technology, and telephone lines at the front were usually cut or destroyed by enemy fire during battle caused Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Rawlinson, the corps commander, to order a fresh advance when support troops were unprepared. In the confusion, some artillery even opened fire on friendly infantry. By the late afternoon, forward units were attacking without adequate artillery support or effective coordination, in failing light, against a hardening German defense.

On March 13, the third and final day of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, British troops repelled a German attack and launched another of their own. They were forced to call a halt after less than two hours, however, as many units had been decimated. By the time the attacks were called off later that day, Allied forces had captured a small salient 2,000 yards wide and 1,200 yards deep, along with 1,200 German prisoners, at the cost of 7,000 British and 4,200 Indian casualties.

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle highlighted the primitive state of communications on the battlefield during World War I, which made it incredibly difficult for commanders on both sides to know where and when to effectively deploy their reserve troops. General John Charteris, director of military intelligence under British commander Alexander Haig, took another sobering lesson from the battle, writing that England will have to accustom herself to far greater losses than those of Neuve Chapelle before we finally crush the German army.

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