Battles in France
One in every three soldiers in France was Indian.
The Battle of Givenchy (18-22 December 1914) was launched to assist the French fighting at Arras. Most of the burden was borne by the Indian soldiers who had suffered losses at Ypres and the survivors suffered from the winter weather as well as inadequate clothing and food.
The Battle of Neuve Chapelle (10-13 March, 1915) was the first major offensive which took place in March 1915. The Allies were reinforced with fresh troops after the hardship in the trenches during the winter. Half of the Commonwealth fighting force, 20,000 men, were Indian Army soldiers. Altogether 40,000 men gathered on the sector of the front.
During the first few months, the plan of the offensive was to reduce the German salient which was established since October 1914 by attacking from both ends simultaneously; an attack in the north from Artois and the south from Champagne. Artois was an important location for the recapture of the railway network to inflict a setback of the Germans. An independent attack which intended to take Neuve Chapelle and if possible Aubers Ridge for an observation post overlooking the plain and getting behind the German line and threaten their defenses.
Sikh soldiers from the 47th infantry regiment cleared the village after a hand to hand fighting in the houses and streets to advance up to the German trenches. The British and Indian Corps advanced rapidly to attack a part of the German line left untouched by the bombardment. The attack was initially successful however, the advance was hindered due to poor communication and lack of munitions. British soldiers attempting to take Aubers Ridge, came up against undamaged barbed wire entanglements and their losses were enormous. The fight ceased after 3 days with a loss of 7,000 British and 4,200 Indian soldiers either killed or wounded. The Germans suffered similar losses.
TheBattle of Aubers Ridge (9 May, 1915) began several days after the failed attack at Neuve Chapelle. The plan was for the French Army to break through the German line north of Arras before units of the British and Indian Army to take Aubers Ridge which gave the Germans a good view of the Western front line. The Germans strengthened their defenses owing to the earlier success in March. The British and Indian Army were not aware of the German’s reinforcements. The attacks by the British and Indian Army were insufficient to break the German defenses or to suppress the front line. The trench layout, traffic flows and organisation behind the British front line did not allow for easy movement of reinforcements and casualties. British artillery equipment and ammunition were in poor condition. The British and Indian soldiers were exposed to German bombardment in the no man’s land and the Western line became full of the dead and the wounded.
The Battle of Festubert (15-27 May, 1915) was led by the British First Army under Sir Douglas Haig against a German salient between Neuve Chapelle to the north and the village of Festubert to the south. The battle was the continuation of the Battle of Aubers Ridge.The assault was planned along a front line made mainly by Indian troops. The attack around the village of Festubert was launched at night on 15 May by two divisions of mostly Indian infantry and made rapid initial progress despite the failure of the bombardment to destroy the German Army’s front line defenses. The offence was intended to assist the French to attract the Germans to the British front.
Ten Sikh bombers will not be forgotten. Lieutenant Frederick Smith and two Sepoy were the only survivors of this gallant band who passed by a miracle, crawling over the dead bodies of their comrades, through a torrent of lead, and carried their bombs through to the first line. Lt. Smith was awarded the Victoria Cross, Lance-Naik Mangal Singh the Indian Order of Merit, and every Sepoy in the party was given the Indian Distinguished Service Medal. Two of these men belonged to the 45th Rattray’s Sikhs, four to the 19th Punjabis. And here it should be remembered that the Sikhs earned a composite part of the honor of nearly every mixed class-company regiment in France.
The Battle of Loos (25 September – 19 October, 1915) was launched simultaneously with the French offensive at Champagne. The battle was part of Marshal Joffre’s campaign and was designed to push back the Germans in a two-pronged offensive. The British would attack from the north of Lens, at Loos and the French army from the south of Lens. Soldiers were exhausted and supplies of shells were insufficient. The Allies used chlorine gas for the first time however, due to the changing direction of the wind, the gas blew back to the British trenches which caused soldiers to retreat from the front line however gave the British a chance to make their advance and was able to take the village of Loos. The next attack did not launch a bombardment before the infantry advance which caused a great number of deaths. The fierce fighting at Loos is implied by the identification of only 2,000 out of 8,500 soldiers on the first day of the battle. The errors of the battle of Loos was repeated in the Battle of Somme.
The Battle of Somme (1 July – 18 November, 1916) was led by Sir Douglas Haig and was the first major deployment of the New Army of volunteers formed by Lord Kitchener. The first objective was to distract the Germans from the French Army at the Battle of Verdun where the French had been taking severe losses. The second was to capture Bapaume and Cambrai. Two Indian regiments, 20th Deccan Horse and the 34th Poona Horse, took part in the first and only cavalry charge of the battle. The offensive was an absolute disaster for the British army. Indian and British assault fell victim to poor communications. By the time orders came in for their advance, the Germans had enough time to strengthen their positions. Indian horsemen and British counterparts were unable to make progress because of small arms and shrapnel fire. The combat intended to be a decisive breakthrough, however it has become the epitome of the horrors of warfare in the Great War. The strategies adopted during the battle was criticized for the casualty figures which showed the backward conservative military thinking. The British put a regiment of Indian cavalry on standby when the attack started to exploit the void that would be created by a devastating infantry attack. No ground was won and no tactical advantage gained. Cavalry charges were a thing of the past.
During the Battle of Cambrai (20 November – 4 December, 1917), the Western forces attacked the Hindenburg Line which was a German line of defense behind their front line which reduced the losses of German soldiers. The town of Cambrai was the focus because the Western forces knew that the Germans did not consider it an important location therefore was protected by troops that were exhausted by the Battle of Ypres. The beginning of the attack was successful, Western forces penetrated the Hindenburg Line however, the Germans did not retreat and immediately counter-attacked. The Western forces were pushed back and had to abandon the terrain it had gained.