Sikhs in British Armed Forces :First World War – Egypt
November 1914-April 1915
When war with Germany broke out in August, 1914, there seemed little chance of the 14th Sikhs being sent on service overseas, for it was thought that the situation on the North-West Frontier would not permit of any units being withdrawn from Peshawar. It was therefore a surprise when mobilization orders were received on the evening of the 12th of October.
Mobilization was completed on the 27th of October and the Battalion left Peshawar by train for Karachi two days later amid scenes of great enthusiasm. On arrival at Karachi the 14th Sikhs embarked in the transport City of Manchester, which sailed on the 3rd of November in company with nine other vessels under the escort of H.M.S. Duke of Edinburgh. The whole of the 29th Indian Infantry Brigade, under Brigadier-General H. V. Cox, consisting of the 14th Sikhs, 69th Punjabis, 89th Punjabis and 1st/6th Gurkhas, sailed for Egypt in this convoy.
During the voyage the 29th Brigade was diverted to Shaikh Said, an island on the Arabian coast in the Red Sea, and ordered to destroy the Turkish defences. The Brigade expected to carry out a surprise landing, but the naval reconnaissance party was fired on when searching for a suitable landing beach. The Duke of Edinburgh therefore started to bombard the fort and the Sikhs had a grandstand view, seeing the fort go up in clouds of smoke and the flagstaff collapse from a direct hit. On the 10th of November the 69th and 89th Punjabis carried out the landing, while the 14th Sikhs were in reserve. The landing was entirely successful and the assaulting battalions encountered only slight opposition. The Sikhs commenced disembarking from the gangway into six ship’s lifeboats at 2 p.m. No. 1 Double Company, under Major Swinley, was the first off and the boats were towed ashore by the naval pinnace. Puffs of smoke appeared in the sky and it was soon discovered to be enemy shrapnel when the balls spattered into the water. Although the Duke of Edinburgh had silenced the heavy guns of the fort, the enemy had a battery of guns on the reverse side of the ridge, which had not been touched in the bombardment, and these opened up on the boats. Fortunately the shells burst too high and the 14th Sikhs suffered no casualties.
By the time the Sikhs landed, the place was almost deserted and the field guns were abandoned by the Turks, who had fled to the mainland. The disembarkation with only six boats was a slow business and the Battalion did not complete landing until the early morning of the 11th of November. The Sikhs were ordered to cover the 23rd Sikh Pioneers while destroying the Turkish defences on the island. However, the Battalion did not come under fire and returned to the ship the same evening.
As the Sikhs were moving down to the beach the “Kot” lance-naik of one of the companies was seen carrying a flagstaff on his shoulder. He was taking it back as firewood for the company “langar,” as the men had been having difficulty in cooking with coal in the ship’s galley, and the lance-naik spotted the flagstaff as good material for firewood. Lieutenant Cursetjee, the Medical Officer, immediately asked him what he had done with the flag. He drew out a red bunting from under his coat and said, “Do you mean this thing? You may have it.” The man continued on to the beach with the pole, when Colonel Palin caught sight of it and ordered it to be left behind, much to the regret of the lance-naik. The flag was kept in the Adjutant’s “Yakdan” throughout the war and is now among the war trophies of the Battalion. The convoy then sailed for Egypt, arriving on the 16th of November. The 14th Sikhs moved by rail to Port Said five days later and joined the British forces defending the Suez Canal.
DEFENCE OF SUEZ CANAL
The 29th Brigade was responsible for the Qantara sector, where the 14th Sikhs arrived on the 2nd of December. The defences were mostly on the west bank of the Canal, although there were a few important posts, such as Qantara, on the east bank. In the first few weeks the troops were employed in routine defence duties and in extending and improving the defences.
The Regiment had a dreary wait with little hope of any enemy appearing and seeing numerous convoys of reinforcements passing through the Canal on their way to France. The monotony was whiled away with training, periods in the outposts, and games of soccer, which the Sikhs began playing, as hockey was not possible in the sands of Qantara, while officers paid visits to Port Said, Cairo and Luxor. The 14th Sikhs had given up all hope of any encounter with the enemy when, on the 25th of January, contact with the Turks was made by a mounted patrol about two miles east of the forward positions. The next day a column of the 1st/6th Gurkhas with two double companies of the 14th Sikhs under command moved out to drive the enemy back. However, just as this column was about to attack, orders were changed and the attack had to be cancelled. The column withdrew to Qantara in the afternoon without interference by the Turks.
In the early morning of the 28th of January about two hundred of the enemy attacked the 14th Sikhs’ outpost line held by “E” Company under Captain Channer. The regimental scouts, under Lieutenant Meade, were lying up in advance of the outposts, astride the caravan route from Palestine, when they heard the approach of a column which they knew could only be the enemy. They fell back silently and warned the company in the outposts. Captain Channer immediately informed Brigade Headquarters, who passed on the information to I.M.S. Swiftsure, which was tied up in the. Canal. Officers and men had estab-. lished a liaison with the Navy and the men called the ship their “Bada Bhai.” The Swiftsure switched on her searchlights on the enemy column and opened fire, as did the Sikhs. The Turks were taken completely by surprise, as they were under the impression that no troops were holding the eastern bank of the Canal. The Turks suffered heavy casualties and left a number of killed and wounded on the field, while the Sikhs captured some prisoners, who were in a sorry state after their march from Palestine across the Sinai Desert.
A few days later the Turks delivered a general attack against the Canal defences. Although Qantara was not one of the enemy’s principal objectives, it was attacked by a small force early on the morning of the 3rd of February. These attacks were all beaten back and two double companies of the 14th Sikhs followed up, but they were permitted to pursue the enemy for only a short distance owing to the shortage of transport and artillery.
After this there was little enemy activity and the 14th Sikhs again settled down to routine duties and patrolling. On the 6th of April a patrol, under Jemadar Narain Singh, found an empty packing case and tracks leading towards the Canal. Suspecting that the case contained a mine, Jemadar Narain Singh reported the matter and the Royal Navy swept the Canal and discovered an enemy mine just outside the buoyed channel.
Source:The Sikh Regiment – Lieutenant-Colonel P.G. Bamford, D.S.O