Sikhs in British Armed Forces :First World War – Mesopotamia
On the 6th of February the 14th Sikhs were ordered to leave immediately for. the Tigris front. At this time General Maude was carrying on a series of successful operations known as the Battle of Kut al Amara, which finally resulted in the defeat of the Turks on the Tigris and, the capture of Baghdad. The Regiment embarked on the 8th of February in the transport Bamora and arrived at Basra on the evening of the 9th of February.
The 14th Sikhs were one of two battalions earmarked to join the 37th Brigade of the 14th Division to replace the 36th and 45th Sikhs, who had done magnificently in some recent fighting near Kut but had suffered such serious casualties that they had to be withdrawn from the front to reorganize. However, orders were changed and the 14th Sikhs were now to relieve the 2nd/9th Gurkhas on line of communication duties in the I Corps. This change was necessary, as General Maude had been warned that there were no Sikh reinforcements available and that casualties in the 14th Sikhs could not be made good. It was therefore unwise to send the Regiment to the front line at that time.
The Sikhs embarked on a river steamer and started from Basra after dark on the 10th of February. They arrived at Arab Village, the British riverhead on the Tigris, some two hundred and sixty miles north of Basra, three days later.
The 14th Sikhs were employed on holding the line of communication defences between Arab Village and Kut while the British forces under General Maude pressed on up the river and captured Baghdad. The Regiment remained in this area for four months and carried out routine guard duties without incident.
On the 13th of July the Regiment left. Kut by river steamer for Baghdad and en route stopped at Bughaila, which was garrisoned by the 45th Sikhs, with whom the Battalion had a great reunion.
The 14th Sikhs disembarked at Baghdad on the 17th of July and at the end of the month were ordered to Falluja, on the Euphrates, some forty miles west of Baghdad, to hold the left flank of General Maude’s defences covering Baghdad. The Sikhs remained in Falluja during August and September, first in the 7th Infantry Brigade and later in the 50th Brigade, when the former was withdrawn. The Turkish positions were some distance from the British and were out of striking distance of patrols. The Sikhs therefore were not in action and lived a hard but peaceful life.
In September the 14th Sikhs provided a personal escort of a hundred men to General Brooking in his successful operations with the 6th Cavalry Brigade and 15th Division against the Turks at Ramadi.
In October the 14th Sikhs were transferred to the 51st Brigade, which was forming in Baghdad under Brigadier-General R. J. T. Hildyard, as a part of the new 17th Division. The Regiment left Falluja on the 11th of October and four days later arrived in Baghdad, where it joined the 1st Battalion The Highland Light Infantry, 2nd Rajputs and the 1st/ 10th Gurkhas in the 51st Brigade.
For the next six weeks intensive battalion and brigade training was carried out. On the 1st of November the Sikhs distinguished themselves by winning nearly every event in the Brigade sports.
On the 8th of December the 51st Brigade marched to Istabulat, seventy miles north of Baghdad, in a spell of bitterly cold weather and spent four very uncomfortable nights in the open. The Brigade went into a standing camp at Istabulat, but the 14th Sikhs were sent on to Samarra to guard the aerodrome and ordnance dumps there.
After an uneventful two months in Samarra the Regiment marched back to Istabulat for another period of intensive training, but they were soon back in Samarra, as the whole Brigade moved there in March to continue training.
In April it appeared that the Turks had given up all idea of attempting to recapture Baghdad, so leave parties were sent off to India and units settled down into camp for a quiet time during the hot weather. However, in the first half of May the 51 st Brigade took part in the I Corps advance up the Tigris to hold the Turkish force at Fat-ha while the British III Corps operated against Kirkuk. There was no contact with the enemy and the 14th Sikhs were back in Samarra by the 16th of May. A few days later the Brigade returned to Istabulat.
At this time “A” Company,( *The Regiment had for sometime been organized in four companies of four platoons.) under Major Wace, left the Regiment for India to form a new battalion, designated the 1st/ 151st Infantry, formed from companies drawn from the 36th Sikhs, 45th Sikhs and 52nd Sikhs. The 1st/ 151st Infantry was one of several new battalions urgently required by India for service elsewhere. A new “A” Company was therefore formed by drawing on all other companies in the Regiment.
It was very hot in June, but the Sikhs were in a comfortable camp in Istabulat and were very happy there. On the 13th of June a large working party of four hundred officers and men, under Major Channer, was sent to Tikrit to assist in extending the railway northwards from Samarra. Later the whole Regiment was concentrated at Tikrit and the Sikhs provided working parties for the railway until September. During this period an epidemic of influenza broke out amongst the British forces in Mesopotamia. The 14th Sikhs had nearly three hundred cases and these were all cared for in camp by Lieutenant Cursetjee and his medical staff. Fortunately the disease was not of a serious type and there were no fatal cases in the Regiment.
In September Lieutenant-Colonel Earle went to England for short leave and Major Channer took over command of the 14th Sikhs. In October Subadar-Major Sham Singh Badadur, I.D.S.M., left the Regiment for duty with the Depot at Mooltan. He had done splendid service with the Regiment from the beginning of the war. His place was taken by Subadar Narain Singh.
ADVANCE ON MOSUL
In October the Turkish forces. covering Mosul lay astride the Tigris river at Fat-ha Gorge about twenty-five miles north of Tikrit. The bulk of the Turkish forces were disposed on the west bank and their line of communication lay along that bank.
The I Corps, under General Cobbe, was ordered to attack. and destroy the Turkish forces south of Mosul and then advance on the town.
General Cobbe’s plan was for the 18th Division to advance, up the Tigris and capture the Fat-ha position on the east bank, while the l lth Cavalry Brigade moved round the Turkish left flank and attacked Fat-ha Gorge from the rear. When the east bank of Fat-ha Gorge had been captured the 17th Division was to advance and capture the western part of the gorge.
Both the 17th and 18th Divisions moved forward on the 23rd of April in readiness for the attack on the next day. However, the Turks did not wait for the assault and withdrew from both banks of the river during the night.
Pursuit of the Turks was organized as quickly as possible and the 52nd Brigade with cavalry and armoured cars was sent forward to follow up on the west bank. The road through the gorge was very narrow; there were many curves, crossings and steep gradients, and, the road was blocked in numerous places by demolitions. The armoured cars and cavalry were considerably delayed and the 52nd Brigade was held up. The 51 st Brigade, which was now holding the Turkish positions, was therefore ordered to take the lead. The Highland Light Infantry and the 14th Sikhs immediately moved down the slopes on the far side of the gorge and pushed up the road while the 1 st / 10th Gurkhas moved along the hills, west of the road, as flank guard.
The Brigade reached a point seven miles north of Fat-ha Gorge at 6 p.m. and bivouacked there for the night covered by outposts formed by the Highland Light Infantry. The remainder of the 17th Division was still held up in the gorge, but the leading troops of the 18th Division were level with the 51st Brigade on the other side of the river.
On the next day the 17th Division was ordered to drive the enemy back while the 18th Division was ordered to secure the crossing over the Little Zab River. At 3 a.m. on the 25th of October the 51st Brigade continued’ the advance with the Highland Light Infantry in the lead. By midday the Highlanders had made contact with the Turks in position just south of Mushak. The Sikhs were held back in reserve while the Gurkhas had advanced level with the Highland Light Infantry along the Jabal Makhul Ridge. It was thought that Mushak was held only lightly so the 17th Division was ordered to attack immediately while the 18th Division crossed the Little Zab river and pushed on northwards. General Cobbe’s order did not reach the 17th Division until 5 p.m. and the Highland Light Infantry were not able to start forward until after dark.
The Highlanders encountered strong opposition astride the road at about 8 p.m. They immediately assaulted and captured the post, but suffered very heavy casualties in the fighting. Two companies of the 14th Sikhs were sent forward to support the Highland Light Infantry, but were withdrawn at 10 p.m., when the position was consolidated. The 14th Sikhs bivouacked for the night in rear of the Highland Light Infantry. East of the Tigris one brigade had crossed the Little Zab river and was holding a position on the northern bank while the cavalry had also crossed the river some miles farther east.
The artillery was having great difficulty in advancing up the west bank of the Tigris and only three field-howitzer batteries were forward with the 17th Division.
It was thought that the Turks intended to retire from Mushak, so the 17th Division was ordered to push on and pursue the next day while the cavalry advanced north to cut off the Turkish retreat.
ATTACK ON MUSHAK
The Turkish position at Mushak was very strong, especially the left flank near the river. On the west of the road there was a tangled mass of (precipitous hills, and the ground was quite flat between the river and the road. Since it was expected that the Turks would withdraw during the night the 14th Sikhs were ordered to move up on the right of the Highlanders and carry out a rapid attack across the flat ground east of the road.
However, night patrols of the Highland Light Infantry reported that the enemy were still holding their positions in strength. The Brigade Commander, General Hildyard, decided that it was too late to change the plans and he ordered the attack to proceed as arranged. At dawn the 14th Sikhs deployed on the right of the road, with “A” and “C” Companies in the front line and “B” and “D” Companies in support. The attack was supported by eight mountain guns and the 403rd Howitzer Battery.
The Regiment commenced to advance at 6.25 a.m. and almost immediately came under artillery fire. Although the Sikhs suffered casualties as they advanced over the open ground, they continued to advance in open formation. They soon came under machine-gun fire and platoons extended. There was little cover and the Regiment began to suffer heavy losses. The men continued to press forward very gallantly with great determination and in spite of increasing casualties, including three company commanders. Captain K. K. O’Connor had been reported killed early in the day, but he was brought into the aid post in the evening with a wound in his thigh. It transpired that during the first advance a bullet had penetrated the buckle of his Sam Browne belt and knocked him out. He had fallen on his face and had been left for dead. On recovering consciousness, seeing that his company had moved forward, he went on and was hit again in the thigh.
By 7.30 a.m. the forward companies, which had been reinforced by “D” Company, had almost reached the enemy’s wire and “A” Company on the left had joined up with the Highland Light Infantry, when they were held. Companies re-formed as best they could and. took up a line three hundred yards south of the enemy’s wire, where they remained for the rest of the day. The 403rd Howitzer Battery had supported the Sikhs, but it had been put out of action by enemy artillery, while the mountain guns were having little effect on the enemy in their strong positions. It was quite obvious that the enemy was holding the position in strength and further progress by the Highland Light Infantry and the Sikhs was out of the question, while the Gurkhas on the left flank had also met strong opposition in very difficult country and could not make any more progress. General Hildyard, anticipating a Turkish counter-attack, sent two companies of the 114th Mahrattas to support the right flank, while the 112th Infantry secured the left and connected up with the Gurkhas.
Meanwhile, General Leslie came forward himself to see the situation and decided not to attempt any further advance that day.
After dark the 14th Sikhs were withdrawn and placed in reserve behind the Highland Light Infantry. They had suffered serious losses. Second-Lieutenant Irving and sixty-six men were killed, while Major Channer, Captain Bunbury, Lieutenants O’Connor, Church and Humphreys and two hundred and fifty-one men were wounded. Captain G. F. Bunbury, whose father had commanded the Regiment from 1902 to 1908, was wounded in the arm. He was placed under cover and the wound dressed by his company bugler, Gurdit Singh, a particularly pious sepoy who afterwards became the Granthi. This man is reported to have taken a cigarette from the case in his company commander’s pocket, given it to him and lit it for him. Captain Cursetjee, Sub-Assistant Surgeon Bhagwan Singh and the medical detachment were almost continuously at work for three days and nights. They were constantly under fire and had to tend and evacuate all casualties, as no field ambulance had yet come up.
Meanwhile, the 11th Cavalry Brigade had been entirely successful, and, having crossed the Tigris from the east, had taken up a good position at Huwaish, blocking the Turkish line of withdrawal.
It was now thought that the Turks had received reinforcements and would continue to fight at Mushak, and the l7th Division was again ordered to attack vigorously.
However, once again British Headquarters were wrong and the Turks withdrew from their positions during the night. On the 27th of October, when it was clear that the enemy was in full retreat, the 18th Division was ordered to push ahead to prevent the Turks crossing to that side of the river and to support the 11th Cavalry Brigade. Meanwhile, General Leslie sent the 34th Brigade through at once to pursue the Turks while the 1st Brigade had a short rest before moving on in support.
The 34th Brigade made very slow progress on account of the bad road and difficult hilly country, and by 6 p.m. had only reached Qalat-al-Bint, where they bivouacked for the night. The Highland Light Infantry and the 14th Sikhs set
out at 3 p.m. and three hours later halted at Humr, while on the left the 1st/ 10th Gurkhas, reinforced by the 45th Sikhs from the 52nd Brigade., advanced along the Jabal Makhul track and bivouacked for the night at Balalij.
At the same time, the 11th Cavalry Brigade maintained its position at Huwaish, while on the east bank of the Tigris a brigade of the 18th Division advanced as far as Sharqat.
Both divisions were ordered to push on during the night as vigorously as possible, since Turkish reinforcements were advancing south and were threatening the rear of the 11th Cavalry Brigade. The 17th Division was to gain contact and attack the enemy while the 7th Cavalry Brigade at Fat-ha was to move with utmost speed to reinforce the 11th Cavalry Brigade.
On the 28th of October the 11th Cavalry Brigade at Huwaish repulsed Turkish attacks from the south while; their mounted patrols delayed the advance of the Turkish forces advancing from the north by fighting a series of delaying actions. The 7th Cavalry Brigade successfully reinforced the 11th Brigade later in the day.
Meanwhile the 17th Division had set off again at 3 a.m. with the 34th Brigade in the lead and gained contact with the enemy eleven miles farther north. The 34th Brigade attacked the Turkish rearguard with complete success and captured two hundred prisoners. The Turks left their positions and withdrew with haste, and patrols from the 34th Brigade lost contact. General Leslie therefore decided to rest, since the forward troops and animals were exhausted. The 17th Division bivouacked for the night three miles south of Sharqat covered by outposts provided by the 14th Sikhs.
The Division set off again early the next morning with the 51 st Brigade in the lead. Although the ground was very broken and it was difficult to keep direction in the dark, contact was gained with the enemy at 7 a.m. six miles north of Sharqat. The 51st Brigade continued to press ahead on a broad front, with the Highlanders and Gurkhas in front. The Turks fought a skilful delaying action and fell back slowly.
The 14th Sikhs were in support of the Gurkhas on the left, while the 45th Sikhs, attached temporarily to the Brigade, were in reserve. The advance continued slowly but steadily. At 11 a.m. it was learnt from air reconnaissance reports that the Turks were holding a position on the high ground some three miles south of Huwaish. The Gurkhas and Highland Light Infantry were just under a mile south of this position at 12 noon when General’ Leslie decided to attack. Since the Gurkhas and Highland Light Infantry were very scattered over a two-mile front, the 34th Brigade and the 45th Sikhs were detailed to carry out the attack.
At 4 o’clock in the afternoon the 34th Brigade, led by the 45th Sikhs, started its advance. When the 45th Sikhs, supported by the 114th Mahrattas, were some six hundred yards from the enemy trenches, the Turks launched a strong counterattack. The 45th Sikhs were forced back, but the enemy was eventually checked in some confused fighting. A part of the Turkish counter-attack struck a sector of the line held by the 10th Gurkhas. This line had been reinforced by two companies of the 14th Sikhs under Captain Savory during the afternoon and the enemy were thrown back without much difficulty. However, the Turks were completely cut off since the 11th Cavalry Brigade had been further reinforced by infantry and artillery from the 18th Division.
The men of the 17th Division were unaware of the hopeless position of the enemy and were expecting to have more heavy fighting the next day. It was therefore a welcome surprise when they saw white flags flying from the Turkish trenches at dawn on the 30th of October. The Turkish forces surrendered and offered no further resistance. The next day an armistice was signed with the Turks and the Mesopotamia campaign came to an end. Lieutenant H. E. Winthrope, the Quartermaster, rendered fine service to the Regiment in this campaign. After the Fat-ha Gorge, when wheeled transport was not possible, he converted all the Battalion transport to pack and, keeping a day’s rations in hand, brought up freshly cooked food each night. He supplied blankets and greatcoats to all stretcher cases and took charge of them after the Battle of Mushak to hand them over to the field ambulance the next day, and so allowed the regimental medical establishment to continue forward with the Regiment.
The last ten days’ fighting had been a great strain on the forward troops of the 17th Division. The men remained in great heart and stood up magnificently to the tough fighting under trying conditions. The 17th Division had suffered heavy casualties in pressing forward against strong enemy positions without adequate artillery support. On the 29th of October, out of three thousand riflemen in the Division there were about five hundred casualties. In the ten days’ fighting the 14th Sikhs suffered three hundred and fifty-two casualties, which was the highest number suffered by any unit in the Division.
The end of the Mesopotamia campaign was followed almost immediately by the Armistice with Germany. However, the 14th Sikhs did not return to India and had to remain in Mesopotamia for another seven months.
General Leslie, Commander of the 17th Division, sent the following farewell message to the Regiment
” On your departure from the 17th Division, Major-General Leslie wishes all Officers and Ranks good-bye and continued success wherever you go. Your conduct, discipline and soldierly qualities while in the Division have been excellent, and you have done whatever you have undertaken, whether at play, at work or in battle, in a manner worthy of your high reputation and o traditions. By parting with you the Division loses one of its finest regiments and does so with the greatest regret.”
The Regiment was stationed in Baghdad until January, 1919, when it moved to Basra, where it was employed on guard duties for the next five months.
On the 23rd of May the 14th Sikhs, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Earle, who had returned from leave in March, sailed for India.
Source:The Sikh Regiment – Lieutenant-Colonel P.G. Bamford, D.S.O