Part II: Sikh Cavalry in France
The beginning of the 20th century saw a rise in the use of technology in all aspects of life, one such aspect being warfare. However, the transition between the 19th and 20th centuries saw a persistence of old military strategic practices simultaneously fused with advancements in destructive weaponry to produce very gruesome and horrific fighting. Most of the senior military leaders in the world’s armies were educated in combat that used infantry line formations and cavalry on large, open battlefields, thus leading them to refuse the insignificance of cavalry in modern European warfare. When the Great War broke out in Western Europe in August 1914, cavalry reigned supreme on the battlefield with both Great Britain and Germany each having cavalry of around 100,000 men. Numbers were useless, however, as the use of the machine gun and trench warfare lead to the slaughter of countless men and horses. Despite this, military officers remained staunch in their belief of the importance of cavalry. So stubborn was this belief that even in 1927, years after the war, Douglas Haig said that “aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the man on the horse.”
In order to fill the ranks of cavalry, Great Britain looked to its imperial possessions for fearless, battle-tested, and expert horsemen. It was in India where she found such men, in a colony in which cavalry had been a mainstay for many millennia. Specifically, the best able bodied horsemen hailed from the ‘martial races’ of northwest India. Of these ‘martial races’ the Sikhs of the Punjab were found to be a very loyal group to the British cause in Europe as well as some of the most fearsome and effective warriors in the British Indian Army. The use of Sikh Cavalry by the British Imperial forces has its roots in the First and Second Anglo-Sikh Wars spanning from 1845 to1849. Despite being defeated twice by British forces in the two wars, the Sikhs were admired by the British for their warlike qualities and persistence in the battlefield. The Sikh cavalry was a most feared force in northwest India and Afghanistan. It was said that the only homes that Sikhs had were their horses’ saddles, on which they ate and slept, and that they had such a connection with their horses that they referred to them as Jaan bhai, or “life brother.” The loyalty of the Sikhs was tested during the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny, when they were recruited in large numbers into the Bengal Army as part of the final assault in the reconquest of Delhi. As a result, Sikh involvement in British imperial campaigns was a must, as shown by their involvement in the various future campaigns in Afghanistan, the Middle East, Burma, China during the Boxer Rebellion, and various parts of Africa. With the outbreak of the Great War, it was time for the Sikhs to enter the European theatre and protect the British Crown and defend France from the onslaught of the Germans.
In September of 1914, the British Indian Army sent two infantry divisions and a cavalry division to the Western Front under the banner of the Indian Corps. The cavalry was organized as a single division consisting of the Ambala, Lucknow and Secunderabad Cavalry Brigades. By the end of 1915, the Indian Corps cavalry consisted of two divisions, the 1st Division containing the 2nd Sailkot Cavalry Brigade, the 3rd Ambala Cavalry Brigade, and the 4th Lucknow Cavalry Brigade. The 2nd Division consisted of the 5th Mhow Cavalry Brigade, the 7th Meerut Cavalry Brigade, and the 9th Secunderabad Cavalry Brigade. In that short period of time, the Indian Corps which consisted of around 70,000 troops had lost 34,252 men on the battledfields of the Western Front in a matter of fourteen months as killed in action, wounded, missing in action, as well as prisoner of war. This was in part by the fact that the Indian Corps provided half of the attacking force at the Battle of Nueve-Chapelle, took heavy losses at the Battle of Loos, as well as many other casualties in the Artois-Loos Offensive.
From India, 1.3 million recruits (657,739 actually serving in battle) added to the ranks of the armies of the British Empire. In the region of Punjab from where the Sikhs hail, one in 28 men volunteered for the British Indian Army, with 1 in 14 of the Sikh population serving. Around 88,925 of the combatants were Sikhs. This is an astonishing number in terms of volunteerism, as followers of the Sikh faith made up less than 2% of India’s population of 315 million in 1914. Specifically, there was an estimated number of 2,550 Sikhs serving as cavalrymen in French and Belgian battlefields. This number comes from the fact that 17 squadrons of the Indian Corps cavalry on the Western Front consisted of Sikhs (there are 4 squadrons to a regiment), and a squadron consisted of an average of 150 men each. The breakdown of Sikh cavalry participants from 1914-1918 is as follows: 2nd Lancers (Garnder’s Horse) – 1 Sikh squadron; 3rd Skinner’s Horse – 1 Sikh squadron; 4th Cavalry – 1 Sikh squadron; 6th King Edward’s Own Cavalry – 2 Sikh squadrons (1 Jat Sikh, 1 non-Jat Sikh); 9th Hodson’s Horse – ½ Sikh squadron; 18th King George’s Own Lancers – 1 Sikh squadron; 19th Lancers (Fane’s Horse) – 1 ½ Sikh squadrons; 20th Deccan Horse – 1 Sikh squadron; 29th Lancers (Deccan Horse) – 1 Sikh squadron; 30th Lancers (Gordon’s Horse) – 2 Sikh squadrons; 36th Jacob’s Horse – 1 Sikh squadron; 38th King George’s Own Central India Horse – 2 Sikh squadrons; and 39th King George’s Own Central India Horse – 2 Sikh squadrons.
Numbers alone, however, do not suffice in presenting the valor and bravery of Sikh and Indian cavalrymen. Philip Gibbs, a journalist present at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916 wrote of their readiness before battle: “In front of us was not a line but a fortress position, twenty miles deep, entrenched and fortified, defended by masses of machine-gun posts and thousands of guns in a wide arc. No chance for cavalry! But on that night they were massed behind the infantry. Among them were the Indian cavalry, whose dark faces were illuminated now and then for a moment, when someone struck a match to light a cigarette.” Another man at the Somme, 2nd Lieutenant F.W. Beadle of the Royal Artillery, gave his own account of the 29th Lancers (Deccan Horse), “It was an incredible sight, an unbelievable sight, they galloped up with their lances and with pennants flying, up the slope to High Wood and straight into it. Of course they were falling all the way because the infantry were attacking on the other side of the valley furthest away from us, and the cavalry were attacking very near to where we were. So the German machine guns were going for the infantry and the shells were falling all over the place. I’ve never seen anything like it! They simply galloped on through all that and horses and men dropping to the ground, with no hope against the machine guns, because the Germans up on the ridge were firing down into the valley where the soldiers were. It was an absolute rout. A magnificent sight. Tragic.” In that particular feat of courage, the Indian Corps cavalry killed numerous enemy infantrymen and cut down of the machine gunners while managing to capture 32 prisoners. In terms of casualties, the Indians lost two more men than the number they had meted out of the Germans.
The two Indian cavalry divisions remained on the Western Front until March of 1918. By this time, the Indian troops were needed in the Middle Eastern Theatre to reinforce their comrades fighting in the offensive against the Ottoman Empire. There, the Indian cavalry played vital roles in the Palestinian and Mesopotamian Fronts, ensuring the destruction of the Ottomans and fortifying control of the region for the British Empire, for which they loyally and dutifully gave their lives.
by Arjan Singh Flora