They fought far and wide, on Flanders fields, rocky ridges above Turkish beaches, coral island shores with swaying coconut trees, golden grasslands with roaming giraffe, lion and rhino, in steaming tropical rain forests, on mountain slopes and the sun-baked deserts of the Islamic world….THEY WERE THE MEN OF INDIAN ARMY

The tales of valor of men of Hindustan are too many to be told in one sitting. In this post, we shall read about the men of Indian Expeditionary Force A. They were a part of the British Commonwealth Army during the Great War (World War -1). The IEF-A operated in France to save the allied forces from certain & near apocalyptic defeat by the Germans.


The British had a very strange relationship with the Indians who served in the British Indian Army also known as Imperial Indian Army (IIA). They were afraid of the bravery of the men they commanded and yet they looked down on these very men as inferiors – in intelligence & physical attributes.

The men who made up the Indian Expeditionary Force (as the Indian Army was called during World War I) were not born soldiers. They were peasants, artisans, farmers and sometimes even prisoners and criminals. They were forged into the Indian Army through trial by fire in lands as diverse as China, Tibet & Somalia.

NOTE – For sake of this article, I will not explore the pre ww-I exploits of Indian Army nor will I explore the racial bigotry & hate that these men were subjected to by their British masters.


It was a beautiful French afternoon on 26th September, 1914 when men of Indian Expeditionary Force A reached the coast of France. As they marched into the city of Marselilles, they were greeted by rapturous cries of Vive Angleterre!’, ‘Vivent les Hindous!’, ‘Vivent les Alliés!’

The delirious French crowds stood waving hats, women pinned roses to their lapels, all welcoming the Indian troops as heroic liberators from German oppression. ‘These strangers from a distant land,’ said the novelist Maurice Barrès, ‘astound us by standing shoulder to shoulder with us in the defense of French soil.’

The first Indian regiment to land was the 129th Baluchis, with their majority of independent Pukhtun and led by  a young British officer Harold Lewis. In response to the rousing welcome by the French, the 129th’s regimental band returned the rapturous welcome by striking up the French national anthem. The Frontier Force’s 57th Wilde’s Rifles, with the Afridi officer Arsala Khan and his company of Malik Din (Afridi) clansmen, marched behind the 129th Baluchis.

‘Never have troops had a more hearty welcome in a foreign city than the Indians received here,’ a British reporter of the Daily Mirror breathlessly wired home.

Indian Expeditionary Force A had moved very quickly. They had covered 6000 miles from British India to France in just 51 days. This was made possible by Douglas Haig’s pre war Indian General Staff plans which enabled Force A to mobilize more swiftly than any previous major Indian deployment. This rapid deployment caught global attention. The IEF-A  was packed with well-trained veterans of China, the independent Pukhtun tribal areas and other pre-1914 campaigns.


The German press portrayed the Indian troops as racial inferiors who had no place on Europe’s battlefields against their cultural betters. The German sociologist Max Weber captured the national mood by decrying the gathering Allied forces of Africa and India in France as ‘an army of niggers, Gurkhas and all the barbarians of the world’.

The Germans made fun of the fighting abilities of the Indian troops. Karl Götz, the Bavarian artist, designed some bronze medallions mocking the Indian Army at Marseilles as nothing more than a travelling circus, with the Indian troops as the elephant handlers.


Former Viceroy Lord Curzon (1917), “The Indian Expeditionary Force arrived in the nick of time. That it helped save the cause both of the Allies and of civilization, after the sanguinary tumult of the opening weeks of the War, has been openly acknowledged by the highest in the land, from the sovereign downwards.”

John French, Earl of Ypres, declared the Indian reinforcements “each man was worth his weight in gold”.

F.E. Smith, wartime A.G. & future Secretary of State for India (1917); “The Indian Corps saved the empire.”

All these people had the same nightmare – The consequences of the first defeat of Allied forces in Ypres followed by a German capture of Belgium, Northern French Seaports & Paris followed by victory in Eastern Europe as well. BUT thanks to Indian Army, Europe did not see this nightmare become a reality. The Indian Army averted an Allied Apocalypse.

Not surprisingly the British writers chose to ignore all the above and chose to focus on the few failures – the running away from artillery and refusing to serve due to self inflicted wounds. The truth was a lot more remarkable. Truth was so remarkable that it had to written out of history so that the white man would not have to be grateful to the brown man.


On 19th October, the British & the French had aimed to lead an allied advance towards Brussels but the German 4th & 6th Armies attacked the north and south ends of the allied lines forcing the advancing allied forces into desperate defense. By 22nd October, the Germans had managed to push the Belgians and French forces onto the North Sea Coast. The British line was left without reinforcements.

In walked the Indian regiments (17,000 men). The men, on their own volition, divided themselves into numerous small parties and plugged the gaps in the British line. These were the men of the Malik Din company of the Frontier Force’s 57th Wilde’s Rifles led by Ronald Gordon. They were the first men who saw action in the WW-I. Their guides were some surviving Scottish & English cavalrymen. They wrote in their report of the stoicity, mental fortitude & quite bravery with which these men entered the trenches. In the night of 22-23 October, the 57th suffered its first casualty as they repelled a German assault. The first casualty was an Afridi Sepoy named Usman Khan.

Meanwhile at the southern end of the British line, Frontier Force’s 58th Vaughan’s Rifles was manning the front. They were led by Walter Venour. Walter was killed while he tried to look out of his trench. When his Haveldar Lashkar Rai tried to warn him, Walter rebuffed him and stood up when he was shot in the head by a German sniper. Inspite of the loss of their commander, the Indians held the line and repelled German advances.

The 129th Baluchis too were at the frontlines near Ypres and had more close quarter fighting with the entrenched Germans. On 31st October, Lewis’ Mahsud company had to fight for every room in every house in every farm to dislodge the Germans. Their commander Lewis writes of the intense excitement with which the Indians fought as if it was a “damn good game”.


After the initial hiccups of trying to adjust to a strange terrain and a very different fighting styles, by the fag end of the year 1914, the Indian army was inspiring respect and awe from both the enemy and the white masters(?).

The Indian army studied the methods and tactics of the enemy and improved on them before adapting them against the enemy.

OUTWIT THE HUN The 39th Garhwals were the first ones to adapt and adopt. They used their mountain warfare training to deliver the FIRST after dark, trench raid of the war.

The Germans had dug in and set themselves up in deep well fortified trenches. These trenches were nigh impossible to breach for the allied armies. The Germans had withstood all attempts to break their line…..and they were slowly moving forward through their trenches. Germans were now just 50 yards from the allied lines and posed imminent danger to the allied armies.

It was after dark on 9th November 1914 when Kenneth Henderson ordered his men of the 39 Garhwals to charge the German line. But the Indians instead of charging blindly, used their expertise in mountain warfare to deadly effect. A 50 strong team of Garhwals crawled quietly on their stomachs through the fields to flank the Germans. On reaching the German parapet unnoticed, lay still. They were unarmed except for their traditional weapon – the Khukri. They lay there in the cold mud for hours, quietly without making any sound or movement (any movement would be seen by the German sentries). As soon as their British officer (from safety of British trenches) gave the signal of attack (one single pistol shot into the night), they rose up like ghosts and fell upon the Germans. A bloodbath followed in which the Indians used their Khukri with deadly intent killing all the Germans in the trenches.

It was the FIRST recorded instance of use of the Khukri in actual combat in Europe.

The commander, Willcocks was delighted and ordered their use in the Indian Regimental Scouts. They were used in behind the line stealth operations, intelligence gathering etc.

The Scouts of the 59th Scinde Rifles gained particular praise for their expertise in hunting down German snipers. They killed several snipers, who had crept through the British lines and hid themselves in the houses and trees and barns. These Indian Scouts also quickly gained expertise as snipers. Of special note was the performance of Afridi tribals as expert marksmen. But it was not always so. Rise of Afridis as expert marksmen is an interesting story.

One British doctor noted that once the Afridi tribal got into the safety of trenches, he would not leave it, even choosing to ignore a direct order. He used this reluctance to good use. He told them that if they could shoot down Germans they could stay in the trenches. This incentive was enough and soon these rustic tribals became deadly snipers wiping out Germans as soon as they peeked over their trenches.

The Indians were expert Sappers too. They used mines and bombs with great ingenuity. On the night of 11-12 November they noticed that Germans were digging forward trenches. In between these trenches were unoccupied for some time. The sappers crawled to the trenches and planted landmines in the trenches. Explosions in the confined spaces of trenches are particularly dangerous and the Germans found that out at a very terrible cost in men and equipment. That same night a Bengal Sapper company sneaked across 300 yards through no man’s land and attacked well fortified machine gun positions of the Germans. They drove the Germans out of one house. They then set up dynamite and blew it up in such a manner that all neighboring 6 machine gun posts in 6 houses also blew up.

THE JAM TIN – After clearing out one German sap (trench) the Bengal Sappers discovered a box of unused German Stick Grenades. They carried the box back to Indian lines and studied the design. After that they designed their own grenade – famously called the JAM TIN CAN. Indian Sappers designed these grenades in a temporary factory they had set up in the village of Bethune. The sappers collected all the empty jam tin cans from their field canteen and the villages. The tins were packed with explosives and metal fragments like nails. The lid had a naked fuse (coated with clay) sticking out. The fuse had to be lighted and hurled at the Germans. The Bethune factory was soon churning out hundreds of jam tin grenades The entire allied line in Ypres used them. The 129th Baluchis were particularly efficient in using these grenades.

23rd November 1914 was the day when Indian men showed the world their true mettle. Germans attacked the Indian lines at the village of Festubert, and managed to breakthrough the lines. With the British commanders dead, one would have expected the Indians to surrender or run away. But the Indians took back the entire line by combining their traditional fighting styles with liberal use of the jam tins. The men formed groups along regimental lines with Afridi, Garwhals and Gurkhas. They started operating in close concert to first block the German advance by blocking them from either side with rifle fire and jam tins. They then, in the night attacked from either ends of the German lines and moved towards each other trapping the Germans between them. The Indians were led by Darwan Singh Negi (Victoria Cross winner). They cleared out the Germans after hand to hand combats within the trenches. By dawn of 24th November the Indians had recovered the line and pushed back the Germans. This operations ended with 1150 Indian casualties.

The commander in chief James Willcocks saw the fight from atop a tower in his Hinges chateau HQ. He could only see the flashes of the jam tins and screams of men. In the morning Indians emerged victorious from the trenches, covered in blood. One unnamed Garwhali soldier said that the “Germans were hard to strangle because their necks were fat. They are not bony”

NOTE – This is the ONLY recorded comment by any Indian during world war 1

German soldier’s comment on the Festubert siege:- “At first we spoke with contempt of the Indians. Today we learned to look at them in a different light. The devil knows what he put into those fellows…..truly these brown enekies were not to be despised. With butt ends, bayonets, swords and daggers we fought each other and we had bitter hard work”


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