The Indian Army in WW1: magnificent bearing and indomitable courage

Map of India

The Indian Army played a crucial role in WW1, fighting in every major theatre of operations alongside British units. During the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, March 1915, the Indian Army provided as much as half of the attacking force. For the first time, Indian soldiers were fighting on European soil.

Despatches dated 5 April 1915 from Field Marshal John Denton French (later Earl of Ypres, Gazette issue 32717), make reference to the Battle of Neuve Chapelle and the Indian contribution, the ‘magnificent bearing and indomitable courage displayed by the troops of the 4th and Indian Corps’ (Gazette supplement 29182).

The first VCs of the Indian Army

Sepoy Khudadad Khan from the Punjab Province (now Pakistan), of the 129th Baluchis, was the first soldier of the Indian Army to be awarded the Victoria Cross in WW1 for bravery.

During the First Battle of Ypres in October 1914, every one of Khan’s machine gun crew were killed at their posts, except Khan, who continued to fire, despite being severely wounded and left for dead. He waited until nightfall before making his way back to his regiment.

Khan was awarded the VC and was personally decorated by King George V in January 1915 for conspicuous bravery while serving with the Indian Army Corps:

‘On 31st October, 1914, at Hollebeke, Belgium, the British Officer in charge of the detachment having been wounded, and the other gun put out of action by a shell, Sepoy Khudadad, though himself wounded, remained working his gun until all the other five men of the gun detachment had been killed.’ (Gazette supplement 28999)

Darwan Singh Negi was also awarded a VC on the same day. He also continued to fight, despite terrible injuries:

‘For great gallantry on the night of the 23rd–24th November, near Festubert, France, when the regiment was engaged in retaking and clearing the enemy out of our trenches, and, although wounded in two places in the head, and also in the arm, being one of the first to push round each successive traverse, in the face of severe fire from bombs and rifles at the closest range.’ (Gazette supplement 28999)

The first Distinguished Flying Cross of the Indian Army

Lt Indra Lal Roy, born in Calcutta, was the first Indian flying ace. He enlisted with the Royal Flying Corps in early 1917 age 18 and was quickly promoted to second lieutenant. After a crash landing in December 1917, he returned to duty in June 1918, flying as part of George McElroy’s Squadron 40. In only 170 hours and 15 minutes of flying time, he shot down 10 enemy aircraft. Roy died in action, aged 19, on 22 July 1918. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (Gazette issue 30913), the first Indian to receive this honour.

By the end of the war in 1918, more than a million Indian personnel had been sent overseas. As well as on the Western front, Indian divisions were sent to Egypt, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. India also provided over 170,000 animals and 3,700,000 tons of supplies and stores, as well as ships from The Royal Indian Marine.

An Indian memorial at Neuve Chapelle commemorates Indian soldiers and labourers who lost their lives on the Western Front during WW1 and who have no known graves. In total, at least 74,187 Indian soldiers died during WW1.

WW1 Victoria Cross recipients: India

WW1 Victoria Cross recipients: Pakistan (then Punjab Province)

See also: The first Victoria Crosses of WW1