Gateway to the Classics: Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War by Donald A. Mackenzie
Heroes and Heroic Deeds of the Great War by  Donald A. Mackenzie

Indians' Daring Feats

When the Germans first heard that Indian soldiers were to take part in the great war they spoke with contempt regarding them. But it was not long before they changed their minds. Our fellow-subjects of Empire from ancient India are magnificent fighting-men. Here is a vivid description by a German soldier of an attack they made on one occasion on the German trenches:

"With fearful shouting, in comparison with which our hurrahs are like the whining of a baby, thousands of those brown forms rushed upon us as suddenly as if they were shot out of a fog, so that at first we were completely taken by surprise. At 100 metres (108 yards) we opened a destructive fire, which mowed down hundreds; but in spite of that the others advanced, springing forward like cats and surmounting obstacles with unexampled agility.

"In no time they were in our trenches, and truly these brown enemies were not to be despised. With butt-ends, bayonets, swords, and daggers we fought each other, and we had bitter hard work—which, however, was lightened by reinforcements, which arrived quickly—before we drove the fellows out of the trenches."

Soon after the Indians arrived at the front the Germans attempted to play tricks on them, so as to cause confusion in their lines. One night a crafty soldier of the Kaiser, who could speak English, attired himself in the uniform of a Gurkha officer and crept towards a trench occupied by a Gurkha regiment. Then he stood up in the faint moonlight and said, pretending to deliver a message from a superior officer: "The Gurkhas are to move farther up the trench. Another Gurkha contingent is coming along."

Evidently the Germans had plotted to make a night attack. If they could get the Indians to move they would be able to seize part of the trench without opposition.

An officer who heard the order was puzzled by it, so he asked the stranger: "Who are you, and where do you come from?"

The only answer he received was a repetition of the order to move his men along the trench. This aroused his suspicions. Before obeying the command he thought it best to make sure that it was genuine. So he said to the disguised German: "Answer me at once. If you are a Gurkha, tell me by what boat you came across."

This was a question the stranger could not answer. He was completely outwitted, and, turning quickly, at once ran away. As he did so the Gurkhas opened fire and brought him down. His body was riddled with bullets.

The Gurkhas were not long in showing the Germans that they could beat them at their own game.

Near Dixmude, in Belgium, the British and Germans fought desperately for some days, facing one another in strongly defended trenches. The issue hung in the balance. It was necessary that the Germans should be dislodged, and a regiment of Gurkhas was sent forward to strengthen the attack. The firing never ceased, and was exceedingly brisk. All day long the Gurkhas fought beside their comrades, and when darkness came on they still found it necessary to keep up a fusillade, for the Germans had been reinforced and were preparing to attack across the open. Towards midnight the firing slackened, and it was observed that most of the Gurkhas had vanished. It was thought that they had received orders to proceed to some other part of the British lines. This belief was strengthened by the fact that the Germans in front had ceased to fire. "There's a new move on," one British soldier said to another, "and the Gurkhas have been shifted to meet it."

When dawn broke, however, it was noticed that the Gurkhas had returned to their position. Evidently they had been fighting, for a number of them had their left hands and arms bandaged. Then the news was whispered among the soldiers of two English Midland County regiments that the Gurkhas had been paying a visit to the enemy under cover of darkness. The order was given to advance against the silent German trenches, and was promptly obeyed. It was a cold morning, and after their all-night wait the Englishmen were glad to get some exercise. They rushed forward and soon took possession of the first line of three German trenches. When they did so, they got a great surprise. Not a man rose to resist them. The guns were in position, and beside them crouched dead gunners. All along the trenches dead Germans lay in rows. There could be no doubt as to what had happened. The Gurkhas had paid a night visit to their enemies, and, after a brisk and silent struggle, had exterminated them. Some had died in their sleep; others had attempted to defend themselves with their bayonets. But they were no match for the dusky warriors, who used their kukris with deadly effect and saved much loss of life among their brave English comrades. The Gurkhas received the wounds in their left hands by grasping the German bayonets.

On another occasion a sensational night attack was delivered by Pathans at a short distance south of Ypres. During the day it was observed that the Germans were massing in strength at a certain point, their purpose evidently being to drive a wedge through the British troops when darkness came on. They hoped to capture a position by sending forward overwhelming numbers.

Rain began to fall towards evening, and it came down more and more heavily as the light faded. "A dirty night for fighting," the British soldiers could be heard saying. Water collected in the muddy trenches. No one was allowed to shelter himself in an underground hut or to move about. There was no sleep for the soldiers that night. They had to be watchful and ready, for at any moment the enemy might charge across the few hundred yards of open space that separated the opposing trenches.

Not far behind the British trenches was a line of trees. When it was quite dark a regiment of Sikhs began to collect there. They moved about as stealthily as tigers creeping through a jungle. Scarcely a sound was heard. They were getting ready for the Germans, who were not even aware of their presence in this locality.

Ere long excited whispers passed along the British lines. "What is it?" one would ask of another. The reply always was: "The Indians are going out," and it was received with confident smiles.

The Indians were going out, were they? Here and there a British soldier peered out of a trench to catch a glimpse of them. Occasionally dark figures could be seen advancing noiselessly. There was a surprise in store for the Germans.

Against the sky-line the figures of the German pickets were quite visible. Six were counted by one British soldier, and he kept his eyes on them. Suddenly the six disappeared. What had happened? No one could tell. Not a sound reached the British lines.

Then some of the Sikhs returned as silently as they had gone out. They were not retreating, however. Their work was not finished—it had only begun. They had crept up to the "lookout" men and slain them with their knives without raising an alarm.

Hundreds of Sikhs then followed their daring and cunning fellows, and crept as quietly forward towards the unsuspecting Germans who were to attack the British.

More heads went up from the British trenches. There was tense excitement all along the lines. This was a night attack indeed, full of mystery and wonder. Complete silence reigned for many minutes. The Indians had all vanished, and everyone waited to ascertain what was going to happen.

Suddenly a few random shots rang out through the night. Then shrieks and groans were heard. The Sikhs had arrived at the enemy's trenches and were fighting with cold steel in the darkness. The surprise was as complete as it was unexpected.

Several light-balls were flung in the air by Germans in the rear, and as they burst the British soldiers could see at a distance of about 600 yards in front of them hundreds of fearless Indians attacking with great fury. Many of the Germans had been sleeping, so as to be refreshed for the attack they were to make later on, when they thought the British soldiers would be wearied and dispirited. They leaped up to resist the Indians, and were mowed down like corn on a harvest-field.

The whole force which was to rush the British lines was thrown into confusion, and after a brief struggle the survivors fled backward through the darkness, bewildered and terror-stricken. Great numbers were slain. No German attack could be made that night.

When the Sikhs returned it was ascertained how they had so successfully done the work allotted to them. The first batch of men which went out crept up to the German pickets, who were keeping watch while the main force lay asleep, and slew them with their knives. No Red Indian ever took scalps round a camp-fire more silently than the Sikhs disposed of these pickets. Not a single one escaped to give the alarm. Then the attackers returned for the main body, which succeeded in getting right in among the slumbering Germans before it was realized what was happening. Very few of the Sikhs were either killed or wounded, although the force they surprised greatly out-numbered them.

After the Indians had returned, the German artillery opened a heavy fire on the British trenches; but that proceeding did not compensate them for the disaster they had sustained. The Sikhs had taken all the heart out of the German infantry that night. Next day the British received reinforcements, and the enemy had to change their plans. But for this, of course, the chief credit was due to the brave and clever Indian soldiers.

The story of another night attack made by Indians is at once as amusing as it is wonderful. The French and British troops had captured a village in southern Belgium, and the Germans occupied a wood in front of it. After a day of stiff fighting darkness fell, leaving both sides almost equally strong. The German leader, fearing a night attack, protected the wood, with a double line of sentinels, and his main force lay down to snatch a few hours of sleep.

A British and a French officer discussed the position with one another.

"A night attack would be hopeless," said the French officer.

"Not at all," the other answered. "I have just received word that an Indian regiment is coming up to reinforce us. The wood will soon be captured without much loss of life."

The Frenchman shook his head. "The Indians," he said, "will never get near the sentries without being observed."

As he spoke, an orderly brought in word that the Indians had arrived, and were ready to go anywhere and do anything.

"Now," remarked the British officer to his ally, with a smile, "I will bet you a sovereign that the Indians will remove the double line of German sentinels, watchful although they may be."

"I'll bet you a sovereign they won't," laughed the Frenchman; "nor will I be sorry if you win it."

About eleven o'clock silence reigned in village and wood. All the Germans were sleeping soundly except their sentries, who kept a sharp lookout, listening intently in case an attack should be made. Then a number of Indians went out. The French officer who had taken up the bet waited beside his British friend, and gazed through the darkness towards the wood. But he neither heard nor saw anything unusual. There was no indication that an attack was in progress. The minutes went past, and seemed very long.

Then suddenly a frightful din was heard from the wood. A few shots were fired, and one or two cries of alarm rang through the air. But soon all was silent again, and the slumbering Germans were not awakened to go into action. What had happened? The French officer looked at his companion and whispered: "Have the Indians failed?"

"Wait a little and you'll find out what has happened," answered the British officer. "I think I have won my bet."

Not long afterwards the Indians began to return. They came in two by two, carrying something between them.

"They are bringing back their wounded," the French officer said.

But he was mistaken. What the Indians really brought back were the German sentries. They had caught thirty of them alive, and gagged and tied them up like sausages. Smiling, and showing their gleaming white teeth, the wonderful soldiers of India laid down on the ground before the British and French officers the German pickets who were supposed by their commander to be still guarding the wood. No one could resist the humorous aspect of the proceeding. The Frenchman promptly paid up his bet.

But no time was lost in taking advantage of the success achieved by the brave Indian warriors. A strong force crept swiftly towards the wood, and ere day dawned it was cleared of Germans. The losses sustained by the Allies were insignificant.

But it is not in night fighting alone that the Indians have tricked the Germans by doing the unexpected. In a part of Flanders they were operating for a time with French North African troops, who practise tactics similar to theirs. One of their ruses, when making an attack on the position occupied by the enemy, was to pretend that they had suffered much more heavily than was really the case. Men stopped firing and dropped into ditches, or concealed themselves behind trees and hedges. Then the supposed survivors would begin to retreat as if they had been beaten badly, giving signs that seemed to indicate that they were greatly scared. By acting in this manner they usually persuaded the Germans to leave their trenches and come on, believing that a success was being achieved.

On one occasion the sham retreat was so well conducted that, with cries of "Hoch! hoch!" the Kaiser's unsuspecting troops leaped up in great numbers to pursue the Allies. But the men who had concealed themselves had thoughtfully selected excellent positions, and waited until the Germans were about a hundred yards distant. Then rifles and Maxims opened a sudden and ferocious fire, scattering the deluded "pursuers" in hurried and perilous flight.

Having thus spread confusion before them, the Indians and North Africans leaped up and advanced with great dash and gallantry. They carried all before them. Two villages, named Hollabeke and Messines, were captured in a rush from the Germans, and the position of the allied troops was, as a result, greatly strengthened.

In the course of the fighting a battalion of a Wurtemberg regiment was cut off from escape, and forced down to the muddy banks of the River Lys. Only those able to swim could possibly regain the territory held by the Germans. But none was so foolish as to attempt the crossing under the fire of the Indian and North African troops. They had either to surrender or wait to be exterminated. So they surrendered in a body to the courageous and nimble soldiers they so greatly despised.

The fighting occupied altogether about five hours, and cost the Germans over 3000 in killed and wounded. Six guns, an ambulance, and many prisoners were captured. So well was the attack pressed home that the survivors of the Kaiser's force had to retreat a distance of about 6 miles.

Well does the Indian contingent deserve the praise which has been given in one of the official messages, which says: "It has done the work it was asked to do. It has maintained the line it was asked to maintain. In perhaps the greatest battle fought it has shown itself to be a worthy example of so many generations of soldiers."

When His Majesty, the King Emperor, held the Durbar at Delhi, he extended to the Indian army the privilege of being eligible for the Victoria Cross, which had been previously restricted to British troops.

His Majesty paid a visit to the front in December, and decorated the first Indian with the Victoria Cross for valour on the battle-field. This was Naik Darwan Sing Negi, of the 1st Battalion, 39th Garhwal Rifles. He had shown great valour during a night attack on trenches which had been captured by the Germans. Leading a company of gallant Garhwalis, he delivered assault after assault under heavy fire until the enemy were completely beaten. Before the operations ended he was wounded by a bomb, but this was not discovered until after victory had been won. When the last section of trench was captured, Naik Darwan Sing Negi was still in the forefront, fighting with courage and unfailing vigour.

Garhwal, the native country of Naik Darwan Sing Negi, is a Himalayan district of the United Provinces west of Nepal. During his early youth our Hindu hero looked after his father's flocks and herds among the high upland valleys, and at times drove off attacks by snow leopards and black bears with his sturdy companions. The Garhwalis are a brave and energetic people.

Another Indian hero, a sepoy of the 129th Duke of Connaught's Own Baluchis, had also been recommended for the Victoria Cross, but was lying in a hospital. The ceremony of decorating him was performed by His Majesty in January.


The King and Queen visiting wounded Indians.

This hero, whose name is Khudadad Khan, is a Mussulman from Chakwal, in the Jhelum district of the Punjab. He served in a machine-gun team which was overcome by a strong force of Germans after inflicting great loss. All his comrades were killed, fighting heroically. Before he left the gun, he damaged it so that it could not be used by the enemy, and thus saved many lives on the British side.

The military fame of the Indians is not a thing of yesterday. For over three thousand years their country has produced great leaders and brave soldiers who have never flinched in the hour of trial, or ever hesitated to sacrifice themselves for a cause they believed to be noble and good.

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