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Unheralded heroes

Arham, the Association de Recherches Historiques, Archéologiques et Militaires, and its president, Dominique Faivre are hugely knowledgeable when it comes to the Indian presence in Northern France during the Great War – a presence that left its mark both as a result of fighting and of soldiers being billeted in the region.

«With their dark skin, turbans, hair buns, beards and exotic cuisine, the Indians made a striking impression on local inhabitants. “When I was very little I used to listen to my grandmother from Saint-Venant talk about the Indians.” By listening to the older generations reminisce about these soldiers, Dominique developed a soft spot for this unique army, taking advantage of a long period of illness in 2004 and 2005 to accumulate documents and research British regimental journals. “The subject is hugely complex: this was a skilled army which undoubtedly based its operation around that of the British army, but with the added aspect of numerous ethnic and religious groups”.

This local historian had to familiarise himself with the customs of Sikhs, Gurkhas, Balochs, Dogras, Garhwalis, Jats, Pathans, Rajputs and Punjabis before delving further into their battles. The first Indian troops arrived in Marseille in late September 1914, heading north in October via the Cercottes camp near Orléans.

“Indians arrived at the railway stations of Arques and Blendecques on the night of 19 to 20 October; the 47th Sikhs were billeted in the Abbaye de Wisques”, Dominique adds. From the 23rd, the Ferozepore Brigade headed down into the trenches around Messines, to be followed by a true baptism of fire a few days later – events which engaged the Indian Corps fully during the battles of Neuve-Chapelle (28 October and 2 November 1914, then from 10 to 13 March 1915), Festubert (23 and 24 November 1914, and 16 May 1915), Givenchy (19 to 22 December 1914), Aubers (9 May 1915), and Moulin de Piètre (25 September 1915). “Butchery, slaughter, courage, heroism”, says Dominique Faivre.

“From Fauquissart to Givenchy-lès-la-Bassée, they spent a year in the muddy trenches, enduring frozen feet and pneumonia. At Festubert, Darwan Singh Negi was decorated with the Victoria Cross, the highest British military decoration, which George V awarded him personally in Saint- Omer on 9 December.”… (download the pdf to read more).

“The unfortunate Indians…”

In a book published in 1993, “Mon devoir de mémoire” (My Duty of Remembrance), Paul Raoult, the son of the primary schoolteacher in Saint-Floris, also remembered “the unfortunate Indians”. “They had great difficulty adapting to our weather. They suffered from the cold in the harsh winter of 1914, both in the trenches and in the barns in their billets. One of them, who showed particular kindness towards me, knocked on our window one evening. We hesitated as to whether to let him in: “Maman”, he said, addressing my grandmother who was with us at the time, “Moi Maman, beaucoup froid”, and he coughed deliberately to emphasize the fact. In the end my mother let him in.
He came in the kitchen and stood quietly by the stove, dressed in his large tunic buttoned at the shoulder and covering him down to his knees.

Once he had warmed up, he bowed to thank us then went on his way, but not before handing me a small jar of Chesebrough vaseline, the prophylactic qualities of which I was unaware of, and a few cigarettes that my mother took no time at all in confiscating.”

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