On April 2-4 1999,
thousands of Sikhs from all over the world meet in Ieper, Belgium, to
pray for peace in the world. This is a historical date for the Sikhs. In
April 1699 - in days of persecution and repression - the tenth and last
guru, Gobind Singh, initiated the Khalsa, in order to give strength and
a strong feeling of identity to his followers. The European Sikhs are
convinced that the City of Peace, Ieper (Ypres), amidst the fields of
Flanders, - Poppy day may ring a bell for some - is the appropriate
place for this anniversary celebration. Here fell many Sikhs, together
with so many from both sides, in the Great War of 1914-1918. In their
memory and in memory of all persons anywhere in the world who are
oppressed, or are victims of war and violence, an Akhand Path will be
held. This is a continuos reading of the whole Sri Guru Granth Sahib,
the holy scripture of the Sikhs.
From the introduction
to the beautiful little booklet: 300 Years of the Khalsa - A Celebration
of Peace. It continues with a short description of the Sikh religion,
the Khalsa, and a brief history of the Sikhs and of their contribution
to the Allied war effort.
In the notorious Ieper crescent, also referred to as the Ieper Salient,
out thirty different nationalities were deployed. Among these the Indian
troops were present in significant numbers. Although most Indian troops
were stationed near Neuve-Chapelle in France - the impressive Indian
Memorial there commemorates this - they were also thrown into the First
Ieper Battle - October 1914 - and the Second - May 1915. About 24000 men
of the Meerut and Lahore Divisions disembarked at the Mediteranean port
of Marseille in September/October 1914. There were two kinds of units in
the British Indian Army: ethnic like the 47th Sikhs or 129th Baluchis,
and mixed, like the 57th Wilde's Rifles. All officers were British.
In France, the Indian soldiers had of course serious problems of
communication. The climate too was very harsh for them. In January 1915,
a Sikh soldier wrote to his uncle in Jalandhar: "This country is very
pleasant, but it is very cold here. Nobody has any clue about the
language. They call milk 'doolee' and water 'doloo'!" [du lait, de l'eau]
From the 22nd of October 1914 there were Indian Troops in the trenches
near Wijtschate and Mesen. On 26th October 1914, at 3 pm, the 129th
Baluchis and the 57th Wilde's Rifles staged an attack to the south of
Hollebeke. This was the first action of the Indian troops in the War. On
1st November the Indian troops were withdrawn from the front near Ieper.
In the next months they were deployed near Fesubert, Givenchy and --
Neuve-Chapelle. Six months later, 25th April 1915, the Lahore Division
pitched tent near Ouderdom. These troopss had been brought in a hurry to
bolster the French and British who had suffered much in the first German
gas attack - on 22nd April 1915. One day after their arrival, they were
ordered to attack across an open field near Wieltje. In the resulting
carnage, on that spring day, 348 of the 444 men of the 47th Sikhs met
Like many other, Bhan Singh, the orderly of a Captain Banks of the 57th
Wildes Rifles, was noted for his courage. When his captain fell, and
although himself wounded and weak with facial injuries, he still tried
to save him, instead of withdrawing. When Banks finally died, Bhan Singh
retrieved his personal belongings. For several days, the severe attacks
continued, including a chlorine gas attack, without gain or loss of one
yard of territory. Finally the Indians were withdrawn, on 30th April.
Between 24th and 1st May, 1915, the Lahore Division lost 3889 men, one
third of its total.
After they left the Ieper Salient in May 1915, Indians were deployed
only sporadically here.After yet another bloody battle , near Loos
inSeptember 1915, the Indian divisions left Europe and were deployed in
Mesopotamia. That does not mean that all Indians had indeed left western
Europe. Members of the Indian Labour Corps and of the Indian Cavalry
were seen in western Europe, several times over the next three years.
Cooperation was sought by a group of European Sikhs, from the In
Flanders Fields Museum and the Cultural Centrum Ieper. (Ieper is about
50 km south of Ostend, around 150 from the Dutch border.) The Belgian
province of Flanders was most generous: the large town hall of Ieper,
with four large halls were made available for use by the Sikh sangat, a
huge khanda was placed on the tower, with beautiful lighting, a large
langar kitchen was installed, buses for use for the tours to the battle
fields were made available, wide publicity was given, ... the list is
long. Support also came from Sikhs abroad; items were generously
supplied for the Exhibition. These included Birs that had accompanied
the valiant to cold war-torn Europe and had returned back to Punjab,
with the surviving few, when it was all over.
In Flanders Fields Museum
Stad Ieper - city of peace
European Sikh Community
Remembrance 90th Anniversay 1st Gas attack in history
On 22nd April 1915 at 5 p.m. the 2nd
Battle of Ypres began with the first succesful gas attack in history.
Again the British Indian Corps - not yet recovered from the terrible
Battle of Neuve-Chapelle - was called upon to fill a gap in the line.
The Lahore Division was now under command of the British 2nd Army of
Smith-Dorrien. Among the British Indian troops the warning was spread
that, in case of the use of gas, a handkerchief (or the pagri-dastaar)
was to be placed over the mouth. It was recommended to soak the
handkerchief (or pagri) in urine.
After the gas attack, the Germans had gained a considerable portion of
the northern part of the Ypres Salient. Now the British, together with
the French troops, wanted to make a counter-attack in order to force the
Germans to withdraw from this new position. On the morning of 26th April
1915, the Lahore Division assembled between the Ieper-Langemark road on
the left and Wieltje on the right, some 600 yards north of la Brique.
The Ferozepore Brigade moved to its position through Vlamertinge, but
the Jullundur Brigade went to Wieltje by the road winding along the
Ypres ramparts. There they were caught in a heavy bombardment.
As soon as the division was deployed in the fields near Wieltje, they
were shelled with tear gas.After the first gentle slope, they arrived in
an inferno of gunfire, machine gun fire and shells, among which also
tear gas shells. The men fell by the dozen.
It is obvious that the number of casualties was extremely elevated. The
47th Sikhs, which was in the first line of attack, lost 348 men from a
total of 444, or 78 % of the battalion! It was almost annihilated. In
total the attack resulted in almost 2000 casualties in the two brigades.
During this attack, Corporal Issy Smith of the 1st Manchesters, which
belonged to the Jullundur Brigade won a Victoria Cross. Amidst heavy
shelling and continuous gunfire, he had ceaselessly evacuated the
Also Mula Singh and Rur Singh of the 47th Sikhs distinguished themselves
by saving many lives. Bhan Singh, a Sikh of the 57th Wilde’s Rifles, was
wounded in the face early during the attack. Nevertheless, he stayed
near his officer, Captain Banks. When Banks fell, Bhan Singh thought
just of one thing, bringing Banks back, dead or alive. Weakened as he
was, he stumbled on with Banks’ body under heavy fire until he was
completely exhausted. However, he did not return without first saving
Banks’ personal belongings.
Germans reopened the gas bottles at 2.30 p.m. When the gas reached the
Indian troops, an Indian havildar was heard shouting: “Khabardar,
Jehannam pahunche”, which means “watch out, we have arrived in Hell”. In
no time the ground was filled with men being tortured in a terrible way.
But let’s get back to the night of 26th -27th April 1915 when the
chlorine gas was to be smelt the whole night. Only late that night could
the remnants of Major Deacon’s party be relieved. The Ferozepore and
Jullundur Brigades were withdrawn to the Brieke while the Sirhind
Brigade replaced them in the first line. Men of the 34th Sikh Pioneers
did try to consolidate the difficult position when Major Deacon did
manage to keep a stand.
Later, two men of that unit, sappers Jai Singh and Gujar Singh, were
awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal because they had
established communication lines under constant fire.
For more informations, please read at :
Issue No. 8, January 2003
about Sikhs in World War II
See Also :
Download French-Sikh History Slideshow
( external Link)
Sikhs in France ( external Link)
The Last Post ( Ieper - Belgium) ( external Link)