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The Battle of Neuve Chapelle

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle

10-13 March 2015 is the centenary of the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.  Fought in northern France, around and through the village of Neuve Chapelle, it was the largest planned attack attempted thus far by the British Army in the First World War. The Indian Corps of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) made up half of the attacking force and despite suffering very heavy casualties succeeded in capturing important sections of the German line.

Declaration of war

Within days of the British declaration of war on Germany on 4 August 1914, two infantry divisions and a cavalry brigade of the Indian Army were ordered to mobilise and prepare for overseas service.  Units of Indian Expeditionary Force A began arriving in France in September, and by late October they were involved in heavy fighting on the Messines Ridge in Belgium.

The men of the Indian Corps came from all parts of undivided India -- from the Punjab, Garwahl, the frontiers, Bengal, Madras, Burma -- and from neighbouring Nepal. They represented an extremely diverse range of religious, linguistic, and ethnic cultures. The Indian Army also included many battalions of British regiments. At Neuve Chapelle, British units made up close to half of the total strength of the Meerut and Lahore Divisions. 

The Battle of Neuve Chapelle

As part of the Allied spring offensive in 1915, the British 4th Corps and Indian Corps launched an attack with the aim of taking the village of Neuve-Chapelle and the high ground beyond while French forces assaulted German positions further south at Vimy Ridge.   On 10 March 1915 the battle began. The preliminary artillery bombardment, lasting thirty-five minutes, was the most intense British bombardment of the war so far.

Initial successes were made, particularly where the bombardment had destroyed the German barbed wire. The village was captured on the first day, but communication difficulties and strong German counter-attacks made it hard to capitalise on these successes and the battle was halted on 12 March.

Caring for the wounded

Many of the wounded of Neuve Chapelle were cared for in army hospitals in France, but some were brought across the Channel.  Hundreds of soldiers of Indian Army regiments were treated in Brighton. A large hospital, called Kitchener Indian General, was set up in the old workhouse infirmary. The Royal Pavilion, the Corn Exchange, and the Dome were also converted into facilities with wards, treatment rooms and operating theatres.

As usual in the Indian Army, caste regulations and religious requirements were honoured, including the building of a musalla.  Separate water supplies were laid on for Hindus and Muslims in each ward. There were separate bathing houses and latrines and no fewer than nine kitchens for different diets and food preparation rules. Each kitchen had caste cooks, with a high-caste head cook in charge. The wounded were often cared for by orderlies of the same caste or religion and some of the doctors were Indian medical students who had been studying in Britain. Notices throughout the hospitals were printed in Urdu, Hindi and Gurmukhi.

Commemorating the Dead

Most patients cared for in Brighton recovered to return to their units. Those who died were buried or cremated in accordance with their faith. A site on the downs above the city and the sea was chosen for cremations, and the CWGC commemorates 53 Hindu and Sikh servicemen who were committed to fire there on the Patcham Down Indian Forces Cremation Memorial. Muslim servicemen were buried near the Shah Jehan Mosque in Woking, but later moved to CWGC plots in Brookwood, Surrey. Today, Brookwood Cemetery and Brookwood Military Cemetery are the final resting place of some 50 members of the Indian Army of the First World War.

Many servicemen of the Indian Army who died on the Western Front are commemorated on the Neuve Chapelle Memorial in France as well as the Menin Gate in Belgium.

Find out more about their contribution and sacrifice during the First World War on /foreverindia/