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
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/