Manta Singh and the Battle of Neuve Chapelle

Gravestones and Flowers
Manta Singh

Manta Singh was born in 1870 near Jalandhar, Punjab, Northern India.

As soon as he left school he joined the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs, an infantry regiment of the Indian Army.

At the start of the First World War, the regiment became part of the 3rd (Lahore) Division, sent to reinforce the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) fighting in France.

Ludhiana Sikhs Ludhiana Sikhs Badge Sikhs in France

By late autumn of 1914, one in every three soldiers under British command in France was from India.

After long months of trench warfare, in March 1915, Manta Singh's regiment prepared to engage in the first major British offensive on the Western Front, the Battle of Neuve-Chapelle. Half of the Commonwealth fighting force, 20,000 men, were Indian Army soldiers.

General John French, commander-in-chief of the BEF in France at this time, planned to "take the village of Neuve-Chapelle, which formed a German salient (bulge) in the British line, and if possible to take Aubers Ridge, a modest but nevertheless important observation post overlooking the plain. French also thought it might well be possible to get behind the German front and threaten the defences of nearby Lille.

On 10 March four divisions, comprising 40,000 men, gathered on a sector of the front which was only three kilometres wide. The infantry attack was preceded by heavy but concentrated shelling from 342 guns, guided by reconnaissance planes of the Royal Flying Corps.

In thirty-five minutes, the bombardment consumed more shells than the British Army used in the whole of the Boer War fifteen years earlier, a clear example of the growing industrialization of the Great War.

Map Neuve Chapelle 1915

While the British and the Indian Corps advanced rapidly through the lightly-defended village, the Garhwal Rifles suffered heavy losses as they attacked a part of the German line left untouched by the bombardment.

After an initial success, in a matter of hours, the British became paralysed by poor communications and a lack of munitions, and their advance ground to a halt.

Bringing in reinforcements from Lille, Crown Prince Rupert of Bavaria launched a counter-attack on 12 March. British soldiers attempting to take Aubers Ridge came up against undamaged barbed wire entanglements and their losses were enormous."*

It was in this chaotic field of battle that the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs fought. Manta Singh witnessed an English comrade, Captain Henderson, suffering serious injury. Manta Singh pushed him to safety in a wheelbarrow he found in no-man's land but he himself was severely injured while carrying out this selfless rescue.

Captain Henderson stands to the left of Manta Singh, who is on the far right
Captain Henderson stands to the left of Manta Singh, who is on the far right

"Fighting ceased on 13 March with British gains limited to an area two kilometres deep and three kilometres wide for a loss of 7,000 British and 4,200 Indian soldiers, either killed or wounded.

The Germans suffered similar losses and 1,700 of their soldiers had been taken prisoner.

A breakthrough had been made but could not be exploited. This tragic scenario was repeated throughout the front until the spring of 1918.

General French attributed his failed offensive to a lack of shells for the preliminary bombardments. From that moment on, considerable shelling over several days was carried out prior to any attack despite the fact that it removed the element of surprise. Thanks to such a clear broadcast of intent, the Germans were able to send reinforcements in good time to any sector of the front threatened by an Allied offensive."* With many thanks to Prof. Yves Le Maner

Find out what happened to Manta Singh after the battle here.

Find out how Indian soldiers who died during the battle are commemorated here.

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