The Garhwalis’ début in Mesopotamia was worthy of their inspiring record in France. It was at Ramadie. They made the night march on September 27th, I916, marched and fought all the 28th, and on the morning of the 29th carried the Aziziyah and Sheikh Faraja Ridges at the point of the bayonet, in an advance of 1500 yards under frontal and enfilade fire. The Sheik Faraja ridge was their objective. But this was not enough.
The bridge of the Aziziyah Canal lay beyond, a point of vantage, for over it all guns or wheeled transport that escaped from Ramadie would have to pass. Feeling that they had rattled the Turk, that his tail was down, and that it was a moment when initiative might turn the scale, they pushed on another thousand yards over open ground, “as bald as a coot,” crossed a deep nullah, seized the bridge, scuppered the teams of three Turkish guns, captured them, and accepted the surrender of a Turkish General and two thousand men.
The first battalion of the 39th Garhwal Rifles was raised in 1887—the second in 1901, and they had seen little service till France. Yet the Garhwali had always been a fighting man.
Of course there was a lot of luck in it, but it was the luck that gallantry deserves and wins for itself and turns to account. The Turk was cornered and hemmed in with the cavalry astride the Aleppo road to the west, the Euphrates at his back and no bridge, and our infantry pressing in on the south and the east. But it was a wide front and our line was thin; by the time that they had reached the Canal the three assaulting companies were a bare hundred strong, and if the Turk had had the heart of the Garhwalis he would have rolled them up.
Standing by the captured guns, with the stalwart Turks coming in submissively all round, as if the surrender of the Anatolian to the Garhwali were a law of nature and a preordained thing, a subadar of the regiment turned modestly to his lieutenant and said, “Now it is all right, Sahib. I had my fears about the young men. They knew so little and were untried. Now we may be assured. They will stand.”
When the battalion made the night march on September 27th, exactly two years and two days had passed since they had fought their last action in France; and they had seen more than one incarnation. The Subadar might well be anxious. The regiment had a large proportion of recruits, and they had a tall record to preserve. For the “gharry-wallah,” or Indian cabby, as he is familiarly called, though he has never driven anything but the Hun—and the Turk, leapt into fame at Festubert, and has never lost an iota of his high repute. Before the war his name was unknown to the man in the street.
Ever since that day the Garhwali has stood in the very front rank in reputation among the fighting classes of the Indian Army.
The first battalion of the 39th Garhwal Rifles was raised in 1887—the second in 1901, and they had seen little service till France. Yet the Garhwali had always been a fighting man. He enlisted in the Gurkha regiments before the class battalions were formed, and his prowess helped to swell their fame, though one heard little or nothing of him. He was swallowed up and submerged in the Gurkha, and did not exist as a race apart. When at last the class regiments came into being he had to wait thirty years for his chance. But his officers knew him and loved him, and were confident all the while that his hour of recognition would come.
It came at Festubert, when the first battalion attacked and recaptured the lost trenches. Regiment after regiment had driven in the most determined counter-attacks across a thousand yards of snow-covered ground, and every assault had been withered up by the enemy’s fire. The Garhwalis got in on the flank, working along trenches held by our own troops to the left of those captured by the Germans. They carried traverse after traverse, and the taking of every traverse was as the taking of a fort. At first they had a bagful of “jampot” bombs hastily contrived by the Sappers—it was long before the days of Mills and Stokes and other implements of destruction; but the bombs soon gave out, and for the long stretch of trench, 300 yards or more, it was nothing but rifle and bayonet work.
A few men would leap on the parapet and parados at each traverse, and then the party in the trench would charge round the traverse and dispatch the garrison with the bayonet until the whole line was in our hands. These are familiar tactics to-day, but trench warfare was then in its infancy, and it fell to the Garhwalis to give the lead and point the way. The gallant Naik Dewan Singh Negi, who led his men round traverse after traverse and evicted the Hun, was awarded the V.C.
That was in the last week of November, 1914. For the next few months the Garhwalis were tried and proved every day. Neither the severe conditions of the winter, nor the strange and terrible phenomena of destruction evolved in the new Armageddon, could damp his fighting spirit. But it was on the 10th March, 1915, when the two battalions “went over the top” at Neuve Chapelle, that the name of Garhwal, no longer obscure, became a name to conjure with in France. Ever since that day the Garhwali has stood in the very front rank in reputation among the fighting classes of the Indian Army.
The Garhwalis, like the Dogras, are direct descendants of the Rajputs who cut out kingdoms for themselves in the hills centuries ago.
The 1st Battalion charged a line of trenches where the wire was still uncut. Every British officer and nearly every Indian officer in the attacking line was killed, but the men broke through the wire, bayoneted the garrison of the trench, and hung on all that day from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. with no Sahib in command. The C.O. and Adjutant were both wounded, and at nightfall two officers were sent across from the 2nd Battalion, who had got through with less severe loss, to help the shattered remnants of the 1st. They hung on all that night and the next day, and beat off a heavy counter-attack on the morning of the 12th. Rifleman Gobar Singh was awarded the V.C. for his day’s work on the 10th, when he led the front line bayoneting the Hun, but the gallant sepoy never lived to wear his award.
The Garhwali subadar who went over the field with us after the Ramadie fight, said to his officer that the regiment had not had such a day since the “charge-ki-din.” The 10th of March at Neuve Chapelle is remembered by the Garhwali as “the day of the charge.” For them it is the day. Even Ramadie will not wipe it out with all its fruits of victory. For the regiment was put to a grimmer test at Neuve Chapelle, and the reward in the measure of honour could not possibly be surpassed. Still it was good to see that the new lot was as staunch as the first. They are a modest-looking crowd, some of the youngest mere boys without a wrinkle on their faces.
There is in build a great deal in common between the Gurkha and Garhwali, and confusion is natural in the uninitiated.
The veterans reminded me very much of Gurkhas, but more of the Khas Ghurka, who is half a Rajput, than of the Magar or Gurung. The Garhwalis, like the Dogras, are direct descendants of the Rajputs who cut out kingdoms for themselves in the hills centuries ago. There is no Mongol blood in them, save in the case of inter-marriage with Nepal. They are a distinct race, yet being hillmen and neighbours, they naturally have much in common with the Gurkha, in habit as well as look. They have the cheerfulness and simplicity of the Gurkha, and the same love of a scrap for its own sake, and, what is more endearing, the same inability to grow up. They are always children. They care nothing for drill books and maps, and as often as not hold them upside down. But they see red in a fight, and go for anything in front of them. Both battalions would have been wiped out a dozen times had it not been for their British officers.
There is in build a great deal in common between the Gurkha and Garhwali, and confusion is natural in the uninitiated. It is not only that both are hillmen, belong to rifle regiments, and wear slouch or terai hats; the Garhwali is in appearance a cross between the Dogra and the “Ghurk.” He has the close-cropped hair, the “bodi” or topknot, the hillman’s face, and you will find in the veterans the same tight-drawn lines under the eye that bespeak stiffening in a hard school and give them a grim and warlike look.
The Garhwalis did not win the battle, but they reaped the rich field by the bridge alone.
I had watched them in the distance, black specks on the sand, but it was not until I went over the field with them the next day, and they fought the battle again, that I realised what they had done. As the Garhwalis charged over the open from Sheikh Faraja Ridge, the three guns in front of them, firing point-blank over their sights, poured in shrapnel, raking the ground, churning up the sand in a deadly spray.
Halfway across there was a deep dry nullah, with steep banks and a few scattered palms on the other side. It was an ideal place to hold, but the enemy were slipping away. In a moment the Garhwalis were in the nullah, clambered up the opposite bank, and had their Lewis-gun trained on the gun teams at 400 yards. The Turkish gunners died game, and in the Garhwalis’ last burst over the flat not a man fell. They rushed the palm-clump to the right of the guns and the guns, which were undefended with their dead all round. The three pieces were intact. The Turks had no time to damage them. The horses were all saddled up in the palms, with the ammunition limbers, officers’ charges, mules and camels.
…the kind of miracle that happens in a legend or at the end of a fairy tale, where the moral is pointed of the extraordinary rewards that befall all the young who are single-minded and unafraid.
Very quickly the Garhwalis dug a pot-hook trench round the guns and palm-clump, watched eagerly for the supports, and waited for the counter-attack which surely must come. The three assaulting companies were a bare hundred strong now, and behind the mud walls five hundred yards in front of them, though they did not know it, lay the Turkish General and 2000 of his men. But the silencing of the guns was the beginning of the collapse. The Turks knew the game was up. The iron ring we were drawing round them, their unsuccessful sortie against the cavalry in the night, had taken the heart out of them. No doubt they thought the Garhwalis the advance-guard of a mighty host.
White flags appeared on the mud wall in front. A small group of Turks came out unarmed. Eight men were sent to bring them in. Then a “crocodile” emerged from the nullah. “I’ve seen some crocodiles,” a very junior subaltern said to me, “but I have never seen one which bucked me like that.” The monster grew and swelled until it assumed enormous proportions. One could not see whence each new fold of the beast proceeded.
It was like dragon seed conjured up out of invisibility in the desert by a djinn. But it was a very tame dragon and glad of its captivity. And there was really something of a miracle in it—the kind of miracle that happens in a legend or at the end of a fairy tale, where the moral is pointed of the extraordinary rewards that befall all the young who are single-minded and unafraid. Half an hour after the crocodile had collected its folds, Ahmed Bey, the Turkish General, was discovered in a neighbouring house, and surrendered to a young British officer of the company.
When they saw the Turkish General coming in, all the jiwans (young men) must have thought of the “charge-ki-din,” the day of honour of which they had inherited the tradition but not the memory, and wished they had been there too.