Neuve Chapelle: One hundred years on

The battle of Neuve Chapelle started 100 years ago today, and continued for three days until 13th March 1915.  It was far from being the first battle of the war, and far from the largest of the conflict. But it was the first major planned offensive and set the military approach employed in virtually all subsequent large scale actions on the Western Front. It was also the first time on the Front that Indian troops played a leading — and highly successful — role.

photo of indian bombers near Newuve Chapelle
‘Indian bombers holding important trench near Neuve Chapelle come under Bosche shell fire’. Originally published as a stereoscopic card by Realistic Travels Publishers, 1915-18

‘At 7.30am the artillery bombardment commenced,’ recalled Captain W.G. Bagot-Chester of the 2/3rd Ghurka Rifles. ‘You couldn’t hear yourself speak for the noise. It was a continual rattle and roar.’ The scale of bombardment was staggering: in that first thirty minutes, more shells were used than in the whole of the Boer War.

Immediately the bombardment ceased, the infantry were ordered to advance.

Neuve Chapelle map

Among them was Gobar Sing Negi, a 21-year old Rifleman with the 2nd Battalion, 39th Garwhal Rifles. He formed part of a bayonet party carrying bombs. As they entered the main German trench, he was (according to the London Gazette, 27 April 1915) ‘the first man to round each traverse, driving back the enemy until they were forced to surrender. He was killed during this engagement.’

Gobar Sing Negi was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. To this day, an annual event is held at Chamba, not far from the village where Gobar Sing Negi was born, with the aim of inspiring people by his bravery and continuing the tradition of recruitment to the Garhwal Rifles.

As the centenary of the Great War approached, we gained new insights into the realities of the conflict through the work of researchers and writers. Not least of these has been the role of soldiers of non-British descent, whether from a British BME background or from the many countries which the British Empire encompassed and had relationships with during those early years of the last century.

These insights are important — not just for those of us interested in the history and development of relationships between people of various cultures, religions and colour, but because different perspectives allow us to gain a more holistic, realistic view of events and their impact.

Among the materials which help us gain a better insight are the following, all of which are available in the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre:

Bourne, Stephen. Black poppies: Britain’s Black community and the Great War. 2014, The History Press. Shelf ref: HI.1/BOU

Imperial War Museum. Empire needs men: The contribution made in the First World War by Africans, Asians and West Indians. [n.d.], Imperial War Museum. Shelf ref: ED.14.01/IMP

Morrow, John H. Jr. The Great War: An imperial history. 2004, Routledge. Shelf ref: HI.7/MOR

Omissi, David. Indian voices of the Great War: Soldiers’ letters, 1914-18. 1999, Palgrave Macmillan. Shelf ref: HI.2/OMI

Remembering Forgotten Heroes: Exploring the Indian Army contribution to the First and Second World Wars. 2005, English Heritage. Shelf ref: ED.14.01/REM

Smith, Richard. Jamaican volunteers in the First World War: Race, masculinity and the development of national consciousness. 2004, Manchester University Press. Shelf ref: HI.1/SMI


Post by David Orman

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