57th Wilde’s Rifles Frontier Force at Ypres 1914

The account below was taken from the war diary of the 57th Wilde’s Rifles (Frontier Force) and is one of a series of articles I have written about the Indian Army in the First World War:

The 57th Wilde’s Rifles (Frontier Force) at Ypres 1914

The 57th Wilde’s Rifles (Frontier Force) had been stationed at Ferozepore, now Firozpur in India when war broke out in August 1914. Serving as part of the 7th (Ferozepore) Infantry Brigade of the 3rd (Lahore) Division, the Regiment was sent to France as part of Indian Expeditionary Force A. Leaving India at Karachi, now in Pakistan on board the SS Testa on 25 August, the unit travelled as part of an escorted convoy for Marseilles, France. The strength of the Regiment on board the Testa was eight British officers, Captain I. Singh of the Indian Medical Service, nineteen Indian officers, 729 rank and file, twenty-four public followers and eighteen private followers. This figure included eighty men from the 55th Coke’s Rifles (Frontier Force).

The unit was comprised of two companies of Sikhs, two of Dogras (from Kashmir), two of Punjabi Muslims and two of Pathans (Pashtuns from the North-West Frontier and Afghanistan). While the unit was sailing to France, it was decided to reorganize the Indian infantry regiments from eight to four companies to bring them in line with British battalions. The diverse composition of the regiment meant that those killed serving with it were from all over India, for example:

  • Sepoy Zewar Gul – Son of Gul Bad Shah, of Tara Kili, Tirah, North West Frontier Province
  • Lance-Naik Chanda Singh – Of Pandori, Amritsar, Punjab
  • Sepoy Jalal Khan – Son of Sharf Ali, of Bamla, Chakwal, Jhelum, Punjab
  • Sepoy Waryam Singh – Son of Punjab Singh, of Batala, Bhimber, Mirpur, Kashmir.

The nature of the fighting was so severe that by the 5 November 1914, the Regiment had lost nearly 50% of its strength and was reduced to two composite companies.

Owing to the shortage of officers and men, the Regiment has now been formed into two companies, one consisting of Sikhs and Dogras (No.1) under Major T. J. Willans; and the other (No.2) of Punjabis Mohd. and Afridis under Captain and Adjutant W. S. Trail. Strength of No.1 Coy is 2 Indian Officers, 173 rank and file; and of No.2 Company is 8 Indian Officers, 224 rank and file. This number includes baggage guards, company cooks, headquarters section and all other details.

The Regiment landed at Marseilles on 25 September and moved into the Racecourse Camp in the city. On 29 September, the 57th Wilde’s Rifles began a journey by train to Orleans, not arriving until 2 October where it went into camp with the rest of the Lahore Division. Remaining at Orleans until 17 October, the Regiment trained extensively before heading north towards the Belgium border. By 22 October, the unit had reached Wytschaete, a village five miles south of Ypres in Belgium where it was soon in action against German forces trying to breakthrough. The account below covers the period between 29 October and 1 November, by which time dozens of soldiers had been killed or wounded. During the fighting described below, the unit suffered an additional 314 casualties. The documents is an appendix which appears in the unit’s war diary (WO95/3923/5) which can be downloaded from the National Archives’ website for a small fee.

Brief report of the part taken by the 57th Rifles (F.F.) in the actions in and around Wytschaete and Messines by Major Edmund Lenthal Swifte, 57th Rifles (F.F.)

I beg to submit the following brief report of the part taken by the 57th Rifles (Frontier Force) in
the action in and around Wytschaete and Messines on the 29th, 30th, 31st October and 1st November 1914. Owing to the fact that 6 out of 7 British officers employed with my companies were killed or wounded, it is not possible to submit a detailed report, or make special mention of individuals until I have had opportunity to discuss the matter fully with my Indian officers.

On the evening of the 28th October I received orders to place one company at the disposal of the G.O.C. [General Officer Commanding] 4th Cavalry Brigade, and one under the orders of the G.O.C. 5th Cavalry Brigade. Major T. J. Willans with No.1 company and Captain L. Forbes with No.3 company were accordingly detailed to report to their brigades respectively and were ordered to relieve Cavalry regiments in the trenches.

Later in the evening I received orders from the G.O.C. 7th Indian Infantry Brigade to send my two remaining companies to Messines, to report to the G.O.C. 3rd Cavalry Brigade by 5 am on the 29th October. Headquarters of the regiment was ordered to remain at Wytschaete, and the machine gun section was detailed to act under the orders of the G.O.C. 4th Cavalry Brigade.

During the night of the 28/29th October there was heavy firing along the line Eastward of Wytschaete, and No.1 company (in 4th Cavalry Brigade) lost 8 men wounded. The two companies detailed for Messines started from Wytschaete at 3 am under Major E. E. Barwell (No.4 Coy) and Captain R.S. Gordon (No.2 Coy) and on their arrival there 50 men were at once sent into the trenches, whilst the remainder were kept in support. During the day (29th October) nothing of importance occurred. On the evening of the 29th No.2 company and 1/2 of No.4 company were moved up to the trenches, the remaining 1/2 of No.4 company forming a support. At Wytschaete, Nos.1 and 3 companies remained in their trenches under orders of the G.O.C. 4th and 5th Cavalry Brigades respectively.

At about 7 am on the morning of 30th October, the enemy commenced a bombardment of the trenches occupied by the 4th and 5th Cavalry brigades, with shrapnel and high explosive shells, at the same time pushing forward masses of infantry. At about 2 pm the troops occupying a part of the line somewhere North of the trenches occupied by the 5th Cavalry Brigade were compelled to fall back on another line of trenches, and the enemy were then enabled to bring enfilade fire to bear on the position to the Southward. A retirement from the left then commenced, but the order to retire did not, apparently reach Captain Forbes (afterwards wounded) commanding No.3 company in time to permit his retiring gradually, and the company did not leave its trenches until the enemy were very close indeed and both flanks had come under the enemy’s machine gun fire.

When the company did retire, one half company under Lieutenant Clarke came under a murderous machine gun fire and very few men escaped. Lieutenant Clark himself, Jemadar Khan Muhammad and about 40 rank and file did not return and were either killed or captured. The remainder of the company retired to Wytschaete and took a previously prepared position about quarter of a mile East of the Northern end of the village.

The enemy’s bombardment and attack had not been so vigorous on the right of the line, and Major Willans withdrew his company and the regimental machine guns with little loss to a position close to, and East of the Wytschaete – Messines road. The enemy continued to bombard the trenches and the village of Wytschaete throughout the 31st October with shrapnel and high explosive shells.

At Messines, a heavy bombardment was endured throughout the night and the enemy assaulted the trenches in overwhelming numbers between 3 and 4 am on the 31st. Major Barwell was commanding the support, and on hearing the burst of musketry he rushed out to assist the first line of trenches. He was shot dead while advancing. Meantime No.4 company trench was heavily attacked and Captain Gordon called on his company (No.2) to make a counter attack. As he rose up in his trench he was shot and died in a few minutes.

Lieutenant C. W. Molony company officer of No.2 company was also shot about the same time, thus leaving no British officer with the detachment. Subadar Arsla Khan I.O.M. [Indian Order of Merit], No.2 company then assumed command of the retirement and succeeded in withdrawing both companies into Messines, but they then became separated in the streets. A few off the men reached the house where Major Barwell had his headquarters, and were taken charge of by Lieutenant Reardon, the British interpreter attached to the Regiment.

The remaining men were collected by Indian officers and N.C.Os [Non-commissioned officers] and took up positions in reserve under a heavy shell fire. One half company of No.4 company was almost surrounded before leaving its trench, and although Subadar Arsla Khan made a counter-attack with part of his company, Jemadar Kapur Singh was killed or captured.

Some small portions of both Nos 2 and 4 companies received ordered during the day (1st November) from an officer who spoke Hindustani, but whom they did not recognize, to join regimental headquarters and some of them did arrival at Kemmel, where the transport and Headquarters section had been removed to during the bombardment of Wytschaete.

In the evening about 9 pm a small part of No.3 company arrive at Kemmel, under Subadar Muhammad Azim. The enemy had forced their way through the line to the north of Wytschaete and compelled a retirement, in the course of which Captain Forbes was wounded. The company was then told by a Staff Officer to go to Kemmel, but part of the men with 2 Indian Officers missed their road and did not arrive until the following morning.

During the night the enemy continued to press the advantage which they had gained on our left, and it became necessary to withdraw from the trenches. Major Willans found his position untenable at about 3 am on 1st November and retired on a battery in position near the windmill South-west of Wytschaete. He took up a line and then awaited further orders.

At 8-30 am I was instructed by G.O.C. 2nd Cavalry Division to collect all the men who had arrived in Kemmel and report to the G.O.C. 4th Cavalry Brigade who ordered me to take up a position on the right of the 3rd Hussars, which I did, Major Willans, with his company, and the remainder of the companies from Messines joined me in the position and I held the line until the evening. A few shots were fired at us during the day, but no casualties occurred, and I received orders late that evening to report myself to the O.C. [Officer Commanding] 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis at Westoutre, to which place the transport and baggage had been removed, as Kemmel had been shelled by the enemy.

Signed E. L. Swifte, Major

Commanding 57th Rifles (F.F.)

In the Field. 3rd November 1914

If you would like to learn more about the Indian Army’s role in France, I recommend Gordon Corrigan’s Sepoys in the Trenches, which is available from Amazon as both a paperback and ebook.