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:
I also offer a First World War Soldier Research Service.
57th Wilde’s Rifles Frontier Force at Ypres 1914
The regiment landed at Marseilles, France in September 1914 and saw heavy fighting during the First Battle of Ypres. The regiment was comprised of 2 companies of Sikhs, 2 of Dogras (from Kashmir), 2 of Punjabi Muslims and 2 of Pathans (Pashtuns from the North-West Frontier and Afghanistan). On the voyage to France, it was decided to reorganize the Indian infantry regiments from 8 companies to 4. The nature of the fighting was so severe that by the 5 November, the regiment had lost nearly 50% of its strength and was reduced to two composite companies. The 57th Rifles had left India with 809 rank and file (including 80 men from the 55th Rifles), and 19 Indian officers.
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 diverse composition of the regiment meant that those killed were from all over India
- 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.
Brief report of the part taken by the 57th Rifles (F.F.) in the actions in and around Wytschaete and Messines by Major E.L.Swifte
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 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 according 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. Head Quarters of the regiment were 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. 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 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, this 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 during the bombardment of Wytschaete.
In the evening about 9 pm a small part of No.3 company arrived 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 (the ebook is just £1.99).