Researching an Indian Soldier using WW1 War Diaries

Researching an Indian soldier who served in the First World War is a difficult task due to the destruction of their service and medal records. For most soldiers, you won’t be able to find out any specific facts about their service but you can research the unit/s they served with. The most important source of information to research a unit is its war diary which was written by a British officer and recorded a unit’s location and activities. This guide will show you how to gather information to identify a soldier’s unit, explain what war diaries are and how to find them. There is also an extract from the war diary of the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs. This is just one of hundreds of guides I’ve written help you with your research:

First World War Indian War Diaries

Gathering Information

The only piece of information you will need to start your research is the soldier’s unit; without this the task is impossible. This information, at least for cavalry and infantry regiments, can be found on a soldier’s medals. Once you know which unit a soldier served with you’ll need to try to gather more information to see if you can work out when he served with them. Have a look at my page on Indian Army enlistment dates and if you’re researching an Indian officer e.g. Jemadar, Subadar etc. at the Indian Army List. Ask family members for any information available, especially older relatives. Many of my clients call family in India or Pakistan to find out more and you can ask the following questions:

  • Did he ever mention serving in France, Gallipoli, or seeing Jerusalem, Baghdad, or Damascus? Indian regiments often served in different campaigns, so a specific location can help tie a soldier to a certain time frame, e.g. the 69th Punjabis were only in France between May and November 1915.
  • Was he wounded? Some regiments only saw limited action and went years between battles.
  • Was he serving before the war broke out in 1914 or did he enlist afterwards?
  • Are there any letters or documents which could indicate where and when he served?

Single Battalion Regiments and Drafts

It is possible that a soldier served with another regiment as part of a draft to replace casualties. Indian infantry regiments were linked with others to enable them to receive reinforcements when needed. Even in 1914 during mobilization, many regiments had to be brought up to strength with drafts from their linked battalions. As casualties mounted, linked regiments often proved incapable of supplying enough reinforcements and men were sent from a variety of units.

If you are researching a soldier who served in a regiment that did not leave India in 1914, then there is a chance he could have served abroad in a different unit. An example of a unit serving in India and sending soldiers abroad is the 45th Rattray’s Sikhs. Between October 1914 and April 1915, the regiment sent 2 British Officers, 3 Indian Officers and 304 Other Ranks to the 14th and 15th Sikhs. During the war, the 45th Rattray’s Sikhs received hundreds of reinforcements, also from the 14th and 15th Sikhs, as well as the 2nd, 8th and 11th Rajputs and 25th Punjabis.

1914 Star or Mons Star

The 1914 Star is the most useful medal in building up a service history of an Indian soldier. Only soldiers who served in France and Belgium between the 5 August and 22 November 1914 qualified for this medal. By consulting the unit’s war diary, you can learn more about a soldier’s movements and likely experiences during these dates. This 1914 Star is named to Reservist Nawab Ali, 129th Duke of Connaught’s Own Baluchis who was killed at the Battle of Loos in September 1915.

What are First World War Unit War Diaries and What Information are they Likely to Contain?

War diaries kept by Indian units were written by a British officer, usually the Adjutant and often written up weekly from daily reports. War diaries vary in their level of detail dramatically, not only between regiments but also depending on what was happening and who was writing them. The following extracts from Field Service Pocket Book (1914) record why a war diary should be kept and the type of information it should contain:

War diaries are confidential documents. Their object is:

(a) To furnish an accurate record of the operations from which the history of the war can subsequently be prepared.

(b) To collect information for future reference with a view to effecting improvements in the organization, education, training, equipment and administration of the army for war.

In so far as they apply to each case the following points should be recorded:

(a) All important orders, despatches, instructions, reports and telegrams issued and received, and decisions taken.

(b) Daily situation, i.e., arrival at, departure from, or halt at a place; all movements and dispositions on the march, in camp, bivouac, or billets.

(c) All important matters relating to the duties of the staff under their respective headings.

(d) All important matters relating to the administrative services and departments under their respective headings

(e) Detailed account of all operations, noting connection with other units in the neighbourhood, formations adopted, ranges at which fire was opened, &c. The hour at which important occurrences took place should be entered with exactitude. The state of the weather, condition of the roads and ground, and general description of the locality should be recorded.

(f) Changes in establishment or strength. As regards casualties, the names and ranks of officers, and the number of other ranks and followers, and animals should be noted.

(g) Nature and description of field works constructed or quarters occupied.

(h) Metrological notes.

(i) Summary of information received and of all matters of importance, military or political, which may occur from day to day.

(j) In what respect organizations and regulations have stood the test of war.

I’ve never found all of the points recorded in one war diary and the level of detail they contain varies considerably. There will often be appendices in the form of maps, operation orders, recommendations for gallantry awards, lists of casualties which often contain their regimental number, battle reports etc.

Finding the Correct War Diaries

Unfortunately, a number of Indian Army war diaries have been lost or destroyed. Despite this, many units have over five years of records to consult, though very few war diaries survive for units which served in India during the First World War. However, a lot survive for units which served in the Third Anglo-Afghan War (1919) and Waziristan Campaigns (1919-1922).

The war diaries of First World War units are held at the National Archives in London. They are contained within the series WO 95, with the WO standing for War Office. The war diaries of Indian units which served in France, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and East Africa have been digitized and are available to download from the National Archives’ website for a small fee. The war diaries of Indian units which served at Gallipoli can be viewed on Ancestry. War diaries for units which served in North Africa, Palestine, Syria, Salonika, Turkey post-war, Aden and India haven’t been digitized and can only be viewed at the National Archives. If you are looking for a war diary to an Indian infantry or cavalry regiment see my links below. If not then the link below will take you to the relevant search page.

National Archives’ Search Engine

A unit’s war diary can appear under a variety of names as there is no standardisation among Indian units in the National Archives’ catalogue. You will want to search the unit’s number but do not put st, nd, rd or th after the number otherwise the unit may not come up. If you’re searching for the 1st Battalion 9th Gurkha Rifles search “9 Gurkha” the 22nd Mountain Battery search “22 Mountain”. Try a combination of words and numbers if you don’t get a result. If you’re looking for an Indian infantry or cavalry regiment’s war diaries then click on the link below and then click on the relevant regiment to find if their war diaries are available. I have catalogued most of the war diaries, provided brief descriptions regarding how useful they are and linked to their catalogue entries.

Indian Infantry Regiments

Indian Cavalry Regiments

40th Pathans British and Indian Officers

This photograph shows the British and Indian officers of the 40th Pathans. Most were either killed or wounded on the Western Front in 1915. Names of both British and Indian officers can be found throughout the 40th Pathan’s war diaries. The Indian Army List would also be of considerable use in researching the officers.

The War Diary of the 15th Ludhiana Sikhs.

Below are some excerpts from the war diary of the 15th Sikhs between August and October 1914 (WO 95/3929/5). Unfortunately, most war diaries are nowhere near as detailed as this one. I have not included every passage from the dates below, nor have I corrected any grammatical errors.

August 14th, Loralai, Baluchistan [in present-day Pakistan]

Fifty-four recruits were sworn in this morning. The outposts of Sargandhai, [?] and Zarnzai rejoined at Loralai today and were medically inspected this afternoon. 2 months advance of pay as authorised has been drawn and distributed. The prescribed advances to officers has been also drawn and paid over to those present. Telegram from Lieutenant Betham at Multan states 120 reservists despatched to Karachi as also 120 leave and furlough men, and further draft as men come in will arrive Karachi by end of week.

August 15th

The outposts of Taizan, Drig and Musa Khel re-joined early this morning. The men have done very well, marching in the case of Drug 119 miles in 5 days. These were medically inspected shortly after arrival and only two were found unfit. The 67th Punjabis marched in about 10.30 am from Torkhan and the process of handing and taking over was immediately gone into owing to all mobilization stores being taken with the Regiment. There was outside the lines themselves but little government property to hand over. Most consisted of private property such as charpoys [a type of bed used on the Indian subcontinent], garden, mosquito nets, range appliances, office furniture, drill and gymnastic apparatus, and private stores obtained from the Punjab in the shape of a large quantity of ‘ghee’ [clarified butter used in South Asian cuisine].

August 21st, Karachi Concentration Rest Camp

Old rifles were taken back into store and two Double Companies were issued today with new rifles. Field service clothing was also issued to all present. Hobnails and toe-plates issued to those men who re-joined from Multan and identity discs and 1st field dressings also. Trouble was caused by the bayonets of the 120 Reservists, being of an old pattern would not fit the new rifle, and on the Quartermaster’s proceeding in the evening to the Arsenal he was informed that that number was not in stock and only forty could be issued. Bhisties [water carrier], durzis [tailors] and mistris [artisans] have been bought here, as also acting pay havildars [equivalent to a sergeant in the British Army], to assist in the work of mobilisation; these will be sent back to Multan when the Regiment embarks.

August 29th, Karachi

The Regiment fell in in Quarter Column at 5.30 am this morning in absolute silence, with rifles slung, each man carrying his own bedding, and marched off to the siding. The men were entrained after some delay caused by firstly the train being drawn up between two others, beside no platform leaving only sufficient space for single file; secondly the absence of any lights; thirdly many of the carriage doors being still locked.

The train left punctually at 6.30 am, arriving at Keamari at 7.15, and was drawn up on the pier opposite the SS Takada… In addition to the 59th Scinde Rifles are all the officers and personnel of the Controller of Military Accounts for the 3rd Division and some 113 mules with corresponding personnel under Captain Rennison, officer commanding the 2nd Mule Corps. On the arrival of the officer commanding 59th Scinde Rifles a settlement was arrived at as to which Regiment should occupy the upper or lower deck. This was tossed for in the presence of the two Subadar-Majors [the senior Indian officer in a regiment] and the Regiment winning the toss it fell to their lot to occupy the upper deck.

The animals then commenced to be put on board, passing in by a ‘blind’ gangway through a door in the ship’s side and were passed along either up on deck or down below by various ‘races’. There is no doubt that the arrangements were at fault. At 7 am on the morning of the 29th the ship had been rationed and fitted up, but no animals or baggage had been put on board and the mess made by the former down below decks along the gangways with constant traffic and heat made it exceedingly unpleasant.

The CO as soon as the ship got underway made an inspection. The scene was one of confusion. It is obvious that the ship is very overcrowded. A large number of mules are on the lower deck aft, and owing to the fairly high monsoon sea running the portholes cannot be opened. The heat and smell on this deck are already very bad and worse is to follow as we get further south and into the Red Sea… Some of the men unaccustomed to the motion have already been very sick… 1st and 2nd Class accommodation is excellent, but the men have not room to spread their beddings.

September 26th, Marseille

The lighthouses outside Marseille were sighted this morning about 5 am. Pilot came on board about 7.30 and conducted us to P&O wharf in dock where we were berthed about 9.30… The march through Marseilles was one of great enthusiasm and so full were the streets with cheering crowds that the pace was of necessity slow. The Regiment was the first of the Indian contingent to march through. Camp was reached about 2.30 pm situated on the Race Course…

The scale of the field service kits has been further reduced to 15 lbs [6.8kg] per man to the following which alone will be carried on GS wagons: one waterproof sheet, one blanket, one towel, one comforter, one pair socks, and one other article not to exceed four ozs [113g] .

All surplus kits to be left at Base with exception of spare blanket, coat warm British, and warm pyjamas which the men in addition to their waterproof capes are carrying on their backs.

Climate hot during the day but very cold at night with heavy dew. Rations good. Officers also receive liberal ration of 1 lb bread, 1 lb meat, 4 oz. jam and in addition tea, sugar etc. Sanitary arrangements in camp very good.

September 27th, Camp Borely Marseille

Parade this morning, ordered for route march but cancelled in order to enable field service kits to be arranged for and made up. Ammunition at the rate of 100 rounds per man issued excepting 16 stretcher bearers who do not carry rifles, buglers at 20 and signalers at 50.

October 4th, Camp Cercottes Orleans

Battalion paraded for a Route march this morning, coy [company] drill in new formations being carried out this afternoon. Difficulty in obtaining a sufficiency in water in camp owing to numbers. Weather clear but very cold at night.

Men issued with warm vest, shirt and drawers of excellent quality. Information also received that coat warm British, khaki serge coat and blanket will still be issued although unavailable at present. Rations for both officers and men of good quality, milk and sugar being bought regimentally.

October 8th, Camp Cercottes Orleans

The warm clothing issued to officers at Marseilles has been again withdrawn. Letters are most strictly censored. Those of the men are read by the company commanders before being passed to the commanding officer, those of the officers by the commanding officer before being stamped by him with the censor’s stamp. Interpreters provided with grooms (orderlies).

October 9th, Camp de Cercottes Orleans

Learnt today that men would move forward on the following scale.

  • Worn on the man – khaki warm pyjamas, warm shirt and sweater.
  • Carried on the man – rolled up in his coat, warm British the following, one thick warm pair of drawers, one thick warm vest, one pair gloves socks and muffler.
  • carried in the kits- one blanket, one waterproof sheet, one spare shirt warm, shoes and towel.
  • total weight 10lbs

The blanket carried by men up to date on their backs will be packed into sacks, labelled and left at the Base to be sent up later when the weather gets colder. It was found that the men could not wear all this warm kit and carry a blanket, and further that the health of the men should be better if they had something warm and dry to change into at night instead of merely covering themselves up in a blanket.

The man with full water bottle and 100 rounds of ammunition carries 43 lbs [19.5 kg] all told. The daily scale of rations has been increased in the following particulars: ghee 3 oz instead of 2 oz, gur [jaggery] 3 ozs instead of 1 oz, scale of meat to remain 4 ozs. Rations are exceedingly good and the men want nothing more except an increase of wood to cook it with.

October 22nd

Men greatly astonished at airships which they cannot understand. Rations in quality very satisfactory but under present arrangements the men having to carry 1 days rations cooked they never get the full benefit of the quality by eating hard and cold chapatis [unleavened flat bread]. There have been several cases of diarrhoea which are attributed chiefly to this cause, otherwise the health of the men is good, a few having blistered feet, etc.

Yesterday’s rations arrangements miscarried and in consequence the men went hungry today. So much so that they did not hesitate to eat bread at a 1/2 hour’s halt at a village on the march and in some cases even chocolate also. Billeting is not found satisfactory. The behaviour of the men is excellent but it is difficult to communicate with companies and the men very apt to lose their way, it also entails on the Quartermaster a very great deal of extra work.

October 24th

The Regiment moved off at 3 am this morning with its 1st Line Transport, cook and water carts. 2nd Line Transport being loaded up and left behind in billets. At about 2 am this morning heavy firing was heard along the front of the 8th British Infantry Brigade in consequence the Regiment fell in on its alarm posts. On arrival at Picantin the two companies of the 59th Rifles relieved the Manchester Regiment, while guides from the 47th Sikhs took the Regiment to the trenches occupied by the 47th Sikhs.

No orders were received from Brigade and on arrival this morning it was found that the 34th Sikh Pioneers were also employed in digging trenches and who had been given to understand that they also would be relieved by the 15th Sikhs. Communication further with Brigade Headquarters had not been established by telephone, the line having been constantly cut, and it could not be established this morning, neither could the situation of the Brigade Reserve Ammunition be located.

Throughout the morning the houses which are situated all along the Rue Tilleloy in the nature of a scattered village about Picantin to our left rear were subjected to a very heavy artillery fire, the target being a couple of batteries in rear of it. At 2.30 pm the enemy opened a concentrated, and very heavy, big gun and shrapnel fire on the village between Fauquissart and Picantin while the trenches also were subjected to a very heavy fire both gun and rifle. Number 3 and 4 Companies which has been drawn up about 400 yards in rear of the village were brought up closer ready to be thrown into support when required. About 3.30 pm No.3 Company under Major Carden was brought up into the firing line while Number 4 Company was still kept in Reserve.

A very sharp engagement then continued until after nightfall with a total loss in killed and wounded of 2 killed, 14 wounded, 1 missing. Regimental headquarters situated behind a house on the road were shelled out by heavy artillery while the company in Reserve took what cover they could find in the ditches bordering the roadside. This is the first time any of the men have come under heavy shellfire and they were temporarily very confused.

After dark the attack was resumed commencing firstly with the Gordons on the left of the 8th British Infantry Brigade and then against the Regiment. It became evident after a while that by the shouts of the Germans to our right rear that they had got through the Gordons and had broken the line. Our right flank being thus exposed, one company was withdrawn from the trenches and formed at right angles across the Rue Tilleloy with a small reserve of forty men.

The line again was prolonged to the right by 2 companies of French Chasseurs [Light Infantry]. A party of the Gordons under an officer came down the road from Fauquissart reporting that their line had been broken through by large masses of the enemies and although repeated close charges were delivered, several had been captured and in the darkness it was not known what had exactly happened. All was now very quiet and it was not known what could have happened.

25 October, in trenches on the Fauquissart – Rue du Tilleloy position

Orders have been received by bicycle orderly yesterday that the forward trenches occupied by the French Cavalry (and who had withdrawn from them) should be occupied… Lieutenant Henderson in advancing with No.4 Coy found Subadar Narain Singh with half his platoon had advanced in a half right direction; his attempt to stop them with a whistle having failed he doubled after them and whilst doing so was shot through both thighs. This 1/2 platoon lost several casualties during the advance and, being unable to retire, remained in advance digging themselves in, retiring at nightfall on to the line of trenches held by the Regiment.

Through the day the men in the trenches were subjected to a very heavy shell fire causing a total in casualties of 6 killed and 47 wounded. These heavy casualties were caused by the trenches not yet being properly prepared and then men who unnecessarily exposed themselves. The men also do not seem to understand the danger, because no enemy is visible they think they are safe. Much annoyance was caused today also by the German sharpshooters, these seem to be in positions up trees so chosen as to snipe down any particular line of advance to the trenches and picking off any man showing himself above the parapet.

 October 26th, in trenches in the same position

The day passed more quietly in the trenches than did that yesterday, the enemies artillery being concentrated on some batteries behind the village while at varying periods they ranged on the village and fired some thirty to twenty shells into one particular house, setting it in flames. Regimental headquarters were twice shelled out of houses marked A and A1. Telephone wires were cut to pieces by shrapnel, not only with the firing line, but more especially so with Brigade headquarters and also by spies. There are still some civilians living in the village for the greater part women and old men which seems significant and application has been made to have them turned out.

Casualties today: 58 wounded, 1 missing, 6 evacuated sick. A large number of the wounds are on the left hand.

October 27th, same position in the trenches

The battle continues. Last night passed very much as former nights have done, marked by occasional bursts of artillery fire with half-hearted attempts on the part of the enemy to break the line. Although they never actually at any time came near the trenches, the work of spies and snipers in the village is more evident than before and a house to house search throughout the village brought in a certain number who were sent off to Brigade Headquarters under escort. 2 men were killed by snipers in the village during the course of the day and a further search was made but beyond discovering tracers of where they had undoubtedly been laying up in wait nothing was found. The trenches throughout the day at varying periods subjected to a heavy artillery fire from the enemies heavy gun and shrapnel.

Casualties 2 Killed, 60 wounded, 7 reported missing.

October 30th 1914

Situation remains the same, trenches at varying periods were subjected to heavy artillery fire while sniping today was particularly brisk. No firing took place last night on our front. Heavy rain continued all last night making a most uncomfortable night for the men in the trenches who have now been here for 5 days and nights without any relief. Staff Captain of Brigade brought verbal information that the Regiment would probably be relieved tonight by the Manchester Regiment; this information was confirmed in a visit by the Brigade Major 8th Brigade who, in company with the Brigade Major of the 8th British Infantry Brigade, came to discuss the relief with the commanding officer.

October 31st, billeted in Estaire

Men enjoyed a day of complete rest in billets washing clothes and their persons, thoroughly deserved after their strenuous seven days in the trenches. Many of their feet were in a very swollen state owing to their boots never having been off and being constantly wet.

Total casualties for the fighting between October 24th and 30th both dates inclusive are as follows:

British officers wounded: Col. Gordon, Lieutenant Henderson, Captain Cross attached as Interpreter.

Indian officers wounded: Jemadar Wazir Singh (Jemadar Adjutant). Jemadar Pertab Singh, Jemadar Harnam Singh,

Rank and file: killed 11, wounded 240, evacuated sick 20, missing 12.

During the whole of the period the Germans during the day time were hardly ever seen and the losses were greatly due to shrapnel fire with a small proportion to that of snipers. Most of the casualties occurred on the 26th and 27th, before the Regiment was properly entrenched
against artillery fire.

If you would like to learn more about the Indian troops on the Western Front I can recommend Gordon Corrigan’s Sepoys in the Trenches.