This article on the 85th Burma Rifles aims to help you to either research the Regiment or a soldier who served with it during the First World War. This article should be used in conjunction with my Guides to Researching Soldiers who Served in the Indian Army which will help you uncover even more information.
The 85th Burma Rifles in the First World War
Lineage: The 85th Burma Rifles was raised at Mandalay, Burma (Myanmar) in July 1917 and became the 3rd Battalion 20th Burma Rifles in 1922.
Class Composition of Battalion in 1919: 1 Company of Kachins, 1/2 a Company of Burmans, 1/2 a Company of Karens, 1/2 a Company of Sikhs, 1/2 a Company of Punjab Mahomedans and 1 Company of Gurkhas.
The 85th Burma Rifles was a war-raised Indian infantry regiment which served in Mesopotamia during and after the First World War. The Regiment was raised at Mandalay, Burma (Myanmar) in July 1917. The extract below is taken from the July 1918 Indian Army List and shows the British officers serving with the Regiment. The number of officers drawn from the Indian Army Reserve of Officers (I.A.R.O.) is typical of a war-raised unit. The 85th Burma Rifles first commanding officer was Temporary Lieutenant-Colonel Edmund Burd who was appointed from the 93rd Burmese Infantry on 28 July 1917. Finding British officers for Burmese units posed a difficulty throughout the war for the Indian Army due to the language barrier as very few British officers could speak Burmese languages. The 85th Burma Rifles was mobilized at Mandalay in July 1917 and I have transcribed a narrative describing the mobilization below. The Regiment left Mandalay on 31 July 1917 and arrived at Basra, Mesopotamia (Iraq) on 15 August 1917. The 85th Burma Rifles served on the Tigris Defences and lines of communication at Qurnah and Amara between August 1917 and November 1918 and there is a war diary covering these dates.
In December 1918, the 85th Burma Rifles joined the 53rd Indian Infantry Brigade, 18th Indian Division. There is another war diary covering the period between December 1918 and May 1919 and the Regiment spent a lot of time at Kut-al-Amara during this period. In July 1919, the Regiment joined the 55th Indian Infantry Brigade, 18th Indian Division. The Regiment served overseas into 1920 and became the 3rd Battalion 20th Burma Rifles in 1922. While the 85th Burma Rifles served overseas its Depot was based at Mandalay.
The 85th Burma Rifles qualified for the General Service Medal with Kurdistan clasp and some of their Medal Index Cards have survived. These can be viewed on Ancestry of the National Archives’ website. I would recommend viewing them on Ancestry as they can currently be viewed for free.
War Diaries of the 85th Burma Rifles
There are three war diaries for the 85th Burma Rifles covering the period between July 1917 and September 1919. All three have been digitized and can be downloaded from the National Archives’ website for a small fee by clicking on the blue links below.
- Date: 01 July 1917 – 30 November 1918
- Tigris Defences and Communications, Qurnah, Mesopotamia
- Reference: WO 95/5021/7
- Notes: A poor war diary where the majority of entries are very brief and relate to parades or training. However, there is a very good account of the problems posed when the 85th Burma Rifles mobilized which I have transcribed below. Appendices include a breakdown of the composition of the Battalion by class, Sikh, Gurkha etc. Transcripts of telegrams relating to mobilization. There are lists of officers serving with the 85th Burma Rifles between May and December 1918, including officers on leave.
- Date: 01 December 1918 – 31 May 1919
- 53rd Indian Infantry Brigade, 18th Indian Division, Mesopotamia
- Reference: WO 95/5226/3
- Notes: A poor war diary with each month written on a single page. There is a list of British officers serving with the 85th Burma Rifles each month, written on Army Form B 158, which also noted officers away on leave and training.
- Date: 01 July 1919 – 30 September 1919
- 55th Indian Infantry Brigade, 18th Indian Division, Mesopotamia
- Reference: WO 95/5230/2
- Notes: A poor war diary with very few entries. There is a list of British officers serving with the 85th Burma Rifles in August and October 1919.
Further Sources for the 85th Burma Rifles
For information on the British and Indian officers who served with the 85th Burma Rifles, the Indian Army List can be consulted. There is a single confidential report for the Regiment for 1918-1919 which is held at the British Library, however, it only covers its Depot: Confidential review reports on Indian Army units, depots, British officers, etc. for 1918-1919: IOR/L/MIL/7/17030. The Medal Index Cards for the General Service Medal with Kurdistan Clasp can be viewed on Ancestry or the National Archives’ website. I would recommend viewing them on Ancestry.
Extracts from War Diaries of the 85th Burma Rifles
01 July 1917 – 30 November 1918, Mesopotamia, WO 95/5021/7
Narrative of Mobilization.
After orders to mobilize the Battalion from the Burma Military Police had been received, it took some time before detachments began to assemble at Mandalay.
On 14 July 1917 office was opened, work started and men and officers began to arrive. Parties continued to come in until the end of the month. In all 1276 Indian officers and men arrived before the Battalion left and of these 1025 actually proceeded overseas leaving Mandalay on 31 July.
The intended composition of the Battalion was A Company 1/2 Sikh, 1/2 Punjabi Musalmans, B Company Gurkhas, C 1/2 Burman, 1/2 Karens, D Company Kachin. This was not adhered to for C Company as the Burmans and Karens ready trained were insufficient to make up a full company. Garhwalis and Kamaonis were then added, and the Battalion is now composed of 8 different races.
Until 22 July there was no clerk available and until morning 25 Major Burd, 2 Lieutenants Pollen and Speed were the only British Officers. Neither of the two last knew Hindustani so found ? especially difficult.
From 25 onwards matters were easier as additional officers arrived and a civilian clerk has assumed his duties. Lieutenant Colonel Oakes (88th Carnatics) took command before ? 25, but handed over again to Major Burd on the 28. Lieutenant Moore joined afternoon of 24 and Captain Gould afternoon of 25 July.
As the Burma Battalion brought with it no regimental or mobilization kit such as a regular battalion does, and in addition had to be completely reclothed and armed it was evident that the resulting very heavy ? could not reach Mandalay and be issued in time for the Regiment to leave in time for leave on the 31 July as required by the Quarter-Master General in India. The latter therefore directed that ? would be compiled with during the Battalion’s passage to Bombay. Articles in bulk were picked up at Rangoon, Calcutta and Bombay.
The only failure to comply occurred at the Government Printing Calcutta, and in spite of frequent reminders, the Battalion had to sail from India without pay books or any other forms [and] documents, except casualty returns. This proved a grave inconvenience, unrectified until arrival at Basra.
All marking of guns, equipment and accoutrements, as well as preparation of pay books and field conduct forms has had to be done since arrival overseas, instead of in the peace station.