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Sikhs & WW1 - The First Gas Attack


Jun 1, 2004

The 94th anniversary of first gas attack ever in history - launched by the Germans on Canadian, French, Algerian, British and Sikh troops in Europe - was commemorated earlier this year and the victims were remembered in Canada, UK, France and Belgium.
The attack started on 22 April 1915 at Steenstrate-Schreiboom in the north of Ieper, Belgium. Canadian and British soldiers - including Sikhs - were the earliest victims.
The 2nd attack was on 24 April 1915 at St. Juliaan‘s Graventafel in the north of Ieper in which again, the Canadian, British and Sikh soldiers were the victims. A huge Canadian memorial is situated at Langemark to mark the event.
The 3rd and 4th attacks took place on 26-27 April 1915 at Steenstrate-Lizerne, near Ieper, in which British, Sikhs and French were the victims. To the left of the Sikhs were French Colonial troops with essentially North Africans and at their right were the British. The Ferozepur Brigade, and the French colonial troops to the left of them, were the worst hit.
More gas attacks followed on 27-29 April and 01-02 May 1915 and the victims were again British, Sikhs, Pathans, French and Algerians. Canadian artillery were backed by the Sikh troops.
Gas attacks are also recorded on 02, 05, 06, 10, 24 May 1915 near Ieper, by the Germans.
From 22 April 1915 till May 01, counter attacks were done by the British, Canadian, French, Belgium, Australian, New Zealanders, Sikhs, Algerians, Morocco and troops of many other nationalities.
Between 24 April and 1 May, the Lahore Division had lost 3889 men - about 30 % of the deployed soldiers - mostly Sikhs in and around Ieper.
On 22 April 1915 at 5 pm, the 2nd Battle of Ypres began with the first successful gas attack in history. The British Indian Corps - not yet recovered from the terrible Battle of Neuve-Chapelle - was called upon to fill a gap in the line.
The Lahore Division was now under command of the British 2nd Army of Smith-Doreen. Among the British Indian troops, the warning was spread that, in case of the use of gas, a handkerchief (or the pagri-dastaar) was to be placed over the mouth. It was recommended to soak the handkerchief (or pagri) in urine.
After the gas attack, the Germans had gained a considerable portion of the northern part of the Ypres Salient. Now the British, together with the French troops, wanted to make a counter-attack in order to force the Germans to withdraw from this new position.
On the morning of 26 April 1915, the Lahore Division assembled between the Ieper-Langemark road on the left and Wieltje on the right, some 600 yards north of la Brique. The Ferozepore Brigade moved to its position through Vlamertinge, but the Jullundur Brigade went to Wieltje by the road winding along the Ypres ramparts. There they were caught in a heavy bombardment.
As soon as the division was deployed in the fields near Wieltje, they were shelled with tear gas. After the first gentle slope, they arrived in an inferno of gunfire, machine gun fire and shells, among which also tear gas shells. The men fell by the dozen.
It is obvious that the number of casualties was extremely elevated. The 47th Sikhs, which was in the first line of attack, lost 348 men from a total of 444, or 78% of the battalion! It was almost annihilated.
In total, the attack resulted in almost 2000 casualties in the two brigades. During this attack, Corporal Issy Smith of the 1st Manchesters, which belonged to the Jullundur Brigade, won a Victoria Cross. Amidst heavy shelling and continuous gunfire, he had ceaselessly evacuated the wounded.
Also Mule Singh and Ruhr Singh of the 47th Sikhs distinguished themselves by saving many lives. Bhan Singh, a Sikh of the 57th Wilde's Rifles, was wounded in the face early during the attack. Nevertheless, he stayed near his officer, Captain Banks.
When Banks fell, Bhan Singh thought of just one thing - bringing Banks back, dead or alive. Weakened as he was, he stumbled on with Banks' body under heavy fire until he was completely exhausted. However, he did not return without first saving Banks' personal belongings.
Germans reopened the gas cannisters at 2.30 pm. When the gas reached the Sikh troops, a Sikh havildar was heard shouting: "Khabardaar, Jehannum pahunche", which means "watch out, we have arrived in Hell". In no time the ground was filled with men being tortured in a terrible way.
But let's get back to the night of 26-27 April 1915 when the chlorine gas was to be ingested through the whole night. Only late that night could the remnants of Major Deacon's party be relieved. The Ferozepore and Jullundur Brigades were withdrawn to the Brieke while the Sirhind Brigade replaced them in the first line.
Men of the 34th Sikh Pioneers tried to consolidate the difficult position when Major Deacon tried to keep a stand.
Later, two men of that unit, sappers Jai Singh and Gujar Singh, were awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal because they had established communication lines under constant fire.

[Based on extract from "How Europe is Indebted to the Sikhs", by Bhupinder Singh Holland, vol. 1, 2009.]

Note: In April 2005, the author, Sardar Bhupinder Singh Holland, was invited to Ieper and Langemark-Poelkapelle, Belgium, along with Ambassadors of 15 countries including USA, Canada, France, England, Australia, New Zealand, Germany, etc., to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the first gas attack - against the Sikhs in Ieper on April 22, 1915. Several Ministers of the Belgium Government, the Governor of Flanders and a number of Generals were also present. Special tributes were paid in the battlefields and later on, also at Menon Gate, the National monument of Belgium, where names of the Sikh soldiers have been engraved on the walls.
August 16, 2009



1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Sinister ji

If your great grandfather fought with a unit from Ferozepur, then he may have known relatives of Tejwant Singh ji, who is from Ferozepur. Maybe his father and his grandfather. Maybe you two are related and you don't even know it. You are from the same "pind." See I know a word. :)

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Shabad Vichaar by SPN'ers

The shabd under discussion in this article is composed by bhagat Dhanna Ji – ਆਸਾ ਬਾਣੀ ਭਗਤ ਧੰਨੇ ਜੀ ਕੀ॥ Asa bani Bhagat Dhanney Ji Ki – and is contained on Page 487 of the SGGS...

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