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Why we must not forget J&K state forces who fought World War I

Kashmir Imperial Service Corps earned not only the title of the most 'reliable' troops, but also 31 decorations.

 |  7-minute read |   07-11-2015
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UK and other Commonwealth Nations celebrate those who took part in the World War I on Remembrance Day, November 11. In Britain, red poppy paper/plastic pins, symbolic of the battle ravaged fields where nothing else grew except blood-red poppies after the war, are distributed for a small donation by the Royal British Legion. The horrors of war are not easily forgotten but stories of unbelievable heroism also abound. Every year, many wear these red poppy pins proudly as a mark of respect and gratefulness for the brave soldiers.

For Indians, it was a proud moment when this year, a memorial in honour of the Sikh soldiers who fought during World War I, was unveiled at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire UK, on 1st November. The national WW1 Sikh Memorial statue commemorates the 130,000 Sikh men who took part in the war. This served as a reminder of all the soldiers from the Indian sub-continent, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Gorkhas who travelled across oceans to fight gory battles in foreign and distant lands. Amongst others Jammu & Kashmir, the largest princely state and its state forces also played an important role in the WWI.

The Dogras of Jammu Kashmir, have a century old martial tradition, their history a reflection of who they really are, as a people. The term Dogra broadly refers to the people of the Jammu Region, both Hindus and Muslims including the Jat and Gujjar clans who made up the Forces which founded the State as we see it today, extending its frontiers through military campaigns fought at such treacherous terrains and severe weather that they remain unparalleled in military history. The Bhuttas of Gilgit and the Khakhas and Bamba Muslims of Muzaffarabad district were also enlisted in the Army, as were Sikhs from Punjab in the early days of Maharaja Gulab Singh. The only non state subjects who have contributed to the State's military glory are the Gorkhas who need no introduction. The martial traditions are reflected in folk lore and folk songs. Many Dogri folk songs centre around the themes of love and separation; women pining for their men who were far away fighting wars.

A major portion of the Jammu Kashmir State Forces which comprised of Hindus, Muslims and Gorkhas participated in the First World War. Maharaja Pratap Singh offered three Infantry Battalions and one Mountain Battery for service under the British. Major Dr K Brahma Singh in his book History of Jammu and Kashmir Rifles 1820-1956 says it is surprising but true, that India was unequivocal and united in its support of Britain when the war broke out. The Imperial Service Regiment saw action in East Africa, Palestine and Mesopotamia and won the Battle Honours of Megiddo, Nablus, Kilimanjaro, Beho Beho, East Africa, Palestine and Sharon. During the World War I (1914-1919) the Kashmir Imperial Service Corps not only earned the title of the most "reliable" troops, but the personnel of the regiment were awarded 31 decorations.

The first batch of men left for east Africa on September 16, arriving October 31 at the German port of Tanga. True to their formidable reputation, units of the Kashmir Rifles fought till the last bullet in many a battle. From voluntarily taking up risky assignments to Dogras and Gorkhas of the Force engaging in bayonet charge something not heard of in bush warfare; working their way through mangrove swamps to a sepoy being eaten by a lion as they made their way through the East African Forests; many times the State Forces troops lead from the front and at other times the enemy's attacks fizzled in the face of fire by the Kashmir rifles; escaping after being held as prisoners of war and being cited for their spirit and bravery even as the force was considerably decimated due to illness and injury, the men proved their steels of nerve and did their State proud.

During their two and a half years service in the war in East Africa the two battalions had earned enough laurels which few regiments in the Indian Army can perhaps boast of. The war in Palestine saw two units of the Kashmir Lancers adding to the tally of honours and awards earned during East African Campaign. In fact, General Hoskins pursued the matter of replacement of a JK battalion earnestly, calling the units consistent in their performance and well suited for East Africa.

The way the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir received these men loyal to their King and land, as they returned battle weary and injured, is also a matter of great pride. Maharaja and the people of the state were jubilant and proud. Arrangements on a grand scale were made to welcome the troops at the Jammu Railway Station. Later battalions marched through Jammu City displaying their war trophies which included the German insignia the Brass Eagle and the German flag captured by the 2nd battalion amongst other German artillery.

Thousands of citizens lined the streets and cheered the men on. Some of the extra measures taken by the Durbar during the war included extra allowance granted to families of soldiers serving abroad, grant of free supply of limbs to the disabled, grant of free rations, concession of free travel, grant of wound and injury pensions etc. The wounded were treated sensitively and not made redundant. Suitable jobs were found for them. There was civilian opposition to such lavish grants by the govt on grounds of financial burden but the spirited commander in chief the then Raja Hari Singh was relentless till they were finally sanctioned. Srinagar was later decked up and various events organized to celebrate the end of WWI.

JK state forces and their contribution in the WWI is part of military history now and the rightful place of the Indian soldiers in celebrations honouring the soldiers of WWI well established. As the red poppy shines bright on many lapels in Britain and Canada it invokes images of a Lt Col Raghubir Singh, Lt Col Durga Singh, Sepoy Ganga Ram, Assistant Surgeon Lt Sadhu Narain, Sepoy Bal Bahadur Chhetri, Sepoy Dal Bahadur Thapa, Major Gandharab Singh, Sepoy Hazara Singh and so many more of the JK State Forces. Unforgettable is also the first Indian recipient of the highest gallantry award, Victoria Cross recipient, Khuda Dad Khan, not from the JK State forces but a Dogra Muslim nevertheless, from the Manhas Dogra Rajput clan.

The highest sense of duty making possible unfathomable acts of selflessness, courage and heroism by uniformed men is what strikes awe. Inspiring is the mettle of these men, who wrote chapter after chapter in the glorious military history of the State drawing admiration from both friend and foe.

A fitting ode to the Dogra martial tradition, a legacy which is still alive today thanks to the many Dogra men in the Armed Forces, lies in the following excerpts from a very detailed commentary made on them years ago, in a publication dealing with the background of the WWI which reflects their character:

"The Dogras are among the best fighting material to be found in India. They have a keener sense of national pride and a higher feeling of national integrity than their compatriots of the plains. The Dogra is a shy, reserved man with considerable strength of character. He has a high idea of honour, is very self respecting and makes a capital soldier. They have been long known as brave and faithful soldiers and loyalty to their salt is with them as the breath of their nostrils. Though shy and reserved they are not lacking in the force of character.

More solid than brilliant, they are full of quiet and resolute courage when face to face with danger. Law abiding and well behaved, steady and resolute, though not showy of courage, their virtues shine forth in moments of peril when they will face certain death with a calm and determination to do, before they die."

Writer

Manu Khajuria Manu Khajuria @khajuriamanu

She is a community worker and freelance writer seeking answers with special focus on Dogras and the state of Jammu and Kashmir.

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