They remained buried in an anonymous field near the town of Laventie, nearly 70 km from Dunkirk, for over 100 years now. In a foreign land, on foreign shores, the 2 Garhwal jawans who lost their lives in a battle that was not their own, will finally get their rightful due. Their remains will be brought back to their homeland.
As history has it, members of the 39 Garhwal Rifles Regiment were enlisted in the British Indian Army and sent to France to fight the World War I. These two were among them. Although their names are yet to be identified, the discovery of their remains opens up dark chapters from the past where many lost their lives to battles.
Speaking to the Times of India, a Garhwal Rifles officer posted in Lansdowne said, "The discovery was made during digging for a civic work in a field in September 2016.Among the remains were the insignia of the 39 Garhwal Rifles. French officials subsequently confirmed the finds and wrote to us. Now a team of four Indian defence personnel, including a Garhwal Rifles brigadier, will visit the site next month. Some artefacts, including the regimental insignia, have also been found. Our team will try to determine the identities of the soldiers, and see if any other details can be found. We will try our best to identify them, although it will be difficult. The bodies were buried for more than 100 years, so very little is left."
The Garhwal regiment had a huge contribution in fighting the World War I and World War II on behalf of the Allied Forces. In the first conflict, 721 men from the regiment were killed, while 349 died in World War II. However, among the most famous of the soldiers was Gabar Singh Negi who even won the Victoria Cross for his actions at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in France, where he breathed his last on March 10, 1915.
Meanwhile, it has been deduced that the soldiers were killed during battle since their remains were found less than 8 kms from Laventie. After the war at Neuve Chapelle, the 39th Garhwal Rifles was posted to Iraq (then Mesopotamia). It is said that more than 1 million Indian soldiers served in World War I, of whom 62,000 were killed. Hundreds of them are said to have been buried in graves maintained by the Imperial War Graves Commission in France and Belgium.
After the World War I, 39th Garhwal Rifles was renamed 39th Royal Garhwal Rifles, and later renumbered as 18th Royal Garhwal Rifles. The 'Royal' was dropped in 1950 and the troops were known as Garhwal Rifles.
The war of Neuve Chapelle and Gabar Singh Negi
On the night of 10 March, 1915, Indian troops of the Garhwal Rifles arrived at the site marked by failure of the British troops who were unable to take even a few yards of land from the Germans. One of the Garhwalis Gabar Singh Negi turned the table around.
According to The London Gazette of 28 April 1915, "During our attack on the German position he (Negi) was one of a bayonet party with bombs who entered their main trench, and was the first man to go round each traverse, driving back the enemy until they were eventually forced to surrender.”
Although Negi succumbed to his injuries, he was awarded the highest gallantry award- The Victoria Cross- in the British and Commonwealth forces. Negi, however, was not the only war hero. There were others too who etched their mark in history. One of them being Naik Darwan Singh Negi of the 1st batallion who was also awarded the Victoria Cross for his bravery near Festubert on the night of November 23 and 24.
Moreover, the unit was also awarded the right of Battle Honours, following Neuve Chapelle allowing them to emblazon the name of the battle on its flag. Since that year the regiment celebrates 10-11 March as Bbattle Honour Day in India. In an article by Livemint, Lieutenant general Sir James Wilcox, who was the commanding officer of the Indian Corp in France, has been quoted as saying, "...the Garhwalis suddenly sprang to the very front rank of our best fighting men…nothing could have been better than their elan and discipline.”
A military historian Rana Chhina was also heard saying, "Garhwalis were the surprise discovery of World War I. Till then, they were seen as quiet, simple unassuming hill folk. World War I catapulted them to the ranks of the best soldiers."