Brave sons of India

There is a lone memorial at Neuve Chapelle in France, built to honour more than 4,700
Indian soldiers, who died during World War 1, writes K. J. S. Chatrath

THE Indian Army’s contingent leading the march on the occasion of France’s National Day celebrations in Paris in the presence of the French President and the Indian Prime Minister made big news recently. Few recalled the sad chapter of the bravery of Indian soldiers, who died defending France almost a century back at Neuve Chapelle in France during the World War 1, and only a lone memorial erected there pays them silent homage.

The memorial at Neuve Chapelle, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, was unveiled in 1927
The memorial at Neuve Chapelle, designed by Sir Herbert Baker, was unveiled in 1927 Photo by the author

Ever since I came to know that there is a memorial to over 4,700 Indian soldiers in France, who died during the war, I had a keen desire to visit this place, and to know more about it. This wish got fulfilled when I was in France recently.

I found out that the place was near the big French town of Lille, on the France-Belgium border. I got in touch with the tourist office of Lille, which was prompt and helpful, and told to my dismay that there was no way of reaching the memorial except by road, and that there was no public transport connecting that village. You may consider taking a taxi from the railway station, the tourist office added helpfully. Having come so far, a few extra euros were not going to get me off my path, I said to myself.

So I took France’s prestigious fast train, the TGV from Paris, and reached Lille, located about 255 km away in just about an hour. From the station I took a taxi, and set out on my journey. Unlike the image of French people as being reserved, the taxi driver was a nice, friendly and talkative fellow. He complimented me on trying to speak in French, and there was a thaw. "Is one of your ancestors mentioned in the list at the memorial," he asked. "No," I said, and then added they were all Indians.

I was keeping an eye on the meter of the taxi, and discovered that as against the 25 km mentioned on the Internet and the tourist office, the distance from the Lille railway station to the memorial turned out to be 37 long and increasingly expensive kilometres. Anyway, I thought I would have to ration my time at the memorial in order to economise on the waiting charges.

We reached the village of Neuve Chapelle, and stopped at a caf`E9 to find directions to the memorial. The driver suggested that while in the caf`E9, we might have a quick coffee. Oh yes, it is just about a few hundred metres from here, said the man behind the counter, pouring hot coffee for us. We finished the coffee, and the driver insisted on paying, saying that "after all, you have come from so far away."

The village of Neuve Chapelle is around 5 km north of La Bassee, and 20 km west-south-west of Lille. The memorial is 800 metres south-west of the village. One of the roads leading from the crossroads, the Rue du Bois, finds a mentioned in Alexander Dumas Three Musketeers.

At the memorial I almost automatically bowed my head and touched the ground in reverence to those brave sons of India who found bravely and died there.

Engraved on the memorial is the following inscription: " To the honour of the Army of India, which fought in France and Belgium, 1914-1918. And in perpetual remembrance of those of their dead, whose names are here recorded, and who have no known graves."A plaque in the memorial reminds the visitors that the memorial was constructed and is maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Just next to the memorial is another one — dedicated to the Portuguese, who died in the same battle there.

This memorial at Neuve Chapelle was designed by Sir Herbert Baker, with the sculpture by Charles Wheeler. It was unveiled by the Earl of Birkenhead in 1927. In 1964, a special bronze panel was designed to add to this memorial the names of 210 servicemen of undivided India, who died during the 1914-1918 war, whose graves at Zehrensdorf Indian Cemetery, East Germany, were considered "not maintainable." Incidentally, although this plaque still remains, these graves were reinstated following the renovation in 2005 of the German cemetery.

This site also contains the Neuve Chapelle 1939-1945 cremation memorial. In 1964 the remains of eight Indian soldiers (including two unidentified) were exhumed from Sarrebourg French Military Cemetery and cremated. The names of the five identified solders are engraved on panels at the Neuve Chapelle memorial, together with the following inscription: "1939-1945 — In honour of those soldiers who died in captivity in north-west Europe, and whose mortal remains were committed to fire." Thirtynine members of the 1914-1918 Indian forces were commemorated here, who are now known to have been cremated at Patcham Down, Sussex.