15th Ludhiana Sikhs
Richebourg L'Avoué, France - 18 May 1915
( Battle of Festubert )

On the 17th May 1915, a company of the 15th Sikhs under Captain Hyde-Cates had relieved part of the 2nd Battalion, Highland Light Infantry in a section of a trench known as the "Glory Hole", near the Ferme du Bois, on the right front of the Indian Army Corps. Here for some time fighting of a peculiarly fierce character had been in progress and the position at the moment the Sikhs replaced the Highlanders was that our men were in occupation of a section of a German trench, the remaining portion being still held by the enemy who had succeeded in erecting a strong barricade between themselves and the British.

Towards dawn on the 18th May Captain Hyde-Cates observed that the Germans were endeavoring to reinforce their comrades in the trench, as numbers of men were seen doubling across the open towards its further extremity. He immediately ordered the Sikhs to fire upon them, but in the dim light they presented exceedingly difficult targets, and when morning broke it was ascertained that the German trench was packed with men who were evidently preparing an attack. Shortly afterwards a perfect hail of bombs began to fall among the Indians, who replied vigorously, until towards noon their supply of bombs began to fall, many of them having been so damaged by the rain which had fallen during the night as to be quite useless. The situation was a critical one; only the speedy arrival of a bombing party from the reserve trenches could enable them to hold out. The reserve trenches were some 250 yards distant and the ground between so exposed to the fire of the enemy as to render the dispatch of reinforcements a most desperate undertaking. Twice the Highland Light Infantry had made the attempt, and on both occasions the officer in command had been killed and the party practically wiped out.

The situation became very critical, and Lieutenant John Smyth, 15th Sikhs, was ordered to attempt to take bombs and a bombing party from the support trench ( the former British front line ) to Captain Hyde-Cates. The only means of communication was a shallow trench half full of mud and water, and in many places exposed to the enemy's snipers and machine guns. Lieutenant Smyth took with him ten bombers from no. 4 Company, selected from the crowd of volunteers who at once responded to the call. The names of these heroes deserve to be remembered. They were Lance-Naik Mangal Singh, Sepoys Lal Singh, Sucha Singh, Sapuram Singh, Sarain Singh, Sundur Singh, Ganda Singh, Harnam Singh (the last four being all of the 19th Punjabis) Fateh Singh and Ujagar Singh, both of the 45th Sikhs.

At two o'clock in the afternoon Smyth and his band set out on their perilous journey, taking with them two boxes containing ninety-six bombs. The ground which they had to traverse was absolutely devoid of all natural cover. The only approach to shelter from the terrific fire which greeted them the moment they showed their heads above the parapet of our reserve trenches was an old partially demolished trench which at the best of times was hardly knee-deep, but was in places literally choked with the corpses of Highland Light Infantry, Worcesters, Indians and Germans. Dropping over the parapet they threw themselves flat on the ground and painfully wriggled their way through the mud, pulling and pushing the boxes along with them, until they reached the scanty shelter afforded by the old trench. By means of pagris attached to the boxes, the men in front pulled them along, over and through the dead bodies that encumbered the trench, while those behind pushed with all their might. If a single bullet or a single shell fragment had penetrated one of the boxes of explosives, the men propelling it would have been blown to pieces.

Before they had progressed a few yards, Fateh Singh fell, severely wounded; in another hundred yards, Sucha Singh, Ujagar Sing and Sundur Sing were shot down, leaving only Lieutenant Smyth and six men to get the boxes along. However, spurred on by the thought of the necessity of getting the bombs to their comrades ahead, they succeeded in dragging the boxes nearly to the end of the trench, when in quick succession, Sarain Singh and Sapuram Singh were shot dead, while Ganda Sing, Harnam Singh and Naik Mangal Singh were wounded. The second box of bombs had therefore to be abandoned and Lieutenant Smyth and the remaining sepoy, Lal Singh, wriggled their way ahead yard by yard, emerging from the comparative shelter of the trench, until they found themselves confronted by a small stream, which at this point was too deep to wade. They had therefore to turn aside and crawl along the bank of the stream until they came to a place which was just fordable. They struggled across, the water churned up by a hail of bullets, clambered up the further bank and in a minute or two were amongst their cheering comrades. Both were unhurt, though their clothes were perforated by bullet holes. However, shortly afterwards Lal Singh was struck by a bullet and killed instantly.

So ended one of the most gallant episodes of the war. For his most conspicuous bravery Lieutenant Smyth was awarded the Victoria Cross, and later the Order of St. George, 4th Class ( Russia ). Lance-Naik Mangal Singh received the Second Class Indian Order of Merit, while the Indian Distinguished Service Medal was conferred on all the sepoys of the party.

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Iain Stewart, 10 January 2004