Forgotten volunteers of war

Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery, Artois, France.
Ayette Indian and Chinese Cemetery, Artois, France.

On a visit to France a group of project volunteers came across a small cemetery, Ayette Indian and Chinese cemetery, containing the graves of Indian troops and civilian volunteer labourers.

Hidden from view down a narrow lane, it contained a few dozen headstones, a reminder of the vital service of non-British people to the war effort, which depended upon their support, often in menial, yet vital roles.

The British Regular Army that went to France and Belgium in August 1914 was virtually destroyed in the first three months of fighting.

Few people today fully appreciate the vital contribution of the British Indian Army troops brought to Belgium in October 1914, who effectively ‘saved the day’ in the First Battle of Ypres.

These troops were formed into four divisions – two of cavalry and two of infantry. Some of the units had exotic names, reflecting their geographical origins, and in some cases their earlier existence in the army of the East India Company, disbanded and formed into three British Indian Army formations after the mutiny.

After suffering considerable casualties and the miseries of the Belgian winter, the Indian troops fought at the Battle of Neuve Chappelle near Armentieres in March 1915, but by then supplemented by British units of regular battalions and Territorial forces.

Problems of cold climate, caste, religion, dietary requirements and language barriers led to their withdrawal to the warmer areas of Mesopotamia, Palestine and the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign.

Only two cavalry brigades were left on the Western Front, where, like many British units, they fought dismounted, rarely getting an opportunity to fight as they had trained.

In addition, the maintenance of a fighting army in the field required a vast number of support troops, and this was to become critical as the Somme offensive (1916) progressed.

Faced with a shortage of manpower for supply and maintenance of roads, the government looked to the Indian Imperial government to recruit civilian volunteers to form an Indian Labour Corps.

Attracted by relatively high wages, more than 20,000 Indian labourers arrived in Marseilles by June 1917, as well as 54,000 Chinese volunteers after an appeal to the neutral Chinese government.

Some of these men would be killed or die of diseases or accidents. More than 100,000 Chinese labourers would eventually come to France and Belgium.

A sizeable number were retained after the war to assist in salvage operations and the clearance of battlefield areas, as well as the harrowing task of recovering the remains of the dead.

These volunteers are another fascinating aspect of what was truly a ‘world war’.