Sikh Personalities

Gallant Udai Singh at Gallipoli

DURING the course of First World War, Lord Kitchener, Secretary of State for War, received an appeal on January, 2, 1915, from the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia for opening up a diversionary front to relieve Turkish pressure on Russian forces in the Caucasus. Kitchener had suggested only a naval demonstration against the Dardanelles, but the War Council decided on a joint attack under General Sir Ian Hamilton. When the idea was mooted, there were only two Turkish divisions at the Straits. By the time Hamilton landed on April 25 at the Southern tip of the Gallipoli peninsula near Cape Helles with four British and one French divisions, the Turks had increased their strength to six divisions. He was not only inferior in strength to the enemy, but his situation became even more difficult as the terrain greatly favoured the Turks who were well dug-in. The 14th Sikhs of the Indian brigade formed part of Hamilton’s expeditionery force.

Udai Singh of village Manikwal (near Gill Railway Station) was a handsome Jat Sikh who was over six feet tall, and had a fair beard and light green eyes. He was passionately interested in wrestling right from his childhood and his fame spread as he grew up. In 1907, he went to Ferozepore to take part in a wrestling match, recruiting teams used to frequent such occasions, and one such team which was present there that day was able to lure Udai Singh to join the 14th Sikhs. He was with the unit when Hamilton’s force landed at the Gallipoli peninsula.

By May the Allies at Helles were organised in two Corps - the French Corps and the British VIII Corps. The Allied line had been reorganised in four sectors, the French Corps holding the extreme right and the three British divisions, the other three sectors. The Indian Brigade occupied a frontage of about eight hundred yards on the extreme left of the British line. The 14th Sikh’s trench line lay astride the Gully Ravine. Sir Ian Hamilton decided to carry out a general attack on the 4th of June with the object of gaining ground along the whole length of the Allied front at Helles.

On the front of the Indian Brigade, the open ground on the Gully Spur stopped up north-eastwards towards the two lines of Turkish trenches, known as J10 and J11. The Gully Ravine was about seventy-five yards wide and forty to fifty feet deep, the lower portion being covered with low scrub. The Gully Spur fell steeply into the ravine and was higher than the right edge, from which the ground sloped gradually upward and eastward to crest line about two hundred yards away. The enemy was known to have dug several small trenches in the Gully Ravine, and there was also the possibility of machine guns being hidden in positions on the sides commanding the approaches up the gully.

The Indian Brigade was to attack in two waves. The first wave was to capture the Turkish trench line J11 and consolidate its position there, while the second wave, starting fifteen minutes later, was to capture J13. Half of the 14th Sikhs were in the first wave and the other half in the second. Young IInd Lieut. R.A. Savory who retired as a Lieut. General in 1947, and wrestler Udai Singh were both in the No. 4 Double Company that day. The following is the account of the battle fought on June 4, 1915, in Savory’s own words: "On 3rd June we received orders for general assault all along the line next day. The orders were short and clear. At 11 am on 4th June all the guns were to bombard the enemy’s front line trenches for twenty minutes. Then for ten minutes they were to stop while the infantry were to cheer and wave their bayonets. The object of this was to persuade the enemy to man their parapets. Then the bombardment was to come down again. At noon we were to advance. It all sounded simple enough. The 14th Sikhs were to attack astride the Gully Ravine.

"The 4th of June was a beautiful summer day. Our guns started registering at 8 am and even before the bombardment began it must have been clear to the enemy that something was about to happen. "It was now 11.30 am and time for the cheering to start; but the noise was so great that we could hardly hear it even in our own trench. And then-twelve noon - blew the whistle - and we were away. From that moment I lost all control of the fighting. The roar of musketry drowned every other sound, except that of the guns. To try to give an order was useless. The nearest man was only a yard or two away but I couldn’t see him. Soon I found myself running on alone, except for my little bugler, a young, handsome boy, just out of his teens, who came paddling along behind me to act as a runner and carry messages. Poor little chap.

"During the first few minutes, I was knocked out, lying on the parapet with two Turks using my body as a rest over which to shoot at our second line coming forward. When I fully recovered consciousness, the Turks had gone. I looked around and saw my little bugler lying dead, brutally mutilated. I could see no one else, stumbled back as best I could, my head was bleeding and I was dazed and then, Udai Singh, a great burly Sikh with a fair beard who was one of our battalion wrestlers, came out of the reserve trenches, picked me up, slung me over his shoulder, and brought me to safety; and all the time we were being shot at."

In this battle the 14th Sikhs lost three hundred and seventy-one officers and men killed or wounded. Out of fifteen British officers only Colonel Palin, Captain Engledue and Lieut. Cursetjee were left unwounded. Writing to the Commander-in-Chief in India a few weeks after the event, General Sir Ian Hamilton paid noble tribute to the heroism of all ranks. The following are some of the passages from his letter: "In the highest sense of the word extreme gallantry has been shown by this fine Battalion..... In spite of the tremendous losses there was not a sign of wavering all day. Not an inch of ground gained was given up and not a single straggler came back. The ends of the enemy’s trenches leading into the ravine were found to be blocked with the bodies of Sikhs and of the enemy who died fighting at close quarters, and the glacis slope was thickly dotted with the bodies of these fine soldiers all lying on their faces as they fell in their steady advance on the enemy. The history of the Sikhs affords many instances of their value as soldiers, but it may be safely asserted that nothing finer than the grim valour and steady discipline displayed by them on the 4th June has ever been done by soldiers of the Khalsa. Their devotion to duty and their splendid loyalty to their orders and to their leaders make a record their nation should look back upon with pride for many generations."

During the middle of the month, Colonel Palin was taken away from the Battalion temporarily to command a brigade, and 2nd Lieut. Savory who had not been wounded badly, and was the only officer left in the Battalion, took over the command. Savory who was deeply indebted to Udai Singh for saving his life called him one day and said, "What can I do for you Udai Singh?" He in fact wanted to get Udai a gallantry award. But Udai Singh’s mind quickly flew back to his native village Manikwal.

"I would like to be discharged, Sahib", replied Udai Singh. "That is not possible, the war is on. I want to get you something big," said Savory. "Then you can keep your offer to yourself, Sahib I am not interested in anything else," answered Udai Singh in a rather angry tone. Very reluctantly, and against his better judgement, Savory got Udai Singh his discharge so that he could pursue the vocation that was so dear to his heart.


Gallant Udai Singh at Gallipoli published inThe Tribune
on Sunday, February 20, 2000 Written by Pritam Singh Sidhu