The daredevil rider of Cambrai
An Indian Cavalryman’s exploits in the Great War
Gone are the days of the horse cavalry. The sound of the thundering hoofs as regiments charged line abreast, the sight of their pennants fluttering in the wind amidst the dust and din of the battle and that of agile men in glittering uniforms, ramrod straight astride their magnificent mounts on gallop, their lances and sabres gleaming in the sun… all that have sunk into oblivion. But history has had its final glimpses to savour all that when the Indian cavalry made the best of it with some spectacular fetes even when tanks were very much on their way in to replace the horses once and for all. And that was in the Great War, first in France and then in the Middle East.
Cambrai, France – the winter of 1917: Both the Allies and the Germans had been licking their wounds for a year after the bloodbath of Somme the previous year when the Allies launched a major offensive in late November 1917 to take the town of Cambrai in northern France, a major logistics hub of the Germans, and threaten the rear of their Siegfriedstellung, the Hindenburg Line. The battle was unique in more ways than one. It was the first one to employ the tactics of combining artillery, infantry and tanks to form a cohesive combat group as well as the artillery engaging pre-designated targets to surprise the enemy and the infantry doing infiltrations. Most significantly it was the first ever battle to see massed tank attacks. The battle also saw the use of air power in support of a ground battle as the Royal Flying Corps attacked ground targets precluding the ground offensive.
Participating in this historic battle was the Indian Cavalry Regiment, Gardener’s Horse (present-day 2nd Lancers) as part of the 5th Indian (Mhow) Cavalry Brigade of the 2nd Indian Cavalry Division. Charging in tandem with the tank assault, the regiment captured a German post assigned to them braving heavy artillery and machinegun fire, the horses often leaping over barbed wire obstacles. Chasing the enemy in exploitation after the assault during night 30 November – 01 December they suddenly found themselves isolated from the rest of the brigade as a squadron of tanks expected to support them didn’t turn up. Soon they were surrounded by the enemy and were in dire straits unless they could be reinforced.
The brigade headquarters was at a place called Pezieres a good mile and a half behind and out of communication. A message had to be sent across and volunteers were called for dispatch riders. There were two who volunteered. One was Sowar Jot Ram and the other was Lance Dafadar Gobind Singh, a 29-year old NCO from the 28th Light Cavalry (present-day 7th Light Cavalry) on attachment with the regiment. Both were dispatched on different routes. Jot Ram, following the shorter of the two routes, was killed almost as soon as he had set out on his ride. Gobind Singh had barely made half a mile when his horse was shot from under him and he was wounded. Hitting the ground he lay still for a while and, when he sensed he was not being watched, got up and ran. The enemy machine gunner was on to him pronto but he faked tumbling down with the first burst and lay still playing dead. He was up again in a while sprinting and the enemy machine-gunner was just as fast catching up. The cat-and-mouse game went on with Gobind Singh inching forward, persevering with his devil’s luck till he finally made it to the brigade headquarters to deliver the message.
Given a new horse and a message in reply to be carried back to the regiment, the doughty NCO set off again with hardly a breather. Once again his horse was shot from under him and he was wounded the second time when he had ridden the distance half way through. Nevertheless he kept on with his game of dodging the enemy fire and running or walking to get back to the regiment safely. Now yet another message had to be taken to the brigade headquarters; and bleeding and fatigued as he was, he volunteered again. Advised that he had done his bit as best anyone could and must now retire for his wounds, he stood his ground arguing that no one else knew the route as well as he did and therefore qualified for the job as eminently as he was. And so he set off again on his third deadly ride in a row, this time around choosing a lower ground but straight through a barrage. Sure enough half way through a shell hit his horse right behind the saddle cutting the animal into two and mauling Gobind Singh pretty bad as well. That wasn’t quite enough to stop the brave-heart that he was though. He kept moving using the dead ground to obscure himself as much as possible till he emerged near Pezieres and presented himself at the brigade headquarters. It was 1155 hours on 01 December and incredibly, the badly wounded and exhausted NCO volunteered for a fourth ride to take the reply back to the regiment; but was refused such an assignment. Enough was enough; the man had already defied death too many times and was turning out to be a living legend. His regiment indeed was reinforced in time and saved from sure annihilation thanks to his daredevilry.
Lance Dafadar Gobind Singh was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British gallantry award, for his conspicuous bravery and unwavering devotion to duty in saving his regiment and fellow men; the first Indian Cavalryman to be honoured with the exalted award. The medal currently finds it place of honour with the 2nd Lancers. A native of Village Damoi in the Nagaur District of Rajasthan, Gobind Singh continued to serve in the army to rise to the rank of Jamadar (Naib Risaldar) by the time of his retirement. He passed away in 1942 aged 60.
Gobind Singh and others of his generation, by their grit and courage, wrote a chapter of India’s military heritage in blood hardly revered in their homeland. Yet the words of Marshal Ferdinand Foch, the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Troops in France during the First World War, in 1927 while he addressed a contingent of Indian troops at the unveiling ceremony of the Indian Memorial at Neuve-Chapelle, which commemorates nearly 5000 Indian soldiers who fell fighting in France and Flanders during that war, echoes so truthfully after almost a century:
“Return to your homes in the distant, sun-bathed East and proclaim how your countrymen drenched with their blood the cold northern land of France and Flanders, how they delivered it by their ardent spirit from the firm grip of a determined enemy; tell all India that we shall watch over their graves with the devotion due to all our dead. We shall cherish above all the memory of their example. They showed us the way, they made the first steps towards the final victory”.