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One of the finest battle scenes in the famous war movie ‘A Bridge Too Far’ is that of the crossing of the river Waal in Netherlands by US airborne troops with the Germans holding the far bank. Robert Redford donning the role of Major Julian Cook commanding the troops, the scene is a realistic and thrilling depiction of an opposed river crossing, an operation of war comparable only to an uphill charge of the kind our troops undertook in the Kargil conflict of recent times. Traditionally troops row across the river in flimsy, flat-bottomed, canvas assault boats after an artillery barrage has smothered the enemy on the far bank and a smoke screen has been thrown to cover the movement of the boats. However the whole act turns almost suicidal as soon as the boats are launched because pitifully slow-moving as they are and their smoke screen carried away by wind they become sitting ducks for the well-entrenched enemy across who would have weathered the barrage and be all set to pick them up like ninepins. Caught in the murderous fusillade the hapless boats and their occupants flounder, men dying and boats capsizing all over. Incredibly a number of boats make it across and troops, jumping off and often fording across the last few feet to the bank, charge at the enemy fortifications. What an awe-inspiring sight!

An Indian youngster watching the movie is overawed by the daredevilry of the American troops, little realizing that our own soldiers perform equally or even more daring acts; but we have no movie makers willing to take pains to depict such acts or take the risk of investing on a war movie when they can rake in many times more of moolah with a masala romance. Twenty-seven years before the Americans dared across the Waal, we had Indian troops crossing the Tigris at a place called Shumran against formidable odds. It happened on 23 February 1917 as the Mesopotamian Campaign of the First World War was nearing its end.

In April the previous year the Indian Expeditionary Force D comprising British and Indian Troops under Major General Charles Townshend had surrendered to the Turkish forces at Kut el Amara after sustaining a 147-day siege of that township. After the retreat at Gallipoli earlier in the war it was yet another humiliating defeat for the British at the hands of Ottoman Turks. The British launched operations by the end of the year with Lieutenant General Frederick Maude in command to retake Kut so as to salvage their prestige and were poised for a breakthrough across the river Tigris by early next year. In a major opposed river crossing an entire brigade, the 37th, was ferried across the river at Shumran on 23 February for the attack on Kut el Amara. The flooded river, 300 yards wide with a current of six knots and eddies all over, had its far bank strongly held by the Turks. The infantry troops of the brigade were from 2/9 and 1/2 Gurkha Rifles of the Indian Army and the Norfolk and Hampshire Regiments of the British Army. But for half a company of Royal Engineers and some British infantrymen themselves the entire lot of rowers belonged to the Madras Sappers (the future Madras Engineer Group). Three field companies of the Group, 12, 13, and 15 (Burma), forming part of the 14th Division undertook the mission.

Three ferries, No.1 upstream, No.2 in the centre and No.3 downstream, each of 13 bipartite bridging pontoons, were launched at 5.15 a.m. No.1 carried the Norfolk Regiment with rowing parties of their own men and the Royal Engineers. No.2 carried the 2/9th GR (Gorkha Rifles) with rowing parties from 12 Field Company, a section of 15 Company and 100 men of the Hampshire Regiment. No.3 carried the 1/2nd GR with rowing parties from 13 Field Company and 100 men from the Hampshire Regiment. While No.1 was lucky to surprise the enemy, the other two ran into heavy machinegun fire. Out of the 13 pontoons of No.2, only 10 made it to the far bank in the first run, 3 drifting downstream with the entire crew killed. Only 6 out of the remaining 10 made it in the second run, out of which only 5 returned. Of the 140 Gorkhas the No.3 ferry carried, only 50 could reach the far bank. One pontoon recovered later had 100 bullet holes on it. Rowers were the worst hit, many of the crews getting completely wiped out. 18 Sappers in all lost their lives, and another 28 were wounded in the operation.

The attack on Kut el Amara that followed was a grand success resulting in the crushing defeat of the Turks that led to the ultimate capture of Baghdad by the British. With the river crossing forming a crucial element of the operation more than 50 percent of the nearly-400 casualties in all were rowers.

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