To break the strategic stalemate brought in by trench warfare on the Western Front in World War One, the Germans struck at the Ypres bulge with a terrifying new weapon of war: poison gas. The Ypres Salient in Belgium, as it was called, was more than a place on the map; it had acquired the status of an emotion.
The German Fourth Army released canisters of poisonous chlorine gas on the unsuspecting troops of two French divisions on the evening of April 22, 1915, on the north-east of Ypres. This terrifying new development caused heavy casualties and panic among the French territorials and Algerian colonials leading to a 6.5-km-wide gap in the Allied line. This was immediately exploited by the Germans. To stem the enemy’s advance and recover lost ground, the 3rd Lahore Division was moved up from its defences in the Neuve Chapelle area in France. The formation comprised the Jullundur, Sirhind and Ferozepur Brigades and some of the finest infantry battalions currently in the Indian and Pakistan Armies - 2 and 5 Sikh, 1/1 and 1/4 Gorkha Rifles, 3 Sikh LI, 1 and 9 FF and 11 Baloch.
A series of counter-attacks were launched by the division against the by-now-entrenched Germans. Heavy losses were suffered, gas attacks being encountered too. Against the latter, the Indian troops were advised to urinate in the ends of their turbans, tying them across their mouths. Fighting in such disgusting, horrifying conditions the seasoned warriors gave a good account of themselves though with severe casualties amounting to 30% of the total. The Germans succeeded in compressing the Ypres Salient but could not fully exploit the breakthrough achieved by them on April 22. German generals not believing in the effectiveness of gas had neglected to position enough reserves. The stalemate continued.
THE ARMY’S UNIQUE COMMITMENT
Why are jawans prepared to follow their officers even to the gates of hell? Why do soldiers perform superhuman feats in battle in order to uphold the good names of their units? The answers to these questions came home to me last week in a case relating to my father’s old unit, 851 Light Regiment.
On successive days, I met officers from the regiment who were in Chandigarh to expedite a case relating to their unit and pending before the civil authorities. A young soldier had died an unnatural death. His viscera had been sent to a government examiner for analysis. The report had been unduly delayed because of the examining office’s huge backlog of work.
This in turn led to an inordinate delay in payment of the deceased’s service benefits to the bereaved family. The regiment was not going to accept this easily. Subedar Janaki Raman was dispatched to speed up the case, followed soon enough by the regiment’s second in command. The civil authorities were responsive enough.
The officers’ keenness to help the young soldiers’ widow is not unique to 851 Light Regiment. It is part of an exceptional dedication on the part of all officers to their men. Units will go to great lengths to ensure the wellbeing of all those who serve with them. Perhaps the only manifestation of the cradle to grave (and beyond) welfare state is in the armed forces.
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