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Friday, Dec 13, 2019

Darwan Singh Negi, World War 1 Victoria Cross winner from the mountains

Darwan Singh Negi, born in 1883 in Kafarteer village, in the Chamoli district of the United Provinces (present-day Uttarakhand) in British India, joined up as a 19-year-old sepoy in the 1st Battalion of the 39th Garhwal Rifles.

world Updated: Nov 11, 2018 08:41 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Darwan Singh Negi fought in the trenches in the Battle of Festubert..
Darwan Singh Negi fought in the trenches in the Battle of Festubert.. (Photo courtesy Darwan Singh Negi’s family)
         

In the early 20th century, Darwan Singh Negi, a farmer’s son, went up a Garhwal mountain and came down a soldier. Landsdowne, the cantonment station for the Garhwal Rifles regiment, was a major job centre for the men of his village. The reason the men were joining up was simple: the earning from terrace farming was considerably less than working for the army.

Negi, born in 1883 in Kafarteer village, in the Chamoli district of the United Provinces (present-day Uttarakhand) in British India, joined up as a 19-year-old sepoy in the 1st Battalion of the 39th Garhwal Rifles. When World War I broke out in 1914, he was a 31-year-old fighting in the trenches in Europe. He would return home a military hero.

If Khudadad Khan was the first soldier from undivided India to be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest military award for gallantry given to British and Commonwealth forces – Khan’s village in Punjab became part of Pakistan after Partition – Negi is, in that sense, the first VC from the India after Partition. Also, Negi was the first Indian to have the Cross pinned on his chest by the British monarch, George V, in France (Khan was recuperating from battle injuries on a hospital bed).

The meeting between the king and his father was a memorable one, says Negi’s son, Balbir Singh Negi, a retired colonel of Garhwal Rifles, his father’s regiment. [The third-generation Negi, Nitin, Balbir’s son, is a serving colonel in the Indian army.] At his home in Lucknow, Balbir recounts George V asking his father: “‘Can I do anything for you?’ Father asked nothing for himself. He requested that an English-medium school be built in Karnprayag, the centre of five parganas, 40 km from our village,” says Balbir. “The school was built. He also requested a railway line be laid from Rishikesh to Karnprayag. Surveys were carried out but land acquisition wasn’t easy.” Balbir has hopes that the tracks will be in place “in the next 15 years”.

Darwan Negi’s action in battle was celebrated in the London Gazette. Balbir maintains clippings and pores over Internet entries on the event. “...on the night of 23rd-24th November 1914 near Festubert in France, when the regiment was engaged in retaking and clearing the enemy [Germans] out of the British trenches, and although wounded at two places in the head, and also in the arm, [Darwan] was one of the first to push round each successive traverse, in the face of severe fire from bombs and rifles at the closest range,” says Balbir, quoting the Gazette.

Despite the VC, Darwan Negi had had enough of war. He had battled the European winter in a woollen overcoat but cotton khakis under it; he had seen friends die in battle, he had missed his family. He returned from war to go back to being a farmer. Balbir joined the army only after his father’s death. He rues that “adequate respect” has not been paid to his father. “I don’t understand the argument that he fought for the British when leaders of our freedom struggle were supporters of the war effort thinking it would get India independence,” he says. “After retirement, father worked for war widows, wounded soldiers’ pensions, their rights...and yet no one considers his contribution fitting for a Padmashri. Even Virat Kohli has got one, playing cricket!”