They fought a war that was not theirs and died anonymously on foreign shores. Now, over a century after they enlisted in the British Indian Army and were sent to France to fight in World War I, the remains of two soldiers of the 39th Garhwal Rifles regiment, found in a field in northwestern France, will finally be brought home.The two men were found along with the bodies of a British and a German soldier, buried in a field near the town of Laventie, nearly 70km from Dunkirk.
“The discovery was made during digging for civic work in a field in September 2016. Among the remains were the insignia of 39 Garhwal Rifles. French officials confirmed the finds and wrote to us. Now a team of four Indian defence personnel, including a Garhwal Rifles brigadier, will visit the site next month. Some artefacts, including the regimental insignia, have also been found. Our team will try to determine the identities of the soldiers, and see if any other details can be found,” said a Garhwal Rifles officer posted in Lansdowne. We will try our best to identify them, although it will be difficult. The bodies were buried for more than 100 years, so very little is left,” the officer said.
Men of the Garhwal Rifles fought in various fronts in the World War I as well as in the World War II. In the first conflict, 721 men from the regiment were killed, while 349 died in World War II.
Among the most famous of them was Gabar Singh Negi, who won the Victoria Cross for his actions at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle in France, where he died on March 10, 1915.
The site of the battle is less than 8km from Laventie, where the bodies of the two soldiers were found, which could also indicate that they were killed during the battle.
After Neuve Chapelle, 39th Garhwal Rifles was posted to Mesopotamia (now Iraq). More than 1 million Indian men served in World War I, of which more than 62,000 were killed.Hundreds of them were buried in graves maintained by the Imperial War Graves Commission in countries like France and Belgium.
There is a Neuve-Chapelle Indian Memorial to the war dead to commemorate Indian troops’ involvement in that battle.
After World War I, 39th Garhwal Rifles was renamed 39th Royal Garhwal Rifles, and later re-numbered as 18th Royal Garhwal Rifles. The regiment is now known as Garhwal Rifles, with the `royal’ dropped in 1950.This sequence of events, said serving officers, indicates that the men found at Laventie had died during World War I.