On a cool morning in October, exactly a month before Armistice Day, I wandered through Neuve Chapelle, struggling to find a memorial to the Indian soldiers who had played a pivotal role in an important World War I battle right here in this village in northern France.

Google maps had guided us to the middle of the village, but there was not a soul in sight who could give us directions. My mind wandered back to March 1915, when the village had been evacuated, with German snipers at vantage points.

Finally, the owner of a pub came to our rescue. “Memorial Indien de Neuve Chapelle – straight down the road,” he said.

Soon enough, the circular wall of the memorial surrounded by farmland came into view. “Their name liveth for evermore,” it declared as it honoured the 4,742 Indian soldiers and labourers who died on the Western Front in Europe but have no known graves.

The Neuve Chapelle Indian Memorial. Credit: Rajesh Mishra

It was in Neuve Chapelle that the Meerut and Lahore Divisions of the Indian Corps battled hard between March 10 and March 13, 1915, to attempt to breach German lines.

Of all the subcontinental soldiers and labourers who laid down their lives in Neuve Chapelle, one story tugged at my heartstrings just a wee bit more. The name incorrectly spelt as “Gobar Sing Negi” on the panel featuring personnel from the 2/39th Garhwal Rifles stood out. An early Victoria Cross winner in the war, Gabar Singh Negi is now a folk hero in the hills around Chamba in Uttarakhand.

Every April, the Himalayan town decks up to organise a fair to celebrate the soldier and recall his heroic actions in the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. Villagers from surrounding areas flock to the two-day festival, started by Negi’s wife, Satoori Devi, in 1925 to mark his birth anniversary.

Married at 13 and widowed at 14, Satoori Devi never remarried and looked after late husband’s family till she died in 1981. Every year, with the Victoria Cross neatly pinned to her sari, she would stand guard next to Negi’s bust in Chamba. She was never able to visit the memorial in France.

On March 9, 1915, as preparations to attack German lines had begun in Neuve Chapelle, Gabar Singh Negi and others were in their trenches. Until then, this style of warfare had been totally alien to the Indian Army. At daybreak, the troops made their charge towards the German lines, shouting the regiment war cry, “Jai Badri Vishal.”

As many fell, among them the commander of his unit, Negi took charge. This is how the London Gazette described his actions: “During our attack on the German position he was one of a bayonet party with bombs who entered their main trench, and was the first man to go round each traverse, driving back the enemy until they were eventually forced to surrender.”

It added: “He was killed during this engagement.”

Negi’s posthumously awarded Victoria Cross was handed over to his wife, and after her death it finds pride of place in the Garhwal Rifles regimental centre in Lansdowne.

Though we were the only people at the Neuve Chapelle memorial that day, the visitors’ book was full. It was a sign that the role played by Indians in the Great War is slowly beginning to be acknowledged. Between 1914 and 1918, approximately 1.5 million Indians participated in the war – the highest level of manpower provided by any of Britain’s colonies or dominions. Estimates put the number of Indian dead at 70,000.

In its note about the Neuve Chapelle memorial, the Commonwealth Graves Commission notes: “Over the course of the war, India sent over 140,000 men to the Western Front [in Europe] – 90,000 serving in the infantry and cavalry and as many as 50,000 non-combatant labourers. They hailed from the length and breadth of British India: from the Punjab, Garhwal, the Frontiers, Bengal, Nepal, Madras, and Burma, and represented an extremely diverse range of religious, linguistic, and ethnic cultures…Almost 5,000 of the dead have no known grave and are commemorated on the Menin Gate at Ieper and here at Neuve Chapelle.”

The memorial was inaugurated on October 7, 1927. The Maharaja of Karputhala, the writer Rudyard Kipling and a large contingent of Indian veterans were in attendance.

The Neuve Chapelle Indian Memorial. Credit: Rajesh Mishra

The gathering was addressed by Marshal Ferdinand Foch, who on behalf of the Allies had signed the Armistice on November 11, 1918, signalling the end of World War I.

“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,” he told the veterans. “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.”

At the heart of the memorial, designed by British architect Herbert Baker, rises a 15-foot column with tigers on either side, guarding the dead. At the bottom is a message inscribed in English, Urdu, Hindi, and Gurmukhi: “God is One, He is the Victory.”

The column was inspired by the 3rd century BCE pillars dotting the Indian subcontinent that bear the edicts of the emperor Ashoka. As the world commemorates Armistice Day amidst bloody conflicts in West Asia and Europe, Ashoka’s remorse after experiencing the horrors of war in Kalinga continues to offer lessons for our times.

Rajesh Mishra is a feature writer and a travel industry professional who curates tours around history.