Black History Month: brave deeds on the battlefield

23 October 2020

The February 1915 Parish Magazine of St Peter and St Paul, Syston, contains a letter from local boy Percy Pollard, written to his mother on Christmas Eve 1914:

‘We saw an Indian soldier do a brave deed. He went right out in front of our trenches to get one of our wounded in. He carried him about twenty yards and then got wounded.  Then another Indian went out and brought them both safely in. It was worth a VC.’

Percy Pollard went on to see action at Loos in September 1915.

Another Indian soldier who did get a VC was 26-year-old Gurkha Kulbir Thapa who fought in the Second Battallion of the Leicestershires. The Battalion was brought from India to France as the British Battalion of the Garhwal Brigade of the 7th Indian Division and saw action in March 1915 at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle. At the Battle of Loos Gurkha Thapa saved the life of Bill Keightley, a 20-year-old Melton man serving with the 2nd Leicesters.  Injured himself, Thapa stumbled across Keightley behind enemy lines and stayed with him for 36 hours before rising mist provided the cover needed to carry him to safety.  Thapa became the first Gurkha to receive the Victoria Cross, the Army’s highest award for bravery. He rejoined his battalion on 4 January 1916 at their new posting in Egypt and later achieved the rank of Havildar, equivalent to the rank of Sergeant. His Victoria Cross is displayed at the Gurkha Museum in Winchester.

The role of Indian troops in the First World War has been much debated and is still controversial.  In an article for the British Library, Dr Santanu Das discusses race, empire and colonial troops and explores the fragments of historical sources which shed light on the experiences of the one million Indians who fought in World War One.

With many thanks to Karen Ette for the information in this article.

This article was first published here on 20th October 2014.

Discover more:

Read about the role Commonwealth soldiers played throughout WW1 and about the Indian army’s arrival in France.

Find out how local historians pieced together the story of Kulbir Thapa and Bill Keightley.

Read the story of the Loughborough soldier recalled from serving in India to fight in France and who died 100 years ago this month.

Discover the history of the Leicestershire regiment and a site with information on Leicestershire Regiment soldiers during WW1.

Learn more about Black History Month.